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Western teams confront some tough questions

by John Kreiser / Vancouver Canucks

The start of the season is coming up fast, and NHL teams are working feverishly to figure out how to patch holes and put the right faces in the right places.

It's not easy. Even the best of teams have questions that have to be answered, hopefully before the season opens on Oct. 6.

Here's a look at a key question facing each team in the Western Conference:

Anaheim Ducks

Is Jonas Hiller healthy again?
Hiller was good enough to make the All-Star Game, but his season basically ended in early February when he came down with an apparent case of vertigo and played just 83 minutes after the break. The Ducks finished fourth in the West despite a revolving door in their crease, then were torched for 22 goals in a six-game loss to Nashville in the opening round of the playoffs. Hiller has been working out at home in Switzerland and says he's "feeling great" in practice, but adds that "I can't make any promises" about what will happen when the Ducks open camp on Sept. 17. Though they have plenty of offense, including MVP Corey Perry, the Ducks can't win without a healthy Hiller.

Calgary Flames

Was their second-half surge a sign of good things to come or a last gasp?
The Flames came up three points short of eighth-place Chicago in the Western Conference because a 23-9-7 mark in their last 39 games wasn't enough to overcome an 18-20-5 start. GM Jay Feaster didn't do a major demolition -- the one big deal sent veterans Robyn Regehr and Ales Kotalik to Buffalo for young defenseman Chris Butler. He re-upped vets like Alex Tanguay, Curtis Glencross, Brendan Morrison and Anton Babchuk and brought it 32-year-old Scott Hannan to replace Regehr on the blue line. The Flames are a win-now team that hasn't made the playoffs in two seasons. It's hard to see how a largely unchanged, veteran team that missed the playoffs is going to get a lot better.

Chicago Blackhawks

Can Corey Crawford do it again?
The Hawks brought in veteran Marty Turco last summer to be their No. 1 goaltender after Antti Niemi signed with San Jose, only to see Crawford, who appeared to be destined for the role of career minor-leaguer, take away the starting job by midseason. Crawford finished with a 33-18-6 record, a 2.30 goals-against average -- and a new contract. Turco wasn't re-signed, and with no proven backup under contract, the Blackawks' hope of being more than a team scrambling for one of the final playoff berths depends on Crawford not being a one-hit wonder.

Colorado Avalanche

Can Erik Johnson become an elite defenseman?
The Avs rolled the dice in February, hoping to arrest a slump by bringing in 2006 No. 1 pick Erik Johnson from St. Louis in a deal that sent power forward Chris Stewart and promising defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to the Blues. Johnson never quite turned into the star the Blues had hoped he'd be when they took him with the first pick five years ago, but at 23 there's still time for him to blossom. He has plenty of size (6-4, 232 pounds), good skills -- and a chip on his shoulder after being dealt by the Blues. Johnson is already assuming a leadership role and wants to prove that Colorado made a good deal. The Avs need him to do just that as they try to recover from their second-half collapse in '10-11.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Can Steve Mason rediscover his Calder Trophy form?
Mason was the NHL's top rookie in 2008-09 and led the Jackets to their first (and only) playoff berth, posting a 33-20-7 record, a 2.29 goals-against average and 10 shutouts. But he hasn't come close to matching those numbers in either of the next two seasons -- last season's 3.03 GAA was actually a slight improvement from 2009-10, and his .901 save percentage was well below the League average. The Jackets, who've missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, opted not to sign an experienced goaltender who could challenge Mason for the No. 1 job, so if they're going to get back to the playoffs, the 23-year-old has to revert to his rookie form.

Dallas Stars

How much of the gap left by Brad Richards can Michael Ryder fill?
The Stars let No. 1 center Brad Richards go as a free agent and signed Ryder in hopes that he'll be able to fill a major part of the offensive void. The 31-year-old had a solid playoff (8-9-17 in 25 games) that partly made up for a disappointing regular season (18 goals, 41 points in 79 games). Ryder should be a good fit on a line with Mike Ribeiro, his center during his first two seasons in Montreal -- when he had 25 and 30 goals. Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk is banking on Ryder to be more of a go-to guy than he was on the deeper Boston roster -- and if he's not, summer figures to come early again in Dallas.

Detroit Red Wings

Can Nicklas Lidstrom do it again?
Lidstrom is hockey's version of Mariano Rivera -- a future Hall of Fame member who never seems to get old. Detroit's captain added to his hardware collection last spring by winning his seventh Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman after a 16-goal, 62-point season. He opted to come back for another season at age 41, much to the relief of GM Ken Holland, who saw 37-year-old Brian Rafalski, the Wings' second-best defenseman, retire with a year left on his contract. The Wings made few offseason moves and are counting on Lidstrom to continue to devour 20-plus minutes a night while playing at an elite level.

