Usual sus­pects, new faces will con­tend

Sharks to be strong again; first-year cap­tain McDavid will need help in Ed­mon­ton

Baltimore Sun - - NHL PREVIEW - By He­lene El­liott

After the Los An­ge­les Kings and Chicago Black­hawks al­ter­nated as Stan­ley Cup cham­pi­ons for four sea­sons, the Cup left the Western Con­fer­ence and landed in the hands of the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins this sum­mer.

The Kings, Black­hawks and de­fend­ing West cham­pion San Jose Sharks should con­tend for the top spot in the con­fer­ence again this sea­son, but they will be pushed by the Nashville Preda­tors, who ac­quired dy­namic de­fense­man P.K. Sub­ban from the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens, as well as the young Ed­mon­ton Oil­ers, the Ari­zona Coyotes and the goal­tend­ing-deep Cal­gary Flames.

Here are the big ques­tions in the Western Con­fer­ence lead­ing into the sea­son: Can the Sharks win the West again? After rank­ing third in the Pa­cific Di­vi­sion, they ban­ished their play­off de­mons by tak­ing down the Kings in five games, Nashville in seven and the St. Louis Blues in six to reach the Cup Fi­nal for the first time. Although they lost to the Pen­guins in six games, they found a No. 1 goalie in Martin Jones and used their speed and for­ward depth to ex­cel­lent ad­van­tage. Look for them to be strong again. How will the Kings do? Los­ing right wing Mar­ian Ga­borik, who broke his foot dur­ing the World Cup, is an­other ob­sta­cle for a team that fig­ured to strug­gle for goals after left wing Mi­lan Lu­cic left as a free agent. Cen­ter Anze Ko­pi­tar (Selke Tro­phy, best de­fen­sive for­ward) and Drew Doughty (Nor­ris Tro­phy, best de­fense­man) won over­due recog­ni­tion and are in their primes. The Kings have a solid top four on de­fense but are short on depth and speed there. They also have lit­tle speed up front, which could be a prob­lem, and salary cap con­straints will pre­vent them from up­grad­ing with­out los­ing a sig­nif­i­cant player. They should make the play­offs but must en­ter on an up­swing; a late slump last sea­son has­tened their slide out of the play­offs in five games. How will the Anaheim Ducks do? They made a con­tro­ver­sial move when they hired coach Randy Car­lyle to re­place Bruce Boudreau, but some­thing had to change after they squan­dered a 3-2 play­off se­ries Preda­tors de­fense­man P.K. Sub­ban clears the puck away from Light­ning cen­ter Cedric Pa­que­tte (13) dur­ing a pre­sea­son game. Sub­ban, ac­quired this off­sea­son from the Cana­di­ens in a trade for de­fense­man Shea We­ber, is one of the top play­ers to watch this sea­son. lead and lost a Game 7 at home for the third straight sea­son. It could work if Car­lyle has mel­lowed as much as he claims and if he can mo­ti­vate Corey Perry and Ryan Get­zlaf to step up at crunch time. It could back­fire if he re­verts to old-school, phys­i­cal tac­tics in a league where speed is vi­tal. Their de­fense is en­vi­able, even with­out re­stricted free agent Ham­pus Lind­holm signed to a new deal, and they could trade a de­fense­man for scor­ing help, es­pe­cially with cen­ter Rickard Rakell un­signed. Goal­tender John Gib­son must prove he can be a starter. If he falters, the Ducks could be passed by im­proved di­vi­sion ri­vals. Is Ed­mon­ton’s Connor McDavid the real deal? A bro­ken col­lar­bone lim­ited him to 45 games as a rookie, but the Oil­ers were con­fi­dent enough to ap­point him cap­tain at the age of 19 years and 266 days, the youngest cap­tain in NHL his­tory. His tal­ent is un­de­ni­able, but his sup­port­ing cast is un­even. Too many years of draft­ing for­wards and ig­nor­ing de­fense hurt the Oil­ers, who gave up a lot — Tay­lor Hall — to get de­fense­man Adam Lars­son from the New Jersey Devils. Which teams are on the rise? The Cal­gary Flames, 30th last sea­son with a 3.10 goals-against av­er­age and .892 save per­cent­age, up­graded con­sid­er­ably when they ac­quired goalie Brian El­liott from St. Louis and signed free agent Chad John­son. They have speed, rugged de­fense and scor­ing depth — keep an eye on Matthew Tkachuk — but they must re-sign re­stricted-freeagent for­ward Johnny Gau­dreau. Ari­zona also is built around speed, the po­ten­tial of for­wards Max Domi and An­thony Du­clair and the con­sid­er­able skills of de­fense­man Oliver Ek­man-Lars­son. The Coyotes might not be deep enough to make the play­offs, but they’re get­ting close. Which coach knows he’s gone — and who will re­place him? Blues coach Ken Hitch­cock said he plans to re­tire after this sea­son, and for­mer Min­nesota coach Mike Yeo was hired to be his as­sis­tant and suc­ces­sor. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how much in­put Yeo will be al­lowed to have this sea­son.


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