Training camp preview: Western Conference
As NHL training camps open this week, here are the questions facing the Western Conference. Check out the Eastern Conference preview here:
Detroit Red Wings: The Red Wings surprised many by advancing to the Western Conference finals last spring, their deepest playoff run since winning the Stanley Cup in 2002. The run showed that the Wings were a much more versatile, hard-nosed group than they had been given credit for in recent years. They will return much of the same squad, with the added bonus of having terrific young defenseman Niklas Kronwall healthy after he sustained a season-ending injury on March 30 (broken sacrum). Netminder Dominik Hasek is back, too, after a stellar return to the Detroit nets last season, squashing any suggestions he wasn't anything but a team guy. Superlative puck-moving defenseman Brian Rafalski joins the red-and-white as a more than adequate fill-in for Mathieu Schneider, who signed in Anaheim via free agency.
• Does Hasek have another season left in him like last season, when he went 38-11-6?
• Can Kronwall stay healthy for an entire season and prove he's the star material the Red Wings believe he is?
• Just how good can Henrik Zetterberg be?
• Were the no-shows at the normally sold-out Joe Louis Arena during the playoffs a symptom of deeper problems in one of the NHL's most solid markets?
Nashville Predators: The Predators have averaged 108 points during the regular season since the end of the lockout but have managed to win just two playoff games over that period. Now, with ownership in a state of flux and payroll slashed to just above the minimum required under the collective bargaining agreement, it's hard not to think that the Predators' Stanley Cup ship has sailed. There certainly will be as much attention focused on the number of paying fans in the seats as the play on the ice this season, although some folks seem to forget there's a direct relationship between the two. That said, the Preds remain well-coached and blessed with a terrific cast of young defensemen, an unheralded goaltender in Chris Mason, and an electrifying young offensive presence in Alexander Radulov. Hmm, maybe the future isn't so bleak after all.
• Can Mason emerge from the large shadow cast by Tomas Vokoun and shoulder the mental and physical burden of being an NHL starter for the first time?
• What's next for defensive stud Shea Weber, who had 17 goals in his first full NHL season?
• With captain Timonen and veterans Kariya and Forsberg gone, who fills the leadership void?
• Can the talented Steve Sullivan, who will not be ready for action for three more months, be able to return to form after missing the last one-third of the season and playoffs with recurring back problems?
• Does the instability on the ownership level and the threat of relocation affect the Preds' on-ice performance?
St. Louis Blues: If the 2006-07 regular season had lasted about a month longer, the resurgent Blues might well have played themselves into the playoffs. With hard-nosed coach Andy Murray behind the bench and youngsters like Lee Stempniak and Jay McClement coming into their own, the Blues are months ahead of their rebuilding schedule. Now, the challenge is to keep the team on that accelerated track back to respectability. GM Larry Pleau and president John Davidson, who took over on the eve of the regular season a year ago, have taken steps to assist that program by signing free-agent sniper Paul Kariya and returning Keith Tkachuk after his loan-out to the Atlanta Thrashers. The Blues also added goaltending depth in the form of former Bruins prospect Hannu Toivonen, who will push Manny Legace for ice time between the pipes.
• Are the Blues a playoff team if their injury-plagued defense, including Jay McKee who played in just 23 games after signing as a free agent last summer, stays healthy?
• Can McClement and Stempniak, both of whom gained valuable experience at the World Championships last May, take another step forward for a team that ranked 26th in goals scored?
• Can Toivonen, a former first-round draft pick, get his career back on track in St. Louis?
• Will last season's surprising finish translate into fan support for a once-proud franchise now struggling to repair relationships with supporters?
Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks have an intriguing blend of exceptional young, raw talent (Jonathan Toews, Jack Skille, Patrick Kane to name a few) and aging veterans whose best days are almost certainly behind them (Robert Lang, Yanic Perreault to name just two). Throw in a scoring star like Martin Havlat (57 points in 56 games) and young defensive studs like Cam Barker, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and there just might be a playoff berth in the not too distant future for this beleaguered Original Six franchise.
