<
>

Camp questions: Western Conference

9/17/2009 - NHL

With training camps in full swing, here are a few burning questions for the Western Conference (check out Pierre LeBrun's breakdown of the East):

Anaheim Ducks

Every time we write about the Ducks, we say the same thing: GM Bob Murray has done an exemplary job of retooling Anaheim on the run. He got a boatload of talent from Philadelphia in a draft-weekend deal that sent Chris Pronger to Philadelphia, including former Duck Joffrey Lupul, who should help ease the offensive burden shouldered by Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Promising young defenseman Luca Sbisa, also part of the Pronger deal, joins a suddenly youthful, impressive blue line that also boasts Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski.

Saku Koivu joins Finnish pal Teemu Selanne up front to add some secondary scoring and leadership. Goaltending remains solid as Jonas Hiller will look to build on his spectacular playoff performance and former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere looks to get back to form after losing his starter's job to Hiller. Getzlaf has the potential to be a consistent top-five NHL scorer, but he is recovering from offseason sports hernia surgery. He told ESPN.com that he hopes to be ready by the Ducks' Oct. 3 season opener.

Burning question: How will the goaltending situation play out in Anaheim? One might imagine that coach Randy Carlyle would have a full-blown controversy on his hands with Giguere being forced into a secondary role, yet Giguere told ESPN.com last season he understood why Carlyle made his move and isn't the sort to make waves. Murray explored dealing Giguere, who has two more years totaling $13 million on his contract, in the offseason. Giguere has a no-trade clause, but if Hiller is still the starter come trade-deadline time, there will be lots of teams looking to shore up their goaltending with a player of Giguere's pedigree.

Calgary Flames

The Flames landed the top defenseman on the market in Jay Bouwmeester, acquiring his rights at the draft and locking him in to a five-year deal. Although Bouwmeester has all the tools to be an elite NHL defenseman (he led all players in average ice time last season), he has never played in an NHL playoff game. Still, with Bouwmeester, Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich playing in front of Miikka Kiprusoff, the Flames should be one of the stingier teams in the NHL (assuming Phaneuf and Kiprusoff have bounce-back seasons after struggling throughout the 2008-09 season).

While Bouwmeester makes Calgary's blue line more imposing, the loss of Mike Cammalleri and his 82 points is a troublesome issue that has not been addressed by the Flames. And, oh yeah, there's a new man behind the bench in Brent Sutter, brother of GM Darryl Sutter, the same Brent Sutter who missed his family so much he had to beg off the last year of his contract in New Jersey.

Burning question: Has the well run dry for workhorse Kiprusoff and is there enough of a Plan B to make the Flames a legitimate Cup contender? Yes and no. Kiprusoff's numbers have been in slow decline since the Flames went to the Stanley Cup finals in 2003-04. Over that period of time, the Flames have failed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. As for a Plan B, Curtis McElhinney just isn't going to cut it, which means another heavy workload for Kiprusoff. The Flames are good enough to win a very ordinary Northwest Division, but don't expect the spring to be any less cruel.

Chicago Blackhawks

It was a summer of high drama and turmoil for the darlings of the NHL. The Hawks followed up their first conference finals appearance since 1995 by signing top free agent Marian Hossa away from Detroit, the team that ended Chicago's playoff run, and adding defensive specialist John Madden to the fold. The Hawks then fired GM Dale Tallon, and Patrick Kane was arrested after an early-morning brouhaha with a Buffalo cab driver. Regardless, the Blackhawks will enter the 2009-10 season with one of the most talented blue-line corps in the NHL and the highest expectations since they last appeared in the Stanley Cup finals in 1992.

Burning question: Can former rookie of the year Kane put his embarrassing incident behind him and be the offensive spark plug the Hawks need to take another step toward ending a 47-year-old Cup drought? Yes. Kane spoke honestly about the incident in a recent interview with ESPN.com and seems genuinely contrite. Physically, he said he has never worked out as hard as he did this summer to get into game shape. Look for him to be a dynamic force with a team that should finish at, or near, the top of the Western Conference.

