NHL Western Conference Standings: How the Field is Shaping Up

Patrick Marleau already has 8 goals and 3 assists through only four games. - Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

The cream is already rising to the top of the NHL's Western Conference, leaving an assortment of teams battling for playoff position in the weeks ahead. Chris Rydburg separates the contenders from the pretenders.

Finally, we get to see some hockey on this side of the pond!

After a week of NHL play (some may call it the preseason), the standings in the Western Conference seem to be sorting out as a few teams have risen to the top and have the talent to stay there. Most teams have only played four or five games, but every point is going to be crucial in this truncated season. If you start out slowly, you could be booking early tee times come April.

Let's take a look at the current standings.

 Chicago 5-0-0... 10pts
San Jose 4-0-0... 8pts
Vancouver 2-1-1...5pts
St. Louis 4-1-0...8pts
Anaheim 3-1-0...6pts
Dallas 2-2-1...5pts
Nashville 1-1-3...5pts
Colorado 2-2-0...4pts
------------------------------------------------
Minnesota 2-2-0...4pts
Edmonton 2-2-0...4pts
Detroit 2-2-0...4pts
Los Angeles 1-2-1... 3pts
Calgary 1-2-1... 3pts
Columbus 1-3-1... 3pts
Phoenix 1-4-0...2pts

There is a lot that can be deciphered from the standings thus far, especially for those teams on the top.

The Contenders

Chicago and San Jose remain the NHL's only unbeaten teams (Boston has one overtime loss). The Blackhawks and Sharks have been on fire offensively, producing 20 and 19 goals respectably, while only surrendering a combined 19 goals. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are tied for the most points in the league, each tallying 11 points in four games. The savvy veterans are proving that wily experience can trump youth and skill.

For Chicago, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa are proving to be a dynamic duo as they have a combined 16 points. The most surprising thing about these clubs is their fantastic goaltending, something that most experts thought would be their greatest weakness. If the great goaltending (think of Minnesota's goaltending at the beginning of last season) continues for these two teams, they will be cup contenders due to their offensive prowess.

As expected, St. Louis has turned their incredible ability into standings points. Rookie sensation Vladimir Tarasenko has notched seven points in a five-game span, leading the Blues in both goals and points. The Blues are probably the deepest team in the West, with a lineup balanced with knowledgeable veterans and skilled youth. The Blues even added defenseman Wade Redden recently, and his scoring has already paid dividends. Many hockey pundits have St. Louis winning the Stanley Cup, and it isn't hard to understand why as the Blues have Ken Hitchcock's smothering defense and the best goaltending tandem in the league to match their high powered roster.

The Middle of the Pack

Vancouver, Anaheim, Dallas, Nashville, Colorado, Minnesota, and Edmonton are all in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference and will be jockeying for playoff position over the next few months. All of these teams have playoff-worthy rosters, but they will have to stay steady if they are to make it into post-season play.

Nashville is currently in a playoff position, but they need to figure out how to close games with a win as they had opportunities to do so against Anaheim, St. Louis, and Columbus. In all three games, the Predators gave up leads before losing in a shootout. All is not negative in Smashville, as Martin Erat has been on fire for the Preds, tallying four points in five games and Pekka Rinne continues to be impressive between the pipes. However; the Preds must be resilient, as it appears Patric Hornqvist went down with an injury last night that could challenge the Predators' depth. Nashville will need players like Wilson, Halischuk, Bourque, and Smith to step-up offensively if Hornqvist is out for any length of time. These young players should be more than up for the challenge and this is a great opportunity for Nashville to see what they have in them.

Anaheim has had a bit of a resurgence this season, as the Ducks seem to have rebounded from last year's disappointment. Saku Koivu and Daniel Winnik have both been surprises for the Ducks, tallying six points in four games. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have some of the NHL's best talent, but they can't carry the team by themselves. The Ducks may end up being a playoff team, but will need to have scoring contributions from others.

