Yeah, I know the season has already officially begun, but didn’t it kind of sneak up on us? With the MLB season winding down, football starting up and who knows what is going on with the NBA, the 4th sport in the Big 4  quietly began its season. So I’ll began with a preview of the Western Conference and do the Eastern next. It’s 3 or so games into the season for some teams, so I doubt my predictions have any impact or would be any different if I had done them before the start of the season.

(1) Vancouver: Even though they lost Christian Ehrhoff, the Canucks are still loaded and will contend for the top spot in the West. The Sedins will be there to provide offense into the next century, but Ryan Kesler is the backbone of this team after a scrappy postseason. Roberto Luongo will be steady in goal, but has a capable backup in Corey Schneider right behind him. Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa are tough D-men who wil lead the unit.

(2) San Jose: After back-to-back Conference Finals losses, they Sharks made some big moves, shipping out Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi and bringing in Martin Havlat and Brent Burns. The bigger moves may be getting C Michael Handzus and D Jim Vandermeer who add to a defense that was not the team’s strong suit last season. They still have the offensive firepower in Marleau, Thornton and Pavelski, but the defense will be the key to the team’s success this season. It’s also a matter of how they deal with their past postseason woes once they get to the playoffs.

(3) Detroit: Until Detroit totally implodes in some spectacular manner, they should always be penciled in at the top of the Central. The offensive core s still intact with Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen, but the big story in the offseason was the loss of Brian Rafalski. They tried to compensate by signing Ian White and Mike Commodore, but still have Niklas Lidstrom, who will be playing Norris-caliber defense into his 50s. Jimmy Howard provides a steady presence in goal.

(4) Los Angeles: The Kings certainly grabbed the headlines with the Mike Richards trade and with Anze Kopitar, they have a dangerous 1-2 punch down the middle. They have plenty of young talent in D Drew Doughty, D Jack Johnson, RW Dustin Brown and G Jonathan Quick among others. They are set to take an official step into the Western Conference elite this season and give the Sharks a run for their money in the Pacific.

(5) Chicago: The Blackhawks’ Cup hangover was bad last season, but they did make the playoffs. The team still has Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane upfront and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on the blueline. They added some veterans in Andrew Brunette and Jamal Mayers who will bring grit and experience. Corey Crawford still has his doubters, but is the #1 goalie for now.

(6) Anaheim: Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and MVP Corey Perry are an absurdly talented trio that will have a big say in how well the Ducks do this season. Jonas Hiller has the talent to be a top goalie, but has to turn that into production. The defense is young and more tilted to the offensive side, so that could cause problems. However, the Ducks could one of those teams that surprises the rest of the league and could make a playoff run.

(7) Nashville: The Predators are one of those teams that don’t get alot of attention, but still continue to have success. Their calling card is their defense and that starts with goalie Pekka Rinne. They still have Shea Weber and a cast of reliable defensemen to help put Rinne, but the offense will be shaky as they lost a few players. However, with Barry Trotz behind the bench, Nashville will be back in the playoff.

(8) St Louis:  The Blues has a season to forget with a slew of injuries dooming their postseason chances. That shouldn’t happen this season as they have the talent to make the playoffs. Vets Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott join a deep forwards unit that has more players then spots on the scoring lines. The defense is young, with Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk leading the way. Jaroslav Halak has room for improvement in his second season with the Blues.

(9) Minnesota: A big overhaul that saw them bring in scoring wingers Heatley and Setoguchi should be a boost for the Wild. The two could form a potent top line with Mikko Koivu and the rest of the forwards are solid, if unspectacular. Niklas Bakcstrom is a rock in goal, but the defense doesn’t have anyone that really jumps out and needs a few guys to step up.

(10) Calgary: An aging team that did little to improve its roster in the offseason will struggle to make the playoffs. Goalie Mikka Kiprusoff has the ability to carry the Flames on his back, but he is getting older. Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen must repeat their performances from last season because the rest of the offense is suspect. The defense is a brighter spot, but will have to shoulder a bigger load if the offense does not deliver.

(11) Phoenix: The Coyotes lost a big piece in Ilya Bryzgalov and Mike Smith is a downgrade replacement in goal. They also lost steady defenseman in Ed Jovanovski, but still have Keith Yandle who has #1 D-man talent. Veteran forwards Ray Whitney and Shane Doan will lead a forward unit that always seems to outperform expectations. Coach Dave Tippett has helped the surprise the league the last few seasons.

(12) Colorado: The Semyon Varlamov trade is a huge gamble for the Avs, but one that could pay off if the former Caps goalie performs as expected. The D lost a major player in John-Michael Liles, but still has Erik Johnson and other good pieces. Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny are the present and future of the offense and are joined by Calder Trophy candidate, Gabriel Landeskog.

(13) Columbus: Although less risky then Varlamov, the Blue Jackets gave up alot for Jeff Carter, who will be playmaker Rick Nash has needed. The rest of the offense is solid as well as the defense, but this team will go as far as goalie Steve Mason carries them. The former Calder winner has been spectacular since debuting and will determine how well the team does this season.

(14) Dallas: The Stars tried to make up for losing Brad Richards by signing a slew of free agents that will attempt to make up for Richards’ production. The offense needs big season from youngsters Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn as well as Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribiero to carry the offense. The defense is questionable and Kari Lehtonen has not proven himself to be a top goaltender.

(15) Edmonton: Ryan Nugent Hopkins joins a young group that is still several years away from even starting to contend in the West. However, those years should serve the youngsters well and form a core that will keep the Oilers competitve for years. However, in the present, they will be in the running for the #1 overall pick yet again.