Colorado Avalanche

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. After finishing 28th overall last season, it's hard to imagine a worse team in the NHL than the Avs. Not only has the team lost much of its personnel luster with the retirement of future Hall of Famer Joe Sakic, the dealing of Ryan Smyth to Los Angeles and the departure of character guy Ian Laperriere to Philadelphia, but the team also embarrassed itself in its bid to lure Patrick Roy back to Denver. The Avs offered him carte blanche to either manage or coach the team even though Tony Granato still held the position of head coach. Roy wanted no part of the Avs, and Granato was ultimately replaced by former role player Joe Sacco, surely one of the strangest coaching hires of the summer. Virtually unknown Greg Sherman was named GM.

Sherman did get a nice package out of the Kings for Smyth, adding defensemen Tom Preissing and Kyle Quincey. Craig Anderson will certainly help the shoddy goaltending. But apart from Paul Stastny and an aging Milan Hejduk, there is little in the way of consistent scoring.

Burning question: How long does the Sherman/Sacco experiment last? We're guessing two seasons. Look for the Avs to be another draft lottery team this season, and perhaps next, after which they may have accumulated enough young talent to pry Roy out of Quebec City.

Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets finally broke the playoff glass ceiling after earning their first postseason berth this past spring. The experience didn't last long as Columbus was swept by Detroit in four straight games. Still, netminder Steve Mason emerged as a goalie around whom the franchise can build and earned rookie of the year honors. Mason was also a Vezina Trophy finalist. Rick Nash signed a long-term contract extension in the offseason and told ESPN.com he hopes his commitment to the team will be a signal to other players that the franchise is on the right track. GM Scott Howson added Samuel Pahlsson, but the Blue Jackets, 21st overall in scoring last season, will continue to be offensively challenged.

Burning question: Is there enough offense in the Columbus lineup to keep the Blue Jackets from taking a step backward? No. There is Nash and then there is, well, a very ordinary supporting cast. Unless players like Derick Brassard and Nikita Filatov take a giant step forward, duplicating last season's success will be nigh on impossible.

Dallas Stars

It was an interesting offseason for the Stars, as owner Tom Hicks decided someone had to pay for the Sean Avery fiasco of last season. Co-GM Brett Hull, who signed the combustible Avery, was reassigned and Joe Nieuwendyk was brought in as GM. Nieuwendyk, who won a Cup with the Stars in 1999, immediately canned coach Dave Tippett and replaced him with Marc Crawford. The move ranks as one of the more curious coaching decisions of the offseason as Crawford's track record for most of the past decade has been abysmal.

Throw in the departure of Sergei Zubov to the Kontinental Hockey League and this is a Stars team that appears to be in decline. A playoff spot will be in the cards only if a number of younger players step forward and captain Brenden Morrow and Brad Richards fully recover from injuries that cut their seasons short in 2008-09.

Burning question: What will become of veteran netminder Marty Turco? If the Stars stumble -- and that is a distinct possibility -- then look for Nieuwendyk to try to move Turco before the trade deadline. There is no natural heir apparent to the Stars' starting netminding post, but with Turco set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, Nieuwendyk will be looking to the future and that means getting younger.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings have lost a number of parts from the roster that won a Stanley Cup in 2008 and reached Game 7 of June's final against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Marian Hossa, Chris Chelios, Tomas Kopecky, Mikael Samuelsson and Jiri Hudler all are gone. Todd Bertuzzi returns to the Wings fold after he was briefly in Detroit late in 2007. Jason Williams and Patrick Eaves are also in camp, but the Wings' departures will mean more opportunity and responsibility for youngsters like Valtteri Filppula, Ville Leino, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm. (Helm, however, is expected to be out of action for about a month after straining his shoulder during a training camp collision.)

Burning question: Is there enough internal talent in the pipeline to keep the Wings a Cup contender yet again despite turnover in personnel? Yes. Watch for Filppula and Helm (when healthy) to take on more prominent roles without breaking stride, and the Wings will once again be at, or near, the top of the Western Conference.

Edmonton Oilers

Poor Edmonton. The Oilers come on bended knee to Dany Heatley in the hopes of coaxing him to drop his no-trade deal and become an Oiler, but the disgruntled Ottawa forward followed in the footsteps of players like Chris Pronger and Michael Nylander in snubbing the City of Champions. Instead, the Oilers must now try to keep players like Dustin Penner, Andrew Cogliano and Ladislav Smid, who would have gone to Ottawa in the deal, focused on being Oilers and not on the fact the team tried to get rid of them. Yikes.

