NHL: The Four Biggest Questions In The Western Conference

TIME TO SHINE: The Oilers have stockpiled high-end talent, but are they ready to compete in the Western Conference?

A lot has happened in the Western Conference since we last saw the NHL in action in June of 2012. Detroit legend Nicklas Lidstrom officially announced his retirement from the league. The Minnesota Wild landed the two most sought-after free agents in a July surprise, and the Edmonton Oilers signed blue-chip prospect defenseman Justin Schultz out of the University of Wisconsin.

Let’s take a look at the four biggest stories from the NHL’s Western Conference.

4. Can Detroit replace Nicklas Lidstrom? (Red Wings to Win Stanley Cup +1800)
In a word, no. Attempting to replace an all time great like Lidstrom is a fool’s errand. And to compound matters, the Red Wings also lost Brad Stuart to free agency (Stuart signed with the San Jose Sharks). They also missed out on Ryan Suter, the top defenseman available last July 1st. Detroit ended up signing Carlo Colaiacovo later in the summer, but at best he is a decent (and injury prone) second pairing defenseman.

How does the Detroit defense look right now? At the top, Niklas Kronwall is one of the better two-way defensemen in the game. After him, both Ian White and Kyle Quincey are capable top four defensemen. The most promising defenseman on the roster, though, is rookie Brendan Smith. Smith is a great skating defenseman who throws thundering hits. He is capable of playing a lot of minutes in all situations, and Detroit expects him to hold down a top four spot this season.

After those four, Colaiacovo is joined by the inconsistent Jonathan Ericsson, and solid young defenseman Jakub Kindl. Detroit will take a step back defensively this season, even if Smith develops as hoped and Colaiacovo stays healthy. Their defensive group went from one of the best in the Western Conference to middle-of-the-pack very quickly.

3. Do Zach Parise and Ryan Suter make the Wild a playoff team? (Wild to Win Stanley Cup +3000)
To repeat by above answer, in a word, no. The Wild still need big-time improvements from several incumbent roster players if they hope to contend with the best teams in the West. Niklas Backstrom is a solid goaltender, but the defense is very thin after Suter. Undersized Jared Spurgeon is a capable two-way defenseman and he is virtually unknown outside of Minnesota.  Tom Gilbert is a solid defenseman as well. But top prospect Matt Dumba is not close to being NHL ready, and there is not much else on the roster.

Up front, Parise and Mikko Koivu form a pretty potent duo on the top line. Dany Heatley is a shadow of his former self, but perhaps playing with two hard workers will provide some motivation to get his career back on track. As for scoring depth, the Wild have some interesting players – Devin Setoguchi, Matt Cullen, Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, prospect Mikael Granlund, and the injury-prone Pierre Marc Bouchard all figure to factor in to the second or third line equation. When healthy, Bouchard is one of the best playmakers in the league, but he has not been at full health for a few seasons.

Minnesota has arguably the best collection of prospects in hockey, and Parise’s incredible work ethic is going to be contagious through the locker room. But the Wild didn’t guarantee themselves a playoff berth with their big offseason acquisitions.

2. Will the Los Angeles Kings repeat? (Kings to Win Stanley Cup +1200)
The Kings are returning the exact same team that captured the Stanley Cup last season. Star center Anze Kopitar will miss the first few weeks of the season with a leg injury, but he is expected back in early February. In the meantime, Mike Richards, Jarrett Stoll, and prospect Andrei Loktionov are capable of holding down the top three center spots.

The Kings are a deep team and they are also very balanced. They have an elite goaltender, an elite defenseman, and three lines that can chip in offensively. They have as good a chance as any team in the NHL to capture the Stanley Cup in 2013. Their run to the Cup wasn’t as physically exhausting as it is for most winning teams, but the Kings still benefitted from the additional rest time that the lockout gave them.

1. Is Edmonton ready to win now? (Oilers to Win Stanley Cup +3000)
The Oilers boast the best young talent in the game. And they are going to surprise some people this year with their ability to generate offense against very good defensive clubs. Their success is going to hinge on two things, though: their ability to play team defense, and the level of goaltending they receive. Nikolai Khabibulin has been a colossal disappointment as an Oiler, and he enters the final year of his contract. Devan Dubnyk is fresh off of helping Canada win the Spengler Cup, and he played quite well last season given the team he played behind. There have been a few Luongo-to-Edmonton rumours circling around, and he would obviously make this a playoff club pretty quickly. Don’t discount the potential impact that Dubnyk may have, though.

The Oilers are going to score a lot (especially on the power play). But hey aren’t ready to take a big step out of the Western Conference basement unless their defense and goaltending catch up quickly, though.