With the NHL pre-season now well underway and the start of the 2011-12 season fast approaching, here’s a look at what I consider the main questions dogging each team in the Western Conference.
Anaheim Ducks: Will goalie Jonas Hiller overcome the vertigo symptoms which prematurely ended 2010-11 season? Can Cam Fowler overcome the dreaded “sophomore jinx”? Can Corey Perry repeat as the league’s leading scorer and MVP?
Calgary Flames: Will anyone sufficiently fill their first-line center role? Do they have enough confidence in backup Henrik Karlsson to avoid over-playing starter Miikka Kiprusoff? Who will step up to fill in for departed blueline stalwart Robyn Regehr?
Chicago Blackhawks: Will Ray Emery make it as the Blackhawks backup? Will they feel the absence of Brian Campbell? Have they added sufficient depth to regain their former position as Cup contenders?
Colorado Avalanche: Can Semyon Varlamov and J.S. Giguere provide the Avs with solid goaltending? Are Jan Hejda, Ryan O’Byrne and Shane O’Brien enough to improve their blueline? Will Paul Stastny finally silence his critics?
Columbus Blue Jackets: Can goaltender Steve Mason finally regain his once-promising form? How well will Jeff Carter gel on the first line with Rick Nash? Can James Wisniewski fill the role of top puck-moving defenseman?
Dallas Stars: Will Jamie Benn be an adequate replacement for departed first line center Brad Richards? Can Loui Eriksson continue his high-scoring ways without Richards? Can Sheldon Souray regain his form with the Stars?
Detroit Red Wings: Can Johan Franzen stay healthy for the entire season? Does Nicklas Lidstrom have enough left in the tank for one more strong season? Can Jiri Hudler and Valtteri Filppula finally play up to expectations?
Edmonton Oilers: Are Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk really capable of backstopping the Oilers to the playoffs? Can Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle avoid the sophomore jinx? Can Ryan Whitney and Shawn Horcoff stay reasonably healthy over the course of the season?
Los Angeles Kings: Will Drew Doughty’s contract holdout adversely affect his play when he returns? Will Jonathan Bernier challenge Jon Quick for the starting goalie job? Will Mike Richards and Simon Gagne improve the Kings offensive punch?
Minnesota Wild: Is Matt Cullen really the answer as their second line center? How much will they miss puck-moving defenseman Brent Burns? Can Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi sufficiently bolster their anaemic offensive game?
Nashville Predators: Could this be the final seasons for Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne in Nashville ? Can they get more offense out of their current corps of forwards? How will the team as a whole respond to heightened fan expectations?
Phoenix Coyotes: Will they finally find new ownership willing to keep the team in their current location? What will be the outcome of Kyle Turris’ holdout? If he returns, will he and fellow youngster Mikkel Boedker finally play up to expectations?
St. Louis Blues: Will last season’s late additions Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk become key factors throughout this season? Can this club avoid another rash of injuries which scuttled their post-season hopes last year? Are their young players finally poised to turn the Blues into a playoff contender?
San Jose Sharks: Will Brent Burns be a good addition to their defense corps? Can Martin Havlat stay healthy enough this season to make a difference with his new team? Can Logan Couture top his rookie performance of last season?
Vancouver Canucks: Can they avoid the dreaded “Stanley Cup Final hangover”? Do they have sufficent second line scoring depth? Are they capable of returning to the Final?
So, what do you think, folks? I’d be delighted to read your comments on these questions. Let me know what you think. On Sunday, I’ll have a look at what I consider the main questions dogging the Eastern Conference teams.