Edmonton Oilers

Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins make the team?
Teams that select a player with the No. 1 pick in the Entry Draft generally expect that player to make their roster -- since 2005, only Erik Johnson (St. Louis in 2006) wasn't in the NHL the following fall. The Oilers made Nugent-Hopkins, a slick but skinny playmaking center, the No. 1 pick in the Entry Draft in June. No one disputes his talent -- but after gaining 10 pounds since his junior season ended, he's still only 175. That's probably not enough to take the pounding of an 82-game NHL schedule, and Oilers GM Steve Tambellini will have to decide whether it's best for the 18-year-old's future to spend another year in junior hockey rather than rush him to the NHL.

Los Angeles Kings

Is Mike Richards the missing piece to get the Kings to the next level?
For all the improvement the Los Angeles Kings have made in the past couple of years, they owe their playoff berth last season to center Jarrett Stoll and goalie Jonathan Quick, who helped the Kings go 10-2 in shootouts, giving them enough points to finish seventh (an 8-4 record would have kept them out of the playoffs). GM Dean Lombardi went shopping during the summer and brought in Mike Richards from Philadelphia; along with Anze Kopitar, L.A. now has one of the NHL's best one-two combos in the middle. Richards fills a number of needs, and Lombardi is expecting him to help the Kings move from a team scrambling for a playoff berth to one that can contend for a Cup.

Minnesota Wild

Will the offseason makeover pay off in a playoff berth?
The Wild underwent a complete makeover, bringing in Mike Yeo as coach after he led their Houston farm team to the AHL finals and shipping defenseman Brent Burns and forward Martin Havlat to San Jose in separate deals for two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley and young forward Devin Setoguchi, a 24-year-old who has 20 or more goals in each of the last three seasons. Yeo turned Houston into a winner in one year; he and the two ex-Sharks will try to do the same with the big club, which has missed the playoffs for the past three years.

Nashville Predators

Can they build on their first dose of playoff success?
It took 13 years, but the Predators finally won a playoff series last spring -- they beat the Anaheim Ducks in six games before losing to Vancouver in six. No, winning a series is not the same as winning the Stanley Cup, but it's a landmark achievement for a franchise that had enjoyed regular-season success but never done anything in the playoffs. The key players from last season (Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter) are back -- though a lot of useful role players (Marcel Goc, Cody Franson, Joel Ward and Steve Sullivan) have gone elsewhere -- and young players like Ryan Ellis and Jonathon Blum appear ready to contribute. Expectations have been raised after last spring's success, and the fans in Music City will no longer be happy with merely making the playoffs.

Phoenix Coyotes

Does coach Dave Tippett have a few more tricks up his sleeve?
Tippett has done more with less than any coach in the NHL during the past two seasons by getting the Coyotes into the playoffs. But with star goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov gone to Philadelphia, top-pair defenseman Ed Jovanovski back to Florida and key role players Vernon Fiddler and Eric Belanger also hitting the road, the Coyotes have a lot more question marks than answers going into the season. Tippett won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in 2009-10 for getting the Coyotes into the playoffs; if he can do it for a third straight season, given the limitations on the franchise, he should be coach of the decade.

St. Louis Blues

Will adding a couple of Cup-winners get the Blues back to the playoffs?
The Blues under John Davidson, Doug Armstrong and Larry Pleau have rebuilt a franchise that had hit rock-bottom a few years ago. But while the talent level and attendance both have soared, the Blues have made the playoffs just once since 2003-04, and injuries crippled the team last season after a fast start. With a host of young talent already on hand, management brought in two former New Jersey Devils -- Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner -- who've combined to play more than 2,300 games and own three Stanley Cup rings, to add some veteran leadership. But how much do they have left in the tank as players? It's hard to provide leadership when you're not producing on the ice.

San Jose Sharks

Will this year's shakeup finally get the Sharks to the Final?
Back-to-back losses in the Western Conference Finals convinced San Jose GM Doug Wilson that there was more work to be done to get the Sharks into the franchise's first Stanley Cup Final. Wilson, never reluctant to make a move, sent two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley, talented young forward Devin Setoguchi and his 2010 and 2011 first-rounders to Minnesota in separate deals for defenseman Brent Burns and Martin Havlat. Burns added a second offensive force on the blue line, while Havlat brings speed and creativity to a forward group that sometimes appeared slow and stale. Wilson is banking on his remodeling job to get the Sharks over the hump.

Vancouver Canucks

How much effect will last spring's near-miss have this season?
The Canucks spent the summer trying to get over the one that got away -- they couldn't hold 2-0 and 3-2 series leads against Boston in the Stanley Cup Final, then got smoked 4-0 at home in Game 7, spoiling what had been a near-perfect 40th season. Most of the cast that got the Canucks within one win of the Cup will be back for another run, though injuries may keep Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond out of the lineup at the beginning. But one of the biggest tasks confronting coach Alain Vigneault will be to keep his players focused on getting back to the Final, rather than pondering the Cup that got away.

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