NHL 2016-17 preview: Winner of wild Western Conference is anybody's best guess


Go ahead and spin the roulette wheel that has become the NHL's Western Conference.

Trying to predict how it will finish? One might enjoy better odds on the Las Vegas Strip, which conveniently will house the NHL's 31st franchise this time next year. The newest member of the wild West can be expected to contribute to the havoc before it even plays a game, if not right away this season then certainly come the trade deadline, when the conference's contenders scramble to go all-in or protect their assets from the looming expansion draft and their future foe.

Uncertainty starts in the indomitable Central Division, where the Nashville Predators added P.K. Subban, the St. Louis Blues are going for broke for Ken Hitchcock, the Chicago Blackhawks went through yet another offseason sell-off and the Dallas Stars, the reigning division champs, have to answer major questions in net.

That's not even factoring in expected steps forward for the Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets, and the fact regular-season wizard Bruce Boudreau is now coaching the Minnesota Wild.

In the other half of the conference sit the San Jose Sharks, last season's Stanley Cup Final representative, the always-dangerous Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings, who last season snapped their every-other-year streak and are well equipped to get back. Then, looking to disrupt the order, the Calgary Flames, Phoenix Coyotes and, yes, even the Edmonton Oilers boast some of the top young talent in the league. Who's missing? Oh, the Vancouver Canucks. They still employ Jim Benning? Yeah, never mind. 

From 2012-2015, the top conference honours were traded between the Blackhawks and Kings, with one going on to win the Cup each year. But the Sharks bucked that trend a year ago, and there seem to be as many as six realistic contenders this time around.

So there you have it. The winner of the West is anybody's best guess. 

Top storylines

The Blackhawks are back with a vengeance after their first-round exit from the playoffs. But, because of customary offseason cap tweaks, Chicago will start the chase for its fourth Cup since 2010 with six rookies as part of an uncharacteristically inexperienced roster. Stan Bowman's blueprint of filling out spots around high-priced stars Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith will be tested to the max this year.

Connor McDavid, at 19, has been anointed the youngest captain in NHL history, and with it the Oilers' wunderkind has much to live up to following an injury-shortened rookie season that deprived the hockey world of the game's most electric young talent. Now healthy, McDavid aims to bring an end to Edmonton's 11-year playoff drought, longest in the NHL. With a more well-rounded supporting cast, it should not be a stretch to think he will finish among the league's scoring leaders.

After 25 years of ill-fated attempts, the Sharks finally silenced their postseason critics with a rousing run to the Stanley Cup Final. Their only mistake was picking the year the Penguins proved unbeatable at the perfect time. Be that as it may, San Jose announced themselves among the West's elite, and remain favourites to return with a championship roster almost entirely intact.  

Players to watch

P.K. Subban, D, Predators -- Subban arrives in Nashville acquitted of his Montreal misgivings and ready to return to Norris Trophy form. That should not be hard to do, paired with Roman Josi and surrounded by a more talented Preds lineup, but expectations are high by virtue of the blockbuster trade that brought him to town.

Johnny Gaudreau, F, Flames -- The 23-year-old looks to ride the momentum of his lucrative six-year contract extension and build off the career-high 78 points he notched a year ago. That is a lot to live up to, but Calgary will require as much from their diminutive franchise player as possible if they are to put a disappointing 2015-16 season in the rearview mirror and return to the playoffs.

John Gibson, G, Ducks -- With Frederik Andersen out of town, Gibson is being handed the full-time reins to the Ducks' crease for the first time in his young career. The former top prospect, 23, is widely viewed as the cream of the next crop of top NHL goalies and will be counted on to prove it if Anaheim is to shake their bust label under rerun coach Randy Carlyle.