Dearly departed: Jeff Hamilton, Adrian Aucoin, Tony Salmelainen, Jassen Cullimore, Radim Vrbata, Michal Handzus.
Joyously welcomed: Sergei Samsonov, Robert Lang, Yanic Perreault, Kevyn Adams, Wade Flaherty, Andrei Zyuzin.
• Coach Denis Savard, who took over as Hawks bench boss midway through last season, has a contract extension, but does he have the coaching mettle to turn this team around?
• Which of the Blackhawks' top offensive prospects, Skille, Toews and Kane, has the tools to make an impact this season?
• Is there enough speed up front with the addition of the less than speedy Perreault and Lang to keep pace in the new NHL?
• Can the young defense mature enough to keep the Blackhawks in the hunt for a playoff berth this season?
Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets have never come close to making the playoffs since entering the league in 2000. They likely won't to start this season. That said, watch for coach Ken Hitchcock to put his imprint on a team he joined midway through last season. Hitchcock has another character guy in Michael Peca, who signed after Alexander Svitov bolted to the Russian elite league. Hitchcock's top priority will be to continue to push Rick Nash to become a complete player on the ice and a leader in the dressing room. New GM Scott Howson will no doubt look to unload defenseman Adam Foote and former MVP Sergei Fedorov at some point during the season with both headed for free agency next summer. Those moves will open up oodles of cap room that will help Columbus really turn the corner.
Dearly departed: Doug MacLean (GM), Alexander Svitov, Bryan Berard, Anders Eriksson, Aaron Johnson.
Joyously welcomed: Scott Howson (GM), Kris Beech, Michael Peca, Jiri Novotny, Jan Hejda, Sheldon Brookbank.
• How does goalie of the future, Pascal Leclaire, bounce back after a knee injury sidelined him for the last half of the season?
• Who is the Blue Jackets' legitimate starter, Leclaire or Fredrik Norrena, who turned in a respectable 2.78 goals-against average and .904 save percentage in 55 appearances last season?
• Which Rick Nash do Blue Jackets fans get -- the one who excelled once again at the World Championships for Canada or the one who often has struggled to live up to his superstar billing?
• Can Howson find a taker for Fedorov, whose bloated salary and lack of production ($6.08 million this season, 18 goals last season) is a living symbol of the Blue Jackets' failures as a franchise?
Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks, whose collapse late in the 2005-06 season cost coach Marc Crawford his job, defied most critics last season by not only qualifying for the postseason but by winning the tough-as-nails Northwest Division. The Canucks did so thanks in large part to the otherworldly play of Vezina and Hart Trophy nominee Roberto Luongo and the unyielding defensive system imposed by new coach Alain Vigneault. Of the 16 playoff teams last spring, only New Jersey scored fewer goals than the Canucks and the team's offensive potential remains paper thin. Emerging stars Henrik and Daniel Sedin and fading star Markus Naslund are burdened with producing the bulk of the team's offense and that's no way to win a Cup. GM Dave Nonis did little in the offseason to shore up that offense, which means a repeat of last season will be even more difficult given the free-agency strides taken by Colorado and Edmonton.
• What does Luongo do for an encore in his second season in Vancouver?
• How good can defenseman Kevin Bieksa (12 goals, 42 points) be?
• Is there anyone on this roster beyond Daniel Sedin capable of scoring 30 goals?
Minnesota Wild: The Wild finished one point behind Vancouver in the ultracompetitive Northwest. That single point dropped them from the third seed in the conference to the seventh and likely cost them a playoff series victory as they were beaten by Anaheim in five games in the opening round. The playoff loss was disheartening for a team that thought it could play with the big boys but was lacking offense and physicality. The Wild scored just nine goals in five games against the Ducks and will need to find better scoring depth if they're to become a Cup contender. After making a big splash a season ago in the free-agent market, the Wild returned to their cautious ways this offseason. Still, they did jettison mercurial netminder Manny Fernandez, turning the starting job over to Niklas Backstrom, who emerged from nowhere last season to assume the No. 1 role. The Wild allowed the fewest goals in the league in 2006-07 and can be expected to once again be among the stingiest defensive teams this season.
