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Western Conference Also-rans...By Ron "Rink Rat" Steel

Phoenix Coyotes Fourth, Pacific Division 31-35-11-5 78pts. 204-230 Missed playoffs Two seasons ago Coyotes dumped their top ten wage earners then defied logic when they won 40 games. They were a scrappy team which hung together from start to finish and their reward was a playoff spot. Phoenix is thought to be in financial trouble again. Speculation says the owners have to scrounge up 40-million dollars for their new arena`s scheduled opening Dec. 27 This time there is little salary to dump. Consequences of the cost-cutting are evident: The roster includes poor players Jan Hrdina, Daymond Langkow, Chris Gratton, and Dan Cleary. Luckily goaltender Sean Burke (for now) and forward Shane Doan are back and they`ve been joined by the argumentative Tyson Nash.

Nashville Predators Fourth, Central Division 27-35-13-7 74pts. Missed Playoffs A number of teams around the NHL are dumping salary but in Nashville the owner wants to dump the entire team. Last season the club used 41 players, which is roughly the same number as fiddlers at a blue grass music festival. Scoring only 206 goals last season, their forwards did a lot of fiddling around too. The Predators opening night crowd was 17,100 while the poorest was 10,123. They had 16 nights under 12,000. Nashville plays uneventful hockey in a city that takes its entertainment seriously. GM David Poile is sticking to the plan of waiting for draft picks to develop, resisting the urge to buy higher priced free agents, as Columbus are doing. Much will depend this season on goaltender Tomas Vokoun.

Columbus Blue Jackets Fifth, Central Division 29-42-8-3 69pts. 213-263 Missed playoffs The vanity firing of the year was GM Doug MacLean sacking coach Dave King last January. Whatever MacLean`s loyalty, interesting things are happening in Columbus. Last season the team bought centre Andrew Cassels and defenceman Scott Lachance. Goal scoring surged by 47 goals, however they gave up 263 goals, up from 255 the year before. This summer the Blue Jackets were back in the market. They bought forwards Todd Marchant and Trevor Letowski and traded for defenceman Darryl Sydor. Dressing room dynamics will change again, likely for the better. This team remains weak defensively. Goaltender Marc Denis is capable; he and his backup faced 2641 shots last season. By comparison Dallas Stars had 2073 shots against while Nashville had 2252.

Calgary Flames Fifth, Northwest Division 29-36-13-4 75pts. 186-228 Missed playoffs Last season wasn`t a complete bust for the Flames. They won the season series with Edmonton 3-2 and Darryl Sutter came aboard. Star forward Jerome Iginla made the team in 1996 and has never had a winning season. Sutter is a hard coach; he is not adverse to hammering his players for stupid or disinterested performances. Goaltender Roman Turek, capable of both stupid and disinterested efforts, has been under the gun since training camp started. Flames started slowly last season (3-5-1) then lost 10 games in November. Ten times over the course of the season they were shutout. Scoring has been in general decline for seven seasons and last year was a franchise record low. There likely won`t be a sensational improvement with this lot, even with a healthy Iginla, so the emphasis will surely be on defending. Los Angeles Kings Third, Pacific Division 33-37-6-6 78pts. 203-221 Missed playoffs Last season`s injury woes were staggering and nothing seems to have changed. Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh are not fit, a carry-over from last season. Defencemen Aaron Miller and Brad Norton are out, as too is prospect Jared Aulin. Through all their troubles last season, and considering Felix the Kitty was the goaltender, defensively they weren`t bad. Roman Chechmanek, the pylon with pads, may be an upgrade on Potvin. Former hero Luc Robitaille returns for his third stint with the Kings, lugging his me-first attitude. Los Angeles is usually an abrasive, competitive team and buying gritty Trent Klatt from Vancouver was a good move.

Chicago Blackhawks Third, Central Division 30-33-13-6 79pts. 207-226 Missed playoffs The `hawks are in trouble. They have been out of the playoffs five of the past six years, and based on last season their 01/02 post-season appearance was a fluke. Twice over the past six years Chicago has had 40 loss seasons. Chicago crowds at the Stadium years ago kept up a din so loud eyes watered. Last season there were eight dates with under 12,000 in the stands. This team isn`t likely to improve this season. Their roster is curious: Six players are in the prime of their careers, aged between 27-29; 11 players are under 27 and six are 30 or older. The prevailing wisdom is a team wins when the bulk of their roster is in the 27-29 age group. If correct, then any chance of a Blackhawk revival is three to four years down the road. San Jose Sharks Fifth, Pacific Division 28-37-9-8 73 pts. 214-239 Missed playoffs Difficult to say what the plan is for the Sharks. From 1997 to 2002 former coach Darryl Sutter drove the Sharks from 62 points to 99. Starting 02/03 with a roster weakened by holdouts Sutter was fired in early December. The team was no better with Ron Wilson coaching. Sharks management has traded winger Owen Nolan and his 28 goals/season and let Teemu Selanne (28-36-64) flit off to Colorado for nothing. For Nolan San Jose received Alyn McCauley (9 goals) and Brad Boyes. Boyes is in the minors. The Sharks are weak at centre. Vincent Damphousse led the team with 38 assists and everyone is still waiting on Patrick Marleau. Statistically he isn`t much of a playmaker, but with the exodus of quality wingers perhaps passing the puck becomes less important. This team managed 214 goals last season, an achievement this year`s addition is unlikely to surpass.

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