The Chicago Blackhawks pose with the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl following their 4-3 win in double overtime over the Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of the Western Conference final at United Center on June 8th, 2013. Will the defending Western Conference champions once again be the best in the West? (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Chicago Blackhawks pose with the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl following their 4-3 win in double overtime over the Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of the Western Conference final at United Center on June 8th, 2013. Will the defending Western Conference champions once again be the best in the West? (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

Pacific Division:

1.) Los Angeles Kings.

I could just refer you to my season preview for the Kings (http://thehockeyhouse.net/los-angeles-kings/los-angeles-kings-2013-2014-season-preview/), but if you don’t want to read all of that, here it is in a nutshell — the Kings are coming off of a trip to the Western Conference final after winning the Stanley Cup, a run that proved they weren’t a fluke and that you can expect this team to be a perennial Cup contender for a while going forward. The core of the team is still intact, though they did lose guys like Rob Scuderi, Dustin Penner, Brad Richardson and Jonathan Bernier. Bernier was the backup goalie, and the Kings can expect more consistency from Jonathan Quick this season since he’s not coming off of back surgery, so despite how highly I think of Bernier, that’s not a huge loss. I also think highly of Richardson, but apparently Darryl Sutter didn’t, as he was often not even in the lineup, so that’s also not a huge loss. They basically replaced Penner with Matt Frattin, which has the potential to even be an upgrade. Scuderi is the only loss that I think is particularly in concerning, but a healthy Willie Mitchell would be a perfect replacement. While they still don’t have a third proven forward to round out their second line, they didn’t really have one the last two years either, and young players like Tyler Toffoli and Frattin look promising. The Kings have shown they’re a very good team, and I’m not convinced that’s about to change.

2.) Vancouver Canucks.

The Canucks have been regulars among the top of the old Western Conference, but seemed to take a bit of a step backwards last season. However, I think the goalie drama being over is going to really help, and I won’t be surprised to see Roberto Luongo return to being one of the better goalies around. Also, while a lot of people wonder if he’s going to fit with this team, I liked the hiring of John Tortorella. He could light a fire under this team, and frankly, they could use it. This team still has a lot of talent, and I wouldn’t be writing them off yet, even if their window is starting to close.

3.) San Jose Sharks.

Speaking of windows closing, that’s what a lot of people thought was happening to the Sharks. There were people who thought they wouldn’t even make the playoffs this past season. However, they had a solid season, swept the Canucks and took the Kings to Game 7. Furthermore, Antti Niemi evolved from an inconsistent goaltender to a Vezina finalist. They still may not be the Sharks of a few years ago, and maybe their window is closing, but they showed that they still have something left.

4.) Anaheim Ducks.

The Ducks just won the old Pacific Division last year and finished second in the old Western Conference, but were upset in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings in seven games. The Ducks were coming off of a season where they didn’t even make the playoffs, and I thought they overachieved last season. Then they were forced to trade one of their best players in Bobby Ryan because of the salary cap. They brought back Penner, but he’s a shadow of his former self. Jakob Silfverberg has a ton of potential, and they better hope he develops well this year, because Ryan is a big hole to fill, and not to mention Teemu Selanne is finally starting to show signs of his age. I think they should still at least compete for a playoff spot, though.

5.) Phoenix Coyotes.

The Coyotes are one year removed from winning the Pacific Division and going to the Western Conference final, but last season didn’t even make the playoffs. That said, even though they aren’t the most talented team in the world, I don’t think they’re as bad as they were last year, and they do have some good young players. I also thought Mike Ribeiro was a very nice addition for this team, though it’d be foolish to expect him to produce like he did with Alex Ovechkin in Washington last year. The biggest thing for the Coyotes, to me, is which Mike Smith are they going to get? He’s really only had one great season, but the Coyotes gave him a contract in the summer that shows they believe he is indeed the goalie he was in 2011-2012. If he is, I can certainly see them back in the playoffs. At the very least, they should compete for a spot.

6.) Edmonton Oilers.

I’m actually optimistic about the Oilers, but it’s cautious optimism, because this team has been supposed to be the break out for a while now. The incompetent Steve Tambellini was replaced with Craig MacTavish, who I thought had a pretty good first offseason. They also hired former Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins, who I think is a good fit for this team. He’s a young guy getting his first shot in the NHL, so he’s a lot like much of his team. He also has a lot of experience developing young players from his time with the Marlies, and players supposedly love playing for him. He could be good motivator for this team. Edmonton already improved last season, and now also shored up the defense with the likes of Andrew Ference, Denis Grebeshkov and Philip Larsen, while David Perron will add even more skill up front and Boyd Gordon will add to a penalty kill that was actually pretty good last season. Will I be surprised if this is the year the Oilers finally break out? No. That said, while I was very tempted to put them higher, they still have finished seventh last in the NHL or lower in each of the last four years (two of them last, one of them next to last), have missed the playoffs for seven straight years and are in a division that I think looks pretty tough. Let’s see them prove something.

7.) Calgary Flames.

This one was easy. With the trades of Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester last season, the Flames have finally acknowledged that they need to rebuild. While they do have some nice young pieces in place with guys like Sven Baertschi and Sean Monahan, they’re still just at the beginning of what could be a long, painful rebuild. Miikka Kiprusoff is gone, and the goaltending situation is a mess. Anyone inspired by a tandem of Joey MacDonald and Karri Ramo? Don’t be surprised if Jay Feaster (Brian Burke?) continues to tear this team apart to get younger as the season goes on. Also don’t be surprised if the Flames are really bad.

