Training camp questions: Western Conference
As NHL training camps open up this week, we take a look at where each team stands. Here is our take, and questions, on the Western Conference. (Check out our Eastern Conference questions here.)
Chicago Blackhawks: Few teams will be watched as closely as the Blackhawks this season after they blew the bank on defenseman Brian Campbell and netminder Cristobal Huet, on whom the Blackhawks committed almost $78 million in salary. With a new captain in sophomore Jonathan Toews and defending rookie of the year in Patrick Kane, not to mention new senior adviser Scotty Bowman, the expectations are as high in Chicago as they've been since the early 1990s.
• What does GM Dale Tallon do with expensive backup goalie Nikolai Khabibulin?
• How does Toews shoulder the burden of being the NHL's third-youngest captain ever?
• How long before Martin Havlat goes down with another season-ending injury?
• If Havlat stays healthy, can he break the 100-point barrier?
• Can this team respond to the pressure of expectation after being a laughingstock for many years?
• Will it snow, rain, sleet or play out magically (or all of the above) on New Year's Day at Wrigley Field, where the Blackhawks will entertain the Detroit Red Wings?
Columbus Blue Jackets: As expected, Scott Howson put his stamp on the Blue Jackets in an emphatic manner during his second summer since taking over as GM. Gone is mercurial but talented forward Nikolai Zherdev, while Philadelphia playoff scoring hero R.J. Umberger has been brought in along with skilled winger Kristian Huselius. Fredrik Modin appears healthy for the first time since coming over from Tampa Bay. The defense, never the team's strong suit, has been significantly revamped with the addition of proven winner Mike Commodore, Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman. Pascal Leclaire, who finally emerged as a franchise netminder last season with nine shutouts (second most in the league), signed a long-term deal. So, the Blue Jackets should be much harder to play against than in the past.
• This is the question that will dominate discussion of the Blue Jackets all season: Have the changes been enough to get them in the playoffs for the first time?
• Is Umberger the answer to the long-asked question of who will play center for franchise scorer Rick Nash?
• If not Umberger, is top prospect Derick Brassard ready?
• Can coach Ken Hitchcock get his brand-new defense on the same page in time to get off to a good start?
• Will we ever see the Modin we saw and loved so much in Tampa Bay?
Detroit Red Wings: The most negative thing you can say about the defending Stanley Cup champs is they lost a soon-to-be 75-year-old former coach in Scotty Bowman, who joined Chicago's front office. Everywhere else, the Red Wings are even more formidable than last season with the addition of forward Marian Hossa and super backup netminder Ty Conklin. GM Ken Holland also managed to keep defenseman Brad Stuart in the lineup, giving the Wings the top four defensemen of any team in the NHL (Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall and Brian Rafalski round out the group). Hockeytown, indeed.
• No team since the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 has managed to pull off a repeat; do these Wings have the mojo to do it?
• How does Hossa fit in with the rest of the top-end Red Wings forwards and will this be more than a one-year romance?
• Is there room for all of the talent the Wings have and also sufficient playing time for young players in the system?
• After Chris Osgood's stellar turn in the playoffs, will people stop asking questions about his talent?
• And if the questions don't stop, does that mean goaltending is an issue for the Wings?
• After a dynamite postseason, will Kronwall move into Norris Trophy consideration?
Nashville Predators: The good news is the Predators qualified for the playoffs for the fourth straight season. The bad news is they have yet to advance beyond the first round. There's another starting goaltender in town after Chris Mason couldn't handle the duties bequeathed to him by Tomas Vokoun. Late-blooming Dan Ellis took over the starter's job late in the season and was sensational in the playoffs. The Preds, short on offensive fireworks to begin with, look to be without Steve Sullivan again as his back issues continue to keep the talented forward off the ice. More importantly, it appears as if top young offensive prospect Alexander Radulov has flown the coop to Russia for good despite the fact he is under contract to the Preds. GM David Poile did a masterful job in re-signing top defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but the Preds are going to need help up front.
• Is there enough offense in this lineup to get the Predators back to the playoffs?
• Who, beyond Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont, is capable of providing it on a consistent basis?
• Is this the season Weber plays himself onto Canada's 2010 Olympic team?
• Will the impressive fan support shown down the stretch translate into stronger attendance all season long in 2008-09?
• If Radulov does return to the Preds, what kind of reception does he get and does it affect his performance?
