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NHL Western Conference season preview: Avalanche, Battle of Alberta teams headline top Stanley Cup contenders

CBS Sports logo CBS Sports 10/7/2022 Austin Nivison
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The puck is about to drop on the 2022-23 NHL season, and there is a lot of intrigue in the Western Conference. The reigning Stanley Cup champion Avalanche are poised to defend their title, but getting back to the Final will not be easy.

The Battle of Alberta will be another season-long storyline, with the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames fighting for the top spot in the Pacific Division. In the Central Division, as many as five or six teams could be in the running for playoff spots while the bottom two will be aiming for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.

Here is a breakdown of the Western Conference as we begin the 2022-23 NHL season.

Central Division

Can anyone challenge the Avalanche?

Last season, the Avalanche won the Central Division with 119 points, which was three wins and six points clear of the second-place Minnesota Wild. Despite losing forward Nazem Kadri and goalie Darcy Kuemper, the Avs still have the most formidable lineup in the league. The Avs' combination of elite talent at the top of the lineup and productive depth players give them an advantage over the rest of the Central Division.

But the Wild still appear to be their biggest competition again this season. Minnesota did trade away dynamic winger Kevin Fiala, but Kirill Kaprizov is still there to drive the offense on a defensive-minded team. If young players like Matt Boldy and Marco Rossi can blossom into stars, the Wild could be a legitimately dangerous team.

The only other two teams who could come within spitting distance of Colorado are the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators -- and both of fell to the Avs in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Blues have a great core of forwards, but there are still questions about their blue line and goaltending. The Predators made a couple of upgrades to their roster in the offseason, but the roster still doesn't stack up to that juggernaut in Denver. At the moment, it seems like the Avalanche could capture another division title without much drama.

The mushy middle

While the race for first place in the Central Division might involve just one team, there could be a total five playoff teams in the division. If you placed the Wild, Blues, Predators, and Dallas Stars into a hat and pulled them out to determine their position in the standings, I don't know that any result would completely shock me. I doubt the Wild will finish last out of that group, but each of those teams provide reasons to believe that they could take a step forward or backslide a bit in 2022-23.

Minnesota has the most talent in that grouping of teams, but replacing Fiala's 33 goals won't be easy, and first-line center Ryan Hartman may be in for some negative regression after tallying 34 goals last season. If Boldy and Rossi don't make notable progress, the Wild could be in jeopardy of slipping a little bit. 

The Blues lost winger David Perron and goaltender Ville Husso in the offseason, but players like Jordan Kyrou, Robert Thomas and Pavel Buchnevich give them a lot of hope that they can repeat last season's results. The Predators added Nino Niederreiter to the forward group and Ryan McDonagh to the blue line, and they could be a tough out if those pieces transition seamlessly into the lineup. With Jason Robertson back, the Stars have one of the best lines in hockey, and adding Mason Marchment could help unlock the rest of the forwards behind them.

Changes in Winnipeg

After an underwhelming season that resulted in a distant sixth-place finish in the Central Division, Paul Maurice is out as head coach and former Dallas Stars bench boss Rick Bowness is now in charge. Right before the start of training camp, Bowness announced that veteran forward Blake Wheeler had been stripped of his captaincy.

Will that be enough to spark this team? It better be, because the roster looks very similar to the one that turned in a mediocre 2021-22 campaign. Unless aging veterans like Wheeler and Mark Scheifele can turn back the clock, Winnipeg's fate might remain the same.

Tank-a-thon at the bottom

There should be a lot of quality hockey played in the Central Division this year, but it will also feature some of the worst hockey the NHL has to offer. The league doesn't like the term "tanking," so let's just say that the Arizona Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks are aggressively pursuing Connor Bedard in the 2023 NHL Draft. In that respect, both teams had successful offseasons.

After a terrible 2021-22 campaign, the Coyotes did absolutely nothing to make themselves better, and they let veteran winger Phil Kessel walk in free agency. New Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson correctly observed that the team had too much talent to be truly awful, so he traded 40-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat to the Ottawa Senators.

