With NHL training camps opening on September 11, 2013, here’s a look at the most pressing questions for the Western Conference teams.
Anaheim Ducks: Who’s the starting goalie? Last season Viktor Fasth challenged Jonas Hiller for the starter’s job. While Fasth posted slightly better regular season stats, it was Hiller who played in all the Ducks post-season games. Hiller is entering a career year and is eligible for UFA status next summer, but a strong performance could help him secure the starter’s role beyond this season. If Fasth out-plays Hiller, however, the latter could become trade bait.
Calgary Flames: How low can they go? If Flames fans thought the past four seasons were bad, they ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The club is engaged in a full-scale, long-overdue rebuild, and with few legitimate stars on the roster, many observers predict they’ll finish dead last in the Conference and overall standings. Hunker down, Flames fans, it will take time for your club to rebuild into a playoff contender.
Chicago Blackhawks: Is Corey Crawford for real? Blackhawks management thinks so, handing him a six-year, $36 million contract extension. Crawford’s played well during his short NHL career, capped by his career-best performance last season carrying the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup. Still, critics doubt he’s worth that salary, raising questions about his consistency. Crawford could face significant pressure to justify his value to the Blackhawks.
Colorado Avalanche: Where’s the defense? With the first overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, the Avalanche passed over promising defenseman Seth Jones for center Nathan MacKinnon. During the summer, they failed to suitably address a defense which last season was ranked 27th. It’s not just their blueline which needs help, as they’re also lacking skilled checking forwards. The goaltending tandem (Semyon Varlamov and J.S. Giguere) will do its best, but could face another season struggling behind a porous defense.
Dallas Stars: Will Tyler Seguin shine as a Star? The Boston Bruins dealt the once-promising forward to Dallas following a season in which his performance suffered amidst rumors of off-ice partying and poor conditioning. The season prior, however, Seguin’s 67-point sophomore effort suggested he was poised for stardom. Only 21 and entering his fourth NHL season, Seguin will get top line minutes with winger Jamie Benn on the rebuilding Stars. If the duo click, it could significantly bolster Seguin’s sagging reputation and improve the Stars playoff hopes.
Edmonton Oilers: Has the defense improved? The Oilers are top-heavy in young scoring forwards, while their defense in recent years left much to be desired. A second NHL season for promising blueliner Justin Schultz, the addition of gritty Andrew Ference and the return of Denis Grebeshkov should help. Still, a lack of skilled blueline depth could once again hamper their playoff hopes.
Los Angeles Kings: Can they contend for the Stanley Cup again? The 2012 champions came close last season, marching to the Western Conference Final before falling in five games to the Blackhawks. With half their roster not playing overseas or in the AHL during the lockout, followed by hard slogs through the opening two rounds of the 2013 playoffs, the Kings appeared gassed by the Conference Final. Still, management avoided significant shakeups to the core which carried them to the 2012 championship. Expect the Kings to be Cup contenders next spring.
Minnesota Wild: Has the depth improved? They made the playoffs last season for the first time in five years, but it was an up-and-down performance in which they barely qualified, only to be quickly eliminated in the first round by the Chicago Blackhawks. Having parted ways with veterans Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Devin Setoguchi and Cal Clutterbuck, they’ll look to younger players like Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Jonas Brodin and off-season acquisition Nino Niederreiter to fill the gaps.
Nashville Predators: Is Pekka Rinne physically ready for a full season? Though he claims he’s recovered from off-season hip surgery, Rinne was unable to take to the ice during the off-season. While he’s physically fit, he’s not yet in game shape. Rinne has three weeks of training camp and pre-season to prepare, but concern about his conditioning remains. The Predators need Rinne healthy if they’re to make the playoffs this season.
Phoenix Coyotes: Where’s the scoring? Strong goaltending and stingy defense are the hallmarks of the Coyotes, but lack of offense remains their Achilles heel. They added Mike Ribeiro in the off-season to center their second line, but unless Martin Hanzal, Mikkel Boedker and Radim Vrbata have career years, goals could still be hard to come by for the Coyotes.
San Jose Sharks: Has their window for Cup contention closed? For the past several seasons the Sharks were considered Stanley Cup contenders, but with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle ageing and in the final year of their respective contracts, that window may be closing. More responsibility could be shifted upon younger stars like Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Antti Niemi.
St. Louis Blues: Are they Cup contenders? For the past two years the young Blues were touted as potential Cup contenders, but fell well short of that goal. Granted, that could be due to normal growing pains most promising young rosters go through, but some Blues followers are concerned their young stars have become complacent. Simply making the playoffs only to bow out in the first or second round won’t be good enough this season.
Vancouver Canucks: What about Luongo? After trying unsuccessfully for a year to trade Roberto Luongo, the Canucks shocked the hockey world at this year’s draft by instead dealing away his heir apparent Cory Schneider. Luongo spent the off-season mentally preparing to return to a team he pretty much cut ties with last spring. With no one of Schneider’s stature as backup, the 34-year-old Luongo must regain his once-stellar form if the Canucks hope to remain among the league’s best teams.
Winnipeg Jets: Can their best players silence their critics? On paper, a team with Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom and Ondrej Pavelec should be a playoff contender. Unfortunately for the Jets, that has yet to happen. The Jets lack depth elsewhere in their lineup, but it’s their stars carrying the burden of getting this club to the post-season. Winnipeg fans have been patient with their new Jets, but another missed post-season could test that patience, and it’ll be the stars who’ll bear the brunt.