St. Louis Blues: A couple of years ago, the Blues looked poised to be the first of the Central Division afterthoughts to challenge Detroit at the top of the division standings. Since then, the rest of the division has improved while the Blues seemed to have fallen off the track a bit. Although the Blues have a solid young defensive corps that will only get better with the evolution of former No. 1 draft pick Erik Johnson, there isn't enough offense to get them into the playoffs and nothing on the horizon suggests help is on the way any time soon.
• Who wins the goaltending battle shaping up between incumbent Manny Legace and newcomer Chris Mason, who comes over from Nashville?
• How short is the leash on coach Andy Murray?
• How much longer is Keith Tkachuk going to hang around?
• Can Lee Stempniak, who shows flashes of offensive greatness, grow into a point-a-game guy?
• Will the team's dreadful performance down the stretch last season (the Blues won just once in their final 23 games) negatively impact the great job new ownership and management have done in reconnecting with St. Louis fans?
Calgary Flames: Flames GM Darryl Sutter shocked the hockey world last year by hiring iconic coach Mike Keenan to try to redefine the Flames' identity. But, at the end of the day, the Flames were no better off than they were under Keenan's predecessor Larry Playfair, exiting in the first round after a seven-game tilt with San Jose. Mike Cammalleri comes over from Los Angeles courtesy of a draft-weekend deal and that should help fill the void created by the departures of Kristian Huselius and Owen Nolan.
• So, what does Keenan do for an encore after failing to get the kind of consistency out of the Flames he was hired to produce?
• Was last season's so-so performance by goalie Miikka Kiprusoff (by his standards) an aberration or a signal of something more troublesome?
• Does Cammalleri turn into the No. 1 center for Jarome Iginla that the team has been lacking?
• Where does the secondary scoring come from after Iginla?
• So, what does Todd Bertuzzi have left in the tank and how long before he sours at being back in the spotlight in a Canadian market?
• With Sutter, Keenan, Bertuzzi and granite-faced defenseman Dion Phaneuf around, is there a grumpier team in the NHL?
Colorado Avalanche: The Avs were a pleasant surprise last season as they rode out a series of horrific injuries to key personnel (Ryan Smyth, Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny, among others) to not only make the playoffs, but also upset Northwest Division-champion Minnesota in six games in the first round. Jose Theodore turned in a strong performance down the stretch, although he looked woefully mortal as the Avs were swept in the second round by eventual Stanley Cup-champion Detroit. Theodore is gone, however, replaced nominally by Andrew Raycroft, who was jettisoned by Toronto, and Peter Budaj. Solid second-tier scorer Andrew Brunette departed for Minnesota, while Darcy Tucker, who was bought out by Toronto, will try to reclaim his edge and production under new/former coach Tony Granato. Joe Sakic waited until the end of August to decide he would return for at least one more season, which is good news for his teammates and Avs fans.
• What did Granato learn after losing the head-coaching job the first time and moving back into an assistant's role under former head man Joel Quenneville?
• Can Tucker find his groove again after being worn down by the spotlight in Toronto?
• Do the Avs, once home to the greatest goalie of all time in Patrick Roy, now boast the worst goaltending in the NHL?
• Does Sakic's delay in deciding his return suggest his heart really isn't in it for another campaign?
• Will there be another mid-to-late season appearance by fan favorite Peter Forsberg or have we seen the last of the great Swedish forward?
Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers were crippled by injury and left for dead halfway through the season before riding their young legs to an impressive last-minute run at the postseason. They finished just three points out of the eighth spot in the tough-as-nails Western Conference and their offseason adjustments suggest the Oilers should be able to make up that difference in 2008-09. Defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky comes over from Los Angeles; if Sheldon Souray stays healthy, both will provide a nice offensive boost from the back end, especially on the power play. Erik Cole, acquired from Carolina for Joni Pitkanen, has 30-goal potential, especially with young talent Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky and Andrew Cogliano around him. Steve Tambellini moves in as the new GM as close pal Kevin Lowe moves up to president of hockey operations.
• Does goalie Mathieu Garon remain the Oilers' starter and, if so, can Tambellini off-load Dwayne Roloson, who will earn $3 million this season?
• How do Gagner and Cogliano respond after impressive rookie campaigns?
• Can Souray, a prize free-agent pickup a year ago, stay healthy and make good on his whopper five-year, $27 million deal?
