For so many years, the question of where the San Jose Sharks were going to finish in the Western Conference was never up for discussion. San Jose is consistently one of the best teams in the NHL, and despite the ups-and-downs the 2011-12 season has carried, this season is no different.
It was the Sharks' penalty kill that first worried all involved about how this team would officially fair this season after making bold trades for Brent Burns and Martin Havlat, while sending Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota.
Minnesota has since made a move for the top spot in the Western Conference before falling back to earth and now currently holding onto the No. 8 position.
The Sharks have yet to get in that groove we have come to expect for several years now. The absence of a good penalty kill has since evolved into a weakness on the power play, an aspect of the Sharks' game that has seen consistent success over the years.
However, this year is different, in some way or another. GM Doug Wilson traded offense for speed and defense in an attempt to prepare this team for a Stanley Cup run. No word on if that will pan out yet, but we can still expect a great finish from an elite team in the Western Conference.
8. Minnesota Wild
The Wild currently sit in the 8th spot in the Western Conference, backed by a solid defensive effort, ranking 8th in goals against per game.
However, this team has yet to impress on offense, despite their notable trades this offseason for Heatley and Setoguchi. The team ranks 29th in the NHL in goals per game with 2.2.
But this team has what it takes to make the crowded Western Conference playoffs. The Colorado Avalanche, who currently sit in the 9th spot just two points behind the Wild, should have a less than mediocre second half of the season.
If Minnesota can hold off a surprising Dallas Stars team, this team should meet the No. 1 seed in the first round.
7. Los Angeles Kings
As much as a Pacific division triumph is still securely in their grasp, the San Jose Sharks have yet to both play to their potential and get injured players back in their line-up.
Currently, the Kings are two points behind the division-leading Sharks and they should stay at just about that distant throughout the rest of the 2011-12 season before the Sharks go on their surge to the finish line that we have become so accustomed to.
Los Angeles has so much more promise and potential than a 7th seed in the Western Conference, but we have yet to see that supposed talent shine through on a consistent basis.
6. Nashville Predators
The Predators are riding high into the NHL All-Star break, going 9-1-0 in their last 10 games, including winning their last four games.
They have been an overall good team, grabbing success in nearly every category this season on both offense and defense. But this team was built primarily on their defense and it was nice to see an elite power play gain some notoriety throughout the NHL.
We should see this Nashville hype take a step back in the second half of the season, but this team will be dangerous yet again come playoff time.
5. St. Louis Blues
We all knew this team had it in them, we just did not expect them to be firmly contending for a division title against the Detroit Red Wings just yet. They sit just two points behind Detroit going into the second half of the season.
Make no mistake, St. Louis has the best defense in the NHL in terms of goals against, as let up an average of two goals per game. Goalie Brian Elliot may have something to do with that. What does need help is their offense, which hardly complements their strong defense and will need to step up if they want to surge any higher than a fifth seed.
If this team wants to steal the division away from the Red Wings, they will need more of a push from their front lines on offense. Until then, this team will be sitting in the fourth or fifth positions come playoff time.
4. Chicago Blackhawks
The Central Division in the Western Conference has turned out to be a four-horse race heading into the second half of the season, with the Blues, Red Wings, Blackhawks and Predators all three points apart.
The Blackhawks certainly have the offense to make a run at the favored Red Wings, but it is the uncertainty in net and in certain aspects of their defense that has this team's ceiling only reaching so high.
However, a hot goalie at the right time can make a move in the Western Conference playoffs, as we witness with Antti Niemi a few years ago. We could see much of the same with Corey Crawford or Ray Emery to complement that relentless Chicago offense.
3. San Jose Sharks
As mentioned before, the Sharks' up-and-down year still has them sitting in the top spot in the Pacific Division, which currently earns them the third seed in the Western Conference.
Although this team has a ton of things going for them in the second half of the season, including players returning from injury and their usual second half surge through the Western Conference standings, it may not be a match for a more or less surprising Red Wings team and the impressive Vancouver Canucks.
The Sharks should have no problem holding off the Kings in the Pacific Division, but anything else may be asking too much for a team with so many current holes in the game.
2. Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings currently own the top spot on the Western Conference coming out of the All-Star break. Their consistency in nearly every aspect of their game makes them a dangerous team for the rest of this season.
It is hard to argue with ranking fifth in goals scored per game and sixth in goals against per game. They are a tough opponent every single night.
The only question is can they keep it going?
For the most part, they should, although we can expect the Canucks to snatch the No. 1 seed from them in the last month of the season or so.
Detroit will be a dangerous team in the playoffs if they continue to play to this level for the remainder of the season.
1. Vancouver Canucks
Something about this team's offense and relentless defense will not let many think about putting this team anywhere but the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference come the end of the season.
They have encountered some rough defeats within the last 10 games, but rising to the occasion against the Sharks and Bruins shows this team is poised for an elite postseason run.
The regular season is one thing, but running into the No. 1 power play and top-3 goal scoring team in a seven-game series is a tall task for any team in the Western Conference this season. Whatever happens in the remaining regular season, the Canucks can be sure to have a spot in the Western Conference Finals.