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Western Conference

THE BALTIMORE SUN

(Teams listed in predicted order of finish)

1. Vancouver Canucks

Coach: Marc Crawford, sixth season.

2002-03 record: 45-23-13-1, 104 points, second in Northwest, fourth in conference.

Player to watch: Actually two - twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin. They showed glimpses of their vaunted skills last season but must be consistent.

Outlook: Tightening up on defense might start the Canucks on a long playoff run. Free-agent winger Magnus Arvedson, a fine two-way player, was a good addition to a prolific offense that includes Todd Bertuzzi (46 goals, 97 points) and scoring race runner-up Markus Naslund (48 goals, 104 points). Ed Jovanovski has revived his career and become a force on defense. General manager Brian Burke created competition by acquiring goalie Johan Hedberg from Pittsburgh to back up Dan Cloutier, who yielded too many bad goals during last spring's second-round loss to Minnesota.

2. Detroit Red Wings

Coach: Dave Lewis, second season.

2002-03 record: 48-20-10-4, 110 points, first in Central, second in conference.

Player to watch: Can Dominik Hasek regain his dominating form after a year of retirement? The Red Wings want to trade Curtis Joseph and the $16 million he is owed the next two seasons but will have to pay a portion of the money to get him off their hands.

Outlook: They lost Sergei Fedorov and Igor Larionov as free agents, but the Red Wings - who led the NHL last season with 269 goals - say they will focus on defense. Henrik Zetterberg, last season's top-scoring rookie with 22 goals and 44 points, and Pavel Datsyuk will play bigger roles. Rookie center Jiri Hudler is promising, too. Derian Hatcher, signed as a free agent, is the mean, hard-hitting defenseman they have lacked since Vladimir Konstantinov's tragic car accident.

3. Anaheim Mighty Ducks

Coach: Mike Babcock, second season.

2002-03 record: 40-27-9-6, 95 points, second in Pacific, seventh in conference.

Player to watch: Sergei Fedorov left Detroit to play a bigger role in Anaheim, not merely for more minutes. Here's his chance to be the go-to guy offensively and overall leader.

Outlook: General manager Bryan Murray wasn't idle after his team won the West title. He lost Paul Kariya by not making a $10 million qualifying offer but likely improved the team by signing Fedorov (36 goals, 83 points) and winger Vaclav Prospal (22 goals, 79 points). Playoff MVP Jean-Sebastien Giguere signed a four-year, $19.5 million deal on the eve of training camp. The solid defense is led by Keith Carney, Ruslan Salei and young Kurt Sauer. Another experienced forward to replace Adam Oates and Steve Thomas might help, but Murray has depth to deal.

4. Colorado Avalanche

Coach: Tony Granato, second season.

2002-03 record: 42-19-13-8, 105 points, first in Northwest, third in conference.

Player to watch: In this case, players, as in free-agent signees Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. They wanted to play together and have free rein offensively, but defense rules in the NHL these days.

Outlook: Few teams could lose a future Hall of Fame goalie and contend. Patrick Roy's retirement left a void that for now will be filled by David Aebischer and Philippe Sauve, but general manager Pierre Lacroix isn't afraid to make big, bold trades. Colorado had the NHL's top scorer (Peter Forsberg, 29 goals and 106 points) and goal-scorer (Milan Hejduk, 50) but lost to Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs. Forsberg, Joe Sakic and Co. should have learned not to let frustration lead to mistakes and bad penalties.

5. Dallas Stars

Coach: Dave Tippett, second season.

2002-03 record: 46-17-15-4, 111 points, first in Pacific, first in conference.

Player to watch: Marty Turco. He had a breakout season with a 1.72 goals-against average in his first season as the No. 1 goalie, but expectations will be higher and the defense in front of him appears weaker.

Outlook: They'll miss Derian Hatcher's physical play and the solid defense of Darryl Sydor, gone in a three-way deal that brought them Teppo Numminen. They're still solid up front; Mike Modano (28 goals, 85 points) is a leader and Jere Lehtinen (31 goals, 48 points) is a superb two-way winger. Power-play quarterbacks don't come better than defenseman Sergei Zubov (11 goals, 55 points). Bill Guerin (25 goals, 50 points in 64 games) had a thigh injury that cost them in the playoffs; he must be at full strength for them to go far.

