After a couple years of seasoning, the Edmonton Oilers are looking as though they’re ready to step into elite status. PSN hockey analyst Jan Levine breaks down the Western Conference.
By Jan Levine, PSN Hockey Analyst
1. Nashville Predators: A slightly reluctant vote for Nashville. The loss of Ryan Ellis, likely until January, hurts the defense and increases pressure on the offense. And despite mostly fine work by Pekka Rinne in the playoffs, don’t be surprised if Juuse Saros takes on a larger workload this season. Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg are joined on the scoresheet by Kevin Fiala, recovered from his broken leg. P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Mathias Ekholm carry the load from the backline.
2. Chicago Blackhawks: The ‘Hawks decided to get the band back together, trading Artemi Panarin for Brandon Saad while also re-signing Patrick Sharp. You would expect Jonathan Toews to produce a better regular season, while Patrick Kane leads the way offensively. The loss of Marian Hossa hurts, so Nick Schmaltz, Richard Panik and Ryan Hartman all need to step up. Trading D Nicklas Hjalmarsson for Connor Murphy might prove beneficial in the future, but it’s a downgrade short term, as greater burden falls to Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. G Corey Crawford is now backed up by Anton Forsberg with Scott Darling in Carolina.
3. Dallas Stars: An early candidate for most improved team this offseason, Dallas finally mayo have addressed their goaltending situation, signing Ben Bishop while buying out Antti Niemi, leaving Kari Lehtonen as the backup. The Stars also brought on Alexander Radulov, Martin Hanzal and Marc Methot, closing several holes in the lineup. The offense again should be potent, led by Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza. The defense, headed by John Klingberg, has several young talents that should improve as the season wears on.
4. Winnipeg Jets: Can the defense, coupled with addition of G Steve Mason, be enough to carry the brilliant offense to the playoffs? Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers are joined up front by Mathieu Perreault and Bryan Little to create a formidable top six. If D Jacob Trouba takes a step forward, along with Josh Morrissey, supplemented by Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers, the blue line might be much improved. In the end, though, it will come down to how well Mason – who signed a two-year, $9 million deal this offseason – and Conor Hellebuyck play.
5. Minnesota Wild: If all goes correctly, Minnesota could battle for the division lead – but they also could be in a fight to make the playoffs. This used to be Zach Parise’s team, but injuries have rendered him a shell of his former self. Up front, the burden now falls to Eric Staal, Charlie Coyle, the underrated Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker. D Ryan Suter is joined by Matt Dumba, Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin on a back line that’s effective but doesn’t generate a lot of publicity. G Devan Dubnyk resurrected his career after coming to Minnesota and now is a Vezina Trophy candidate.
6. St. Louis Blues: It wouldn’t shock me if St. Louis battled for the division title. But past failures, especially in the playoffs, makes it difficult to rely on them. Vladimir Taransenko is a beast but Robby Fabbri will miss another season due to injury. Brayden Schenn upgrades the offense while Jaden Schwartz should have another solid season. If Paul Stastny plays like a No.1 center and someone like Tage Thompson steps up or Alexander Steen is strong once he returns to injury, the offense could surprise. Colton Parayko may surpass Alex Pietrangelo as the team’s best defenseman, but the prior depth has been thinned after trading Kevin Shattenkirk last season. G Jake Allen took a step forward last year, especially in the playoffs, and is locked in as the starter.
7. Colorado Avalanche: The Matt Duchene sweepstakes continue to drag on, as GM Joe Sakic has yet to find a deal to his liking. Nathan MacKinnon looks to rebound, while RW Nail Yakupov gets another lease on his hockey life. RW Mikko Rantanen aims to build off a solid rookie campaign and Alex Kerfoot should see lots of minutes as a second- or third-line player. The blue line, other than Tyson Barrie, is nondescript, though Erik Johnson is a veteran and Nikita Zadorov gets to take a step forward. G Semyon Varlamov likely will play at least 50 games after an injury-plagued and ineffective 2016-17 season.
For Eastern Conference preview…Click here.
