2014-15 NHL Picks and Predictions: Western Conference Favorites, Dark Horses and Sleepers: The 2014 NHL season is about to begin, and the Western Conference is once again looking like the tougher conference. Last year, six different teams tallied at least 100 points, and the Los Angeles Kings went on to claim the third straight Stanley Cup title for the West. This year, many of the top teams in the conference return their cores intact and a few have even improved during the offseason. A very competitive season inevitable, and with that in mind, here is a closer look at the top contenders in the NHL’s Western Conference.
While they never seem to wow during the regular season, it’s tough to argue with the Los Angeles Kings’ recipe for success. After all, they are the defending Stanley Cup champions, and they hoisted the Cup twice in the last three seasons. Goalie Jonathan Quick and defenseman Drew Doughty are back to lead a defense that allowed the fewest goals in the NHL last season. Meanwhile, it will be fun to see the always-steady Anze Kopitar play alongside Marian Gaborik for an entire year after the chemistry the two showed during the playoffs a year ago. If anything, the Kings have a chance to be a more complete team in 2014-15 than the group that just won a championship.
A bid at back-to-back title ended with the Chicago Blackhawks getting bounced in the conference finals, but for a team with few weaknesses, a third Stanley Cup in the last six seasons is a real possibility in 2014-15. The Blackhawks have a dynamic offense, and Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are all back from a group that scored the second-most goals in the NHL a year ago. Meanwhile, the offense actually got deeper in the offseason thanks to the addition of Brad Richards. Throw in steady play in net from Corey Crawford and a solid group if blueliners led by Duncan Keith, and Chicago remains one of the most talented, most complete teams in the Western Conference.
The Dark Horses
Led by dynamic offensive weapons Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, the Anaheim Ducks secured the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference a year ago and scored more goals than any team in the NHL. This year’s team still has a ton of depth on offense, and the addition of physical two-way players like Ryan Kesler and Nate Thompson should pay dividends in big games. The lone question mark for this group is whether or not goalie Frederik Andersen can repeat his strong numbers from last year as a full-time starter.
After relying mainly on defense for a few years, the St. Louis Blues emerged as one of the more balanced teams in the NHL last year, and the trend should continue in 2014-15. After all, defensemen Alex Pietrangelo Kevin Shattenkirk are back to lead a defense that allowed the fourth-fewest goals a year ago, and center Paul Stastny joins Jaden Schwartz, Alexander Steen and David Backes on an offense that scored the sixth more goals in the NHL. The Blues should be able to win on both ends of the ice and should be serious contenders as a result.
The San Jose Sharks led their first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Series 3-0 last year, but instead of exorcising their postseason demons, the Sharks suffered an epic collapse. The good news is the that the core of a team that scored the sixth-most goals and allowed the fifth-fewest goals in the league last year. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture are just the main sources of firepower on this deep offensive team, and the Sharks should have no trouble returning to the playoffs. The only question is whether they can seal the deal once they get there.
They were the surprise winners of the Central Division last year, and while the Colorado Avalanche didn’t make much noise in the postseason, that could change now that this relatively young team has added some veterans and gotten some first-hand experience. The top line of Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O’Reilly is excellent, and on the second line, defending Calder Trophy winner Nate MacKinnon will now be flanked by veterans Jerome Iginla and Alex Tanguay. The young core of the Avalanche has title-winning talent, and an added veteran presence should speed up the process.
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