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NHL Western Conference team previews and predictions

NHL Western Conference team previews and predictions
Ducks center Ryan Kesler battles Kings left wing Dwight King, left, and center Jordan Nolan against the boards at Staples Center on Sept. 24. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

There's a good reason no team has repeated as Stanley Cup champion since the Detroit Red Wings of 1997 and 1998. "It's hard. Damned hard," said Kings right wing Justin Williams, who was voted the Most Valuable Player of the playoffs in the dramatic championship run last spring.

The Kings, who won the Cup in 2012 but lost to Chicago in the 2013 Western Conference final, believe they can repeat because they stayed intact, except for defenseman Willie Mitchell's departure as a free agent.

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But other conference rivals appear to have improved, including the 2010 and 2013 champion Blackhawks and the Ducks, who acquired center Ryan Kesler.

Here's how the West shapes up, in predicted order of finish:

Pacific Division

1. KINGS

2013-14: 46-28-8 (100 points), 3rd Pacific.

Coach Darryl Sutter wants more from the kids, and wingers Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson look ready to deliver. Sutter also will have a full season of Marian Gaborik, who scored a playoff-leading 14 goals and clicked with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. Defenseman Drew Doughty is poised for a Norris Trophy-winning season. The Kings' biggest obstacle might be fatigue from playing 64 playoff games the past three seasons. They're solid from top to bottom.

2. DUCKS

2013-14: 54-20-8 (116), 1st Pacific and West.

Their playoff seeding meant nothing when they lost to the Kings in Game 7 of the teams' second-round series. They're expecting Ryan Kesler, acquired from Vancouver, to divert opponents' attention from Ryan Getzlaf, the NHL scoring runner-up with 87 points. The Ducks lost experience when Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu retired but can compensate with speedy youngsters. Their success will depend on whether goalies Frederik Andersen and John Gibson can turn potential into results.

3. SAN JOSE

2013-14: 51-22-9 (111), 2nd Pacific.

Management didn't shake things up after the Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead over the Kings. Veteran defensemen Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart left, Joe Thornton lost the captain's "C" and Patrick Marleau lost the alternate captain's "A," but that was it. San Jose is hoping for big things from Tomas Hertl, whose rookie season was interrupted by a knee injury. Brent Burns is back with a defense corps that's so-so after Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Another thing that hasn't changed — the need for heart and leadership.
 
4.VANCOUVER

2013-14: 36-35-11 (83). 5th in Pacific (no playoffs).

Addition by subtraction? Firing Coach John Tortorella (replaced by Willie Desjardins) could help the Canucks rebound from a terrible season. Signing Ryan Miller should stabilize them in goal. Up front, the Kesler trade gave them Nick Bonino and they signed solid winger Radim Vrbata. Twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin were overused and combined for only 97 points; expect them to bounce back.

5. ARIZONA

2013-14: 37-30-15 (89) 4th Pacific (no playoffs)

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Coach Dave Tippett again must get a lot out of a little. He's lucky to have defensemen Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who would be superstars in the East. As goalie Mike Smith goes so will the Coyotes, and his 2.64 goals-against average and .915 save percentage weren't good enough to support a low-scoring team.

6. EDMONTON

2013-14: 29-44-9 (67) 5th Pacific (no playoffs).

So many talented forwards, so little structure on defense. After years of collecting prime draft picks, the Oilers should be better than last season's conference-low 67 points and league-worst 270 goals against. Despite their skill, they're weak up the middle after Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Leon Draisaitl[, drafted third in June, might win the No. 2 center spot. Goalies Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth will see a lot of rubber; the Oilers won't see the playoffs.

7. CALGARY

2013-14: 35-40-7 (77) 4th Pacific (no playoffs)

Team goal-scoring leader Michael Cammalleri (26) left as a free agent and won't be easily replaced. Prospect Johnny Gaudreau is electrifying but small at 5 feet 9, and must prove he can absorb hits from big bodies. Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie are a strong defense pair, but the quality drops off after that. Goalie Jonas Hiller (2.48 goals against. .911 save percentage with the Ducks last season) can launch their long journey back to respectability.