• Will the Oilers miss the toughness of big defenseman Matt Greene, who went to the Kings in the Visnovsky deal?
• Do Lowe's ascendancy and the addition of Tambellini upset the dynamics of the tight-knit Oilers, or enhance it?
Minnesota Wild: The Wild are quickly turning into one of those NHL teams that is perpetually a beat off being really good. After winning the achingly tight Northwest Division last season, the Wild ran into a red-hot Jose Theodore and their offense went south versus the Avalanche as they dropped another opening-round series in six games. They haven't won a playoff series since advancing to the 2003 Western Conference finals and the natives are getting restless. The angst level went up a notch or two when Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra both bolted as free agents to New Jersey and Vancouver, respectively. Former Minnesota forward Andrew Brunette was lured back to the fold from Colorado and useful Marek Zidlicky was acquired from Nashville to help add offensive juice from the back end. Owen Nolan is also aboard, although we're not exactly sure why.
• Coach Jacques Lemaire and GM Doug Risebrough have been fixtures in Minnesota since the team's inception; is this the season the long honeymoon runs out if the Wild once again underachieve?
• Can the Wild bring franchise forward Marian Gaborik under contract for the long term before he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer?
• If Gaborik rebuffs the Wild's attempts to lock him, does Risebrough spend the entire season either fending off trade rumors or trying to make a deal as quickly as possible?
• Can winger Pierre-Marc Bouchard replicate his career-best 63-point performance after signing a five-year, $20.4 million deal this offseason?
Vancouver Canucks: Heading into last season, the Canucks were the defending Northwest Division champs. They were fresh off a second-round playoff appearance and folks were talking Stanley Cup contention. Now, they're simply saying, "Huh?" The Canucks have been reshaped from the top on down with a new GM in Mike Gillis and a coach, Alain Vigneault, who had his assistants fired presumably as a warning that he's next. Still, the Canucks remain a team without an offensive identity, unless you count wondering who will play with the Sedin twins as an identity. Gillis, a former agent, signed his former client Demitra (how convenient) to offset the losses of captain Markus Naslund (Rangers) and Brendan Morrison (Ducks). Skilled but injury-prone Kyle Wellwood comes over from Toronto to fill a slot down the middle.
• What is the state of the relationship between Vigneault and his dressing room, especially netminder and franchise player Roberto Luongo, who reportedly wasn't enamored with Vigneault last season?
• What does Mats Sundin's dissing of Gillis' whopper two-year, $20 million offer do to the team's self-esteem?
• OK, who will play with the twins?
• Can Wellwood, the team's de facto No. 2 center, stay healthy enough to wow fans with his slick puck-moving skills?
Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks followed up their 2007 Stanley Cup championship with an uneven performance throughout the 2007-08 regular season. Even with the return of erstwhile stars Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer before the February trade deadline, the Ducks continued to struggle offensively and were ultimately dispatched in the first round by Dallas. GM Brian Burke added Morrison, whom he had in Vancouver, to help provide depth down the middle. It looks as though Selanne would like to return for one more year; the Ducks, who finished 28th overall in goals per game, could use him if they can clear the salary-cap space. They'll need a lot more offense than what they got last season if they are going to again contend for the Cup.
• Does the fact Niedermayer will be on hand for the full season help stabilize the Ducks' attack and their dressing room?
• Do Corey Perry, the beneficiary of a new five-year contract extension, and Ryan Getzlaf have the maturity to step up as leaders?
• Can Burke, who spent most of the summer over the $56.7 million salary cap, bolster the Ducks' offense by moving one of his talented defensemen -- most likely Mathieu Schneider -- in time to keep the Ducks in the hunt?
• Is Bobby Ryan, the second person picked behind Sidney Crosby in the 2005 draft, ready to become an NHLer?
• Is this Burke's swan song in Anaheim?
• Does waiting until late in the summer to decide whether to play affect Selanne's production?
Dallas Stars: The Stars finally shed their "playoff choker" label by upsetting Anaheim and San Jose, respectively, before dropping a six-game set to eventual Cup winner Detroit in the Western Conference finals last spring. The Stars added a nice piece in agitating presence Sean Avery, who will bring offensive production and additional sand to the forward corps. The trade-deadline acquisition of Brad Richards from Tampa Bay gave the Stars wonderful depth down the middle, captain Brenden Morrow emerged in the playoffs as one of the top leaders in the game and netminder Marty Turco was brilliant. In short, the Stars are back.