6. St. Louis Blues

Coach: Joel Quenneville, eighth season.

2002-03 record: 41-24-11-6, 99 points, second in Central, fifth in conference.

Player to watch: Chris Pronger. He missed all but five games last season because of wrist problems but looked good in the playoffs. He relinquished his captaincy to Al MacInnis, which might help him concentrate on regaining his MVP form.

Outlook: This could be the last chance for a solid group that has not realized its potential in the playoffs. The Blues went through six goalies last season before settling on Chris Osgood, and it's thanks only to a defense led by Pronger, MacInnis and rookie of the year Barret Jackman that they didn't fall apart. Second-year left wing Peter Sejna is being counted on to bolster the offense, probably on a line with Doug Weight. Pavol Demitra (36 goals, 93 points) deserves superstar recognition.

7. Los Angeles Kings

Coach: Andy Murray, fifth season.

2002-03 record: 33-37-6-6, 78 points, third in Pacific, 10th in conference.

Player to watch: Goalie Roman Cechmanek's Flyers numbers were good (1.83 goals-against average, .925 save percentage in 58 games), but the team flopped in the playoffs. It hasn't always been his fault, but he'll have to prove that.

Outlook: As Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh go, so will the Kings, and both are expected to miss the start of the season because of post-concussion problems. If neither is out too long, if Luc Robitaille rediscovers his scoring touch and if Jozef Stumpel is comfortable as a second-line center, the Kings could do well - but that's a lot of ifs. Right wing Ziggy Palffy (37 goals, 85 points) had a fine season with an ever-changing supporting cast. The Kings need another mobile defenseman and must juice up a power play that ranked 18th last season.

8. Minnesota Wild

Coach: Jacques Lemaire, fourth season.

2002-03 record: 42-29-10-1, 95 points, third in Northwest, sixth in conference.

Player to watch: Marian Gaborik certified himself a budding superstar with 30 goals and 65 points, but he was unsigned as the season began. A prolonged absence will hurt this light-scoring team.

Outlook: Without Gaborik and fellow unsigned restricted free agent Pascal Dupuis (20 goals, 48 points), the Wild has lost more than a quarter of last season's 198-goal team output. Andrew Brunette's 18 goals and 46 points were impressive, but he'll have to do that again, and more. Defenseman Willie Mitchell brought muscle and energy to a hard-working defense that has no stars. Minnesota's goaltending, fourth overall last season with a team goals-against average of 2.14, figures to be its strength again.

9. San Jose Sharks

Coach: Ron Wilson, second season.

2002-03 record: 28-37-9-8, 73 points, fifth in Pacific, 14th in conference.

Player to watch: A year ago, contract impasses with Evgeni Nabokov and defenseman Brad Stuart killed the Sharks' chances before the season began. If Nabokov repeats his 2.71 goals-against average and .906 save percentage, the Sharks have no chance at the playoffs.

Outlook: After a rough season in which general manager Dean Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter were fired, the Sharks are regrouping. They let Teemu Selanne and Adam Graves go via free agency and traded Owen Nolan to Toronto, cutting their payroll by about $10 million. They have the makings of a good defense corps, led by Stuart, Kyle McLaren, Mike Rathje and German rookie Christian Ehrhoff. Forwards Patrick Marleau and Marco Sturm are young veterans who can carry a team.

10. Edmonton Oilers

Coach: Craig MacTavish, fourth season.

2002-03 record: 36-26-11-9, 92 points, fourth in Northwest, eighth in conference.

Player to watch: Goalie Tommy Salo must improve on last season's 2.71 goals-against average and .899 save percentage for this spirited but thin team to join in on the playoff chase.

Outlook: Small-market economics prevented the Oilers from re-signing free agent Todd Marchant, who led their forwards last season with an average of 19 minutes, 53 seconds of ice time per game. Marchant's speed and heart will be missed. A contract stalemate kept Mike Comrie (20 goals, 51 points) out of camp, and the Oilers can't afford to lose him. Traditionally, they favor an open, free-skating style, but with so little scoring potential - though perhaps boosted by second-year right wing Ales Hemsky - they will struggle.

