The NHL season finally gets underway this week, after months of contractual wrangles. After previewing the Eastern Conference, here are my picks for the Western Conference.
Front runner: Vancouver Canucks (11.00)
Vancouver have possessed the league's best record in the previous two seasons and should finish close to the summit again this time round. A great offense led by the Sedin twins ensures plenty of goals but they have no real concerns at the back end either. Even if Roberto Luongo is traded, Cory Schneider has already been handed the starting job and they may get some intriguing pieces in return. For them the pressure is on to go deep in to the play-offs like they did in 2011, hoping this time to avoid a city centre riot.
Dark horse: Nashville Predators (22.00)
A team often afforded this tag in recent years, Nashville are a gritty outfit that you don't want to face. One half of their top defensive pairing, Ryan Suter, has departed, but Shea Weber (the better of the two) has stayed put and they have a great prospects looking to step in. They're big and physical, if unspectacular, up front, though it is that defensive core and goalie Pekka Rinne who will be the determinants of their success.
Much improved: Minnesota Wild (28.00)
Like Carolina, the Wild went all out to rejuvenate their hockey club over the summer, securing both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter with massive deals. Whilst they are now severely burdened financially, it was much needed for a strong fanbase that hasn't seen play-off hockey since 2008. Parise is a hometown boy fired up to make an impact as both a great leader and scorer. Combining that star power with their solid roster and good goaltending should bring the postseason back to Minny, though the cup may be a long shot.
Struggler: Calgary Flames (60.00)
Other than Columbus, every team in the West should feel they have a genuine chance of getting in to the the top eight. I've picked out Calgary out of the less fancied teams as they have an ageing squad, compared to the likes of Edmonton and Colorado, who are building around bright young prospects. Whilst the benefit of that is plenty of experience on defence, they are full of forwards whose best years are behind them.