As a fallback, the Oilers followed a well-worn path in signing a hometown player, Mike Comrie, who will bring some secondary scoring to the team with which he started his NHL career almost a decade ago. One bright spot was the addition of netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, who takes over the role of aging veteran starter from free-agent defector Dwayne Roloson. If Khabibulin can replicate his strong play from last season for the Blackhawks, the Oilers should be in the playoff hunt. The problem for the Oilers is that Khabibulin usually saves his best work for a contract season and they signed him to a four-year deal. Hmm.

Burning question: Is the change of personalities behind the bench enough to coax the Oilers back into the playoffs after missing three straight postseasons since going to the 2006 Cup finals? Yes. No offense to solid former Oilers bench boss Craig MacTavish, but it was time for a change and veteran coach Pat Quinn will provide a welcome tonic. Throw in top X's and O's guy Tom Renney and seasoned assistant Wayne Fleming (back from Russia), and you have one of the top coaching staffs in the NHL. It should be enough to get the Oilers back into the postseason in a division that is suddenly the weakest of the three in the West.

Los Angeles Kings

There is great anticipation for the youthful Kings; the expectations are high as many believe they will jump into a playoff berth for the first time since 2002. Let's put it this way: The Kings better be in the hunt if GM Dean Lombardi and coach Terry Murray are interested in job security. Still, credit Lombardi for putting all the pieces in place.

After drafting a core of talented NHL-ready players the past few seasons, Lombardi added veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi, fresh from his starring role with the Penguins during the Stanley Cup finals, and veteran forward Ryan Smyth. Both are winners and character guys who should help the Kings get over the rough parts of the season. Team defense improved dramatically last season (the Kings were a respectable 11th in goals allowed per game). Still, there's lots of work to do as the Kings finished 27th in scoring in 2008-09; that will have to improve dramatically if they're to make good on playoff expectations.

Burning question: Goaltending has long been a bugaboo for the Kings, but it appears the team is set with young Jonathan Quick as the go-to guy. Is he ready? It's a big mouthful for a 23-year-old with just 47 NHL games to his credit, but we think he's ready. If not, look for Erik Ersberg to fill in, but if it's not Quick, the playoffs suddenly become a long shot.

Minnesota Wild

Hard to know what to make of the Wild, who finally got tired of the franchise's spinning its wheels and fired GM Doug Risebrough after coach Jacques Lemaire said he wasn't coming back (he returned to the Devils' bench). Chuck Fletcher, son of Hall of Fame general manager Cliff Fletcher, gets his first GM role after serving in various capacities in Pittsburgh and Florida. Fletcher brought in rookie coach Todd Richards, who should bring a more up-tempo style to the normally passive Wild.

Still, the team is virtually unchanged from the one that missed the playoffs last year and was upset in the first round the season before by Colorado. Oft-injured Marian Gaborik is now with the Rangers and was replaced by Martin Havlat, who has had his own injury problems. Like Gaborik, Havlat is a point machine when healthy. But it must have been disappointing to see the Wild come up empty in adding another impact forward to help boost an offense that was 21st in the league last season. Having Benoit Pouliot, the team's 2005 fourth overall pick, found guilty of drunken driving didn't help matters.

Burning question: Is the appearance of a new coach and, more significantly, the departure of the old one enough to jump-start the Wild back into the playoffs? No. Although the Wild may play a different style (read: more exciting), the fact is the lineup isn't built for offense and will struggle to improve on its No. 22 offensive ranking.

Nashville Predators

Every season, the Predators seem to be faced with doing more with less. This season looks to be no different as the budget-conscious Preds were once again silent when the free-agent market opened in July. Without the cash to land big-name offensive help, the Preds will once again rely on one of the best young blue lines in the game and terrific goaltending in the form of unheralded Pekka Rinne to stay close. Still, someone will have to score, and with erstwhile forward Alexander Radulov still toiling away in the Kontinental Hockey League, the pressure will fall once again on Jason Arnott and a cast of pluggers to get the job done. It won't be easy for a team that was 24th in scoring and whose prospects for improving that number don't look good.

Burning question: How long can the Predators keep living hand to mouth and still draw fans in Music City? Nashville has never won a playoff round and missed the playoffs just once since the lockout. The Preds don't have enough money to bring in top free agents and it is a constant juggling act for GM David Poile to keep his homegrown talent under contract. A playoff berth will once again be a life-and-death struggle, which will again tax the patience of a fan base that isn't that strong to begin with. Tick, tick, tick.