11. Columbus Blue Jackets

Coach: Doug MacLean, first full season.

2002-03 record: 29-42-8-3, 69 points, fifth in Central, 15th in conference.

Player to watch: Todd Marchant, signed as a free agent, has speed and the kind of defensive instincts the Blue Jackets have lacked. He's a terrific penalty killer and the kind of character player that coaches love.

Outlook: MacLean, also the team's general manager, assembled some interesting pieces by signing Marchant and another two-way forward, Trevor Letowski, and by trading for veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor. However, MacLean can't exhaust goalie Marc Denis as he did last season, when Denis played 4,511 minutes and faced 2,404 shots, both NHL records. Marchant, reliable scorer Geoff Sanderson and David Vyborny give the Blue Jackets speed up front. This team could be pesky.

12. Chicago Blackhawks

Coach: Brian Sutter, third season.

2002-03 record: 30-33-13-6, 79 points, third in Central, ninth in conference.

Player to watch: Tuomo Ruutu, a Finnish import and a sturdy 6 feet 1, 202 pounds, is a thunderous hitter and has a better-than-average scoring touch.

Outlook: The decline of this once-great franchise continues. Its signing of Theo Fleury was a disaster, and his involvement in a brawl at a strip club with teammates Phil Housley and Tyler Arnason began a decline that carried the Blackhawks out of playoff contention. They have some assets up front in Alexei Zhamnov, oft-injured winger Eric Daze, winger Steve Sullivan and second-year center Arnason, but their defense is no better than adequate and there's no real leadership. Jocelyn Thibault (2.37 goals-against, .915 save percentage) spares them embarrassment on a nightly basis.

13. Calgary Flames

Coach: Darryl Sutter, second season.

2002-03 record: 29-36-13-4, 75 points, fifth in Northwest, 12th in conference.

Player to watch: Jarome Iginla won the scoring title in 2001-02 with 52 goals and 96 points but dropped to 35 goals and 67 points last season. He had some strong stretches but must be consistently productive for the Flames to get near the top eight teams in a tough conference.

Outlook: Sutter took over 36 games into the season and later assumed the general manager's role as well. No team he coaches will be unprepared, but he doesn't have much to work with. Defensemen Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold are developing well, and young right wing Chuck Kobasew had a good training camp and might play a lot. Goalie Roman Turek is maddeningly inconsistent. The Flames have missed the playoffs seven consecutive seasons, a streak likely to continue.

14. Nashville Predators

Coach: Barry Trotz, sixth season.

2002-03 record: 27-35-13-7, 74 points, fourth in Central, 13th in conference.

Player to watch: Kimo Timonen. The Finnish defenseman had six goals and 40 points, second on the team. He can move the puck and help the power play.

Outlook: A late-season surge brought them to 74 points, but their 183 goals were the fewest scored by any team in the West. That doesn't figure to increase dramatically. They're tenacious and have some speed, but they are small, not physical and lacking in depth. Center David Legwand, the second overall draft pick in 1998, hasn't blossomed as rapidly as management had hoped. Jordin Tootoo, a 2003 draft pick, is an exciting player but will have to control his emotions to be effective. The novelty has worn off for fans in Nashville, making this a vital season for the Predators on the ice and off.

15. Phoenix Coyotes

Coach: Bobby Francis, fifth season.

2002-03 record: 31-35-11-5, 78 points, fourth in Pacific, 11th in conference.

Player to watch: Veteran goalie Sean Burke was the subject of trade rumors last season, but general manager Mike Barnett didn't get an offer that overwhelmed him. However, the cost-conscious Coyotes, who won't swim in cash streams from their new arena until late December, might deal Burke for younger, cheaper players.

Outlook: This season could be ugly, especially if Burke is injured again or traded. They're young and eager, and winger Landon Wilson merits applause for returning after an accident nearly cost him his sight in one eye, but this team has little sizzle and less scoring ability. Krystofer Kolanos, who missed almost all of last season because of a concussion, has potential. Ladislav Nagy and Chris Gratton are adequate but don't inspire fear.

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