Friday, September 29, 2006 Updated: October 2, 7:41 PM ET
Who will rise, fall in wacky Western Conference
By Linda Cohn Special to ESPN.com
As the new season draws closer, I can't believe how many competitive teams there are in the Western Conference.
Right now, at least 11 teams look playoff-worthy, but we all know how close it will be and we all know some won't make it to the postseason.
So, I'll make it easy for you. Here are two teams I believe will make it to the Western Conference finals and two others that will disappoint this season.
Who will succeed?
Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks have the best back-line pair in the NHL, hands down, with offseason acquisition Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. They are both Norris Trophy winners, they both have experience, they both are leaders. We all know how important these kinds of players are, especially when you need players to step up and get their team through the tough times. Pronger averaged more than 30 minutes of ice time in the playoffs and led the Oilers to the Cup finals. Niedermayer is so cool under pressure and makes it look so easy.
Joe Sakic and his 87 points from last season return to fight the good fight for the Avalanche.
I believe this pair alone is enough to push Anaheim over the edge as the West's best team, but it doesn't hurt that it has some offense, too. There is no reason Teemu Selanne can't have another 40-goal campaign if he stays healthy. I love Andy McDonald; he works so well on that line with Selanne. The pair was 1-2 in team scoring last season, with Selanne earning 90 points, McDonald 85.
Anaheim also has depth in net with Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov. I am glad Giggy is back. I thought he got a raw deal the season after the Ducks' run to the 2003 Stanley Cup finals. I think a lot of critics believed he was just about the big equipment, but under the new rules, he has shown that's not true with a 30-15-0 record and .911 save percentage last season.
A Cup run starts with defense, and the Ducks have that and then some. But they'll have some competition ...
San Jose Sharks: After such a successful turnaround with the addition of Joe Thornton last season, the Sharks had a bitter pill to swallow after their second-round loss to the Oilers.
It's all just more fuel to the fire for Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo, last season's Hart Trophy winner and leading goal scorer, respectively. They were made for each other on the ice. It will be interesting to see how they bounce back after such a letdown in the playoffs.
One other plus for the Sharks is the fact that they addressed their penalty-killing woes by adding toughness to the lineup. In comes Mike Grier, a penalty-killing winger. Grier was a valuable part of the Buffalo Sabres' run last season, leading in the dressing room and playing a defensive-minded game. Sure, he had his lowest overall points total in nine seasons in 2005-06 (23 in 81 games), but he scored four game-winning goals while playing against the opposition's top line. He can find weaknesses in his opponents; he bangs in the corners; and he has speed. Curtis Brown also will help the Sharks in the same areas. And let's face it, playing the game will be a more enjoyable experience for him than it was last season in Chicago.
This season, I think we'll see more balance from the Sharks. It always had to come down to Thornton and Cheechoo before. Now, I don't think San Jose will have to depend on them all the time. The Sharks will learn from their collapse against Edmonton.
Who will fall?
Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche were spectators this entire offseason, watching other teams in the Western Conference get better while they stayed stagnant.
Hello! Alex Tanguay and Rob Blake are gone! Who else is going to leave? Or should I say, who else is going to succumb to the salary cap? And who's the Avs' idea of a good replacement for those latest defections? Ken Klee? Doesn't make you think "Cup winner" does it? No offense to Ken, but if that's your biggest offseason addition, then you're going to have a problem.
That leaves you with old reliable Joe Sakic. This only guarantees are that you'll get the usual, solid 25-30-goal output from the 37-year-old center and that your power play will have a good quarterback. Then, the Avs need to have solid seasons from Marek Svatos, who should rise to some expectations, and Milan Hejduk. There's not much after that. That's a lot of "ifs." You need more depth than that.
A bigger "if" is Jose Theodore. Can the goaltender help the team improve and get it back in the playoffs? Right now, I don't think you can be certain he can.
I can't remember the last time there has been this much uncertainty around the Avalanche. The loss of Blake and Tanguay is too much ground to make up in one season.
Edmonton Oilers: So, the Oilers were one win away from a Stanley Cup. The only way they can improve on that kind of season is to actually win the darn thing, and that ain't happening.
Players the Oilers lost this offseason: Mr. Pronger, Michael Peca, Radek Dvorak, Sergei Samsonov, Georges Laraque. Those are quality players, role players. I didn't see the Oilers fill those holes. Also, if Dwayne Roloson can't stay healthy, the Oilers don't have a chance. He returns after summertime knee surgery, a procedure that can be tough over the long haul for a goaltender.
GM Kevin Lowe has done a great job with this franchise and should be lauded for last season. Now, he's going to have issues.
Will the Oilers suffer as big a fall as Anaheim or Buffalo or Washington, teams that were "surprise" Cup finalists back in the day? After their respective Cup runs in 2003, 1999 and 1998, Anaheim, Buffalo and Washington had tough seasons. The Ducks and Caps didn't even qualify for the postseason, and the Sabres lost in the first round. Can the Oil avoid the free fall?
Hooked on hockey, Linda Cohn is an anchor for ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNews. She has been with the network since 1992 and promises a gluttony of glove saves in her weekly column.