Camp chatter: Western Conference breakdown
Edmonton Oilers: So the city's reputation as a hockey destination took a beating in the offseason after Chris Pronger, Jaroslav Spacek, Michael Peca and even Dick Tarnstrom fled the City of Champions like their clothes were on fire. And defensively, the Oilers are looking thin, thin, thin, even with the addition of the serviceable Daniel Tjarnqvist.
But if the offense makes good on its considerable promise, there might not be a more explosive team in the conference. The Oilers have the potential to have five or six 25-goal men in Joffrey Lupul and Petr Sykora joining mainstays Jarret Stoll, Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff, Raffi Torres and Ales Hemsky. The challenge for coach Craig MacTavish, he of the new long-term deal, will be in finding enough ice time for all of his forward talent. Goaltending, the team's soft spot during the 2005-06 regular season, should be stabilized nicely with playoff hero Dwayne Roloson and late-playoff hero Jussi Markkanen manning the shop.
Questions: Can MacTavish get the team pulling on the same rope after a long and ultimately heartbreaking playoff run? Who will lead a defensive corps that lacks a true power-play quarterback?
Calgary Flames: It took until late in the first playoff round, but the Calgary Flames finally got the message that if you can't score, you can't win in the new NHL. To that end, the Flames added burgeoning star Alex Tanguay from Colorado and promptly locked him into a three-year deal. It cost them Jordan Leopold, who had fallen out of favor with coach and GM Darryl Sutter, but the Flames enjoy good-to-great depth along the blue line, so the deal should be a boon.
Speaking of Sutter, he has handed over the reins to assistant Jim Playfair, whose challenge will be in coaxing more offense out of a team whose DNA is all about tough-nosed defense. Even with Tanguay, the Flames still aren't going to blow anyone out of the water. And in the ultracompetitive Northwest Division, trying to scratch out 2-1 and 3-2 wins is no way to get to the playoffs even if you have the NHL's best goaltender in Miikka Kiprusoff.
Questions: Can Jarome Iginla, who finished 54th in points last season, return to elite scoring form or are those days done and gone? Was rookie defensive stud Dion Phaneuf's playoff swoon foreshadowing for a sophomore letdown or a blip on the star radar?
Colorado Avalanche: It wasn't that long ago that if you said "Colorado Avalanche," the words "Stanley Cup" weren't far behind. Now, the two are a world apart. Although the Avalanche qualified for the postseason and knocked off favored Dallas in the first round, the future doesn't look promising for one of the league's perennial powers.
Captain Joe Sakic returns, but the team's offensive depth is questionable, especially if Marek Svatos can't rediscover his scoring touch after a shoulder injury cut short his season. Defensively, the Avs are better with Jordan Leopold joining longtime buddy John-Michael Liles along the blue line, although Leopold will miss time early in the regular season recovering from a hernia. But, as with the forward corps, the Avs' defensive depth is also a major question now that Rob Blake has returned to Los Angeles.
And then there's the goaltending. Jose Theodore was solid after returning from the heel injury sustained before his trade from Montreal. But he's got to be more like the old Theodore for longer stretches of time than the recent Theodore if the Avs, who've never missed the postseason since moving to Denver in 1995, hope to qualify for the playoff dance.
Questions: Can top-rated rookie Wojtek Wolski have an impact after an impressive turn in the playoffs last spring? Which number is greater at the end of the season: Theodore wins or Theodore references in tabloid headlines?
Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks are the Western Conference version of the Ottawa Senators. Lots of razzle-dazzle, lots of potential, and precious little to show for it at the end of the day. The pressure's now on GM Dave Nonis after ditching the lamentable Todd Bertuzzi and bringing in Roberto Luongo. Ed Jovanovski is gone as is Bryan Allen, replaced along the blue line by Willie Mitchell and Lukas Krajicek.
Some people believe the Canucks remain Cup contenders, but there are issues in this dressing room that will have to be addressed before that's possible. For instance, how does captain Markus Naslund respond after he was unable to make a difference as the Canucks unraveled down the stretch last season? The good news for the Canucks is that the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, emerged on the edge of stardom for the first time last season although linemate Anson Carter and his 33 goals are gone. The continued development of the twins is a significant factor in the Canucks' fortunes.
Questions: How does Luongo respond to his first role as a starter on a team with Cup aspirations? If the Sedins go to the All-Star Game in Dallas, will anyone be able to tell them apart unless they're wearing their jerseys?
Minnesota Wild: OK, it's a tired joke, but one worth repeating -- apparently GM Doug Risebrough just got the memo that the lockout is over. Ha, ha. Funny or not, the Wild emerged from self-imposed narcolepsy last season, when they did nothing to improve their lot, and moved quickly this offseason to remake themselves as a playoff contender by adding Pavol Demitra, Mark Parrish and Kim Johnsson through a trade and free-agent signing. There are risks. Demitra played in only 58 games last year (although he had 62 points and a plus-21), while Johnsson, a fine puck-moving defenseman, must prove his concussion problems are not Lindros-like.
