With the opening puck drop to the new NHL season drawing ever closer it's time to shift focus to the exceptionally competitive Western Conference. It seems likely that the West could provide the Stanley Cup winner for the fourth straight season, five of the seven shortest odds are here including the outright favourites and reigning champs.
The Favourites – Chicago Blackhawks, 7.00 to win the Stanley Cup
You'd be forgiven for thinking it's a case of the usual suspects in the mix this year and the largely unchanged Blackhawks typify consistency. Their salary cap situation may come to a head next summer but for now the hefty contracts issued to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane haven't come at the expense of lineup depth.
Coach Joel Quenneville's key question remains who will fill the second line center slot, free agency pickup Brad Richards looks likely to get the job as it seems like it might be too soon for highly touted Finnish prospect Tuevo Terevainen. Beyond that minor issue it's hard to pinpoint any faults and at this stage they deserve to be so hotly tipped.
The Holders – Los Angeles Kings 10.00
Not since 1998 has a team successfully defended the Stanley Cup and the fact LA took more games to win it last year than any other team in NHL history suggests they will have to dig very deep to change that. They've made the smart choice of not altering a winning formula and the same cohort returns with the exception of veteran blueliner Willie Mitchell.
Only two sides in the conference scored fewer goals than the Kings but there was a significant upturn after acquiring Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline, and he was successfully locked up to a new deal over the summer. A feature of their 2012 and 2014 title runs has been their low seedings, as long as they get into the top eight there's no need to over analyse their efforts up to April. If LA suffer anything of a cup hangover their price is likely to lengthen so hold out on them for the moment.
The Underachievers – St Louis Blues 12.00
Despite finishing near the peak of the conference in the last three seasons all the Blues have to show for it is a solitary playoff series win. Admittedly they've been dumped out by LA and Chicago on those occasions but for a team this talented it still constitutes failure.
I thought Ryan Miller was unfairly made a scapegoat for their latest early exit, either way the goalie's brief tenure is over leaving Brian Elliott and Jake Allen as a unproven tandem. Adding Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera has made them more formidable up front, they should be able to roll three very strong forward lines admittedly without a true gamebreaking talent. Whether these steps are enough to break the stigma that is beginning to surround this unit remains to be seen, until then I think your money could be better placed elsewhere.
In The Mix - Anaheim Ducks 12.50
Another club that hasn't quite delivered on their regular season promise, Anaheim look to have a higher ceiling than their 2014 squad that won the Pacific Division. The biggest trade of the summer saw Ryan Kesler arrive in California and a one-two center punch of Kesler plus captain Ryan Getzlaf might just be the strongest in the West. Their goaltending situation is also very interesting, Frederik Andersen and John Gibson have a combined 42 NHL games between them but there's enough talent there at least one of them should be able to distinguish themselves.
Franchise legend Teemu Selanne had been marginalised to an extent through his final season, however his presence in the locker room will surely be missed. Young wingers such as Jakub Silfverberg and Devante Smith-Pelly are eager to prove they can fill the void, making their lineup look particularly dynamic. Because of that, outside of the trio of Boston, Chicago and LA I believe the Ducks have the greatest chance.
Potential Upstarts – Dallas Stars 31.00
Far from contented by their admirable loss to Anaheim in the first round, Dallas have made a couple of veteran pickups that puts them in good shape to go further this time around. Jason Spezza brings leadership qualities and a point per game threat as a second line center, he developed chemistry with the other new face Ales Hemsky during their time in Ottawa too.
Scarier yet for everyone else is the prospect of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin making their combination even more productive, as both finished in the top 10 for points last season. Admittedly an average defence hasn't been bolstered from the one that often left too much work to goalie Kari Lehtonen, it's not a bad group however that rarely cuts it in the postseason. Keep an eye on the Stars either way because they'll definitely be fun to watch and look more than capable of beating odds of 2.15 finish in the Central Division's top three .