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Key questions facing Western Conference teams

by John Kreiser continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which begins Wednesday, Oct. 8.

With the start of the season a week away, 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 teams have questions that have to be answered, hopefully before the season opens.

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

Anaheim Ducks

Can a team without experience in goal win the Stanley Cup?

The Ducks appear to have all the pieces in place to make a long playoff run, as long as their goaltending holds up. General manager Bob Murray and coach Bruce Boudreau are banking on a pair of kids, John Gibson and Frederik Andersen, to carry the load in goal. Andersen had an excellent rookie season while splitting time with since-departed Jonas Hiller, and Gibson's short stint showed why he's regarded as one of hockey's best young goaltenders. Veteran backup Jason LaBarbera is on hand for emergencies, but the Ducks figure to go as far as their kid goalies can take them.

Arizona Coyotes

Who's going to put the puck in the net?

The Coyotes bought out center Mike Ribeiro and let forward Radim Vrbata leave as a free agent, removing two of their top-five point producers from last season. The biggest import is forward Sam Gagner, who in seven seasons with the Edmonton Oilers never topped 19 goals or 49 points. Coach Dave Tippett hopes rookies like 2013 first-round pick Max Domi are ready for the NHL and that young players such as Mikkel Boedker can take the next step. The Coyotes get more offense from their blue line than most teams, but they'll need more firepower up front to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Calgary Flames

Will Jonas Hiller's arrival shore up the goaltending?

The Flames never found a full-time No. 1 goaltender last season; not surprisingly, they struggled to keep the puck out of their net. New general manager Brad Treliving hopes he fixed that problem by landing Hiller as a free agent. Hiller became the odd man out in Anaheim when the Ducks opted to use their two young goaltenders, Frederik Andersen and John Gibson, but his save percentage has never been below .910 in seven NHL seasons, far better than the Flames' team mark of .899 in 2013-14. If Hiller can match his career mark of .916, the Flames will be much tougher to score on.

Chicago Blackhawks

Brad Richards
Center - CHI
GOALS: 20 | ASST: 31 | PTS: 51
SOG: 259 | +/-: -8
How much does Brad Richards have left in the tank?

The cap-strapped Blackhawks made only one major offseason move: They brought in Richards on a one-year, $2 million contract with the idea he will be the second-line center, a position coach Joel Quenneville has tried for years to fill. Richards, 34, became a free agent after the New York Rangers bought out the final six years of his contract not long after he helped them make the Stanley Cup Final. During the playoffs, Richards appeared to have lost a step, but the Blackhawks' depth and talent up front should enable them to maximize his assets (hockey smarts, passing skills) and minimize any liabilities.

Colorado Avalanche

Was last season a fluke or a harbinger of better things to come?

The Avalanche came out of nowhere to win the Central Division under new coach Patrick Roy. Colorado had plenty of speed and skill and the Avalanche were one of the NHL's most exciting teams. But they won the division despite being outshot by 3.2 shots per game and allowing an average of 32.7 shots on goal, the most of any team that qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Semyon Varlamov (.927 save percentage) was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, but unless the Avalanche tighten up defensively, they're risking a significant drop in a tight Western Conference playoff race.

Dallas Stars

Will adding Jason Spezza get them to the next level?

The Dallas Stars now have Jason Spezza as a secondary scoring option behind Tyler Seguin, a move that could take the team to the next level in 2014-15. (Photo: Glenn James/NHLI)

The Stars took a giant leap forward last season, then helped themselves again this summer when they landed Spezza, who had asked the Ottawa Senators to trade him. With Tyler Seguin ensconced as the No. 1 center, Spezza slides into the No. 2 role, where he should thrive because he likely won't face the opposition's best checkers. The Stars also brought in forward Ales Hemsky, a free agent who found instant chemistry with Spezza in Ottawa after being acquired at the NHL Trade Deadline. Don't be surprised if Spezza, who's entering the final year of his contract, has a big season and helps the Stars win a playoff series for the first time since 2008.

Edmonton Oilers

Will they ever put it all together?

The Oilers have spent the past few years collecting an array of high draft picks (Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov were the first players taken in 2010, '11 and '12, respectively). But they don't have much to show for it. Edmonton hasn't made the playoffs since advancing to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006 and hasn't finished higher than 24th in the overall standings in the past five seasons. The Oilers tend to have a couple of games every season in which everything goes right and they blow an opponent out of the water; however, there are too many nights when they lose the puck-possession battle and spend the night fishing pucks out of their net. Second-year coach Dallas Eakins has to find a cure for his team's struggles in its own zone to get the Oilers off the non-playoff treadmill.

