Tuesday, June 25, 2024

NHL Western Conference preview: Stars ready to go toe-to-toe with fellow Stanley Cup contenders

With less than a week until the 2023-24 season, it’s time to take a look around the Western Conference. The Vegas Golden Knights are trying to repeat as Stanley Cup champs, but they will have plenty of competition with several other contenders waiting to unseat them.

The Central Division should be interesting with the Colorado Avalanche trying to bounce back from a disappointing playoff performance last year, and the Dallas Stars are equipped for another deep postseason run.

In the Pacific, it should be a slugfest at the top with the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings trying to knock off the Golden Knights. The matchups between those teams will be must-see TV all season.

Beyond the contenders, the West has some interesting up-and-coming teams, as well as some teams attempting to retool on the fly. If any of them take the next step, things could get even more interesting.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the Western Conference before the puck drops on a new season of NHL hockey.

Central Division

Stars are shooting for the Stanley Cup

The Stars have been building toward something special for a while now, and this team is in an excellent position heading into the 2023-24 season. Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz are both electrifying talents at the top of the lineup, and they play alongside the ageless Joe Pavelski. This year, the depth is better than ever with Matt Duchene joining a forward group that also has Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Wyatt Johnston and Mason Marchment.

Miro Heiskanen took the next step on defense last year, becoming more of an offensive threat, and he is one of the best blue-liners in the league. Thomas Harley and Nils Lundkvist provide promising young talents, too. If anything does leak past them, Jake Oettinger should be there to erase his fair share of mistakes in net.

If everything comes together this year, the Stars will be able to go toe-to-toe with even the best teams in the West.

Avalanche Watch

While the Stars may be a trendy pick, last year’s early playoff exit by the Colorado Avalanche might make it easy to dismiss the 2022 Stanley Cup champs. In the words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend.”

Colorado dealt with a parade of injuries last season, with Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Artturi Lehkonen, Valeri Nichushkin and Bowen Byram all missing significant time. That doesn’t even include captain Gabriel Landeskog, who missed the entire season. Despite that, the Avs still put up 109 points and won the Central Division.

Colorado managed to upgrade its roster in the offseason by adding Ryan Johansen, Ross Colton and others. With some better injury luck, the Avalanche will look a lot more like the team that ran roughshod through the 2022 postseason and much less like the one that got bounced by the Seattle Kraken in the first round last year.

The race for third place in the Central

At the risk of looking incredibly foolish, let’s assume the top two spots in the Central will be occupied by the Avalanche and Stars, but not necessarily in that order. That will leave a few teams battling for the final surefire playoff spot in the division.

The clear favorite to take third is the team that did it in 2022-23, the Minnesota Wild. They have the strongest roster of the remaining six teams, but they are not without their flaws. Most notably, Minnesota lacks real offensive bite outside of Kirill Kaprizov. They were able to overcome that at times last year due to excellent play by goaltender Filip Gustavsson, but can he replicate that performance?

Behind the Wild are the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators, two teams that endured big changes in the offseason. Both teams parted ways with some key players while trying to retool on the fly, but will either team succeed in doing that? If things break correctly for either the Jets or the Predators, they could usurp the Wild for third place, but that seems more likely for Winnipeg than Nashville.

The St. Louis Blues are the wild card here. They were nothing short of putrid last season, and I expect more of the same in 2022-23. That said, there is a narrow path for the Blues’ offense to kick it into high gear and outscore some poor defensive play, making them a borderline playoff team.

Will Connor Bedard deliver in Chicago?

The Chicago Blackhawks will not be good in 2023-24, but that is okay. They already have their guy, and if preseason highlights are any indication, Connor Bedard will make a quick transition to the next level.

Bedard was the most hyped draft prospect since Connor McDavid in 2015, and it’s not hard to see why. Last season, he tallied 71 goals and 143 points with the Regina Pats of the WHL. In the 2023 World Junior Championships, Bedard scored nine goals and 23 points in seven games. He has all the tools to become a franchise player in Chicago.