• Can superstar-in-waiting Marian Gaborik, who has missed 17 and 34 games, respectively, the last two seasons, stay healthy for an entire campaign?
• If he can stick around for an entire season, how good can he be?
• Will home-state favorite Mark Parrish deliver more than the disappointing 19 goals he produced last season, his first with the Wild?
• How does Backstrom react to being "the guy" for the Wild?
• Will Josh Harding, 23, provide enough support as backup to keep the Wild at the top of the defensive standings and in the playoff hunt?
Calgary Flames: After a second straight disappointing playoff season (the Flames were beaten by Detroit in six games in the first round), GM Darryl Sutter pretty much blew up the blueprint. In its place is a team that gives the distinct impression it's going for broke. That feeling starts with the hiring of incendiary (read: often fired) coach Mike Keenan and includes the acquisition of hard-nosed veterans like Adrian Aucoin, Owen Nolan and Cory Sarich. The feeling is that while the Flames had the offense to go with the new NHL, it came at the price of the team's trademark grit and work ethic. Keenan and the new-look lineup promise to get right back to those roots.
Dearly departed: Jamie McLennan, Roman Hamrlik, Brad Stuart, Jeff Friesen, Tony Amonte, Byron Ritchie, Darren McCarty, Andrei Zyuzin.
Joyously welcomed: Mike Keenan (coach), Adrian Aucoin, Anders Eriksson, Owen Nolan, Cory Sarich.
• Does Keenan still have it to be an NHL coach?
• Has he mellowed with age or will he still try to make players weep and pit them against each other as has been the case with many of his other squads?
• Can Keenan maintain the Flames' newfound offensive zest while re-instilling the work ethic and commitment to defense that seemed to disappear for long stretches last season?
• Any chance the Flames, 22nd overall on the road last season, will manage to win away from home this season?
Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche missed the playoffs for the first time since 1994, but given the way they finished up the regular season, chasing the Calgary Flames to the final days of the schedule, don't expect them to make a habit of it. A promising crop of youngsters, including Wojtek Wolski and Calder Trophy finalist Paul Stastny, combined with veteran free-agent acquisitions Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan, makes the Avs one of the more interesting teams to watch this season. There's still the issue of former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner Jose Theodore, who will earn $6 million to serve as the Avs backup behind Peter Budaj. But there might be a market for Theodore, whose contract is up at the end of the coming season as the trade deadline approaches, if the Avs are lucky.
• Will 100-point man Joe Sakic, who turned 38 this offseason, ever start to act his age?
• Can Jordan Leopold, who played only 15 games last season, return to form as an elite defenseman?
• How long will it take Avs fans to fall completely in love with mullet man Smyth and his mullet sidekick Scott Hannan?
• What does Stastny do as a follow-up to his 78-point performance and NHL rookie record 20-game points streak?
Edmonton Oilers: Rarely does a non-playoff team generate as many headlines, not to mention strong feelings, as the Edmonton Oilers managed to do this offseason. Struggling to attract free agents, the Oilers thought they had locked up center Michael Nylander only to find he'd signed a deal with the Caps in Washington for less money. Then, the Oil tried to swoop Buffalo's Thomas Vanek via an offer sheet, making the Sabres red-faced with anger even as they matched the offer sheet. Then, GM Kevin Lowe managed to add Anaheim forward Dustin Penner via an offer sheet, driving Anaheim GM Brian Burke purple with rage as a result. The Oilers also managed to add two top (if erratic) defensemen in Sheldon Souray (free agent) and Joni Pitkanen (trade), meaning the Oilers' much-maligned blue line will have a dramatically different look come training camp. Up front, Penner will ostensibly take the place of Joffrey Lupul, who failed to live up to expectations last season after coming over in the Chris Pronger-forced trade. Unfortunately for the Oilers, there were lots of forwards who produced similar results last season.