Los Angeles Kings

Can they avoid a Stanley Cup hangover?

General manager Dean Lombardi made few changes to a cast that won three Game 7s on the road before beating the Rangers in a five-game Final for the Kings' second Cup in three seasons. There's size, skill and depth up and down the lineup. Still, the Kings haven't been world-beaters during the regular season. They finished eighth in the Western Conference in 2011-12 and third in the Pacific Division last season, forcing them to start every series except the one against the Rangers on the road. Expect coach Darryl Sutter to try to squeeze a few more points out of his troops during the regular season to make next spring's journey a little easier.

Minnesota Wild

Darcy Kuemper
Goalie - MIN
RECORD: 12-8-4
GAA: 2.43 | SVP: .915
Who's the No. 1 goalie?

The Wild got to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring despite playing musical goaltenders. Minnesota had five goalies win at least one regular-season game, and the two goaltenders that saw action in the playoffs weren't on the roster at the start of the season. With Josh Harding sidelined by a broken foot, veteran Niklas Backstrom will be challenged by Darcy Kuemper, who played well after Backstrom and Harding were lost for the season before he also got hurt. The Wild also brought in Ilya Bryzgalov, who wound up playing in the second-round loss to the Blackhawks, on a pro tryout contract. The Wild have the ingredients to take the next step -- if the goaltending comes through.

Nashville Predators

Is this franchise ready for a culture change?

For the first time since Nashville entered the NHL in 1998, someone other than Barry Trotz will be behind the bench. Peter Laviolette, who had success with the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers, and won a Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes, preaches an up-tempo, attacking style the likes of which has never been seen in Music City. Laviolette will have more success in his effort to change the culture if starting goaltender Pekka Rinne is healthy again after missing most of last season following hip surgery.

St. Louis Blues

Have they made up enough ground on the Kings and Blackhawks to be a Cup contender?

St. Louis has been one of the NHL's best regular-season teams during the past three seasons, only to come up short against either the Kings or Blackhawks in the playoffs. A first-round loss to Chicago last spring persuaded GM Doug Armstrong to open his wallet for free-agent Paul Stastny, who will be counted on to center the first line. The Blues have plenty of speed, skill and size, and they're hoping the goaltending tandem of Brian Elliott and rookie Jake Allen is up to the task of helping them take the next step.

San Jose Sharks

The Sharks collapsed against the Kings in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Joe Thornton lost the captaincy this offseason, so there are many questions surrounding the team as the regular season nears. (Photo: Scott Levy/NHLI)

Are they retooling or rebuilding?

Losing a playoff series after winning the first three games can be upsetting. GM Doug Wilson said the Sharks would be "a tomorrow team" when he spoke not long after San Jose saw a 3-0 series lead against the Kings turn into a seven-game defeat. But fans who were expecting a shakeup are probably disappointed: Three veterans (defensemen Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart, and forward Marty Havlat) were traded, bought out or allowed to leave via free agency. The rest of the cast that piled up 111 regular-season points is back, though there's likely to be a new captain and alternates after Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau had their letters taken away.

Vancouver Canucks

Was last season an aberration?

John Tortorella's lone season as coach saw the Canucks miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008, triggering a shake-up that saw a complete overhaul in the front office, a new coach (Willie Desjardins), a new No. 1 goaltender (Ryan Miller) and a trade that sent No. 2 center Ryan Kesler to Anaheim. Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin are coming off their worst seasons in more than a decade, and even the addition of Radim Vrbata and a bounce-back effort by Alexandre Burrows won't make the Canucks an offensive powerhouse. But a bounce-back season from the Sedins and a solid performance by Miller could give the Canucks a chance to compete for a playoff berth.

Winnipeg Jets

Can Paul Maurice make a difference behind the bench?

The Jets perked up when Maurice took over as coach after Claude Noel was fired in January, but not enough to get into the playoffs. Maurice sent his players home for the summer with a warning that training camp would be grueling as he tries to improve their conditioning and fitness. Regardless of what kind of shape they're in, the Jets will look pretty much the same as they did last season, with few free-agent signings and not a lot of young players expected to crack the lineup of a franchise that has made the postseason once in its history.

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