• Can Mike Ribeiro (tied for 12th in NHL scoring with 83 points) take another step or at least replicate last season's breakthrough performance?
• Can Richards return to his 80-90 point level of production in his first full season in Big D?
• Will co-GM Brett Hull and coach Dave Tippett, who was given a contract extension this offseason, be able to keep the combustible Avery in line or will Avery become a polarizing influence in the normally close-knit Stars dressing room?
• Will the Stars be able to lock in ageless wonder Sergei Zubov, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer?
• Can Zubov, who played in only 46 regular-season games, stay healthy enough to push the Stars to elite status?
• What kind of impact will Swedish sensation Fabian Brunnstrom, the subject of intense bidding by a number of NHL teams, have in his first NHL experience?
Los Angeles Kings: The moribund West Coast franchise staggered to another dismal finish last season (the Kings' 71 points tied with Tampa Bay for the fewest in the NHL). GM Dean Lombardi, whose additions of veteran free agents last summer amounted to a waste of time and money, has shed age and salary this offseason, moving center/winger Mike Cammalleri and saying goodbye to Rob Blake, Ladislav Nagy, Visnovsky and coach Marc Crawford, among others. Lombardi's hiring of Terry Murray as Crawford's replacement is a bit of a head-scratcher, but if the even-keeled Murray can help the talented but young Kings evolve, it'll be a much-needed step in the right direction. Jarret Stoll comes over from Edmonton.
• Is Jonathan Bernier ready to take over as goaltender of the future for a team that hasn't had a bona fide NHL starter in years?
• Can Erik Ersberg, who showed flashes of brilliance in 14 appearances last season, make a bid for the starting netminder's job?
• Who will replace Cammalleri's offensive production up front?
• Does hard-hitting Denis Gauthier, banished to the minors by Philadelphia last season, have anything left in the tank?
• Can Murray, who hasn't been a head coach since midway through the 2000-01 season, teach the baby-faced Kings enough about disciplined, two-way hockey to keep them in the playoff race or, at least, keep them respectable?
• Which of the Kings' stable of young, talented defensemen makes a statement this season?
Phoenix Coyotes: The Coyotes hung tough for the first two-thirds of last season, defying most predictions that they would be among the worst teams in the NHL. Although the team improved dramatically on defense (it was 17th in goals allowed per game), it was still impotent when it came to offensive production. It prompted GM Don Maloney to acquire center Olli Jokinen from Florida in exchange for Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton. The Coyotes won't miss Boynton nearly as much as the gritty Ballard, who looked like a captain-in-waiting for the Coyotes. Maloney also added toughness by bringing in Brian McGrattan and Todd Fedoruk.
• What do we see from coach Wayne Gretzky in the fourth year of his coaching experiment?
• Does Jokinen's presence mean a breakout season for captain Shane Doan, who led the Coyotes with 78 points last season?
• How does Kyle Turris, the third overall pick in 2007, adjust to life as an NHLer, assuming he makes the team?
• Who picks up the slack, both in terms of minutes played and leadership, with Ballard's departure?
• How does big center Martin Hanzal respond after offseason back surgery to correct a herniated disk?
• Can eighth overall draft pick Mikkel Boedker, who some consider one of the fastest players in June's draft, crack the big squad out of camp?
San Jose Sharks: Another season of great expectations was followed by yet another disappointing playoff turn, which, in turn, was followed by another season of dramatic movement by the San Jose Sharks. GM Doug Wilson canned coach Ron Wilson (no relation) after a third straight second-round playoff ouster. He then moved decisively to fill the void created when the Sharks couldn't bring Brian Campbell under contract by acquiring former Cup winners Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich from Tampa Bay. Veteran Cup-winner Rob Blake also joins the Sharks as they try, again, to ice a team that can move from contender to winner.
• The clock ran out on Wilson the coach; is this the last hurrah for Wilson the GM if the Sharks don't take a significant step closer to a championship?
• Can Jonathan Cheechoo, whose goal production has dipped from 56 to 37 to 23 since winning the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals, get back to star-scoring level?
• Can rookie NHL coach Todd McLellan take the Sharks where veteran bench boss Ron Wilson couldn't?
• Have the Sharks finally tapped out the well of youthful talent that has been their trademark or do they have another Cheechoo up their sleeve?
• Do Blake and Boyle give the Sharks the dynamic defensive presence they've been lacking?
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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