NHL preview: What you need to know about the Western Conference

After the Kings and Chicago Blackhawks alternated as Stanley Cup champions for four seasons, the Cup left the Western Conference and landed in Pittsburgh. 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 Montreal, 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 St. Louis in six to reach the Cup finals 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 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 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 lead and lost a Game 7 at home for the fourth 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 New Jersey. 

Which other teams are on the rise in the West?

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 free-agent 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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