In just a couple of preseason games, Bedard has already put some highlight reels on tape, and it will be interesting to see whether he can do that once the real games begin. All eyes will be on Bedard to see whether he can deliver on sky-high expectations.

Pacific Division

Clash of the titans at the top

For the second season in a row, the battle for the top spot in the Pacific Division will be a joy to watch for anyone who even has passing interest in the game of hockey. The Vegas Golden Knights are the defending champs, but the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings will both be right there on their heels.

Vegas is ready to run it back with, for the most part, the same roster that just won a Stanley Cup a few months ago. If Jack Eichel and Mark Stone can stay healthy for a full season, the Golden Knights will be tough to knock from their perch.

The Oilers will try though, and they are in a good position to leapfrog the Golden Knights this year. Not only is every key player back for Edmonton, but the team will get a full season from defenseman Mattias Ekholm, who solidified the blue line after his arrival in March.

After getting eliminated by the Oilers in the first round for the second year in a row, the Kings added Pierre-Luc Dubois to bolster their forward group in the 2023-24 season. Los Angeles seems to be a step behind the top two teams at the moment, but if Dubois clicks and the goaltending improves, the Kings will make a run for first place.

The moral of the story here is to have eyes on the television every time these teams play each other throughout the season.

The Flames could reignite in 2023-24

The Calgary Flames are a major regression candidate this season. The team did a lot right at five-on-five last season, but it wasn’t getting the results on the scoreboard. If the law of averages kicks in this year, the Flames should be right back into the postseason.

Between an 8.75% shooting percentage and an 88.99% save percentage last season, Calgary suffered from a serious case of terrible puck luck. There is reason to believe that those numbers will turn around this year. For starters, I think Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri and Jacob Markstrom are all better than they showed last year. At this point in their careers, they may not be superstars, but they can still be extremely productive players on a playoff team.

The Flames also changed coaches, firing Darryl Sutter and hiring Ryan Huska. It was clear something was off between Sutter and the players last season, so maybe the vibes will be a little better in 2023-24, and that could go a long way toward finding the extra few points needed for a postseason spot.

Will the Kraken return to Earth?

The Seattle Kraken were one of the best stories of the 2022-23 season. Regrettably, I am now about to rain on that parade a bit.

Seattle had a phenomenal second season in the NHL. They didn’t quite go from worst to first, but they went from worst to beating the defending Stanley Cup champions in the playoffs. In doing so, the Kraken rode its excellent depth and a solid defensive performance to success. The issue is whether that will be sustainable this year.

The Kraken shot 11.57% last season, and that is a high number, even for elite offensive teams. Despite its depth at forward, Seattle is not an elite offensive team. I would expect their scoring to come down a bit in 2023-24, and that means it will be up to Philipp Grubauer to pick up the slack in goal. While Grubauer improved last season, he was still subpar, and it’s hard to trust him as a full-time starter.

As competitive as the Pacific Division is, it’s hard to see the Kraken being able to recreate their magic from last year. There are a few reasons to believe that might happen (see: Matty Beniers), but I’m not betting on it.

Can the Canucks reach the postseason?

The Vancouver Canucks have been firmly entrenched in the middle of the NHL standings for a while now, and they have not made the playoffs since the 2020 bubble. Now is the time for Vancouver to start making its move, but does it have the roster to do that?

The reasons for optimism in Vancouver are easy to find. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes are both spectacular young players. Thatcher Demko has shown that he can steal games when he is at his best between the pipes. Andrei Kuzmenko was a revelation last year. Carson Soucy is an upgrade on defense. There are things to like about this roster.

The problem for Vancouver is that there are also some obvious flaws. Brock Boeser and Conor Garland both had their share of struggles last season. Outside of Hughes and Soucy, it’s hard to find any needle-movers on the defense. Demko is coming off a poor season of his own, and he doesn’t have a long resume as an elite starting netminder.

It’s not hard to see a path for the Canucks to sneak into a wild-card spot, but it’s just as easy to see a scenario wherein they miss the playoffs yet again. Can Pettersson and Hughes elevate this team above the level of mediocrity?

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