But the Wild, who have made the playoffs just once in their history, have made the kinds of moves necessary to keep a loyal fan base content for the time being. Acquiring Demitra also paved the way for the Wild to sign enigmatic star and Slovakian countryman Marian Gaborik to a long-term deal. The two might play together and Gaborik has all the tools to be a 100-point player if coach Jacques Lemaire can take the shackles off the defensive-minded Wild.
Questions: How does goaltender Manny Fernandez perform now that he's the undisputable No. 1 goalie in town? What kind of adjustments does Lemaire make to give his surprisingly deep offensive squad the latitude to take advantage of the new rules?
Dallas Stars: Many people (including this scribbler) liked the Stars to advance at least to the Western Conference finals last season, but they pulled the chute in embarrassing fashion, losing in five games to seventh-seeded Colorado. Marty Turco was inconsistent once again in the postseason after finishing third during the regular season with 41 wins. More troublesome, the Stars were revealed as lacking much in the way of heart when push came to shove.
Now, captain Mike Modano is another year older as is longtime teammate (and sometimes linemate) Jere Lehtinen, who enjoyed a banner year with a team-best 33 goals. The team's best all-around player last season, Jason Arnott, is gone, as is defensive rock Willie Mitchell, acquired at the trade deadline. In their place, the Stars have added question marks in the form of Eric Lindros and cannon fodder in the form of former Thrashers Patrik Stefan and Jaroslav Modry, neither of whom is particularly suited to the new NHL. It was heartwarming to see the underappreciated Sergei Zubov recognized with a Norris Trophy nomination last spring, and with similarly under-recognized Philippe Boucher the Stars have a solid back end. But considering many of the teams below them made up ground, a playoff berth in Big D is no longer a sure thing.
Questions: What kind of mind-set does Turco have after being saddled with much of the blame for the Stars' early playoff exit? What's the over/under on the number of games Lindros plays in a Stars jersey? (We say 30.)
San Jose Sharks: The theory is that you have to fall down before you can climb the mountain, or something like that. If that's true, the San Jose Sharks might be poised to bring the Cup back to the Western Conference after a three-season absence (four if you count the lockout).
The Sharks lost in the 2004 Western Conference finals and then dropped a heartbreaking second-round series last spring to upstart Edmonton. The troubling part for the Sharks is that they blew a 2-0 series lead against the Oilers in doing so. They also led late in Game 3 before dropping what turned out to be the series-changing contest in triple overtime, all of which goes to the question of the Sharks' killer instinct and whether they have enough of it. Curiously, that's the same question being asked of defending MVP and scoring champion Joe Thornton since his arrival in the league. Still, few teams are deeper down the middle than the Sharks with Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and there's also the defending goal-scoring champion, Jonathan Cheechoo, one of the league's great feel-good stories of last season.
Terrific two-way player Mike Grier arrives after being a major part of the Buffalo Sabres' run to the Eastern Conference finals. Mark Bell will help with the offensive depth, although he faces criminal charges after an alcohol-related accident in San Jose in recent days.
There are legitimate questions about depth along the blue line as Brad Stuart went in the Thornton deal and the surprising Tom Preissing left in the Bell deal. As a result, expectations are high, perhaps too high, for rookie defenseman Matt Carle. In goal, GM Doug Wilson must reconcile the very real possibility he will have a $5 million backup in the form of former rookie of the year Evgeni Nabokov. And that's never a good thing.
Questions: To paraphrase Abbott and Costello, Who's in goal, and for how long? Was Cheechoo's 56-goal explosion a flash in the pan or a harbinger of things to come?
Anaheim Ducks: Everybody's sexy pick to win the Stanley Cup, or at least go to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals, the Ducks (minus the Mighty) will have to learn about playing with expectation as opposed to sneaking up on folks as they did en route to the Western Conference finals last spring.
The biggest reason for the Ducks bandwagon becoming standing-room-only is the offseason arrival of all-world defenseman Chris Pronger, whose wife found life in Edmonton unappealing. It cost GM Brian Burke a top forward in Joffrey Lupul (28 goals) and defensive prospect Ladislav Smid. But being able to throw Pronger onto the ice with or in relief of Scott Niedermayer gives the Ducks the best one-two defensive punch in the NHL. Add hard-hitting, hard-shooting Francois Beauchemin, who was stolen from Columbus last season, and the Ducks have a most imposing corps of defensemen.
Rumors persist Burke will try to deal former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere, but until the flaky Ilya Bryzgalov proves himself capable of carrying the No. 1 goaltending load, Burke will be loath to disrupt that all-important goaltending depth.
