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E.J.'s Mailbag: Oilers on rise, Sharks sliding?

by EJ Hradek

Training camps are scheduled to start in less than a month, and you've had a bunch of different questions about your favorite teams.

So let's take our weekly dip into the mailbag. Remember, you can follow me on twitter @EJHradek_NHL. That's the best way to get your questions to me. You can feel free to add #AskEJ. Here we go!

Do you think Edmonton has a shot at the playoffs with the addition of Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz, plus the progression of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle? -- @alleyezonme97

In the long run, there's reason for loads of optimism in Edmonton. The Oilers have assembled quite a cast of elite young talent.

E.J. Hradek's Weekly Mailbag

NHL analyst and NHL Live host E.J. Hradek provides his take on NHL news every week.

That said, they finished 14th in the Western Conference last season, 24 points out of the last playoff spot. And that's with a 12-point jump over their 2010-11 campaign. They'd need a pretty dramatic improvement in one season to bridge that gap and earn a Stanley Cup Playoff berth, which would be their first since going to the Final in 2006.

I expect the Oilers will be better and more competitive in the new season. Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins still are experiencing some growing pains. That's natural. Obviously, they're big talents and should take another step forward in their development.

It will be interesting to see how Yakupov and Schultz make the transition to the pro game. I don't think either guy – in their first NHL season – is ready to be a big difference-maker.

The Oilers will be fun to watch and, if things really fall their way (great goaltending and improved defense combined with some unexpected meltdowns in other Western Conference cities), they could be in the mix down the stretch. More realistically, I think the playoffs are still another year away.

San Jose didn't win its division for the first time in a few seasons. What do you think of their chances this season? -- @TeamTeal93

The San Jose Sharks' four-year stranglehold on the Pacific Division was snapped last season by the upstart Phoenix Coyotes, who finished a single point ahead of Joe Thornton's crew. Then, in the postseason, after back-to-back trips to the Western Conference Finals, the Sharks produced only a single win during a five-game, first-round series loss to the St. Louis Blues.

In the offseason, San Jose's aggressive general manager Doug Wilson made a failed pitch to add scoring winger Rick Nash, who eventually landed with the New York Rangers.

Wilson was able to upgrade his defense with the addition of Brad Stuart, who started his career in San Jose and helped the Detroit Red Wings win a Stanley Cup in 2008. Sharks coach Todd McLellan has to hope Stuart can improve the club's dreadful penalty-killing unit, which finished 29th in the regular season and proved their undoing in the playoffs against the Blues.

Going forward, I think the Sharks' window for winning a title with this group is closing. Several of their most important players have already celebrated their 30th birthday. This season might be a now-or-never scenario.

Perhaps the arrival of new associate coach Larry Robinson, who brings a lifetime of winning experience (as both a player and coach) to San Jose, will make a difference.

I believe the Sharks will remain a serious contender in the West, but unless they can find ways to dig a little deeper in the big moments, they won't get where they want to go.

Is Rick Nash overrated? -- @Ryandickinson99

Not to me, he isn't.

Rick Nash
Rick Nash
Left Wing - NYR
GOALS: 30 | ASST: 29 | PTS: 59
SOG: 306 | +/-: -19
Despite working for a bad team and never skating alongside a legit No. 1 center with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the big power forward has scored 30 or more goals in seven of his nine NHL seasons – that includes a pair of 40-goal campaigns. Imagine what he might have done in a better situation with a little help?

However, I see wings more as complementary pieces in a winning puzzle. Championship teams are built with elite centers, defensemen and goaltending (see the past several Stanley Cup winners).

In that regard, I believe Nash's impact on winning can only be maximized on a team that has those elements. The Rangers have some of that in place, but they're still a bit thin at center while being good, not great, on the blue line.

I fully expect Nash to do his part in the Big Apple, but GM Glen Sather and his hockey operations group have a little more work ahead of them to complete the Rangers' path to a title.

Do you think the Kings are going to have a good season or have a Stanley Cup hangover? -- @noahf10

At this point, I have no reason to think the Los Angeles Kings won't have a good season. The championship team, which went 16-4 en route to the franchise's first Stanley Cup, returns completely intact.

That's the good news.

So, what's the bad news?

Well, the NHL hasn't seen a repeat Cup winner since the Red Wings were able to turn the trick in 1997 and '98. Simply, in a League with such tremendous parity, it isn't easy to win back-to-back Cups.

Moving forward, I think the Kings will need to light the red light on a more consistent basis. For the first two-thirds of the 2011-12 season, L.A.'s offense was seriously anemic. The non-playoff Minnesota Wild were the only team to score fewer than Los Angeles' 194 regular-season goals.

On paper, the Kings are a playoff team that should challenge for another Cup. As many recent champs can tell you, though, the games continue to be played on ice by human beings. That leaves a lot of room for error. In a very competitive division, conference, League, the Kings won't be able to skate by on their Cup-winning laurels.

Who do you think will be the Devils' next captain? -- @HarryJB4

I think there are three obvious candidates: Ilya Kovalchuk, Bryce Salvador and Travis Zajac.

Ilya Kovalchuk
Ilya Kovalchuk
Left Wing - NJD
GOALS: 37 | ASST: 46 | PTS: 83
SOG: 310 | +/-: -9
Kovalchuk is the club's marquee player, entering his third full season in New Jersey. He previously wore the "C" for Atlanta, but the Devils aren't the Thrashers. While Kovalchuk likely would cherish wearing the letter of leadership in Newark, the club might feel the burden of his scoring responsibilities and a monster contract is enough to handle. If he wants it and doesn't get it, there will be a little damage control for coach Peter DeBoer.

Salvador was an old-school, blood-and-guts style leader last season for the Devils. The veteran defenseman seems to be very well-respected in the dressing room and he doesn't mind being a front man with the media. Of course, the Devils might want someone younger in that role. Salvador will turn 37 during the upcoming season.

Zajac, meanwhile, is the club's top center, drafted and developed in New Jersey. He's entering the final season of his contract and he's eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1, 2013. Last summer, the Devils named Zach Parise as their captain while in a similar contractual circumstance.

If I were making the call, I'd stitch the letter on Zajac's sweater – but only after I re-signed him to a new contract!

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