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A look at who's on the hot seat in the West

Thursday, 08.18.2011 / 9:00 AM / NHL Insider

By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist

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A look at who's on the hot seat in the West
NHL.com takes a look at the players from each of the 15 Western Conference teams who are under pressure to produce in 2011-12.
Vacation time is almost over. With teams less than a month from heading to training camp, here's a look at a player from each of the 15 teams in the Western Conference who'll be under pressure to perform as soon as the puck drops:

Jonas Hiller, Anaheim -- Few teams have the kind of top-end offensive talent that the Ducks can put on the ice every night. But all that offense won't mean a thing unless Hiller, an All-Star goaltender last season, is healthy and ready to go. Hiller missed most of the last two months with vertigo; he's spent the summer working to get well, but if he's not 100 percent, the Ducks' hopes of improving this season will take a big hit.

Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary -- Kiprusoff has played at least 71 games and won at least 35 of them in each of the last six seasons. But his save percentage last season dropped to .906 after he was at .920 in 2009-10 -- and he's been at .906 or below in three of the last four seasons. Kiprusoff will have to be better this season if the Flames hope to end a two-year playoff drought.

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Duncan Keith, Chicago -- Keith went from Norris Trophy winner in 2009-10 to nothing special last season, mirroring the Hawks' fall from Stanley Cup champs to a team lucky to finish eighth in the West. Keith fell from 14 goals and 69 points to 7-38-45, and went from plus-21 to minus-1. He looked sharper in the Hawks' seven-game loss to Vancouver in the opening round of the playoffs, and there's no reason that he shouldn't bounce back with another big season.

Semyon Varlamov, Colorado -- Goaltending problems were a key to Colorado's second-half meltdown, and with no young talent on the horizon, the Avs paid a hefty price to land the 23-year-old Russian from Washington, then signed him to a three-year contract. Injury problems hampered Varlamov in Washington, but he put up a 30-11-5 record with a 2.39 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. That's the kind of play the Avs need over a full season to right the ship after last season's collapse.

Jeff Carter, Columbus -- Before he even sets foot on the ice in a Jackets sweater, Carter is being counted on to be the best center in franchise history. Columbus GM Scott Howson, desperate to add offense to a team that has made the playoffs just once in 10 seasons, brought in Carter, a 26-year-old who has scored 115 goals in his last three seasons with Philadelphia. The Jackets need Carter to score the way he did with the Flyers to provide some help for captain Rick Nash, who all too often has had to carry too much of the offensive burden.

Michael Ryder, Dallas -- With Brad Richards gone as a free agent to the Rangers, the Stars are counting on Ryder, a two-time 30-goal scorer whose solid playoff performance helped redeem a weak regular season, to replace some of the offense. Ryder averaged just 14:29 of ice time in Boston, a number that figures to go up in Dallas. His offensive numbers (18 goals, 41 points) had better go up if Dallas hopes to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Jimmy Howard, Detroit -- Howard is now the unquestioned No. 1 goaltender in Hockeytown after back-to-back 37-win seasons -- Ty Conklin was brought in strictly as a backup. But for the Wings to retain their place among the NHL's elite, Howard will have to improve after seeing his goals-against average jump to 2.79 from 2.26 and his save percentage fall to .908 from .924. Another season in which he's in the bottom half of the League in GAA will leave the Wings in serious trouble.

Taylor Hall, Edmonton -- Just when Hall seemed to be getting the hang of life in the NHL as a rookie, his season ended when he broke his ankle during a fight. The No. 1 pick in the 2010 Entry Draft finished his first season with 22 goals and 42 points -- not bad for a 19-year-old newcomer on the NHL's weakest team. But with a season under his belt and his ankle healthy again, the Oilers will expect a lot more from Hall as they try to avoid a third straight last-place finish.

Mike Richards, Los Angeles -- After back-to-back first-round losses, GM Dean Lombardi wasn't willing to wait for some of his youngsters to mature -- he dealt top prospect Brayden Schenn, young forward Wayne Simmonds and a 2012 second-rounder for Richards in hopes of speeding up the process of moving into the NHL's top echelon. The two-time 30-goal scorer should be entering his prime at age 26 and along with Anze Kopitar, gives the Kings one of the NHL's best one-two punches at center as they try to take the next step.

Dany Heatley, Minnesota -- The Wild, who have struggled to score throughout their history, underwent an extreme makeover during the summer, with the addition of Heatley in one of three deals with San Jose representing the biggest addition. The two-time 50-goal scorer slumped to 26 goals in 2010-11 while battling injuries, but GM Chuck Fletcher and new coach Mike Yeo are banking on getting the kind of 30-goal scorer (or more) they haven't had since Marian Gaborik left town in 2009.

Shea Weber, Nashville -- This is a crossroads season for both Weber and the Predators, who have to make decisions about their future with each other. Weber, who was awarded $7.5 million in arbitration and can be a free agent in two years, has to keep putting up big numbers to fuel the Predators' goal-starved offense while both sides decide whether they want to commit to each other for the long term.

Mike Smith, Phoenix -- Ilya Bryzgalov's goaltending was the biggest reason the Coyotes made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. But Bryzgalov is gone -- he's off to Philadelphia with a nine-year, $51 million contract. GM Don Maloney is counting on Smith, whose struggles in Tampa forced the Lightning to bring in Dwayne Roloson at midseason, to fill the hole left by Bryzgalov's departure. That's asking a lot from a player who's never won more than 14 games in a season and had a save percentage of .899 last season.

Jaroslav Halak, St. Louis -- Halak's first season as a full-time NHL starter began well but didn't end with the playoff berth the Blues were counting on when they brought him in from Montreal last summer. Halak started fast but ended with a 27-21-7 record, a 2.48 GAA and a career-low .910 save percentage. There's no safety net for Halak -- Ben Bishop and Brian Elliott are strictly backups -- so for the Blues to get back to the playoffs, Halak has to do better.

Brent Burns, San Jose -- Aside from Dan Boyle, the Sharks got little offense from their defensemen last season as they were unable to make up for the retirement of Rob Blake. GM Doug Wilson gave up talented young forwards Devin Setoguchi and Charlie Coyle to bring in Burns, who had 17 goals and 46 points in a breakout season with Minnesota. Burns should give the Sharks the offense they were missing from the blue line; they need him to be the missing piece that takes them to the next level after back-to-back losses in the conference finals.

Roberto Luongo, Vancouver -- He has more than 300 victories and is coming off the best season of his career, a year in which he was a Vezina Trophy finalist and led his team to the Presidents' Trophy and Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. So why is Luongo on the hot seat? Mostly because of his playoff struggles -- he was benched briefly in the opening round and was shelled in four of the last five games in the Final as Boston overcame a 2-0 series deficit to win the Cup behind Tim Thomas. Luongo will have to prove to everyone, including himself, that there's no hangover from last spring's disappointing finish.
Quote of the Day

Just the feel for the direction they were headed and what they're trying to do, it just felt that this is a really good thing for this organization. They've got the pieces. We can put something together and go on a run or two and be together for a while, and I'm really excited about that opportunity. The team we have here has an opportunity to win, and that's the most attractive thing.

— Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen on why he decided to sign with the Capitals