Volume 93, Issue 23

Thursday, October 7, 1999


Turkey, stuffing and football

NHL Western Conference are still contenders

NHL Eastern Conference making a new drive

NHL Western Conference are still contenders

By Aaron Wherry
Gazette Staff

The balance of power in the National Hockey League has definitely shifted from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference. The West can no longer claim to be the dominant force in the league, but some strong teams do remain.

At the top of the totem pole is last year's Stanley Cup champs, the Dallas Stars. Despite a few losses to free agency over the summer, the Stars are the front-runners to again take the conference crown.

Closely challenging them will be two teams, the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche. The Red Wings are no longer the team which dominated hockey in the mid-'90s as they are another year older and wiser. Detroit will still be a threat to challenge the Stars for top spot in the conference over the regular season.

The Avalanche were hit hard over the off-season, losing Theo Fleury and Valeri Kamensky to free agency. Despite these losses, a huge amount of talent remains, supported by promising young players like Milan Hejduk and Chris Drury. The likes of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy should be more than enough to carry the Avalanche to a strong third position in the conference.

The St. Louis Blues are coming off a strong performance last year but gone is their strong, reliable goaltender Grant Fuhr and in his place, the young Roman Turek. A solid team remains in front of Turek, but he must shine bright for his Blues to succeed to their full potential. Nonetheless, expect a fourth place finish.

The Anaheim Mighty Ducks are a team brimming with young stars. Paul Kariya, Teemu Selanne, Guy Hebert and Western alum Steve Rucchin highlight a team with amazing potential. With Kariya back to full strength after a scary concussion more than a year and a half ago, the Mighty Ducks might finally take flight. As a result, a fifth place finish in the conference should be expected.

The Los Angeles Kings are far removed from the glorious days of Wayne Gretzky and a spot in the Stanley Cup finals. The addition of goal scoring machine Zigmund Palffy along with the continued development of goaltender Jamie Storr, should help this team improve drastically from last year. This improvement should lead to a sixth place finish, but still a quick exit from the playoffs.

The Phoenix Coyotes' success hinges on their ability to sign holdout goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. Without him the team will struggle to see the post-season, but expect the disgruntled goalie and the team to come to terms before long. Still the Coyotes haven't done enough to improve from last year and should finish in the lower half of the conference, most likely the seventh seed.

The most surprising team in the Western Conference will be the Vancouver Canucks. With the likes of Mogilny and Messier back from injuries, the Canucks could finally live up to their huge salaries. Hockey pool fans take note, Steve Kariya is an early favourite for rookie of the year. Kariya and his teammates should give the Canucks a playoff berth at the eighth seed.

Rounding out the conference are a group of young and low budget teams. The Chicago Blackhawks seem lost between rebuilding and loading up on free agents to make a Cup run. Either way they don't have the right mix and will just miss the playoffs.

The Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers are both young and full of potential. But they both lack veteran leadership and quality proven players. Both are at least a few players or a few years from reaching the playoffs.

The San Jose Sharks experienced some degree of success last year, giving Colorado a good test in the first round of the playoffs. Simply said, that was a fluke and given they added very little in the off-season they will be at home watching the playoffs on TV this year.

The Nashville Predators have improved since their inception last year. But they really couldn't get much worse. Still building, still waiting for a playoff berth.

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Copyright The Gazette 1999