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Western teams confront key questions

by John Kreiser
The start of training camp is right around the corner, and the new season is only a month away. It's a time for NHL general managers to figure out how to patch holes and put the right faces in the right places.

Needless to say, it's not easy. Even the best of teams have questions that have to be answered.

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

Anaheim Ducks

Is Jonas Hiller really a No. 1 goaltender?
Jean-Sebastien Giguere has a Stanley Cup ring and a Conn Smythe Trophy. But what he didn't have at the end of last season was Anaheim's No. 1 goaltending job. That belonged to Jonas Hiller, a second-year netminder from Switzerland whose play rallied the Ducks down the stretch. Hiller was brilliant in a first-round upset of San Jose and got the Ducks into a Game 7 against Detroit. Now comes the hard part: He has to prove he's capable of being the go-to goalie for a full season. If he's not, the Ducks will have to hope Giguere can find the winning touch he lost last season.

Calgary Flames

Will star power finally pay off for the Flames?
Few teams can boast as many A-listers as the Calgary Flames, whose lineup contains prime talents such as Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, Dion Phaneuf and newcomer Jay Bouwmeester. But big names carry big cap hits -- the Flames' top six salaries take up about $36 million, meaning that GM Darryl Sutter has little wiggle room. The Flames ran out of gas down the stretch last season partly because they had no depth. Sutter rolled the dice by adding Bouwmeester on the blue line, but if injuries hit again or the top guns misfire, Calgary could be in trouble.

Chicago Blackhawks

Is this their year?
The Blackhawks were one of the big stories of 2008-09 -- they revived hockey in Chicago by making the playoffs for the first time since 2002, getting as far as the Western Conference Finals. The Hawks pilfered 40-goal scorer Marian Hossa from the Red Wings (the team that eliminated them) and added checking center (and two-time Cup winner) John Madden from New Jersey. But goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin left for Edmonton, leaving Cristobal Huet as the only veteran in goal. With cap problems likely next summer when key youngsters will need new contracts, this could be the Hawks' best shot at ending a Stanley Cup drought that extends to 1961.

Colorado Avalanche

Will a new GM, a new coach and a new No. 1 goaltender = more points
The Avs hit bottom in 2008-09, finishing last in the West and 28th overall, by far their worst season since moving from Quebec in 1995. Greg Sherman, a first-time GM, and Joe Sacco, a rookie NHL coach, are charged with resurrecting a franchise whose icon (Joe Sakic) announced his retirement during the summer. Sherman signed Craig Anderson to fill a gaping hole in goal, dealt pricey winger Ryan Smyth to Los Angeles and drafted talented center Matt Duchene, who grew up an Avs fan. That's a start -- but unless Paul Stastny turns into a replica of his father, it figures to be another long season in Denver.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Is Steve Mason more than a one-hit wonder?
Last year at this time, the Blue Jackets were sure that Pascal Leclaire was their goaltender of the future -- after all, he had put up a 2.25 goals-against average and nine shutouts in 2007-08. Fast forward a year: Leclaire's in Ottawa and Steve Mason owns the Calder Trophy after stepping in for an injured Leclaire and leading the Blue Jackets to the first playoff berth in franchise history. But Mason struggled down the stretch and looked overmatched in the playoffs. Adding veteran backup Mathieu Garon may enable coach Ken Hitchcock to avoid overworking Mason -- but the second-year netminder is still only 21 and has to prove he can do it again.

Dallas Stars

Is Marty Turco still an elite-level NHL goaltender?
For all the Stars' problems in 2008-09 -- for starters, captain Brenden Morrow and star defenseman Sergei Zubov missed most of the season with injuries -- Dallas was in the top eight in the West before falling apart down the stretch. Much of the collapse was due to the struggles of Turco, whose 2.81 GAA was by far the worst of his career. New GM Joe Nieuwendyk brought in a veteran backup by acquiring Alex Auld from Ottawa -- meaning that Turco might not have to play 74 games, as he did last season. But at 34, is Turco past his prime?

Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Red Wings Western Conference Champs GearWill the Olympics take a toll on the Red Wings?
You can't get any closer to being a repeat champion than Detroit did last spring -- the Wings led the Final 2-0 and 3-2 before dropping Game 6 at Pittsburgh and losing 2-1 in Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena. All told, the Wings played 105 games in 2008-09 -- but some of Detroit's key players could play more than that because they'll be part of their countries' Olympic teams. Defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom (39) and Brian Rafalski (36 by the time the Games start) are two key players who could be worn down by the extra-long season.

