NHL preview: Who's on the rise in Western Conference, and how will the Kings do?

The Edmonton Oilers' return to the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring rekindled memories of their star-driven glory days.

Connor McDavid was everything he was advertised to be and more: He won the scoring title as the NHL's only 100-point scorer and ran away with most-valuable-player honors.

He had support from emerging star Leon Draisaitl and goaltender Cam Talbot, among others. But how will the Oilers deal with the high expectations they've created?

Here are the big questions in the Western Conference leading into the season:

Which other teams are on the rise in the West?

Coach Ken Hitchcock, back in Dallas, will use his defensive expertise to lift the Stars back into the playoffs after a miss last season. They upgraded in a few areas by acquiring and signing goaltender Ben Bishop to a six-year deal, and adding defenseman Marc Methot and forward Alexander Radulov.

Arizona parted ways with longtime coach Dave Tippett and replaced him with Rick Tocchet, who favors an up-tempo style. They made some solid additions in center Derek Stepan, goalie Antti Raanta, and veteran defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. Forward Clayton Keller is a potential rookie of the year.

The Winnipeg Jets were one of seven teams that averaged three goals or more per game last season and the only one in that group to miss the playoffs. If newly signed goalie Steve Mason and backup Connor Hellebuyck can be decent, the Jets could take a big step forward.

How will the Kings do?

John Stevens, promoted from associate coach after Darryl Sutter was fired, intends to play a quicker game that funnels offense to the middle instead of shooting from the perimeter.

OK, but their ability to finish remains iffy. So does their overall lack of speed.

They must have bounce-back performances from right wing Tyler Toffoli — who was hampered by a knee injury last season — and center Anze Kopitar (12 goals, 52 points). They'll need another strong season from Jeff Carter (32 goals, 66 points) and no injuries to goalie Jonathan Quick, who played only 17 games last season.

Defenseman Drew Doughty should shine because he won't be shackled anymore in a defense-first role. Winger Dustin Brown's best seasons are long past, but the Kings' chances would improve if he could score 18 to 20 goals. Hoping for production from 35-year-old winger Michael Cammalleri, who totaled 24 goals the last two seasons, is wishful thinking by new general manager Rob Blake. A lot must go right for the Kings to return to the playoffs.

How will the Ducks do?

They'll start without defensemen Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen, who are recovering from shoulder surgery, and they might not have center Ryan Kesler (hip surgery) until around Christmas. Goalie Ryan Miller was a good signing to back up and push John Gibson, and the Ducks' depth should keep them afloat until the injured players return.

Three keys: Whether Ryan Getzlaf can still dominate, whether Corey Perry can rebound after dropping to 19 goals last season, and if Rickard Rakell (33 goals) moves smoothly from the wing to center while Kesler heals.

What are the odds the Vegas Golden Knights will be respectable?

Owner Bill Foley's $500-million expansion fee got him some good pieces and general manager George McPhee stockpiled prospects and draft picks. They can build for the future while living off their novelty value. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup champion with Pittsburgh, brings credibility and an engaging personality that will help sell the game in a city that embraces big, glitzy entertainment.

How strange will it be to see the San Jose Sharks without Patrick Marleau?

Very. After 19 seasons Marleau signed a three-year deal with Toronto, leaving 38-year-old Joe Thornton and 33-year-old Joe Pavelski to pass the torch to an unproven younger generation. This could be a tough season for the Sharks.


Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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