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The NHL’s Western Conference has lifted the Stanley Cup six times in the last nine years. While the Blackhawks and Blues have cemented the Central as the division to beat in recent years, the balance of power in the West is quickly shifting.
Expect a customarily strong finish from the two Californian teams: The Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings. Many hockey analysts have tabbed the Ducks to win it all this year, and it’s not hard to see why with offensive powerhouse and captain Ryan Getzlaf complemented by 2014 off-season pickup Ryan Kesler, the underrated Corey Perry, and Jiri Sekac and Rickard Rakell. A strong defensive corps comprised of Kevin Bieksa and the highly lauded Cam Fowler should counterbalance relatively inexperienced netminders.
The Kings, the 2014 Stanley Cup champions, are also perennial playoff contenders and possess a team culture that excels under pressure and blossoms in the playoffs. This year, the Kings arguably have the NHL’s strongest goalie in Jonathan Quick. On top of this, cornerstone defencemen Drew Doughty and Matt Greene can provide offensive depth from the blue-line, which Anze Kopitar complements on the front end. The brilliant off-season pick-up of Milan Lucic provides grit and secondary scoring. Los Angeles will be led by grizzled captain Dustin Brown who knows what it takes to win the Stanley Cup.
The San Jose Sharks are the Kings’ antithesis: Every year, after pre-season hype, San Jose gracelessly exit the playoff race in the first or second round. The Sharks have the talent depth to contend with burgeoning superstars like Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl; however, the team’s chemistry is prone to crumbling, as exhibited by Joe Thornton losing the captaincy and the loss of longtime bench boss Todd McLellan. They should be playoff bound, but nerves under pressure will determine how far they go.
The Arizona Coyotes, meanwhile, can only improve on their abysmal last place 2015 finish, Canadian Olympic goalie Mike Smith had his worst campaign last yea. rYoung players like Max Domi and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are also worth watching. One or two talented players, however, isn't enough to lift this team out of the basement. Surprisingly, Arizona has won their first two games, but it’s early days so don’t expect the streak to last.
The Pacific Division’s three Canadian teams will push the dominant Californian teams this year. The youthful Edmonton Oilers have been the most fun offensive NHL franchise in recent years—Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov have more composite skill than any other NHL forward group. Their defence, however, is abysmal, and the Oilers have thus far given up too many odd-man rushes. The jury is still out on 2015’s first overall pick Connor McDavid, who is searching for his first NHL goal, but he could be a huge x-factor for this team. Don’t, however, expect the Oilers to reach the playoffs.
Calgary and Vancouver are the strongest they’ve been in a while. They both unexpectedly made the playoffs last year, playing with passion, heart, and grit. Both teams have solid first line forwards—the Flames in Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Jiri Hudler and the Canucks in the Sedin twins—and proven goaltenders in Calgary’s Jonas Hiller and Vancouver’s Ryan Miller. These teams have already met twice this season, winning a game each. This is a rivalry worth watching deep into the NHL season but expect both teams to get knocked out early in the playoffs.