St. Louis had better dig in for its repeat bid.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues will have their hands full in the Western Conference, which seems to have a slew of contenders. And, every team in the entire league is going to give the Blues its best shot each game.
”There’s going to be a whole different feel for us that we’ve got to figure out, `OK, how can we elevate our game?’ We’re not going to catch teams by surprise,” said Blues center Ryan O’Reilly, last season’s playoff MVP and top defensive forward. ”We’re going to need to make changes and grow ourselves to be better this year and to do it again.”
Dallas, Vegas, Calgary, Colorado, San Jose and Winnipeg all go into the season with a shot to knock off St. Louis and keep the Cup in the West after the coveted trophy was won by Eastern Conference teams the previous three years. And even though the Nashville Predators appears to be somewhat overlooked this season, it’s not wise to count them out in the race, especially with the addition of center Matt Duchene.
The Central Division, which may earn both wild cards again in the conference, may be the strongest in the NHL.
”It’s hard not to say the Central with the Blues being in it,” Arizona center Derek Stepan said.
Dallas seems set up for success with star players all over the place, giving the franchise a legitimate chance to reach the conference finals for the first time since 2008.
Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn provide plenty of scoring power. Second-year coach Jim Montgomery can roll four lines after the front office bolstered the team’s depth by signing 35-year-old Joe Pavelski, who was an All-Star last year with San Jose for the third time in four years.
”Getting a guy like Pavelski to us is going to be huge for us obviously with the net front (presence) and leadership-wise in the locker room,” defenseman John Klingberg said.
The 27-year-old Klingberg is potentially going into the prime year of his career and 20-year-old Miro Heiskanen is a future star on the blue line, coming off a 33-point rookie season in which he was durable enough to play all 82 games.
Goaltender Ben Bishop looks like he might be at his best at the age of 32. His save percentage led the league last year and he ranked second in the NHL in goals-against average, giving up fewer than two a game for the first time in his career.
THIRD TIME A CHARM?
The Golden Knights are hoping their third year is more like their first, when they reached the Stanley Cup Final, and not like their second season that ended in the first round with a Game 7 loss to the Sharks. Vegas returns its top nine scorers and three-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as the franchise makes another run with familiar faces. Talented forward Mark Stone starts his first full season with the Golden Knights after signing an eight-year deal in February.
”We have something to prove to show that we are a top team in the NHL,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault.
Winnipeg’s chances may hinge on when, or possibly if, restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor sign to stay with the franchise.
”If we don’t have those two guys for the whole season, which I don’t think is going to happen, then it does change our team a little bit because then we’ve lost a lot of players,” Winnipeg Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers said.
MAYBE NEXT YEAR
– Connor McDavid is one of the game’s greats and teammate Leon Draisaitl is a 100-point scorer, but the Edmonton Oilers might be relegated to playing only in the regular season for a third straight year and 13th time in 14 seasons.
– Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews may not have enough talent around them to avoid missing the playoffs a third straight year in Chicago for the first time in more than a decade.
– The Minnesota Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year, $98 million contracts in 2012 and they may miss the playoffs two straight years for the first time since then.
– The Los Angeles Kings hired former San Jose and Edmonton coach Todd McLellan, but he will have a hard time stopping the franchise from falling short of the postseason in two straight years for the first time since a six-season drought that ended in 2010.
– Under first-year coach Dallas Eakins, the Anaheim Ducks may miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2000-2002.
– The Arizona Coyotes have failed to make the playoffs for seven straight years, a drought that trails only Buffalo’s in the NHL, and probably will extend the run this season. The Vancouver Canucks could sit out a fifth straight year, which would be a franchise record.
PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS (in order)
Central: Stars, Blues, Predators
West: Golden Knights, Flames, Sharks
Wild card: Avalanche, Jets
West champion: Stars
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report. Follow AP Hockey Writer Larry Lage on Twitter at https://twitter.com/larrylage
The story has been corrected to change the first wild card prediction to Colorado, not Nashville.
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports