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Who's on the hot seat in the Western Conference

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

With the start of the regular season a week away, the pressure is starting to build for some players who know they'll have to be big-time producers for their teams to improve or contend.

Here's a look at a player from each of the 14 teams in the Western Conference who'll be under pressure to perform as soon as the puck drops:

Ryan Kesler, Anaheim Ducks -- The Ducks got the No. 2 center they were looking for when they landed Kesler prior to the NHL Draft in June. Matching the 41 goals he scored with the Vancouver Canucks in 2010-11 might be asking too much, but the Ducks need him to provide a consistent offensive threat from the second line to keep opponents from ganging up on top guns Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. He should also provide a spark for a power play that was 22nd in the NHL last season (16.0 percent).

Sam Gagner, Arizona Coyotes -- With Mike Ribeiro and Radim Vrbata gone, the Coyotes need Gagner to become the kind of scoring threat he was expected to be when the Edmonton Oilers took him with the sixth pick in the 2007 NHL Draft. Gagner never had more than 18 goals or 49 points in seven seasons with Edmonton and is coming off his poorest season (10 goals, 37 points in 67 games). The offensively challenged Coyotes need Gagner to have a breakout season if they hope to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames -- Calgary's top pick in the 2013 NHL Draft played for the Flames as an 18-year-old and didn't look out of place. He was second on the team with 22 goals and showed a deft touch in shootouts. With leading goal-scorer Mike Cammalleri having departed as a free agent, the Flames need Monahan to build on his rookie success and avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.

Brad Richards, Chicago Blackhawks -- Despite having little financial maneuverability, the Blackhawks were able to add Richards, who's being counted on to fill the longstanding hole as No. 2 center. With the talent on hand in Chicago, Richards doesn't have to be a star. However, he does have to provide more offense than the Blackhawks were getting from that role last season. A solid season by Richards could get the Blackhawks back to the Stanley Cup Final.

Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche -- For all the young talent and offensive ability in Colorado, the player who was the biggest factor in the Avalanche winning the Central Division title was Varlamov, a Vezina Trophy finalist despite playing for a team that was outshot on a regular basis. Coach Patrick Roy will have to tighten up the defense, but any drop-off in play by Varlamov could prove fatal to Colorado's hopes of repeating in the powerful Central Division.

Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars -- Spezza got his wish when the Ottawa Senators, the only team he'd ever played for, shipped him to Dallas. He figures to slot in perfectly as the No. 2 center behind Tyler Seguin, and the Stars even signed free-agent forward Ales Hemsky, who showed late-season chemistry with Spezza in Ottawa. A healthy Spezza, motivated by playing for a new contract, should give the improving Stars a huge second-line scoring boost.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers -- It's been three years since the Oilers took Nugent-Hopkins with the first pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, but they have yet to see more than flashes of the skill that made him the top pick three years ago. He did have 19 goals and 56 points in 80 games last season after missing the end of the 2012-13 season with a shoulder injury that required surgery. The Oilers need the 21-year-old to take the next step in order to have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

Marian Gaborik, Los Angeles Kings -- Gaborik was the missing piece for the Kings after coming to Los Angeles at the NHL Trade Deadline. He fit in perfectly with Anze Kopitar and led the Kings in goals (14) during their run to the Stanley Cup. That earned Gaborik a long-term contract; however, he has to prove that he can still produce during the regular season -- he had 12 and 11 goals in the past two and has battled a number of injuries. The Kings need him to generate goals in the regular season the way he did last spring.


Thomas Vanek, Minnesota Wild -- Vanek took less money and a shorter contract to come "home" to Minnesota, where the native of Austria played his college hockey. He has averaged more than 30 goals during his nine NHL seasons and is being counted on to fill a top-six role on a team that historically has trouble putting the puck in the net. The coaching staff is especially eager to see what Vanek can do on the power play; he's averaged more than 12 power-play goals per season.

Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators -- The Predators got a long look at life without Rinne last season and they didn't like what they saw. Rinne missed all but 24 games due to complications after hip surgery, and none of his replacements were able to fill his skates. Rinne struggled after his late-season return in Nashville, but he was the MVP at the IIHF World Championship in May and has had a full summer's rest to heal. The Predators, who have Rinne under contract for five more seasons, hope he's primed for a comeback.

Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks -- There's a changing of the guard taking place in San Jose, where coach Todd McLellan had the Sharks go into training camp with no captain or alternates. It's part of the rebuilding plan after last spring's playoff collapse against the Kings. Don't be surprised if the "C" eventually winds up going to Couture, one of the NHL's top young forwards. He seems ready to accept an increased leadership role to go along with being a 30-goal scorer and a reliable player in his own zone.

Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues -- The Blues traded Jaroslav Halak to get Ryan Miller, then opted not to re-sign Miller after another early playoff departure. Instead, they gave a three-year contract to Elliott, who is 55-24-7 in his three seasons with St. Louis and has had a goals-against average of less than 2.00 in two of those seasons. Elliott will be getting his first chance at a No. 1 job, but he'll be doing it for a team that has Stanley Cup aspirations.

Nick Bonino, Vancouver Canucks -- Bonino was the biggest piece the Canucks received from the Ducks in the trade that sent Kesler to Anaheim. He's coming off a career season (22 goals, 49 points) but averaged only 16:13 of ice time on a team that rotated its centers freely behind Getzlaf. In Vancouver, Bonino will likely inherit the role of No. 2 center behind Henrik Sedin, meaning he'll have to handle more ice time and will be asked to play in tougher situations.

Ondrej Pavelec, Winnipeg Jets -- The Jets have yet to make the playoffs in their three seasons since moving from Atlanta. That streak is likely to reach four unless Pavelec steps up his play significantly. His 3.01 goals-against average and .901 save percentage were 45th among qualifying goaltenders, and his career-best save percentage is .914, in 2010-11. The only alternative in goal is rookie Michael Hutchinson, so for better or worse, the job is Pavelec's.

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