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Western teams confront key issues as season nears

by John Kreiser /
One month ago, we looked at a key question facing each team in the Western Conference. Since then, training camps have come and gone, and teams now are settled on their opening-night rosters while keeping an eye out for players who might be able to help.

With the season's opening faceoff coming Thursday night, here's an updated look at a key questions facing each of the 15 Western Conference teams:

Anaheim Ducks

Can two goalies fit into one starting job? -- Jean-Sebastien Giguere is the best goaltender in Ducks history, and has a Stanley Cup ring and a Conn Smythe Trophy to prove it. But when playoff time came last spring, he had the worst seat in the house for any goaltender -- watching from the bench as Jonas Hiller led the Ducks to a first-round upset of San Jose and a near-miss against Detroit. Giguere is working hard after the worst season of his career; Hiller, who took the starting job down the stretch and led the Ducks into the playoffs, has no intention of giving it back. Having two No. 1-worthy goaltenders is a mixed blessing -- one coach Randy Carlyle may have to deal with all season long unless one or the other gets hurt.

Calgary Flames

Will Jay Bouwmeester make a difference? -- No one disputes that Jay Bouwmeester is a talented defenseman heading into the prime of his career at age 26. The Calgary Flames got him relatively cheaply in a deal with Florida, and then signed him to an expensive, long-term contract. However, for all his skills, Bouwmeester never has been in a playoff game in junior or the NHL. The Flames, who have been KO'd in the first round four years in a row, are counting on him to be a difference-maker -- the kind of player who can help turn a one-and-done into a club capable of a long playoff trip. That's a big order.

Chicago Blackhawks

Can the Hawks build on last season's turnaround? -- The hardest thing in sports isn't going from being a bad team to a good one -- it's going from being a good team to an elite one. That's the task confronting the Hawks this season. They've climbed into the NHL's upper-middle class after making the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and advancing to the NHL's Final Four. But in sports, what goes up often will come down; the Hawks are hoping the additions of Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky and the maturing of some of their young talent will be enough to offset the departure of Nikolai Khabibulin and leading scorer Martin Havlat. The Hawks went a long way in a big hurry, but climbing those last couple of mountains to the franchise's first Stanley Cup since 1961 will be a bigger challenge than merely ending a playoff drought.

Colorado Avalanche

Will the Avs ever replace Patrick Roy? -- It's been six years since Roy hung up his pads and skated off to the Hall of Fame -- and the Avs still are looking for his replacement. They signed Craig Anderson from Florida this summer in hopes he'll be able to fill the yawning void that Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft, last season's hopefuls, couldn't. Anderson never has been a No. 1 netminder, but he's coming off a pair of solid seasons playing behind Tomas Vokoun in Florida. He'll be working with a new coach and a team that's rebuilding after its worst season since moving from Quebec to Denver in 1995.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Can Rick Nash step up to superstardom? -- Nash holds every scoring record in the Jackets' brief history, and his overall game has improved by leaps and bounds under Ken Hitchcock's coaching. Nash committed to Columbus during the summer, signing an eight-year deal that ended rumors he might leave for a bigger market when his contract ran out next summer. Now that he's made the commitment and become the face of a franchise coming off its first trip to the playoffs, the Jackets need him to step up from a 40-goal/80-point player to one who can put up 45-50 goals, 90-100 points and make his linemates dangerous on every shift. At age 25, the Jackets need him to take the next step.

Dallas Stars

Was last season's playoff miss merely an aberration? -- The Stars, one of the NHL's most consistently successful teams for more than a decade, hit the skids last season, missing the playoffs for the first time since moving to Dallas in 1993. That result, one year after making the Western Conference Finals, cost coach Dave Tippett and co-GMs Les Jackson and Brett Hull their jobs. New GM Joe Nieuwendyk hired Marc Crawford to take Tippett's place. Healthy seasons from captain Brenden Morrow and center Brad Richards would help, as would a return to form by goaltender Marty Turco, who struggled without a reliable backup (a problem Alex Auld is supposed to remedy).

Detroit Red Wings

Who will replace all those missing goals? -- Free agency hit the Wings hard. Detroit watched 88 goals (nearly 30 percent of last  season's total) skate away when Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky (Chicago), Mikael Samuelsson (Vancouver) and Jiri Hudler (Russia) left via free agency. The Wings hope veterans Todd Bertuzzi and Justin Williams and youngsters like Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm can fill the offensive gaps. If not, the Wings are going to have a hard time making it to their third consecutive Cup Final.