Phoenix Coyotes

What a colossal mess this franchise is, and it's not going to get any better anytime soon, regardless of how the ownership fiasco plays out. The future of coach Wayne Gretzky remains uncertain and The Great One was absent on the first day of training camp -- not a good sign in terms of stability. There are lots of moving parts, including Mikkel Boedker, Peter Mueller, Matthew Lombardi, Scottie Upshall and Viktor Tikhonov. But the bottom line is, the only proven offensive force the Coyotes boast is veteran captain Shane Doan, whose 31 goals led the team last season. Defensively, the Coyotes were 24th in the league, which suggests the defense and goaltending has to be a whole lot better if the Coyotes are going to defy skeptics and stay in the playoff hunt.

Burning question: How much will the off-ice uncertainty surrounding the team's future affect the Coyotes' on-ice performance? Significantly. The ownership and coaching situations remained in a state of flux right to the start of training camp as assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson is leading practices. Let's assume, at some point, the team actually has a coach; he will have to play catch-up to get the team playing the systems he wants. Then, when the regular season starts, look for a dwindling number of fans to exacerbate the situation. Can you say, "bad to worse"?

San Jose Sharks

The snakebit Sharks have made a career of turning preseason Stanley Cup expectations into postseason gruel, but credit GM Doug Wilson for not standing pat. Wilson pulled the trigger on another blockbuster deal on the eve of training camp, acquiring two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley in the hopes the talented winger can push the team out of their postseason rut. The acquisition wasn't cheap; Wilson first dealt solid defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to Vancouver to clear salary-cap room for Heatley's big contract ($7.5 million annual cap hit for the next five years) and then sent former NHL goal-scoring champ Jonathan Cheechoo, young, talented forward Milan Michalek and a second-round draft pick to Ottawa. Wilson got a fifth-round pick in the deal.

The Sharks never seem to want for talented homegrown prospects to fill in the void in their lineup: Devin Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are current examples. But at some point, the well's going to run dry. Isn't it?

Burning question: Is Heatley that long-awaited missing piece? Yes. Sort of. We aren't prepared at this point to anoint the Sharks Cup champions (we still have the burn marks on our fingers from previous such predictions), but we will say this is the season the Sharks at least advance to a Western Conference championship and Heatley will be a welcome tonic. Look for Heatley to bounce back to the 40- to 50-goal range as the Sharks boast a formidable top six up front. As for a Cup parade, get back to us later on that one.

St. Louis Blues

The hottest team in the NHL in the second half of last season, the Blues shook off a series of crippling injuries to top players like Erik Johnson, Paul Kariya, Eric Brewer and Andy McDonald to storm into the playoffs for the first time since the lockout. Although Brewer's return remains uncertain after he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery late in the summer, the rest should be in top shape at camp. Expectations are high for a Blues team that has worked hard to repair fractured relationships with its fan base and become a legitimate playoff team once again.

Burning question: Can Johnson, the 2006 No. 1 overall pick, make up for lost time after missing all of last season following a freak golf cart accident on the eve of training camp? Yes. We saw Johnson at the U.S. Olympic orientation camp and he is monstrous. He said he's put on 13 pounds since the accident, most of it muscle, and weighs in at 238 pounds. Look for him to make the U.S. Olympic team and for the Blues to start to realize the potential of what is arguably their most important asset.

Vancouver Canucks

When the Canucks landed Mats Sundin in December, many believed the big center would put them over the top and make them a dark horse to win the Cup. Whoops. Didn't quite work out that way as Sundin never found his legs and the Canucks were bounced in the first round by Chicago after winning the Northwest Division. Most troubling was how the Canucks couldn't put away a Blackhawks team that hit the postseason with almost no playoff experience.

Netminder Roberto Luongo, he of the new 12-year contract extension, was shelled in the deciding game and will have to prove he can actually win a big game one of these days. GM Mike Gillis added some offensive punch along the blue line in the ageless Mathieu Schneider and retained the services of Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Still, the vexing question of who can play with the twins remains unanswered, as does the question of where secondary scoring will come from.

Burning question: Can Gillis hit the home run he thought he hit with the Sundin signing last season? Unlikely. But look for Gillis to be interested in top names at the trade deadline. The Canucks were 11th in scoring, but that number doesn't look to get any better without adding a top-line forward to turn the Canucks into a legitimate Cup threat.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.