NHL Western Conference questions: Can the Blues repeat as champions?
The Stanley Cup champion came from the Western Conference last season, but the winner wasn’t one of the teams that dominated early in the decade.
The Chicago Blackhawks, who won in 2010, 2013 and 2015, and the Kings, who prevailed in 2012 and 2014, missed the playoffs last season and plunged into roster rebuilds. While they fell, the St. Louis Blues became first-time Cup winners, mixing brawn with skill and the stellar goaltending of rookie Jordan Binnington.
Winning back-to-back Cup titles is tough, but the Blues brought back the heart of their championship team, with the notable exceptions of trading hard-hitting defenseman Joel Edmundson to Carolina for puck-moving defenseman Justin Faulk and letting hometown hero Pat Maroon leave as a free agent.
Here are the big questions in the Western Conference leading into the season:
Can the St. Louis Blues repeat?
Their rise from last place overall in January to champions in June made them a popular winner, as did their status as the only surviving team from the Second Six expansion in 1967 that hadn’t won the Cup. Fans of old-time hockey liked them because they were big and physical and bucked the NHL’s trend toward emphasizing speed and skill, though they have ample talent. It’s tough to sustain bruising hitting over a full season. In their favor: They have kids bringing energy, and three-time All-Star Faulk should boost their power play.
First-year Kings coach Todd McLellan offers his insights and observations from training camp on the team’s opening-night roster.
How will the Kings do?
They ranked 30th and had an NHL-worst minus-61 goal differential, so the only way to go is up. Todd McLellan — general manager Rob Blake’s third coaching hire in less than two years — wants to bring structure and a faster tempo. They need both. Their ability to be competitive depends on whether goalie Jonathan Quick (3.38 goals-against average, .888 save percentage) and winger Tyler Toffoli (13 goals in 82 games) can rebound from bad seasons. If they can’t, Blake will have to make sweeping changes. It will be interesting to see whether 36-year-old winger Ilya Kovalchuk, misused last season while scoring 16 goals in 64 games, can again be productive. A long season looms.
How will the Ducks do?
They also have a new coach, but Dallas Eakins coached many of their young players at San Diego of the American Hockey League. They didn’t have to go through a complete makeover, but they could struggle to score again after ranking last overall last season with an average of 2.39 goals per game. Goalie John Gibson (2.84 goals-against average, .917 save percentage) is among the NHL’s best but doesn’t get enough help. Ryan Getzlaf, who is 16 games from 1,000 in his career, must mesh with younger players now that longtime linemate Corey Perry was bought out. The playoffs are a long shot.
Who’s on an upswing?
The Arizona Coyotes finished four points out of a wild-card playoff spot last season without having a 20-goal scorer. They will welcome Phil Kessel, who has scored at least 20 goals in 11 straight seasons and feasts on the power play. … The Dallas Stars, who took St. Louis to double overtime in Game 7 in the second round of the playoffs, gained experience and scoring potential when they signed Perry and Joe Pavelski but also got older in a youth-driven league. ... Colorado defenseman Cale Makar will be a rookie of the year candidate and has superstar potential. Nathan MacKinnon (41 goals, 99 points) is already at the elite level.
Will the New Jersey Devils see a resurgence with No. 1 pick Jack Hughes? Will the Tampa Bay Lightning try to avoid finishing first this season?
Who’s on a downswing?
The Winnipeg Jets are hurting. Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, their ice-time leader last season, took a leave of absence and might retire. They couldn’t sign defenseman Jacob Trouba and traded him; they lost another big-minutes defenseman, Tyler Myers, to free agency. Signing holdout forwards Patrik Laine (two years, $13.5 million) and Kyle Connor (seven years, $50 million) was vital to their future. ... The Minnesota Wild always seems to be good but never great. Look for new general manager Bill Guerin to keep coach Bruce Boudreau on a short leash. ... The San Jose Sharks’ window of opportunity could be closing. Extending Erik Karlsson’s contract left them no money to keep Pavelski, a big loss. Their defense drops off after Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Martin Jones’ .896 save percentage last season wasn’t good enough.
When will Seattle start playing?
The still-unnamed team will debut in the 2021-22 season. General manager Ron Francis made an inspired choice by hiring women’s hockey pioneer and Olympic gold medalist Cammi Granato as a scout. The cost for the team’s arena has soared past $900 million and its opening has been pushed back, but it’s expected to be ready in the summer of 2021.
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