Edmonton Oilers

Will the "Bulin Wall" stand tall? -- For someone who nobody wanted in October, Nikolai Khabibulin had a terrific season in 2008-09, leading the Chicago Blackhawks to their first playoff berth since 2002 and getting them as far as the Western Conference Finals. But after making a long-term commitment to Cristobal Huet the previous summer, the Hawks couldn't keep the 36-year-old Khabibulin, who signed a four-year deal in Edmonton. Three straight playoff misses cost coach Craig MacTavish his job; new coach Pat Quinn has to hope Khabibulin has the same kind of season in Edmonton that he had in Chicago.

Los Angeles Kings

They're talking playoffs in L.A., but who's the goalie to get them there? -- There's little doubt the Kings are on the right path. Three years of rebuilding under GM Dean Lombardi has brought in a lot of young talent, with more on the way. What the Kings' postseason push really needs is for one of their young goaltenders to step up and grab the No. 1 job. Jonathan Quick took away the starting spot last season, but he's no lock to be the starter again. Erik Ersberg has had some impressive moments during the past two seasons, and 2006 first-rounder Jonathan Bernier showed he has the skills to be a No. 1. The Kings have gone through goalies by the dozen over the past couple of years; if they hope to end a playoff drought that dates to 2002, someone will have to step up and be able to steal games.

Minnesota Wild

Will new GM + new coach + new philosophy = more wins? -- "The State of Hockey" is a lot different than at any time in the Wild's nine-year history. Doug Risebrough and Jacques Lemaire, the only GM and coach Wild fans have ever known, are both gone -- replaced by Chuck Fletcher and Todd Richards, both of whom come from winning franchises that push the game's tempo. Martin Havlat steps in for Marian Gaborik as the featured offensive player, but the key will be whether the Wild will be more successful playing an up-tempo style after years of relying on the trap.

Nashville Predators

Is Pekka Rinne the answer in goal or a one-year wonder? -- As a 25-year-old rookie, Rinne had a superb season for the Predators. He took the starting job away from Dan Ellis (who had taken it from Chris Mason in 2007-08) and kept the underpowered Preds in the playoff race to the end with a 2.38 goals-against average and seven shutouts in 52 games. With Nashville every bit as underpowered as it was last season, Rinne will have to be as good -- or better -- to keep the Predators in the playoff race again ... and to keep his job.

Phoenix Coyotes

How will the off-ice developments affect the Coyotes' play on the ice? -- Unless you spent your summer in a cave, you probably know the Phoenix Coyotes spent theirs in bankruptcy court, waiting to find out who will own them. Wayne Gretzky is gone as coach, replaced by Dave Tippett, but GM Don Maloney has done a solid job bringing in young talent and building an infrastructure that should lead to future success. Still, it can't be easy for any team, let alone a young one like the Coyotes, to deal with these kinds of off-ice problems. Management and the new coaching staff will have their work cut out to keep the focus on winning games.

San Jose Sharks

Is this a "Cup or bust" year for the Sharks? -- The Sharks are coming off a season in which they won the Presidents' Trophy, but then went down in the opening round of the playoffs. GM Doug Wilson made one major addition by bringing in Dany Heatley from Ottawa and dealt off four vets, but most of last season's cast will be back. Wilson is rolling the dice that the addition of Heatley is the missing piece needed to make that long playoff run the Sharks haven't been able to make despite their regular-season success. With some key players in the last year of their contracts, this group could be broken up if there are not a lot of postseason games at the Shark Tank this spring.

St. Louis Blues

How much does Paul Kariya have left? -- Kariya was on his way to repeating as the Blues' leading scorer (15 points in 12 games) when he went down for the season with a hip injury that required surgery. Despite his absence, the Blues rode the goaltending of Chris Mason to a surprising playoff berth. Assuming Kariya is healthy, he'll add some scoring and a dose of experience to a young lineup that grew up quickly during last season's playoff run. Kariya and another injury returnee, Erik Johnson, also should be an excellent point pairing for power plays.

Vancouver Canucks

Can the Canucks end their own (and Canada's) Stanley Cup drought? -- No Canadian team has hoisted the Stanley Cup since Montreal did it in 1993, and the Canucks never have done it since entering the NHL in 1970. But with the Sedin twins and All-Star goaltender Roberto Luongo now locked up with long-term deals, the Canucks feel they're primed for the Cup run that fell apart in the second round last spring -- when they were ousted by Chicago in six games as the defense and Luongo fell apart. There's no reason the Canucks can't repeat as Northwest Division champions and break the 100-point mark for the third time in four seasons. However, for a lot of fans on Canada's West Coast, that may not be enough.

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