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NHL preview: A look at the biggest questions in the Western Conference

Anaheim Ducks’ Brian Gibbons (23), center, is defended by Los Angeles Kings’ Alex Iafallo during the
Ducks’ Brian Gibbons (23), center, is defended by Kings’ Alex Iafallo during the second period of a preseason game on Wednesday in Anaheim.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The Vegas Golden Knights established a blueprint for how to run an expansion team, becoming a huge box-office draw while they shocked the hockey world and reached the Stanley Cup Final. Now, what do they do for an encore?

Their path won’t be easy. The West became tougher when the San Jose Sharks, loading up for a Cup run, acquired defenseman Erik Karlsson from Ottawa. The Kings signed free-agent winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who has been out of the NHL since 2013, in hopes he can score enough to support their solid defense.

Two young teams are looking to make turnarounds. The Edmonton Oilers, a flop last season despite the exploits of NHL scoring leader Connor McDavid, need help on defense but figure to be better than 12th in the conference. And the young Arizona Coyotes might finally have the legs and skill to challenge for a playoff spot.

Here are the big questions in the Western Conference leading into the season:

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Can the Golden Knights do it again?

They won’t have the element of surprise, and they’ll start without steadfast defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was suspended by the NHL for the first 20 games of the season for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. In addition, restricted free agent Shea Theodore missed most of camp before signing a new contract. On the plus side: They acquired left wing Max Pacioretty, who will replace departed free agent James Neal, and they signed play-making center Paul Stastny. Their speed and scoring should keep them in the conference mix.

How will the Kings do?

A career-best season from Anze Kopitar (35 goals, 92 points), the revival of Dustin Brown (from 14 goals to 28, with 61 points) and Jonathan Quick’s Jennings Trophy-winning season got them a first-round playoff exit. No more excuses for Tanner Pearson (15 goals), Tyler Toffoli (six goals after the All-Star game), or Adrian Kempe (no goals in his last 33 games, including playoffs). The Kings are gambling Kovalchuk can score 25 goals in a league that’s faster and younger than when he left. If he can’t make big contributions they’ll struggle, but having a healthy Jeff Carter is an immediate improvement.

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How will the Ducks do?

Being swept by the Sharks in the first round of the playoffs seemed to signal it was time to move Randy Carlyle into the front office and hire a new coach. Instead, Carlyle stayed and is trying to install an up-tempo system. Fine idea, but under pressure, will they revert to their old, penalty-filled heavy game? They have a mobile defense, an infusion of skillful youth up front, and forward Rickard Rakell coming off a career-best season of 34 goals and 69 points. Center Ryan Kesler (hip) and winger Patrick Eaves (shoulder surgery) won’t be ready to start the season and winger Corey Perry is expected to miss five months after knee surgery. The Ducks could be very good if everyone buys in and their kids produce … or very bad if they don’t.

What impact will Erik Karlsson have in San Jose?

Adding an offense-oriented Norris Trophy winner to a group that includes Norris winner Brent Burns and shutdown specialist Marc-Edouard Vlasic makes the Sharks formidable. Tomas Hertl is coming off a career-best 22 goals, and Logan Couture, who signed an eight-year extension in July, had a career-best 34 goals last season. Winger Evander Kane had nine goals and 14 point in 17 games after San Jose acquired him from Buffalo and he fit in well. Joe Thornton, 39, didn’t play after he injured his knee in January but signed a one-year deal. He should help on the power play; anything beyond that would be a bonus.

When will Seattle join the NHL?

The Seattle city council last week approved lease and development agreements with the Oak View Group, which is headed by former AEG executive Tim Leiweke, to demolish KeyArena (except its roof) and rebuild on the site. The estimated cost of $700 million will be privately financed. The hopeful ownership group, led by Jerry Bruckheimer and David Bonderman, is scheduled to appear before the NHL’s executive committee this week. If all goes well, the Board of Governors will vote in December and Seattle will join the NHL for the 2020-21 season. Unless, of course, there’s a lockout.

How they’ll finish

Times columnist Helene Elliott predicts the order of finish. The top three teams in each division qualify for the playoffs as well as the next two conference teams with the best records:

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Pacific

1. San Jose

2. Vegas

3. Calgary

Central

1. Winnipeg

2. Nashville

3. Dallas

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Wild card 1

Ducks

Wild card 2

Kings

Out

Arizona

Chicago

Colorado

Edmonton

Minnesota

St. Louis

Vancouver

helene.elliott@latimes.com

@helenenothelen


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