Central Division:

1.) Chicago Blackhawks.

Just like after their championship in 2009-2010, the Blackhawks were forced to move out some pieces thanks to the salary cap after winning the Stanley Cup, but their losses this year weren’t nearly as significant, and I think they’ll be better prepared to deal with it this year. They were able to keep their core intact, and this is a team that totally dominated the NHL last season. After their last Cup, the ‘Hawks made the playoffs on the last day of the season and surrendered their title in the first round. I don’t expect a similar thing to happen this time.

2.) St. Louis Blues.

The Blues are a good young team and they’ve broken through in the last couple of years, though they haven’t had much playoff success yet. The good news is, under this new format, they probably won’t have to face the Kings in the first two rounds of the playoffs. St. Louis has put together an outstanding defense, and I expect the goaltending to be more consistent this season. Up front, they did lose David Perron, but that could open the door for Vladimir Tarasenko to break out after showing flashes in his rookie season. They also added Derek Roy, who I think could be primed for a bounce-back year. Perhaps a fresh start will do Magnus Paajarvi some good, and Brenden Morrow and Maxim Lapierre were nice depth additions, too.

3.) Minnesota Wild.

The Wild did get back to the playoffs after missing it for four straight years, but squeaking in with the eighth seed on the last day of the season and getting eliminated in five games wasn’t really what the expectations were after the massive shopping spree that saw them land Zach Parise and Ryan Suter last summer, the two top players that were on the market. This summer, on the other hand, saw Minnesota lose three of its top six scorers from last season in Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. The Wild does have some good young players that may step forward, though (hello, Mikael Granlund), and since most of this division looks uncertain at the very least, I can’t put Minny any lower than this. That said, I also don’t see much reason to put the Wild ahead of the Blackhawks or Blues.

4.) Dallas Stars.

Jim Nill wasted no time making a mark on his new team in his first offseason, swinging a blockbuster deal with the Boston Bruins that saw them land the extremely talented young Tyler Seguin and a guy in Rich Peverley who could be primed for a bounce-back season. Sergei Gonchar was also a nice addition. That said, you could argue the best player in the deal went to Boston in Loui Eriksson, and I’m not a big fan of Shawn Horcoff, who is aging, scored less than a half point per game in three of the last four seasons and had trouble staying healthy. They did add Valeri Nichushkin, though, who was arguably the most talented player in the draft and may head to the NHL right away. I still think the Stars are a better team, and playing in a division that could be weak will help. I won’t be surprised if Dallas is finally on the right side of a tight playoff race, after being on the wrong side in each of the last five years.

5.) Nashville Predators.

After two straight trips to the second round of the playoffs, the Predators lost Ryan Suter and, despite their lack of offensive talent, made no attempt to keep Alex Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, and ended up being one of the worst teams in the NHL last season. Nashville quietly had a solid offseason, though, with additions such as Matt Cullen, Viktor Stalberg, Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks. Perhaps the Preds will also get big contributions from rookies such as Filip Forsberg and Seth Jones. Will it be enough to get them back to the playoffs? We’ll see, but I think they’ll at least be in the hunt, especially since Pekka Rinne should be better.

6.) Colorado Avalanche.

After being in the playoff hunt down the stretch in 2011-2012, last season I thought this young Avalanche team would improve and once again be in the thick of the playoff race, at the very least. Instead, it was a nightmare season in Colorado. The good news is they were able to get the top pick in the draft and land Nathan MacKinnon, who is another stud to add to the young forward group. They also brought back Alex Tanguay, who is still productive, and Cory Sarich could provide a veteran presence to a defense that could use it. I think the Avs will be better, but the biggest key is Semyon Varlamov getting it turned around, which could be tough behind this defense. I’m also curious to see if Patrick Roy can motivate this young group. According to Jean-Sebastien Giguere, they could use it.

7.) Winnipeg Jets.

I think the Jets have overachieved the last two years just by being in the playoff race. They don’t have a centre on their roster who scored more than seven NHL goals last season. This team really doesn’t look much better (or even that different, really) than the Atlanta Thrashers teams that stunk for so many years. They did do a good job of locking up a lot of their young core like Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler and Zach Bogosian, but they didn’t really add anything significant (well, maybe Devin Setoguchi) and will pretty much be relying on Mark Scheifle and Jacob Trouba making an immediate impact and internal improvement. Winnipeg is the team in the Central Division that I have the least amount of faith in.

As far as the wild cards go, I’ll give the first one to the Ducks and the second one to the Stars. As far as the teams that finished atop their divisions go, I’ll say the Blackhawks finish with a better record than the Kings. The division winner with the best record in the conference takes on the wild card with the lowest record in the conference, while the division winner with the lowest record in the conference takes on the wild card with the highest record in the playoffs, meaning the Pacific Division playoffs would have the Kings taking on the Ducks (and the Canucks taking on the Sharks) and the Central Division playoffs would have the Blackhawks taking on the Stars (and the Blues taking on the Wild).

Follow me on Twitter, @Jack_Weber_.

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