To make all this even better, both teams can and will try to get even worse throughout the course of the season. The Coyotes have been shopping No. 1 defenseman Jacob Chychrun on the trade market for a while, and the Blackhawks have a pair of highly-coveted trade targets in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Pacific Division

Battle of Alberta is back on

The Battle of Alberta will be must-watch television once again. The revamped Flames will be out for revenge after Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers dispatched them in five games en route to the conference finals. Both sides of this rivalry are still Stanley Cup contenders, and the head-to-head matchups will only be more heated because of that.

Edmonton and Calgary are clearly the favorites to finish in first place in the Pacific. The Oilers have a flawed roster with some depth issues at forward and an average defensive group, but they also have McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. If Jack Campbell can be an upgrade over Mike Smith, Edmonton will be a formidable group from wire to wire.

The Flames lost their two best players -- Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk -- and might even be a little bit better this year. Calgary got star winger Jonathan Huberdeau and top-pair defenseman MacKenzie Weegar in exchange for Tkachuk, and used the cap space saved by losing on Gaudreau to sign Nazem Kadri. There's a decent chance we see a playoff rematch between the two rivals.

Are the Canucks playoff material?

An 8-15-2 start tanked the Canucks' playoff hopes last season, but after Bruce Boudreau took over as head coach Vancouver went 32-15-8 and missed the postseason by just five points. With Boudreau behind the bench for a full 82 games this season, there are high hopes in Vancouver. Will the team be able to deliver?

The Canucks seem to have the makings of a playoff team. Boudreau is an experienced head coach with a track record of success. Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and Conor Garland provide a nice bit of offensive pop at the top of the lineup. Quinn Hughes is a young star on defense, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson had a decent bounce-back year in 2021-22. The Canucks have one of the best netminders in the NHL in Thatcher Demko.

However, there are plenty of holes in this lineup, particularly at left wing and on the blue line behind Hughes. It doesn't help that Boeser is still recovering from offseason surgery. As good as he is behind the bench, Boudreau can only do so much. Even if he maximizes the talent on this roster, Vancouver will be scratching and clawing for every point in the standings.

California dreamin'... and nightmarin'

The three California teams are in very different places these days. After taking a big step forward last season, the Los Angeles Kings look poised to lock up a top-three spot in the Pacific Division. If the team's loaded prospect pool continues to develop, Los Angeles will be a tough team to face in the postseason.

The Anaheim Ducks represent a bit of a middle ground in The Golden State. They may not be ready to make that playoff leap just yet, but they also don't look to be one of the teams tanking for Connor Bedard. There is a lot to like about this Anaheim team, starting with young offensive studs Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry. Center Mason McTavish and defenseman Jamie Drysdale also represent hope for the future. The Ducks will still struggle at times in 2022-23, but there is a lot to like about the foundation.

And then there's the San Jose Sharks. They are coming off a 77-point season and traded away veteran defender Brent Burns for practically nothing in the offseason. San Jose is full of aging veterans on bad contracts, which makes really kickstarting a rebuild even more difficult. It's tough to see a path forward for the Sharks, so they may just be stuck near the NHL's basement for much of the immediate future.

Bounce-Krak season in Seattle?

The success of the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2018-19 season got many, including myself, excited about what the Seattle Kraken could do in 2021-22. Then the Kraken won 27 games and finished last in the Pacific Division. A lot of that was due to truly putrid goaltending from Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger, so getting even average goaltending this season would provide a huge boost in the standings.

The Kraken also acquired forwards Andre Burakovsky and Oliver Bjorkstrand via free agency and trade, respectively. Seattle was a woeful offensive team last season, and both of those players will help fix that. Additionally, the Kraken will be breaking in rookies Matty Beniers and Shane Wright as their one-two punch at center. Both players were top-five picks in the last two drafts, so they pedigree is certainly there for them to make an immediate impact.

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