Canadian Teams From Vancouver to Winnipeg Should Claw for Playoff Spots in NHL’s Stacked Western Conference
Last season: 50-23-9; lost in second round of playoffs
What’s new: Nicely rounding into his prime, captain Jamie Benn signed a lucrative contract extension worth $76 million over eight years, kicking in next summer. Abdominal surgery kept him out of the World Cup while his pal, Tyler Seguin, suffered a hairline fracture in his heel during a World Cup exhibition game. It’s no secret the organization relies on these two core pieces and the health of both is crucial.
Jiri Hudler landed a one-year deal in the big ‘D,’ a late free-agent signing by general manager Jim Nill. Their depth was strengthened with new additions such as Dan Hamhuis and Brett Ritchie, while they lost veterans Vernon Fiddler and Jason Demers, along with Colton Sceviour and Alex Goligoski.
Expectations: Again, they are pegged to be a highly entertaining, offensively potent club. With several main pieces reaching the end of their contracts at the end of this season, time is running out for them to put together a decent Stanley Cup run.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Last season: 49-24-9; lost Western Conference Final
What’s new: With David Backes leaving as a free agent, defenceman Alex Pietrangelo takes over as captain of a team that finally made a long playoff run last season. He’ll lead a team that has lost a few pieces but will still contend for a Central Division title. Mike Yeo is on board as an associate coach and will take over from Ken Hitchcock as head coach next season.
Expectations: They finally flung the monkey off their backs by beating Chicago in the playoffs and making it to the conference final. Now, perhaps they’ll have the confidence to do it again.
Last season: 47-26-9; lost in first round of playoffs
What’s new: New? A long summer. The Blackhawks were forced to endure their lengthiest off-season since 2007-08, when they missed the playoffs entirely. Up front, disturber Andrew Shaw, via trade, is the latest to depart, which leaves an up-front core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, plus Artemi Panarin, Marcus Kruger, Artem Anisimov. Chicago did hire Jordin Tootoo.
The Windy City blueline — which includes Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson — was bolstered by the (re-)arrival of Brian Campbell, now 37, and Czech vet Michal Kempny, who played last winter in the KHL. In goal, the tandem remains Corey Crawford and Scott Darling.
Expectations: High. Always high. Far from the deepest group on the circuit, but with two of the game’s finest players, Toews and Kane, with one of hockey’s top skippers, Joel Quenneville, with in-house pillars of playoff experience, the Blackhawks are automatic contenders for the Stanley Cup.
Last season: 41-27-14; lost in second round of playoffs
What’s new: P.K. Subban brings his talents to Music City after an off-season trade with Montreal for longtime Predator Shea Weber. The defenceman has big shoes to fill but plenty of help from a Nashville lineup that includes top-end defence partner Roman Josi and 33-goal scorer Filip Forsberg, and his new six-year, $36-million contract up front.
Expectations: After winning a playoff round last year and going seven games in the second round, there’s no reason to think the Preds will fall back.
Last season: 38-33-11; lost in first round of playoffs
What’s new: They’ve replaced one bald guy (the defence-conscious Mike Yeo) for another (the more wide-open style of Bruce Boudreau) behind the bench, with Boudreau finding work eight days after Anaheim fired him. They signed Eric Staal to a three-year contract, but may be reaching for the moon if they think the former star Staal can be the No. 1 centre after 39 points with Carolina and the Rangers last year.
Expectations: Solid team that could squeak into the playoffs, but what’s the point if they’re out in 10 days?
Last season: 39-39-4; missed playoffs
What’s new: Coach Patrick Roy quit because he didn’t feel he was getting enough input in personnel decisions and AHL champion Jared Bednar (Jackets farm team in Lake Erie) parachuted in. They signed Calgary centre Joe Colborne and Columbus defenceman Fedor Tyutin, who was bought out, and brought in another D, Patrick Wiercioch, from Ottawa. Their Corsi better be new and improved; it was 30th last year (44.2 per cent).
Expectations: Playing in the toughest division is crippling. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov has to stand on his head for this team to make the playoffs.
Last season: 35-39-8; missed playoffs
What’s new: Patrik Laine, that’s what. He’s 6-foot-5, 206 pounds, can skate and has a world-class shot. That’s why the Jets made the 18-year-old Finn the second-overall pick in the 2016 draft. Laine should slot in as a top-six forward immediately to complement Blake Wheeler (tied for sixth in the NHL with 78 points), Mark Scheifele (29 goals), Nikolaj Ehlers and Bryan Little. Rookie left winger Kyle Connor is pushing for an NHL job, as well, and brings skill and scoring touch.
