NHL Preview: How the Western Conference will be won
After winning their third Stanley Cup championship in six seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks fielded questions about whether they can be called a dynasty. Now they face questions on the status of winger Patrick Kane, who faces sexual assault allegations as the result of an alleged incident at his home in August. Kane has not been charged but the investigation might take months and could become a distraction as the Blackhawks try to become the first repeat champions since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings. The Blackhawks have a good chance to win again despite losing several players because of salary-cap limitations. Here’s how the West shapes up, in predicted order of finish:
2014-15: 51-24-7 (109 points), 1st Pacific and West
They’re deep up the middle and on defense, crucial areas. They upgraded by adding gritty defenseman Kevin Bieksa, speedy winger Carl Hagelin, and assistant coach Paul MacLean, who will oversee the power play. If defensemen Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen progress and goaltender Frederik Andersen can avoid injury, the Ducks might banish the memories of three straight Game 7 playoff losses.
45-30-7 (97), 3rd
The Flames were comeback kids last season but won’t surprise anyone any more. Their trade for defenseman Dougie Hamilton from Boston looks even smarter since T.J. Brodie broke his hand in training camp, which will keep him out of the opener. Johnny Gaudreau (24 goals, 64 points as a rookie), Sean Monahan (31 goals, 62 points at age 20) and 19-year-old Sam Bennett could excel for years to come.
40-27-15 (95), 4th, missed playoffs
They’re refreshed and past the turmoil of the drug-related arrests of Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards, and the domestic-violence jail term of Slava Voynov. Brawny winger Milan Lucic should boost a meager offense but they lack speed beyond the Tanner Pearson-Jeff Carter-Tyler Toffoli line. Drew Doughty will play a lot for a defense made stronger by adding veteran Christian Ehrhoff. They need more from Anze Kopitar (16 goals, 64 points) and Dustin Brown (11 goals, 27 points).
40-33-9 (89), 5th, missed playoffs
The key is the performance of former Kings backup goalie Martin Jones, who went to Boston for Lucic and then to San Jose to become the Sharks’ starter. Free-agent signee Paul Martin will stabilize the defense. Joe Pavelski (37 goals, 70 points) is likely to be their captain and deserves it because of his work ethic. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau remain core players but Logan Couture and their kids must assert themselves.
24-44-14 (62), 6th, missed playoffs
Connor McDavid should lead the Oilers out of the wilderness, though not to the playoffs. New General Manager Peter Chiarelli and Coach Todd McLellan bring credibility, though Chiarelli might need to beef up his defense by trading one of his many young forwards. With some guidance, McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov and Co. could be heading in a successful direction.
48-29-5 (101), 2nd
The Canucks might take a step backward because of their losses and rivals’ improvements. Losing Bieksa hurts a thin defense corps, and they alienated fans by trading popular goalie Eddie Lack, who won the starting job after Ryan Miller returned from a knee injury. Top scorers Daniel and Henrik Sedin are 35 and top goal scorer Radim Vrbata is 34. They need young legs beside them. Look for second-year center Bo Horvat to emerge.
24-50-8 (56 points), 7th, missed playoffs.
They’re playing for the right to draft Scottsdale, Ariz., native Auston Matthews in June. Matthews took the unusual step of playing in Switzerland this season instead of junior hockey, and he might benefit from playing against older foes. The Coyotes have some fine pieces — defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a gem — and prospect Max Domi has more skill than his tough-guy father Tie, but there’s not enough scoring for them to make the playoffs.
51-24-7 (109), 1st
The Blues are heavy on brawn in a league trending toward speed over size, a likely factor in their string of early playoff exits. Another one-and-done could be trouble for Coach Ken Hitchcock. They need Brian Elliott or Jake Allen — who passed Elliott down the stretch — to seize the No. 1 goaltending job. Look for skillful forward Vladimir Tarasenko to surpass last season’s career-bests of 37 goals and 73 points.
48-28-6 (102), 3rd
A salary-cap pinch led the Blackhawks to part with several Cup contributors, including Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya, but their depth should compensate. Dynamic forward Teuvo Teravainen (four goals, 10 points in 18 playoff games) is poised to break out. They might struggle early but will be there when it matters, led by Jonathan Toews, tireless Duncan Keith and stalwart Brent Seabrook.
46-28-8 (100), 4th, wild card 1
The Wild saved its season when it acquired goalie Devan Dubnyk in January, as he compiled a 1.78 goals-against average in 39 games and earned a new six-year, $26-million contract. Minnesota has enough talent up front to support veteran winger Zach Parise (33 goals, 62 points). There’s enough quality on defense to reduce Ryan Suter’s league-leading average of 29 minutes and three seconds’ ice time per game. This could be a big year for the Wild.
47-25-10 (104), 2nd
The Predators thrived under Coach Peter Laviolette last season, improving by 16 points and returning to the playoffs, if only for one round. Pekka Rinne (2.18, .923) bounced back after hip surgery. Defenseman Roman Josi became a stud, combining with Shea Weber to lead a very good group. Filip Forsberg registered an impressive 26 goals as a rookie but overall scoring might be sporadic.
43-26-13 (99), 5th, wild card 2
The Jets electrified the city during a playoff push that ended with a first-round sweep by the Ducks but signaled hope for the future. Andrew Ladd (24 goals, 62 points), speedy Blake Wheeler (26 goals) and Bryan Little (24 goals) should get support from Alexander Burmistrov — returned from the KHL — and Nikolaj Ehlers. A playoff return is possible if goalie Ondrej Pavelec can repeat last season’s 2.28 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
39-31-12 (90), 7th, missed playoffs
Injuries were a big factor in the Avalanche’s drop from 112 points to 90 last season; goalie Semyon Varlamov played only 57 games. Colorado should improve on defense after signing former Duck Francois Beauchemin and acquiring 6-foot-5 Nikita Zadorov when ittraded gritty Ryan O’Reilly. The Avalanche needs a big rebound by Nathan MacKinnon, who slid from 63 points to 38 last season.
41-31-10 (92), 6th, missed playoffs
Led by scoring champion Jamie Benn (35 goals, 87 points) the Stars put the biscuit in the basket 261 times last season, second in the NHL. Scoring won’t be a problem but defense and goaltending will be. They brought in goalie Antti Niemi to compete with Kari Lehtonen but neither seems a long-term solution. The team will benefit from the championship experience of former Blackhawks Sharp and Oduya.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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