Edmonton Oilers

Will the Oilers' young forwards ever turn promise into production?
Unless you live in a cave, you've undoubtedly heard that Edmonton has a  ton of young talent up front. What you haven't heard (or seen) is the Oilers making the playoffs in any of the past three seasons. One big reason is that none of those young forwards has blossomed into a top-level star, and most have had as many downs as ups in their careers. The Oilers need players like Ales Hemsky, Robert Nilsson, Andrew Cogliano, Sam Gagner, Patrick O'Sullivan and Dustin Penner -- all of whom are 26 or younger -- to step up. If they don't, it will be another early summer in Edmonton.

Los Angeles Kings

How much does Ryan Smyth have left?
Smyth came to L.A. during the summer following two disappointing seasons after he signed a big-money free-agent deal with Colorado. The Kings are counting on his experience, grit and scoring ability to help a group of talented young players take the next step and make the playoffs. But Smyth, who will turn 34 during the Olympic break, has never had more than 70 points and is more of a support player, especially at this stage of his career. The Kings need his leadership, but a return to the form that saw him score 36 goals in 2005-06 and '06-07 wouldn't hurt either.

Minnesota Wild

Will the team's new philosophy translate into more wins?
The Wild will be wearing the red-and-green jerseys they wore last season, but that's about all that will be the same. After the team fell from division champions to playoff non-qualifiers, ownership axed GM Doug Risebrough and coach Jacques Lemaire stepped down. New GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Todd Richards are promising the kind of up-tempo team that Twin Cities fans could only dream of under Lemaire, whose defense-first system made the Wild competitive but often not very exciting to watch. With Martin Havlat replacing Marian Gaborik as the go-to guy on offense, the Wild will undoubtedly be different -- but the question of whether they'll be better is still up in the air.

Nashville Predators

Who's going to score goals?
The Predators got a superb performance from rookie goaltender Pekka Rinne last season -- and still fell out of the top eight in the West. The reason: not enough offense. Nashville scored just 207 non-shootout goals in 2008-09 -- 24th in the NHL and a drop of 20 from '07-08. With no major additions during the offseason, Nashville will have to hope that Steve Sullivan's performance after returning from a back injury wasn't a fluke, that Jason Arnott (33 goals in 65 games) stays healthy and that David Legwand (20-22-42) finally becomes the offensive force the Predators expected him to be when they made him the first draft pick in franchise history (No. 2 overall) in 1998.

Phoenix Coyotes

Are the kids ready for the big time?
No matter who owns them, the Coyotes' lineup will be one of the youngest in the NHL. But while GM Don Maloney has done a nice job finding young talent, the kids still have to prove that they're ready for the NHL. Center Kyle Turris, the No. 3 pick in the 2007 draft, struggled as a rookie last season. 2008 first-rounders Mikkel Boedker and Viktor Tikhonov showed flashes of why they were picked so high. Maloney has tried to bring in experienced players in supporting roles to help the kids mature. There's plenty of talent on the Coyotes -- the task now is to turn it into victories.

San Jose Sharks

Will Joe Thornton return to being a scoring superstar?
The Sharks rode one of the great starts in NHL history to the first Presidents' Trophy in team history, only to flame out against Anaheim in the first round. With the team tight against the salary cap, San Jose will need big production from its big guns. The biggest gun is Thornton, who has dropped from 125 points in 2005-06 to 114, 96 and down to 86 in '08-09. Thornton has the size and skill to be a superstar -- and for the Sharks to stay among the NHL's elite and avoid another springtime disappointment, he has to play like one on a consistent basis.

St. Louis Blues

Remember Erik Johnson?
In the litany of oddball injuries, Erik Johnson's fall from a golf cart and subsequent season-ending knee injury is right up there. The Blues survived the loss of the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft (and other injuries, including one to defenseman/captain Eric Brewer) to make a late run that earned them a surprising playoff berth. They made the postseason despite an NHL-low 15 goals from their defense. The Blues hope Johnson will be back and can provide the kind of puck-moving and scoring from the blue line that they'll need to go along with a nice group of young forwards.

Vancouver Canucks

Will Canuck-for-life Roberto Luongo justify his new contract?
The Canucks have hitched their wagon to Roberto Luongo, signing their star goaltender to a 12-year extension that will effectively make him a Canuck for life. No one can dispute Luongo's talent -- he's been regarded as one of the NHL's elite goaltenders since becoming a full-time starter nine years ago. But for all his numbers -- 230 wins, 47 shutouts, two Second-Team All-Star selections -- Luongo still has a below-.500 career record in games decided in regulation, has made the playoffs just twice and is 2-2 in postseason series. He didn't come up big in Vancouver's second-round loss to Chicago, allowing 21 goals in the six-game loss. The Canucks obviously think he's the player they want to build a contending team around; now he has to live up to his new deal.

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