West is wide open

STEVE MACFARLANE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:13 PM ET

Winning the Stanley Cup just a few months ago, the Chicago Blackhawks could plummet from champs to chumps.

Rising from the ashes of uncertain ownership to stun the league with a storybook season, the Phoenix Coyotes are out to prove they’re not a one-year wonder.

Still toothless in the playoffs, the perennial favourite San Jose Sharks hope their moves between the pipes don’t come back to bite them.

And those are just a few of the storylines in the Western Conference this season.

After cap issues forced the defending champs to dismantle, the biggest question might be how the Blackhawks intend to remain atop an increasingly tough Central Division.

Bidding goodbye to the likes of Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, John Madden, Andrew Ladd and both their goaltenders from a year ago, the Hawks are depending on newcomer Marty Turco to carry the load in net and their top forwards — Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews — to make up for the sudden lack of depth.

It won’t be easy.

They might not even be able to win the division with the Detroit Red Wings eager to bounce back from a disappointing campaign as they struggled early with injuries.

The Red Wings return with a stellar lineup bolstered by the addition of veteran Mike Modano and the return of Jiri Hudler after a year in Russia, and should be the early favourites to reclaim the division crown.

Suggesting they’re even stronger now than the surprise team that shot from 13th to fourth in the conference last winter, the Coyotes are confident they can give the Sharks another run.

Additions such as Ray Whitney and Eric Belanger will help, but no one will be taking this team and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov lightly anymore.

After a breakout year, the Los Angeles Kings also hope to challenge the Sharks, but the Men in Teal still control the Pacific Division.

They snagged netminder Antti Niemi, fresh off a Cup win with the Hawks, and ditched longtime backstop Evgeni Nabokov. Not that goaltending was the problem in their persistent playoff struggles.

The Northwest Division has a clear-cut favourite, too, in the Vancouver Canucks.

Shoring up an always-ailing blueline with the additions of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard, the Canucks might boast the best back-end of any NHL club when you include goaltender Roberto Luongo.

The Edmonton Oilers are pinning their hopes on kids like Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, while the Colorado Avalanche hope to repeat the kind of success they had a year ago with a young lineup of their own.

All in all, it’s pretty wide open in the west.

But whoever emerges will have earned a spot in the Stanley Cup final.

steve.macfarlane@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/MacfarlaneSteve


Videos

Photos