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You’ve got the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, who –on paper– should be the two best teams. There are reclamation projects like the Vancouver Canucks and Minnesota Wild. There’s the “our window of opportunity is still open” San Jose Sharks, the “we are still in Phoenix” Phoenix Coyotes, the “we’re still about to breakout” Edmonton Oilers and the “we’ll try to get it done on a budget” Nashville Predators. Maybe most importantly, there’s no Detroit Red Wings, who are now in the Eastern Conference.
Examining Favorites: Chicago Blackhawks (+275), St. Louis Blues (+535)
The Stanley Cup champs are (obviously) favored to win the West again but if history has taught us anything, it’s that you shouldn’t bet the Cup champs to repeat. Last season, the Los Angeles Kings were favored and they didn’t even come close. People making their sports picks know that winning the Cup is so grueling that making the arduous journey two years in a row is just extremely unlikely. Teams run out of gas.
However, the Blackhawks – unlike the last time they won the Stanley Cup – return almost their entire roster. They lost backup goaltender Ray Emery, checking center Dave Bolland and a couple of other minor pieces like Viktor Stalberg. But their top six forwards are pretty much intact, their defensive corps returns and Corey Crawford is back after proving that he’s a legitimate No. 1 backstop. The Blackhawks will again be dangerous but I expect them to run out of gas at some point. It’s just too hard to repeat.
Meanwhile, I’m surprised by the team that’s second in line: the St. Louis Blues. NHL odds makers put the Blues up there even though they finished fourth in the conference last year and were wiped out of the first round in just six games. So what is it that they like about the Blues so much? St. Louis will probably be among the best defensive teams in the NHL again in 2013-14 with a trio of good goaltenders. They have a stellar blue line and good group of young forwards who should be better simply by having one more year of experience under their belts. I wouldn’t be surprised if this team won the West but their scoring and pedigree do not make them a wise choice on the NHL betting lines right now. Yes, they’ve improved quite a bit over the last couple of seasons and they have an excellent young team but they’ve done little to prove that they are on the level of the Blackhawks.
Examining Sleepers: Vancouver Canucks (+650), Anaheim Ducks (+950)
There are six teams in the West inside of 10-to-1, so it’s hard to pick a “sleeper”. Clearly, the odds makers are suggesting this conference is wide open.
The first team that I like is the Canucks. Yes, I know. Most people think their window of opportunity has closed but I would ask you why? They still have the Sedin twins for at least one more year, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, David Booth, Chris Higgins and some other young, up-and-coming forwards. Their blue line – if on their game – could be among the best in the league. And, of course, there’s Roberto Luongo, who is a bit of a head case, but new head coach John Tortorella tends to make goaltenders look good. The Canucks just tuned out their previous head coach, Alain Vigneault, the last couple of seasons and while I think that Tortorella eventually wears his players down, teams tend to listen to him in the early stages. I look for the Canucks to have a good year.
My other sleeper is the Anaheim Ducks, who surprised a lot of people last season. I think they are capable of taking the next step this year. They have two quality goaltenders, a decent blue line and an offensive unit that can be among the best in the business. While they traded away Bobby Ryan, don’t be surprised if Jakob Silfverberg replaces what he contributed to the team last season. They finished second in the West last season but you can get them at +950. I see that as good value.