1. Edmonton Oilers: The popular pick, and why not? Edmonton has a generational talent in Connor McDavid and sidekick in Leon Draisaitl. Mix in Patrick Maroon and Milan Lucic along with recently acquired Ryan Strome and Ryan-Nugent Hopkins, and Edmonton has several offensive weapons for a team that plays at warp speed. If D Oscar Klefbom develops as he did last year and the rest of the back line – including Adam Larsson, Kris Russell and Darnell Nurse – continues to play as they did down the stretch last year, Edmonton will be extremely dangerous. G Cam Talbot could win 45 games with this team.
2. Anaheim Ducks: Injuries are the story early in for Anaheim. Blueliners Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm are out until November after shoulder surgeries while C Ryan Kesler may be out until 2018 following hip surgery. But RW Jakob Silfverberg and C Rickard Rakell are the new faces of Anaheim, paired alongside veterans Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Patrick Eaves. Josh Manson and Brandon Montour will need to carry the defense with Cam Fowler, who signed an eight-year, $52 million deal in July to stay with the Ducks. Josh Gibson is the team’s clear No.1 goalie after leading the team to the Western Conference Finals.
3. Calgary Flames: If Mike Smith can close the huge hole that has been the Calgary net, the Flames could earn a playoff spot. With Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund up front, offense shouldn’t be an issue. LW Matthew Tkachuk provides a physical presence while Michael Ferland and the recently signed and ageless Jaromir Jagr round out the top six. D Travis Hamonic came over from the Islanders, bolstering an already solid defense that boasts Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton. But the season may depend on Smith’s performance.
4. L.A. Kings: Los Angeles fell off a cliff last year, beginning with Jonathan Quick’s groin injury on Opening Night. That decline cost the franchise their GM and coach. Rob Blake is the new GM and coach John Stevens will install a more uptempo style. But the team hasn’t overhauled its personnel, so it will be interesting to see if players like Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli can benefit from the change. D Drew Doughty could enjoy the switch, along with Jake Muzzin. But the bottom six will need to produce and if Quick can play as he has in the past, L.A. could eke a playoff spot.
5. San Jose Sharks: The window likely has closed. Patrick Marleau is now in Toronto and only Super Joe Thornton from the dynamic duo returns, but just for one year. The offensive burden now falls to Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, as C Thomas Hertl has yet to take that step forward. Maybe Kevin Labanc provides the needed secondary scoring. Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic carry the blue line, which drops off substantially after that duo. G Martin Jones saw some cracks last year after a brilliant first season with San Jose, but signed a long-term extension to remain in the Bay Area.
6. Arizona Coyotes: Get ready to see the kids. GM John Chayka aided the development of Clayton Keller, Christian Dvorak and Christian Fischer by trading for Derek Stepan, who gives the team a No.1 center. Stepan should be on a line with Max Domi, while Anthony Duclair gets a second chance after a horrific sophomore campaign and Brendan Perlini looks to build off his solid rookie season. Niklas Hjalmarsson gives the blue line another veteran presence to go with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers. G Antti Raanta was also imported and gets a chance to prove he can be a No.1 netminder in this league.
7. Vancouver Canucks: They have Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat. Just kidding. The Sedin era will end after the season – and maybe beforehand, if either or both agree to a deal. LW Thomas Vanek, who came aboard on a one-year deal, also likely will get dealt. When this happens, it will be Horvat and Boeser’s team with Sam Gagner and Loui Eriksson possibly providing offense. The franchise appears to be finally headed in the right direction, moving on from the past. The blue line added Michael Del Zotto, who looks to rebuild his career, while Troy Stecher aims to build off a decent rookie year. G Jacob Markstrom gets a chance to be a No.1.
8. Vegas Golden Knights: You can argue that GM George McPhee didn’t do a particularly great job in the expansion draft, but he has stockpiled picks and players that he will deal at the deadline to acquire additional picks. The blue line has solid depth, which should allow McPhee to move several players for future assets. G Marc-Andre Fleury is the face of the franchise, a role he has embraced. Up front, James Neal should provide most of the offense – at least until he is dealt.
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