- Chris Stevenson
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It used to be the Wild, Wild West.
There was a changing of the guard last spring and the National Hockey League's Western Conference, once the home of open skies and open hockey, became more guarded. Powers like the Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars were swept aside by the likes of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Minnesota Wild, a couple of defense-first teams.
This year it looks like those upstarts are going to be on the outside looking in, but will the balance of power be restored?
The West used to be home to the league's powerhouses, but as we saw last spring, there are plenty of ways for them to be short-circuited.
Here's the most likely ways this year's contenders could blow a fuse ...
Detroit Red Wings
IN: C Robert Lang
OUT: G Dominik Hasek
FATAL FLAW: G Curtis Joseph went into the playoffs last year with a .500 record in the postseason. After being swept by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, he's now 58-62. While he has been responsible for a couple of huge upsets, he has only taken his team past the second round twice (both in Toronto, in 1999 and 2002). Getting swept in the first round last year opened the door for Hasek's return, which has worked out so well, right? If you look at Cujo's track record, he is at his best in the underdog role, but in Hockeytown, he and the Wings are always going to have to play the role of top dog. Given another chance, can Cujo get out of the doghouse?
IN: G Tommy Salo, W Matthew Barnaby, C Chris Gratton, F Darby Hendrickson, D Bob Boughner, D Kurt Sauer, D Ossi Vaananen
OUT: D Derek Morris
FATAL FLAW: With so many changes, you have to wonder if there's another time -- or enough "Hello, My Name Is" tags -- to get all the new Avs on the same page. It is a strange team in that it has the fewest losses on the road (just four) in the league and struggled at home early in the season. G David Aebischer is going to be a playoff rookie, but so was former net-mate Patrick Roy when he won the Cup. The Avalanche have been tweaking their blue line for the last few weeks and finally made a move to get some veteran goaltending help by picking up Salo, which could turn out well provided they don't face Belarus in the playoffs.
San Jose Sharks
IN: F Curtis Brown, D Jason Marshall
OUT: F Brad Boyes
FATAL FLAW: Will the Sharks' offense have enough teeth in the postseason? Their power play is ranked 19th overall and (among the playoff contenders in the West, only Calgary and L.A. are worse) and they are near the bottom of the league in offense from their blue line (although they are fourth in the league in penalty killing). They are Great Whites at home, but more like guppies on the road, so they are going to need to improve there or become the catch of the day.
IN: W Martin Rucinsky, W Geoff Sanderson, D Marc Bergevin, F Sylvain Blouin, W Sergei Varlamov
OUT: W Todd Bertuzzi
FATAL FLAW: Because of Bertuzzi's momentary lapse of reason while slugging Colorado's Steve Moore, the Canucks have lost their second-best forward for the postseason. That becomes the issue on the Left Coast, overcoming the fact that G Dan Cloutier still has yet to prove he has the stuff it takes to be a playoff hero. Without Bertuzzi, opponents are going to be able to tune in on leader Markus Naslund even more. There's nothing funny here.
IN: F Shayne Corson, W Valeri Bure, D Chris Therien, D Lubomir Sekeras
OUT: D Chris McAllister
FATAL FLAW: The Stars, right now, aren't in a position for home-ice advantage in the postseason and there isn't a team in the West right now that has a bigger differential in home vs. road losses. The Stars have lost just six times at home, but have dropped 17 on the road. They also have the fewest goals scored among the playoff contending teams in the West. Can G Marty Turco be close to perfect in the postseason?
IN: W Chris Simon, W Marcus Nilson
OUT: G Jamie McLennan, C Blair Betts
FATAL FLAW: You would forgive the Flames if they don't quite get this postseason thing. It's been eight years since they've been in the playoffs and 15 years since they won a playoff round. That's the second-longest dry spell between series wins. Phoenix (17 years and counting) is the only team to have gone longer between series wins. If they can hang on and get a playoff spot, they are going to be reminded a lot about the fact they haven't won in the postseason since winning the Stanley Cup in 1989. Then again, for a team that's been on the outside looking in for too long, that's not a bad problem to have, right?
Los Angeles Kings
IN: D Nathan Dempsey, F Anson Carter, F Jeff Cowan
OUT: W Kip Brennan, W Jared Aulin
FATAL FLAW: If you believe special teams take on added significance in the postseason, you won't be betting on the Kings. Coaches figure if their team's penalty killing and power play percentages add up to 100, they're in good shape. The Kings' add up to 94.4 (the Red Wings, by comparison, are 107.7). The Kings will want to play as much 5-on-5 as they can. Oh, yeah, they'll want to make sure they've got the medical premiums up to date, too.
IN: C Steve Sullivan, C Sergei Zholtok, D Brad Bombadir, D Shane Hnidy
OUT: D Stan Neckar
FATAL FLAW: The Predators are the only team among the Western playoff contenders (they're fighting for their first-ever berth) to have a negative goal differential (-2 as of Thursday). The Preds are on the way to changing that with the acquistion of Sullivan, who's been a point machine since coming over from the Chicago Blackhawks. They're also another team that has struggled away from home (18 of 26 losses on the road). The biggest problem they might face if they make the playoffs for the first time is the "Just Happy To Be Here" syndrome. If they can get past that, they could be this year's Minnesota Wild, but with an uglier third jersey.
St. Louis Blues
IN: D Eric Weinrich, C Mike Sillinger, W Brian Savage, LW Ryan Ready
OUT: D Tom Koivisto, W Sergei Varlamov, G Brent Johnson
FATAL FLAW: The Blues are trying to keep their 24-year streak of making the playoffs intact. They find themselves in trouble because they have had trouble scoring goals, especially 5-on-5. They have just 103 even-strength goals this season (the Wings, by comparison, have 141). They are on pace to score just 191 goals this season, their fewest in nine years (178 in 1994-95). They are going to need G Chris Osgood to be real good.
Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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