The Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche view hockey’s regular season the same way the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves view the regular season in baseball or the Los Angeles Lakers view the regular season in basketball ? as a warm-up for the playoffs. But for the remaining 28 NHL teams, the regular season is an opportunity to earn the right to compete for the Stanley Cup, the most coveted trophy in sports. As a whole, the Western Conference is more talented than the East, and will most likely produce the next Stanley Cup Champion. Although there are 10 or 11 teams with a real chance to make the playoffs, only the Red Wings, Avalanche, Sharks and Stars are legitimately competing for a Finals appearance.


Central Division

1. Detroit Red Wings ? New coach. New goalie. Same old story. Steve Yzerman is out until December, so Sergei Fedorov will be counted on to produce MVP numbers. With 7 future Hall of Famers and goalie Curtis Joseph hungry for his first Cup, the defending champs will have another great year.

2. St. Louis Blues ? Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis still form the scariest defensive combination in hockey, but Brent Johnson must prove he is a big-game goalie before the Blues are considered in the same class as the Red Wings and Avalanche.

3. Chicago Blackhawks ? Losing Tony Amonte to Phoenix won’t be so bad if Theo Fleury can score 30 to 35 goals and keep himself from getting into trouble off the ice. But if Fleury has another season of cursing at fans, refs and reporters, he will drag the Hawks down with him.

4. Nashville Predators ? Instead of acquiring new players, the Predators are calling on young players such as David Legwand to help the team make a 25 point improvement for a chance at a playoff spot. Good luck.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets ? Only in their second year of existence, the Blue Jackets are still a few years away from competing.

Northwest Division

1. Colorado Avalanche ? Hungry to avenge their meltdown in Game Seven of the conference finals and with Peter Forsberg healthy for an entire season, anything less than a Stanley Cup is unacceptable for the Avs. The acquisition of Derek Morris allows Norris Trophy candidate Rob Blake the freedom he hasn’t had since Ray Borque retired.

2. Vancouver Canucks ? Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi form the top scoring combination in the NHL, but goalie Dan Cloutier must continue to improve if the Canucks want to advance past the first round of the playoffs.

3. Minnesota Wild?? Aside from Marian Gaborik leading a strong first line, the Wild don’thave much else. They will continue to improve but are a few seasons away from actually playing meaningful games in the spring.

4. Calgary Flames ? Financial reasons may force the Flames to trade scoring champion Jerome Iginla before the trade deadline unless he and newly acquired Chris Drury can help secure a playoff spot by early March.

5. Edmonton Oilers – Tommy Salo is a solid goalie and Eric Brewer has become one of the top defensemen in the league, but the Oilers lack the scoring punch to make the playoffs in the tough Western Conference.

Pacific Division

1. San Jose Sharks ? Have improved steadily during the past six seasons, and will count on sniper Teemu Selanne and goalie Evgeny Nabokov to lead them past the second round of the playoffs. They didn’t make any significant offseason moves, but as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

2. Dallas Stars”? Bill Guerin was the biggest addition to any team during the offseason, and Dallas should rebound from a bad year to compete for home ice advantage in the playoffs.

3. Phoenix Coyotes ? The acquisition of Tony Amonte will help the Coyotes scoring, especially on the power play. If their defense holds up and goalie Sean Burke plays to his potential, the Coyotes could be one of the surprise teams in the West.

4. Los Angeles Kings ? Unlike the rest of their division, the Kings stayed quiet during the offseason, which means that sniper Ziggy Palffy and center Jason Allison must have huge seasons just to get back to the playoffs.

5. Mighty Ducks of Anaheim ? Paul Kariya finally has a real first line center in Adam Oates, but the Ducks lack the depth, defense and goaltending necessary to make the postseason.

Swidler can be reached at

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