Phoenix Coyotes: Coach Wayne Gretzky tells ESPN.com he figures his Coyotes will be a lot more difficult to play against this season. And if Gretzky can coax a better home record out of the Coyotes, who were 25th on their home surface, they will be in the playoff mix.
Gretzky and GM Mike Barnett are hoping netminder Curtis Joseph can replicate his performance of the first three-quarters of the season and then get a little help from either David LeNeveu and/or Mike Morrison. And certainly the goaltending should benefit greatly from a revamped back end that now includes Canadian Olympian Ed Jovanovski and hulking Nick Boynton. They join promising youngsters Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek, and solid veteran Derek Morris to give the Coyotes a formidable defense.
The problem for the Coyotes will be in keeping up offensively. There's a lot of hope and expectation when it comes to Jeremy Roenick, who Gretzky says will be playing at about 20 pounds lighter this year and is looking to replicate Selanne's renaissance in Anaheim. There are perhaps fewer expectations, at least early on, for Owen Nolan, who hasn't played since late in the 2003-04 season. If the once-imposing power forward is healthy and can find his legs, he has the potential to be a force and the Coyotes will be a playoff team. If not, it'll be touch and go to the wire.
Los Angeles Kings: The Kings have followed a predictable pattern for a number of years now: look like world-beaters for the first half of the season, undergo horrific injuries midway through and then finish with a horrible sputter. That pattern cost coach Andy Murray and GM Dave Taylor their jobs, although Taylor remains with the organization.
GM Dean Lombardi, who helped build San Jose into a Western Conference power, is in charge, and new coach Marc Crawford is expected to help turn around a team that could not get anything going on the power play a year ago and couldn't stop anyone while killing penalties. Here's hoping Crawford brought a lot of smoke and mirrors with him from Vancouver because the Kings appear to have been overtaken by most of their competition in the West.
Pavol Demitra is gone and no one appears ready to take his place as the team's most important forward. Alyn McCauley will get a chance to prove he's got a lot of offensive smarts to go with one of the game's best defensive postures. Alexander Frolov will have to take another step forward if the Kings are going to stay close offensively.
On defense, the Kings are deep, if aging, with the return of Rob Blake via free agency and the presence of Aaron Miller (a member of the U.S. Olympic team until injury forced him to withdraw), Mattias Norstrom, the tireless Brent Sopel and the surprising Lubomir Visnovsky, who led the team with 67 points.
Goaltending will continue to be a shell game with the oft-injured Dan Cloutier, who followed Crawford from Vancouver, challenging for playing time with inconsistent incumbent Mathieu Garon and former AHL player of the year Jason LaBarbera.
Questions: Is there a true No. 1 goalie in the mix? What next for Mike Cammalleri, who followed up a great lockout year in the AHL with 26 goals last season (he was also minus-14)?
Detroit Red Wings: No Steve Yzerman. No Brendan Shanahan. But the 100-year-old Chris Chelios returns to suck up ice time from younger players, and Dominik Hasek and his poisonous aura are back for a third go-round in Detroit. Hmmm. Cue up the old Ted Nugent standby Motor City Madhouse.
Many predicted the Wings' decline would begin last season with the new collective bargaining agreement. Instead, the Wings won another Presidents' Trophy before turning in what has become their standard playoff swoon, losing in six games to No. 8 seed Edmonton. This year, simply making the playoffs will be a challenge for a Red Wings team that is caught between the past and the future. How else to explain the goaltending tandem of Chris Osgood and Hasek, who pulled the chute on the Wings early in the 2003-04 season and then pulled the chute on the Senators and their Stanley Cup dreams last season?
Offensively, the Wings have to hope that Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg respond to being "the guys" in Motown, because after that, it's a lot of grunters and grinders. Defensively, the Wings remain an elite team in spite of the curious presence of Father Time (Chelios). Niklas Kronwall is a force and Mathieu Schneider is an underrated presence. Throw in Nicklas Lidstrom, a curious choice for the Norris Trophy last season but still one of the finest defensemen of his generation, and the Wings are well-stocked. But will it be enough?
Questions: Who's the leader in this dressing room now that the consummate leader is headed to the Hall of Fame? Can Mikael Samuelsson continue to emerge as a legitimate power forward?
Nashville Predators: This, in theory, is the Predators' time. Following the blueprint of the Tampa Bay Lightning and other small-market teams, the Predators appear to have the right mix of home-grown talent and outside help to challenge for a Cup. The missing links might well have been the addition of Jason Arnott (free agent) and Josef Vasicek (trade from Carolina). The two give the Preds size down the middle, something they've been lacking. With the addition of J.P. Dumont, who was too rich for the Sabres, and provided Steve Sullivan, injured before the playoffs, returns to form and Paul Kariya is, well, Paul Kariya, the Predators will have plenty of offensive juice to go with a deep and talented defense corps.
