The consensus among the who's who in hockey is that expansion is coming. In a few years, there might very well be at a minimum 32 teams in the NHL and perhaps even 34.

The 30 team owners want it, especially because they'll get to split the anticipated enormous expansion fees among themselves and won't have to share what will be deemed non hockey-related revenue with the players.

But as one Wild player joked with me recently: "We need expansion here in the West. We could sure use a couple patsies."

That's because the Western Conference is beyond stacked. Unlike the old days when you could expect an easy game or a dozen easy ones a year, the stressful West is a nightly crusade just to squeak out two points.

Coach Mike Yeo isn't trying to be dramatic when he honestly says, "I feel like we are a legitimate contender to win the Stanley Cup," but follows up by saying in the next breath, "And I also am scared to death of missing the playoffs."

It's not only the Wild coach. Darryl Sutter coaches the Los Angeles Kings. He has guided his team to two Stanley Cups in three years. If any coach has the right to feel a little extra confident about the team he drives, it's Sutter.

But when asked what kind of message he delivered the Kings about defending their title, the always blunt, truthful Sutter said, "It's tough to defend it if you don't make the playoffs."

Such is life in the quagmire that is the West. It's especially torturous in the Central Division, arguably the hardest in hockey.

Last year, five teams from the Central got into the playoffs — division-winner Colorado, Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota and Dallas.

It's hard to see any of those teams falling out. The Avalanche is still stacked with talent up front, led by stars Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene. The Blackhawks' core remains intact with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and goalie Corey Crawford. St. Louis' top three lines are as formidable as any, led by David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen, Patrik Berglund, Paul Stastny, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. The Blues' blue line is led by three of the NHL's elite — Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester.

And Dallas, even though its defense might be suspect, can outgun most teams thanks to Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza.

Nashville, which has the best goalie in the division in Pekka Rinne now healthy, and Winnipeg, which improved dramatically after Paul Maurice took over last season as coach, got better.

"There's going to be some really good teams that aren't going to make the playoffs, like really good teams,: the Wild's Zach Parise said. "As long as we don't think just because we did pretty well at the end of the last year that it's going to be easy, we'll be OK. We can't take it for granted. You can find yourself behind the 8-ball early and you can't get back in.

"That'll be the big things are young kids need to know. Remember why we were successful last year and don't think it's going to be easy."

The Wild's Charlie Coyle thinks it's important though that "we know we're as good as any team and what we have in this locker room is pretty special."

The Wild won six playoff games last spring, a modest success considering it had advanced past the first round only once previously. But it takes 16 to win a championship and Yeo wants the Wild to enter that "next tier" this season.

"The most important thing is we shouldn't be intimidated by anybody," Yeo said. "You look around the league, I mean, how many times are we going to have a game where we say, 'OK, this one's in the bank?' We definitely play some tough opponents, but we think that we're a good hockey team, too.

"To be a really good hockey team, you have to beat those kind of teams."

NHL short takes

Playoff loss sparks Sharks' change

One year removed from choking up a 3-0 lead to the eventual champion Kings, the San Jose Sharks opened by blowing out Los Angeles 4-0 to put a damper on the banner raising.

Pundits seem to be expecting the Sharks to collapse this season. Sure, they have made it very clear they would love Joe Thornton elsewhere, even stripping off the captain's "C." They can't figure out if Brent Burns is a forward or defenseman (back to defense) and they let Dan Boyle walk.

But this is still a team with Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl, Patrick Marleau and Thornton on its top two lines.

Asked if last year's meltdown serves as motivation, defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said: "I've been here nine years, made the playoffs nine years and haven't won. I can use the last nine years as motivation."

Babcock rumors

Expect a season's worth of rumors out of Detroit that Mike Babcock will be departing as coach. Despite contact talks, the Red Wings coach enters the season in the last year of his deal.

Babcock will be heavily courted if he gets to free agency, and many have him destined for Toronto even though Randy Carlyle was retained.

"Are we going to talk about it?" Red Wings GM Ken Holland said of a contract. "Probably. I don't know where. I don't know when."

No time to chill

What did Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen say after signing first-line center Ryan Johansen to a three-year, $12 million contract right before the season? "Get your butt over here and let's get to work."


Friday: at Anaheim, 9 p.m. (FSN)

Player to watch:

Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks

Ducks captain was a Hart Trophy finalist last season and finished second in the league in scoring to Sidney Crosby with 87 points.


« We're not going to sneak up on anybody anymore. »

Wild left wing Zach Parise on the importance of a good start