Expectations: The excitement level is high, but 18-year-olds don’t often make teams better in their first year.
Last season: 46-25-11; lost in first round of playoffs
What’s new: Randy Carlyle, who won the 2007 Cup with the Ducks, replaces the fired Bruce Boudreau. Also new? Goalie Jonathan Bernier, defenceman Jeff Schultz, and centre Antoine Vermette and right wingers Jared Boll and Mason Raymond. Goalie John Gibson supplants the traded Frederik Andersen as the full-time starter.
The big three up front — Ryan Getzlaf (31), Ryan Kesler (32) and Corey Perry (31) — need the younger Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg to build on 20-goal seasons. The Ducks had the league’s top power play and penalty kill last year.
Expectations: Cup or bust. They Ducks will once again be in contention for the division title.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
Last season: 48-28-6; lost in first round of playoffs
What’s new: Newcomers include goalie Jeff Zatkoff, forwards Teddy Purcell and Michael Latta, and defencemen Zach Trotman and Tom Gilbert, as the Kings try to overcome the loss of Milan Lucic, Kris Versteeg, Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn. The buzz at camp was all about big Swedish left wing Adrian Kempe, who had 11 AHL goals in 55 games last season.
A great World Cup should give Anze Kopitar a competitive leg up. Jeff Carter must score more, while Tyler Toffoli had 31 goals last season and seems headed for stardom. Will Marian Gaborik be healthy?
Expectations: Jonathan Quick is capable of getting the Kings past the second round.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Last season: 46-30-6; lost in Stanley Cup final
What’s new: With Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski — and the versatility of Patrick Marleau — hulking winger Tomas Hertl may move to third-line centre for better matchups. Thornton, 37, is coming off an 82-point renaissance and Marleau, 37, had 25 goals. The key is for Pavelski to maintain his output (38-40-78) and Logan Couture to stay healthy.
Joonas Donskoi has to take the next step on the right wing, while LW Matt Nieto and C Chris Tierney must hit double figures. Brent Burns — who had 27 goals last year — could win the Norris Trophy. New to the team: left winger Mikkel Boedker and defenceman David Schlemko.
Expectations: Lofty, but climbing that playoff mountain again will be tougher.
Last season: 35-39-8; missed playoffs
What’s new: The Coyotes addressed voids through their lineup by adding Radim Vrbata, Jamie McGinn, Alex Goligoski, Ryan White, Jamie McBain, Luke Schenn and 6-4, 215-pound rookie forward Lawson Crouse, who went 11th overall in 2015, in the off-season. They also hope that Dylan Strome (drafted 3rd overall in 2015) is ready for pro hockey and that Max Domi and Anthony Duclair are ready to take another step forward in their young careers.
Expectations: If they can cut down the third-worst goals-against number in the NHL, the Coyotes will definitely improve on their 78 points.
Last season: 35-40-7; missed playoffs
What’s new: The Flames fired their coach — Glen Gulutzan replaces Bob Hartley behind the bench — and cleared out their crease, landing Brian Elliott in a draft-day trade from St. Louis and inking Chad Johnson as his backup. They also added some skill and snarl on the wings, signing Troy Brouwer and selecting Memorial Cup overtime hero Matthew Tkachuk with the sixth overall pick in the 2016 draft.
Expectations: They’re playing catch-up with the Pacific Division powers in California, but the Flames should be in the mix for a wildcard spot.
Last season: 31-38-13; missed playoffs
What’s new: Joining the club up front are Loui Eriksson, Anton Rodin and Brendan Gaunce; on defence, Erik Gudbranson, Philip Larsen and Troy Stecher. There’s top-line potential to prop up the 27th-ranked power play and 29th-rated offence — 20-goal possibilities in Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi and Brandon Sutter, who was limited to 20 games last season with hernia surgery and a fractured jaw.
Gudbranson brings needed toughness, while goalies Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom must steal games to keep the club competitive.
Expectations: If they stay healthy, they could find themselves playing meaningful games in March and pushing for a wild-card spot.
Last season: 31-43-8; missed playoffs
What’s new: A lot is new with the Oilers. They added Milan Lucic to the top line and brought in Adam Larsson to shore up the defence. They signed the top-rated player out of college, Drake Caggiula, and added defenceman Kris Russell as a late free-agent signing. If Oscar Klefbom, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and, of course, Connor McDavid can stay healthy all year, it will be a big help.
Expectations: The Oilers, after missing the playoffs for 10 years in a row, should finally be able to at least contend for a spot.