Central Division

1. CHICAGO

2013-14: 46-21-15 (107), 3rd Central.

The Blackhawks' repeat hopes ended with an overtime loss to the Kings in Game 7 of the West final, so the roster didn't need much tinkering. They addressed the lack of a No. 2 center behind Jonathan Toews by signing Brad Richards, who centered for Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad in exhibition play. Then comes the Patrick Sharp-Toews-Marian Hossa line. Goaltender Corey Crawford (2.26 goals-against average, .917 save percentage) has proved himself the past two seasons. On course for a rematch with the Kings.

2. ST. LOUIS

2013-14: 52-23-7 (111), 2nd Central.

The Blues were battered and slumping when the playoffs began and faded during a six-game, first-round loss to the Blackhawks. Adding free-agent center Paul Stastny (25 goals, 60 points with Colorado last season) to a strong forward corps was a good move. The defense is rugged and productive, led by Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk. Off-season acquisition Carl Gunnarson, projected for the fourth spot, is recovering from hip surgery. David Backes provides excellent leadership, but the West is unforgiving. The Blues appear just short of Cup-capable.
 
3. COLORADO

2013-14: 52-22-8 (112), 1st Central.

A huge surprise last season, the Avalanche is stocked up front. Start with Gabriel Landeskog (26 goals, 65 points), Matt Duchene (23 goals, 70 points), Ryan O'Reilly (28 goals, 64 points), and rookie of the year Nathan MacKinnon (24 goals, 63 points), then add savvy, still-dangerous 40-year-old winger Jarome Iginla. Goalie Semyon Varlamov will have to duplicate or better last season's 2.41 goals-against average. Preseason injuries thinned their depth and could lead to a slow start.

4. DALLAS

2013-14: 40-31-11 (91) 5th Central (2nd wild card).

Offense figures to be a strength for the Stars, who were led last season by Tyler Seguin (37 goals, 84 points) and left wing Jamie Benn (34 goals, 79 points). They since acquired quality center Jason Spezza from Ottawa, and he might thrive out of the spotlight of Canada. However, Dallas' defense is thin after 40-year-old Sergei Gonchar, Trevor Daley, and Alex Goligoski. Coach Lindy Ruff's team should be exciting, but this is a tough conference. A wild-card playoff team.

5. MINNESOTA

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2013-14: 43-27-12 (98), 4th Central (1st wild card).

The low-scoring Wild upset Colorado in the first round of the playoffs and pushed Chicago, but its progress could be halted by goaltending woes. Josh Harding is injured, Niklas Backstrom had a poor season, and Darcy Kuemper hasn't wowed anyone. Free-agent winger Thomas Vanek should boost the offense and center Mikael Granlund is dazzling. Defenseman Ryan Suter, who averaged a league-leading 29 minutes and 24 seconds of ice time, is a marvel. This group will be a wild-card playoff team.

6. NASHVILLE

2013-14: 38-32-12 (88), 6th Central (no playoffs).

The Predators' biggest change was Peter Laviolette replacing Coach Barry Trotz after 15 seasons. Their goaltending should improve with a healthy Pekka Rinne, who missed most of last season because of a post-surgical infection. Winger James Neal, acquired after a 27-goal season with Pittsburgh, is the scorer they need. Three-time Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber will lead the defense again, but they're too thin at center to beat the big boys.

7. WINNIPEG

2013-14: 37-35-10 (84), 7th Central (no playoffs).

The Jets have missed the playoffs all three seasons since their relocation. They'll make it four. They have young talent in defenseman Jacob Trouba and forward Mark Scheifele, and winger Blake Wheeler is a scoring threat. But they need better from goalie Ondrej Pavelec than last season's 3.01 goals-against and .901 save percentage. They must decide whether to keep or trade Evander Kane, who scored 30 goals in 2011-12 but only 19 in 63 games last season.

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