Breaking down the West's playoff contenders

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At home in Prince Edward Island, Canada, he's known as Lyle Richardson. But around these parts, he's known as Spector, FOXSports.com's Prince of Pucks. Check in with Spector's NHL Blog on Yardbarker.com for NHL rumors and analysis.

With the NHL's 2009-10 campaign opening this week, here's a look at the eight potential playoff clubs in the Western Conference.
Chicago Blackhawks: Lost in the news of their offseason distractions is the fact the Blackhawks are a better team than they were a year ago. The additions of Marian Hossa and John Madden provide veteran depth and experience, whereas young stars like Kane, Jonathan Toews, Kris Versteeg, Brent Seabrook and Cam Barker are a year older and wiser. Expect Cristobal Huet to step up as starting goaltender this season. With their depth in young talent and experience, the Blackhawks could emerge as the conference champion and a Stanley Cup contender this season. San Jose Sharks: For the past three seasons, the Sharks were projected to be Cup contenders, but they came up short every time. This year, management has tinkered again, adding former 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley to Joe Thornton's line, setting up for perhaps one of the best one-two scoring punches in the league. The Sharks are deep enough in skilled players to remain among the NHL's elite, but have yet to overcome their reputation for playoff meltdowns. Another early exit could result in significant changes next summer. Vancouver Canucks: Their biggest moves this past summer were locking up the Sedin twins and goalie Roberto Luongo to long-term extensions. GM Mike Gillis wasn't content to stop there, signing winger Mikael Samuelsson as a free agent and bolstering his defense by acquiring Christian Ehrhoff from San Jose. The breakout performance of forwards Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows provides the Canucks with valuable offensive depth. This could be the best-balanced Canucks team in years, which should make them contenders for the division title and one of the top clubs in the West this season. Detroit Red Wings: Losing Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson and Jiri Hudler hurts, and key players like Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper are starting to show their age, but don't expect a significant decline in the Red Wings performance this season. Forwards Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, defensemen Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall, and goalie Chris Osgood give the Wings a solid core; also expect promising young Wings like Jonathan Ericsson, Valtteri Filppula and Darren Helm to see considerably more ice time this season. Anaheim Ducks: They traded away big blueliner Chris Pronger, but the Ducks might be a more talented team this season. The additions of skilled forwards Saku Koivu and Joffrey Lupul pairs with the rise of young winger Bobby Ryan to provide the Ducks with considerable offensive punch, complementing stars Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and the seemingly ageless Teemu Selanne. There'll be an interesting battle between J.S. Giguere and Jonas Hiller for the starting goalie role. A very physical team, expect the Ducks to be among the best in the West this season. Calgary Flames: Adding Jay Bouwmeester to a defense that already includes Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr gives the Flames an enviable group of top three defensemen, and hiring Brent Sutter as head coach should see this club return to its defense-first roots. That should cut down on the amount of shots goalie Miikka Kiprusoff sees this season, but they have to cut back on the number of games he plays to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Forwards like Olli Jokinen, Dustin Boyd, Rene Bourque and David Moss must step up to ease the offensive burden from the Jarome Iginla line. Columbus Blue Jackets: After making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, the Blue Jackets are in good position to qualify again. 2009 rookie of the year goalie Steve Mason should provide the Jackets with quality netminding. And they've considerably improved their depth up front, which should take pressure off franchise winger Rick Nash. One significant problem area, however ,is their lack of an experienced puck-handling defenseman, which could continue to hamper their power-play. Expect management to go shopping for such a blueliner at some point this season. Edmonton Oilers: They brought in a new starting goalie in former Blackhawk Nikolai Khabibulin, who has significant postseason experience but also comes with an injury history and consistency issues. But they tried and failed to land Dany Heatley from Ottawa this summer, settling instead for adding former Oiler Mike Comrie, whose stock has declined over the past two seasons. Hiring Pat Quinn as head coach should be a boon for the young Oilers forwards, as Quinn prefers a more offensive style, but this club might still be in need of a sniper for Ales Hemsky's line, and could move one of their many puck-moving defensemen to get one. Quinn's coaching should make the Oilers a better team and a playoff contender.
Tagged: Flames, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Oilers, Flyers, Sharks, Canucks, Ducks, Blue Jackets, Joe Thornton, Nicklas Lidstrom, Kirk Maltby, Tomas Holmstrom, Kris Draper, Mike Comrie, Saku Koivu, John Madden, Brian Rafalski, Miikka Kiprusoff, Chris Pronger, Nikolai Khabibulin, Roberto Luongo, Jarome Iginla, Cristobal Huet, Ales Hemsky, Rick Nash, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Dany Heatley, Robyn Regehr, Olli Jokinen, Jiri Hudler, Niklas Kronwall, Brent Seabrook, Johan Franzen, Chris Osgood, David Moss, Jay Bouwmeester, Joffrey Lupul, Marian Hossa, Ryan Kesler, Dion Phaneuf, Christian Ehrhoff, Teemu Selanne, Mikael Samuelsson, Valtteri Filppula, Cam Barker, Ryan Getzlaf, Rene Bourque, Corey Perry, Alexandre Burrows, Bobby Ryan, Darren Helm, Kris Versteeg, Dustin Boyd, Jonathan Ericsson, Steve Mason, Jonathan Toews, Jonas Hiller

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