Dearly departed: Jason Smith, Jussi Markkanen, Joffrey Lupul, Toby Petersen, Brad Winchester, Petr Sykora.
Joyously welcomed: Dustin Penner, Sheldon Souray, Joni Pitkanen, Mathieu Garon, Geoff Sanderson, Denis Grebeshkov, Dick Tarnstrom (again).
• Will a team that was the only one among 30 NHL squads to fail to hit the 200-goal plateau rediscover its team firepower?
• Will (pick any of the following) Shawn Horcoff, Jarret Stoll, Raffi Torres and Fernando Pisani bounce back after seasons of varying disappointment?
• Can Mathieu Garon force coach Craig MacTavish into adopting a platoon situation with veteran starting netminder Dwayne Roloson?
• Can Pitkanen regain the edge and focus that had folks predicting greatness for him in Philadelphia a couple of years ago?
Anaheim Ducks: It's been a short, hectic summer for the Anaheim Ducks, and it's going to get a lot more hectic in the coming days. That's the tradeoff when you win a Stanley Cup. Season ticket sales are at an all-time high (there's now a waiting list) and the team is looking to build on that by staying at or near the top of the NHL standings. Some of that will depend on whether Hall of Fame-bound defenseman Scott Niedermayer returns or retires (he recently said he'll be late to camp if he does return), and whether fellow future Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne likewise hangs up the blades. GM Brian Burke brought in Mathieu Schneider and Todd Bertuzzi to hedge against the veterans' retirements, but he didn't bargain on the loss of Dustin Penner through an offer sheet made by the Edmonton Oilers.
Dearly departed: Teemu Selanne, Scott Niedermayer, Dustin Penner, Ryan Shannon, Shawn Thornton, Mark Hartigan, Joe Motzko, Ric Jackman.
Joyously welcomed: Todd Bertuzzi, Mathieu Schneider, Shane Hnidy, Jonas Hiller.
• Will Niedermayer choose to retire or simply take his time in coming back?
• Who will make up for the offensive drain created by a potential Selanne retirement and the departure of Penner (the two combined for 77 goals last season)?
• Can Bertuzzi ever regain the form that made him a top-10 player before the Steve Moore incident?
• Will the Ducks continue to batter opponents into submission?
• Is there a better shut-down unit in the NHL than Samuel Pahlsson, Travis Moen and Rob Niedermayer?
San Jose Sharks: For the past two seasons, the San Jose Sharks have been many critics' preseason pick to at least advance to the Stanley Cup finals, if not win the Cup outright. Both seasons, the talented, youthful Sharks have stumbled in the second round. Even though the team managed to re-up star center Joe Thornton for three more years in San Jose and will be virtually the same to start the coming season, the window appears to be closing fast. Another quick playoff exit will almost certainly make job security for coach Ron Wilson and perhaps even GM Doug Wilson a thing of the past. That said, the Sharks remain a model franchise in many ways. The team continues to allow young prospects time to mature before rushing them into the NHL and it always gives homegrown talent a chance before turning to outside help. Now, all they have to do is reward management with a Cup.
• Can Roenick really have a positive effect on the Sharks' locker-room chemistry?
• How will captain Patrick Marleau, rumored to be on the trading block, respond after another disappointing playoff performance and Roenick's arrival?
• How does coach Wilson repair what has to be a tattered relationship with his captain after publicly criticizing him in the playoffs?
• Can talented defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Matt Carle avoid the sophomore letdown, especially with veteran Hannan now in Colorado?
• Which young netminder, Dimitri Patzold or Thomas Greiss, will emerge as backup to Evgeni Nabokov now that Vesa Toskala is gone?
• What next for sniper Jonathan Cheechoo, who saw his goal production fall from a league-best 56 two seasons ago to 37 last season?