Although they squandered a first-round draft pick on Brendan Witt, who signed with the Islanders (huh?), there's still offensive zip in Marek Zidlicky and Kimmo Timonen (the poor man's Nik Lidstrom), and youth and size with Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. The best of a very good lot might well be Dan Hamhuis, who has it all entering his third NHL season. In goal, the Predators have one of the best in the business in Tomas Vokoun, although there will be concerns about his durability following his scary blood clot issue.
Questions: Can Arnott become a leading man? If the Predators make it to the conference finals, will they have to threaten to black out games to ensure sellouts?
Chicago Blackhawks: As if by osmosis, the Blackhawks might be poised to return some semblance of respectability to the once-proud Windy City. Although he's been made sport of in many places (including this space), credit GM Dale Tallon for promoting Rick Dudley to assistant GM. Dudley is one of the game's finest evaluators of talent. Gone are the team's foundation of five years ago, Tyler Arnason, Kyle Calder and Mark Bell, and the team is better for it, especially with two-way specialist Michal Handzus coming over from Philadelphia and potential top-10 scorer Martin Havlat arriving via a three-way trade from Ottawa.
Bryan Smolinski also helps bring offensive depth to a team that lacked pretty much everything last season, especially discipline. Those additions only make a difference, however, if core players Nikolai Khabibulin, the game's single biggest free-agent bust last season, and Adrian Aucoin, high on the bust list, can stay healthy and return to form this season. Speaking of injury, the jury remains out on Tuomo Ruutu, who looks like an impact player but spends far too much time in the training room to really tell. Brent Seabrook, Cam Barker and Duncan Keith are part of an impressive group of youngsters that also includes Rene Bourque (16 goals last season). Tony Salmelainen will get a chance to crack what should be a speedier offensive contingent.
Questions: Can Patrick Lalime, battling back from yet another injury setback, provide adequate back-up help if Khabibulin goes off the rails again? Can the Blackhawks stay out of the penalty box long enough to figure out whether coach Trent Yawney's system works?
Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets are a team that appears to have climbed almost to the summit of a great hill. The problem for them is that it's unclear whether they'll tumble back into the chasm or reach that elusive goal of respectability (and their first playoff berth).
Rick Nash is a genuine star and, if healthy, will compete for a scoring title. If GM Doug MacLean can get Nikolai Zherdev under contract (it's looking more doubtful every day), his potential is enormous, and most believe Gilbert Brule is a rookie of the year candidate. Fredrik Modin, acquired from Tampa for veteran netminder Marc Denis, is a terrific two-way player who's won both a Stanley Cup and gold medal since the summer of 2004. And then there's former Hart Trophy winner Sergei Fedorov. So the Blue Jackets have some juice up front.
Defensively, there's Adam Foote and questions about the durability of colleagues Bryan Berard (coming off back surgery) and Rostislav Klesla. Ron Hainsey will be asked to do more after the Blue Jackets stole him from Montreal via the waiver wire last season. The most significant issue will be the ability of Pascal Leclaire to step forward and become the goalie the Blue Jackets imagined when they drafted him eighth overall in 2001.
Questions: Is Gerard Gallant the right coach for a potentially explosive offense? Can Fedorov return to form after a surprising decline last season?
St. Louis Blues: After missing the playoffs for the first time in 26 springs and finishing dead last in the NHL, the Blues were rewarded with their first No. 1 overall draft pick. Erik Johnson won't be joining the big club this season, but he is part of a surprisingly deep defensive foundation that awaits new ownership in Missouri. Former rookie of the year Barret Jackman should return to form after a shoulder injury kept him out of the last quarter of the season, while Christian Backman has evolved into a solid No. 3 or 4 defenseman.
Former broadcaster and NHL netminder John Davidson is in as GM and signed dressing room leader Jay McKee away from Buffalo. Eric Brewer can also be counted on after playing in just 32 games last season. Davidson also retooled the goaltending department by signing the well-liked but hard-luck Manny Legace, who won 37 games, fifth in the NHL. Up front, Davidson returned Doug Weight and his new Stanley Cup ring to bolster veteran Keith Tkachuk. Dan Hinote also comes with Cup experience from Colorado. Why Davidson bothered to sign the declining Bill Guerin is a mystery, but it speaks to a dearth of offensive talent in the Blues system. The Blues won't be nearly as bad as last year (it's hardly possible). But the start of a new playoff streak appears out of reach.
Questions: Can coach Mike Kitchen, given a new lease on life, take advantage with a much-improved squad? Can Lee Stempniak, who had 14 goals in 57 games, take another step forward after a strong rookie campaign?
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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