What's in store for Western Conference

STEPHEN KNIGHT, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 11:33 AM ET

TORONTO -- Exhibition games continue as teams play outrageous numbers of preseason games in a highly compressed time period all in the name of what? Deciding the last guy on the fourth line and the seventh defenceman? OK, but it seems like an undue risk of injury in the name of deciding marginal roster positions.

At this time last year, there were all kinds of burning questions about ownership in the Arizona desert, which leads to our five burning questions in the Western Conference for 2010-11.

5. Can the Phoenix Coyotes duplicate their magical 2009-10 season?

Who knew that an ownership crisis and Wayne Gretzky abandoning the team would lead to the Phoenix Coyotes notching 50 wins and their best season ever - and that includes the Winnipeg Jets' NHL era, from 1979 to '96. Dave Tippett was a shoo-in for coach of the year last season.

Lee Stempniak has been re-signed, giving the Coyotes some scoring pop, along with a full season of Wojtek Wolski, free-agent Ray Whitney, captain Shane Doan and serviceable scorers Radim Vrbata and Scottie Upshall. The big question in the desert is whether Kyle Turris is ready to be an everyday player after a solid season in the AHL. Same goes for Brett MacLean. Look for the Coyotes to make the playoffs, but fall short of last year's lofty achievements.

4. Are the kids alright in Edmonton?

Who isn't looking forward to watching the Edmonton Oilers this season? Top draft pick Taylor Hall, speed merchant rookie Jordan Eberle and a healthy Ales Hemsky are just the beginning. Sam Gagner is already entering his fourth NHL season despite turning just 21 last month; same goes for Andrew Cogliano at just 23. Trouble is, Cogliano's production has gone down in each of the last two seasons, despite not missing a single game in his three-year career.

The Oilers were terrible last year, but new head coach Tom Renney has a good reputation for working with younger players. If Nikolai Khabibulin can recover from back problems - he missed 60 games last season - and a 30-day jail sentence for a drunk driving conviction last month (he is appealing), then the Oilers might make it to the upper echelon of non-playoff teams in the West.

3. How does San Jose advance beyond the second round of the playoffs?

The San Jose Sharks were a juggernaut last season, finishing second only to the Washington Capitals in the standings, with 51 wins and 113 points. The problem with the Sharks, fairly or unfairly, is that they have been labeled playoff chokers.

They didn't do much in the offseason to improve other than re-signing veteran Patrick Marleau, who had a blistering 44 goals last season. Gone are two-way forward Manny Malhotra (Vancouver), goalie Evgeni Nabokov (KHL) and blueliner Rob Blake (retired).

Hard to believe free-agent goalie Antero Nittymaki is an improvement over Nabokov, but fortunately the Sharks have a stellar drafting record and back-up Thomas Greiss may just grab the reins.

Marleau and Joe Thornton are ably helped by Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley up front, but this team needs an identity or a heart; something that is going to get them deep in the playoffs. So far, it's not there.

2. Are the Vancouver Canucks a Stanley Cup contender?

The Canucks probably have the deepest defence corps in the NHL. The acquisition of free-agent Dan Hamhuis from Nashville and Keith Ballard from Florida represent a step up from the departed Willie Mitchell. If Shane O'Brien is your seventh d-man, you're in decent shape, as the Canucks are with Hamhuis, Ballard, Alexander Edler, Christian Ehrhoff, Kevin Bieksa and the oft-injured Sami Salo.

The Canucks also have the reigning Art Ross winner in scoring champ Henrik Sedin (1.36 points per game) and brother Daniel, who himself managed 1.35 ppg, but missed 19 game with injuries. Goalie Roberto Luongo losing the captain's 'C' is not a bad idea. At least this way he can slag his teammates in post-game interviews without looking self-serving.

1. Can the Chicago Blackhawks repeat as Stanley Cup champions?

After winning their first Stanley Cup since 1961, the Chicago Blackhawks were systematically dismantled in order to stay under the salary cap. Say bye-bye to Andrew Ladd, John Madden, Adam Burish, Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Antti Niemi, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel.

The Hawks are still strong, though, with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane the engine to this team and ample support from the likes of Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Tomas Kopecky up front and Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell and Brent Seabrook at the back end. The big question in the Windy City, of course, is can veteran goalie Marty Turco turn things around after nine seasons in Dallas, the final one being his worst?

In the salary cap era, it will be very difficult to build a repeat Stanley Cup winner, let alone a dynasty. Chicago fans need to savour this win as long as possible because it may not come again for a while.


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