Dallas Stars: The Stars are a holdover team from pre-lockout days, when defense was the order of the day and it didn't really matter if no one on your team could put the puck in the ocean. That mind-set has earned the Stars regular-season success (107 points last season, 112 points the season before), but it has not yielded playoff success. The Stars have been bounced in the first round both years since the lockout ended and have won just one playoff round in the last five playoff seasons. Stars fans don't even have traditional playoff whipping boy, netminder Marty Turco, to blame. The affable netminder was sensational (1.30 GAA, .952 save percentage) in the first round last spring, but the Stars' lack of offense doomed them as they dropped a seven-game series to the Vancouver Canucks. GM Doug Armstrong was quiet in the offseason. Unless the Stars can muster some homegrown offensive spark, they will once again be a very difficult team to score against but one that lacks a potent attack of its own.
• Is there anyone on this team capable of scoring even 70 points during the regular season?
• How important is having captain Brenden Morrow, who missed half the season with injury in 2006-07, around for the entire campaign?
• Poised to become the all-time points leader among U.S.-born players, what does Mike Modano have left in the tank?
• Will Turco finally get a break after turning in a sterling performance last spring?
• Will Modano and new wife, "Dancing with the Stars" star Willa Ford, be holding team rumba competitions as a way of fostering team unity?
• Any chance Ford can run the power play?
Los Angeles Kings: The Kings have been one of the NHL's more aimless franchises, winning just one playoff round since their one and only Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1993. To have the Kings rebound from a 28th place finish last season to a playoff spot is a lot to expect; but under GM Dean Lombardi, they definitely have a plan. This offseason saw a bold move forward in implementing that plan as Lombardi brought in puck-moving defenseman Brad Stuart to augment a blue-line corps that includes celebrated veteran Rob Blake and top-ranked rookie Jack Johnson. Up front, Lombardi added scoring potential in Ladislav Nagy and top two-way player Michal Handzus to help rookie sensation Anze Kopitar. The goaltending situation is still unsettled with Jason Labarbera getting a chance to prove he's a starter, but coach Marc Crawford has a lot more tools at his disposal than he did a season ago.
• Can a completely remade back end come together in time to keep the Kings from being buried early in the season?
• Can Labarbera, a former AHL player of the year, assume the identity of an NHL starter?
• If Labarbera can't answer the bell, where will Lombardi turn, assuming it won't be to marginalized veteran netminder Dan Cloutier?
• Is there a Calder Trophy in the offing for young defenseman Johnson?
• How good can Mike Cammalleri (60 goals since the end of the lockout) be?
• What does Kopitar do for an encore after his 20-goal, 61-point rookie season?
Phoenix Coyotes: Last season ago, the addition of veterans Ed Jovanovski, Owen Nolan and Jeremy Roenick -- combined with a talented young defensive corps -- appeared to be enough to vault the Coyotes back into the playoff hunt. But aside from a brief spasm that saw the team hit the .500 mark at midseason, the Coyotes' season began and ended the same way their other seasons in the desert have ended -- with disappointment. The Coyotes cleaned house in the offseason, dismissing GM Mike Barnett and senior advisor Cliff Fletcher, but Wayne Gretzky remains for what will be his third year as coach. It promises to be another long one with little in the way of scoring power in the lineup and a bevy of questions in goal. The defense remains the team's strong suit and will continue to be the foundation going forward under new GM Don Maloney, who arrives from New York, where he was instrumental in helping getting the Rangers back on track.
Dearly departed: Mike Barnett (GM), Curtis Joseph, Jeremy Roenick, Owen Nolan, Dave Scatchard, Kevyn Adams, Mike Ricci.
Joyously welcomed: Don Maloney (GM), Alex Auld, David Aebischer, Radim Vrbata, Mike York, Tomas Surovy.
• How long does Gretzky hang around as coach, since this Coyotes team is probably two to three years away from competing for a playoff berth?
• Will a No. 1 goalie emerge from a less-than-inspiring group that includes Alex Auld, David Aebischer and Mikael Tellqvist?
• Can Jovanovski return to form after abdominal injuries limited him to just 54 games in his first season with the Coyotes?
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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