Dallas seems to be turning a new (or should I say old) leaf as the ageless Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr lead the new-look Stars. Dallas has a good system going and could be a playoff team if they get stellar goaltending from Kari Lehtonen. At 2-2-1, they are off to a good start, but it is unclear if the veterans can continue this given the compressed schedule. Games every other night are tough on old legs.

Vancouver is battling the injury bug as their key centerman Ryan Kessler is still on the IR and power forward David Booth continues to be hampered by a groin injury. The Luongo trade odyssey continues to be the talk of the league, yet the former All-Star has not been dealt. It has not helped that Schneider has not been sharp for the Canucks. Zack Kassian has a trio of goals so far this year, which is phenomenal news for the Canucks. They will need all the help they can get offensively as recent history has proved the Sedin twins can only take them so far.

Colorado continues to tread water, as their two wins came against the struggling Kings and the stagnant Blue Jackets while losing against rival Minnesota and the hot San Jose Sharks. Matt Duchene seems to be refocused after a poor 2011-2012 season, in which he only produced 28 points in 58 games. The Avs will need Duchene and the rest of their young core to continue to produce if you are going to make the playoffs. I like Colorado's future, but am not sure this is the Avs' year.

Everyone knows the young Oilers are as talented as anyone. Edmonton is playing good hockey with their only losses coming against San Jose and hated rival Calgary. The young guns are producing for the Oilers, but they will need both maturity and skill to make the playoffs. It remains to be seen if the Oilers are ready for the post season, but they are close. One thing is for sure, they are a very exciting team to watch.

Minnesota remains an enigma sitting at 2-2, but have looked unstoppable at times. Zach Parise appears to be worth every penny of his mega contract, as he has six points in four games. Ryan Suter, however, has not looked like a $98 million dollar man, with only one point and a minus four rating. It looks like he misses playing alongside Shea Weber. Josh Hardings' impressive comeback is a truly inspirational story, and he and Backstrom look to be solid between the pipes. Minnesota has great depth at forward, but their blue line remains a big question mark. If Suter settles in and Parise continues to play well, look for Minnesota to move up in the standings as the season progresses.

Works In Progress

Detroit misses Nicklas Lidstrom badly. The Red Wings have given up a lot of scoring chances without him and their power play has been truly pathetic. Really not much else to say here, as the Wings will need some serious soul searching in the next few months. Newly appointed captain Henrik Zetterberg has his work cut out for him.

Columbus is definitely improved as they have shown you can add by subtraction in the wake of Rick Nash's departure. This change was the only way for Columbus to turn it around in the long run. The Blue Jackets have a decent blue line and their forward group has a nice mix of players in their prime, along with others at the start of what could be bright careers. This year may not be their time yet, but there maybe some hope in Columbus - although their tradition of losing is a tough obstacle to overcome.

The L.A. Kings are suffering from post-Cup hangover, and have a couple of injuries hampering their lineup. Kyle Clifford has been on fire, however, posting five points in four games. The Kings looked to be in playoff form against the Coyotes last night. Anze Kopitar's return to the team means a lot and Dustin Brown looks to be getting his energy level back up. The Kings have talented scorers, solid blueliners and great goaltending, so even though they are currently struggling, expect them to rebound and make the playoffs.

Calgary got steamrolled on their opening night against the Sharks, but have since settled in nicely. They have lost two very closely contested games against Anaheim and Vancouver before finally getting their first win of the season against the Oilers. Look for the Flames to be competitive and gritty, but probably a couple years away from playoff material.

After a surprisingly deep playoff run last season, the Phoenix Coyotes have had a bit of a rough start to the year. Like Calgary, the Coyotes have been in every game they have lost this season. Former Predator Steve Sullivan is on a hot streak with five points in as many games, including a hat rick against the Blue Jackets. The Coyotes are looking good, but their goaltending has been very shaky. If they can settle down in their crease, they should be in the hunt for the playoffs by spring.

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