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3. ROBERTO LUONGO, Vancouver Canucks At 31, may (Credit: AP)

3. ROBERTO LUONGO, Vancouver Canucks
At 31, may be hitting his prime, and just the right time too -- Vancouver has its best team in a long while in front of him.

NHL Western Conference preview 2011-12

After a very sad summer for the NHL and a preseason focus on head shots, concussions and suspensions, it's time for the games again. We've got our 2011-12 Western Conference preview here for your reading and viewing enjoyment. Teams are listed in predicted order of finish in each conference.
By Arthur Staple

1. VANCOUVER CANUCKS Last year’s Game 7 meltdown
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1. VANCOUVER CANUCKS
Last year’s Game 7 meltdown (and subsequent criminality by a few Vancouverites) shouldn’t erase what was a tremendous season for a team that basically returns intact, aside from losing Ehrhoff to free agency. Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, Roberto Luongo — this team is still stacked.

5. ANAHEIM DUCKS Corey Perry’s remarkable MVP season
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5. ANAHEIM DUCKS
Corey Perry’s remarkable MVP season helped lift them to the postseason last year, but they should solidify their regular season with a healthy Jonas Hiller in goal. Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan are a formidable trio up front and an underrated defense will make the Ducks a team to reckon with.

6. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS They can thank former GM
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6. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
They can thank former GM Dale Tallon for taking Brian Campbell’s insane contract, freeing up space to fill in some gaps on defense behind Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. If goaltender Corey Crawford builds off a very good rookie season, the Hawks will march back to the elite group in the West. And don’t forget Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews either.

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7. ST. LOUIS BLUES They were crushed by
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7. ST. LOUIS BLUES
They were crushed by injuries last season, but with full health and excellent goaltender Jaroslav Halak, it’s hard to see St. Louis staying outside the playoff fray. David Backes and Chris Stewart lead a solid group at forward, and Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo are part of a good, young defense.

10. MINNESOTA WILD Living up to its name
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10. MINNESOTA WILD
Living up to its name this off-season, normally staid Minny shook things up, acquiring Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi from the Sharks in separate deals. They gave up Brent Burns and Marty Havlat, and losing Burns sacrifices some quality on defense, but the Wild under rookie coach Mike Yeo may open it up more. Even with more goals, more wins are hard to come by in the jam-packed West.

14. EDMONTON OILERS No, they won’t finish last
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14. EDMONTON OILERS
No, they won’t finish last overall for a third straight season, but it’ll still be a grind for Tom Renney’s team to compete. Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be a fun, teenaged duo, but there are still more than a few gaping holes around the roster.

15. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS GM Scott Howson went
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15. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
GM Scott Howson went for broke this summer in trying to buy a winner instead of building one. That never works, especially when the guys you’re buying are the likes of James Wisniewski — already suspended the first eight games of the regular season — Jeff Carter and Vinny Prospal. The Carter-Rick Nash combo may net some goals, but this team has very little back-end talent beyond former Ranger Fedor Tyutin, and goaltending is a huge problem.

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL PREDICTION: Sharks over Kings San
(Credit: AP)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL PREDICTION: Sharks over Kings
San Jose has been here before without winning, but the all-California battle ends with the Sharks getting to their first final, in seven.

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