A team from the West has not won the Stanley Cup the previous three seasons, the conference’s longest drought in the 13-year salary cap era.
Before the Washington Capitals won it last year after Pittsburgh claimed consecutive championships, the West was usually the best, winning seven of 10 titles. Four teams seem to have the best shot to prevent it from being a four-year run without a Stanley Cup. And perhaps a few more have an outside chance.
”The West is like loaded right now,” Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said. ”It feels like anybody could not only make the playoffs, there’s going to be some unbelievable top teams that don’t make the playoffs.”
Winnipeg is stacked with talent from up front to the back and in net. And, the Jets are no longer off the radar after advancing to the conference finals for the first time. Nashville , which was eliminated by Winnipeg in the second round, won the Presidents’ Trophy with an NHL-high 117 points last season and has kept its strong and balanced team together.
The Vegas Golden Knights tried to improve their chances of returning to the Stanley Cup Final in their second season by signing free agent center Paul Stastny and acquiring forward Max Pacioretty. The San Jose Sharks made the boldest move, trading for two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson just before the puck dropped for training camp.
Poile said the talent-filled conference should be fun for players and fans, but not so much for coaches and the front office.
”It’s probably going to be nerve-wracking for us,” Poile said. ”If you’re going to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best, and I think the West certainly has more than its share of top teams.”
The Jets, who trailed only Nashville in points last season, have an elite team after years of patiently drafting and developing players. Winnipeg has so much young talent, including 20-year-old wing Patrik Laine, the time to win is now because it is going to be challenging next season to keep the team together and under the cap.
”Bring it on,” Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. ”There’s excitement. That’s what this all about.”
The Predators have one of the world’s best goaltender, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne. He may have the surrounding cast of hungry, experienced talented players to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in its 20 years after leading the league in points.
”Obviously things didn’t end up the way we wanted, but winning the regular season doesn’t give you much,” Rinne said.
The Golden Knights signed three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury to a three-year, $21 million extension over the summer. They can lean on his experience of helping Pittsburgh go from losing the Stanley Cup in 2008 to winning it the next year. Adding the leadership of Pacioretty and Stastny after losing James Neal was a smart move.
The Sharks’ shot to win it all for the first time in their 27-season history increased the moment they acquired Karlsson, one of the elite players in the NHL.
”That trade makes this team look a little bit more dangerous,” captain Joe Pavelski said, entering his 13th year with the franchise. ”And, a little bit more real.”
The Kings, who hoisted the Cup in 2012 and 2014, tried to pry open their window to win by bolstering their offense by signing Ilya Kovalchuk. The 35-year-old winger is back in the NHL for the first time since 2013. Los Angeles should be able to compete every night with two-way forward Anze Kopitar, the reigning Selke Trophy winner, and standout goalie Jonathan Quick.
The Blues missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2011, but they made a series of moves to give some help to forwards Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko along with defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. St. Louis acquired center Ryan O'Reilly in a big deal with Buffalo, signed center Tyler Bozak and winger David Perron, who is back with the Blues for his third stint.
Connor McDavid should give the Oilers an opportunity to win any game. The 21-year-old center, though, can’t do it alone as last year proved when the team missed the playoffs despite his career-high 108 points. Edmonton needs winger Milan Lucic and goalie Cam Talbot both to bounce back from lackluster seasons.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.
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