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5 Fantasy Hockey Questions: Western Conference

The Western Conference this season will be very interesting this year. For one, there is a new team joining the fold in the Vegas Golden Knights. There is also new blood with the Edmonton Oilers and the Nashville Predators as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Then there are some teams, like the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks, that may not be as good as they once were, but I wouldn’t count them out just yet. There are also a few teams that are on the rise like the Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, and Minnesota Wild. That being said, the Western Conference is as open as the wild west itself.

Will it be Steve Mason or Connor Hellebuyck as the Jets starter?

You’d think a team that had Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and Nikolai Ehlers, who all had breakout seasons, would be a playoff team. Not to mention, Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers on defense. But instead, their goalie situation was the main issue that kept them out. Connor Hellebuyck, who is the goalie of the future for Winnipeg, didn’t have a great season. He had a decent record of 26-19-4. However, he had really bad peripherals, with a 2.89 GAA and a .907 SV %. Basically, Winnipeg had to score three or more goals to even have a shot at winning. Although Hellebuyck’s record was okay, his stat line is not going to cut it as an NHL starter, if he continues this route. Hellebuyck is 24 years old, so he could eventually figure it out, but with the players they have up front, Winnipeg needs him to be good soon.

This was why the Jets signed Steve Mason as a free agent in the offseason. Now, Mason wasn’t great last season, either. He went 26-21-8 with a .908 SV% and 2.66 GAA for Philadelphia. Hellebuyck has slightly better stats, but considering Philadelphia is generally not as good on defense as Winnipeg, it’s a close call as to who is better. Mason used to be very good early in his career in Columbus and his first couple of seasons in Philadelphia. Since Hellebuyck is younger, he has more potential and could use fewer games to start to give him rest. This could really benefit his development, as he won’t be relied upon early on in his career. However, maybe all Mason needs to get back to his old self is a change of scenery, especially with a better defense ahead of him. Either way, Mason and Hellebuyck will be a tandem to start the year, and both should be late-round picks. But if either one of these goalies takes off and becomes a legitimate starter, Winnipeg would become a serious playoff contender.

Who will actually be the worst team in the Western Conference?

With a 22-56-4 record or 48 points, the Colorado Avalanche had the worst record in franchise history and the worst in the salary cap era. As of this writing, Matt Duchene hasn’t been traded yet. However, the Avalanche haven’t made too many changes to warrant them getting better. Another team to look for is Vancouver. Vancouver was the second worst team in the conference last season with a 30-43-9 record, good for 69 points. They did make some changes with Michael Del Zotto, Sam Gagner, and Thomas Vanek, which should help a bit. With the Sedins likely heading elsewhere after this season and Loui Eriksson, who isn’t getting younger, the Canucks aren’t exactly going to be contenders. The Canucks are very much in rebuild mode. They have Jacob Markstrom as the starting goaltender next year, and their defense is subpar. The bright side is that Canucks fans have Brock Boeser, a CalTrophyophy candidate, to look forward to. The other last-place candidate is the Vegas Golden Knights, who are just a bunch of misfits on a team. They might not be terrible considering a lot of their players were actually decent on their former teams, but history has shown that expansion teams haven’t been great in their debut season. Also, Vegas is planning for the future with the number of draft picks they have the next two years. My bet is that Colorado will remain the worst team in the Western Conference.

Getting players on bad teams is always risky, especially if your league counts +/-. However, there are some players on each of these teams that are still fantasy-relevant, and you can get them later in the draft. Names like Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene (if not traded) and Tyson Barrie for Colorado. Nail Yakupov and Tyson Jost are sleepers and will be on the market in shallow leagues. Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser and Sven Baertschi for Vancouver. Sleepers for the Canucks include Sam Gagner, Thomas Vanek and Brandon Sutter. Lastly, Shea Theodore, James Neal, Jonathan Marchessault, Vadim Shipaychov are names to keep in mind for Vegas. David Perron and Reilly Smith are the Vegas sleepers. It’s hard to know who will get a ton of ice time on defense, but Nate Schmidt or Colin Miller might be another candidate for that role. As for goalies, Semyon Varlamov, Jacob Markstrom and Marc-Andre Fleury will all get a lot of starts, but they should be your third goalie taken.

How will Leon Draisaitl do without Connor McDavid on his line?

Draisaitl broke out in his third season in the NHL. He had 77 points in 82 games as a 21-year-old. He previously had 51 points in 72 games a year ago, which isn’t bad. He also had nine points in 37 games in his rookie season. The main reason for his break-out was that he was on Connor McDavid’s line. McDavid can click with pretty much anyone on his wing, especially Draisaitl on his right side. They were one of the best duos last season and the main reason the Oilers are one of the hottest teams on the rise. However, Draisaitl is a natural center and was pretty dominant in the playoffs without McDavid. Draisaitl had 16 points in 13 playoff games. His playoff stats were better than McDavid, who had nine points in those games, which proves that Draisaitl can be independent.

To add more pressure, Draisaitl re-signed with the Oilers to a $68 million dollar contract ($8.5 million per year) for eight years this offseason. This shows that the Oilers management believes in Draisaitl’s ability. This season, it appears that Draisaitl will be a second-line center, kind of like what the Penguins do with Crosby and Malkin or the Blackhawks with Toews and Kane. With Draisaitl’s playoff performance, we know that he is certainly capable of being a point producer without McDavid. However, 13 games is a very small sample size. Since Draisaitl wasn’t great his rookie season, there is that doubt. If worse comes to worse, Draisaitl will be back on McDavid’s line, but he isn’t worth the large contract he received. I think Draisaitl will remain independent from McDavid throughout the season, but he will get around 65-70 points instead.

How will Mike Smith do in Calgary?

The Flames are very much like the Jets in this regard. They have a lot of great forwards and the defensemen are decent. But their goaltending was inconsistent throughout the season. The only difference was Calgary made the playoffs. Brian Elliott started off slow in Calgary, but he picked it up a bit in the second half. Still, Elliott ended the season with a 2.55 GAA and .910 SV %. That’s not going to cut it. He then struggled during the playoffs, where he gave up 12 goals in four games. He wasn’t re-signed after his one-year contract was done.

The Flames made a trade with the Coyotes over the offseason to get 35-year-old Mike Smith to replace Elliott. Arizona has been bad for a while, but Smith had decent career stats with the team. He went 129-132-41 with a .916 SV% and 2.69 GAA in his six seasons in the desert. Besides making it to the Western Conference finals in the 2011-2012 season (which he was the main reason for the run), Arizona was one of the worst teams in his time. But his stat line isn’t terrible considering how bad Arizona actually was. However, he had a .914 SV% and 2.92 GAA last season and is 35 years old. A better defensive core in front of him should help, but Calgary may still have goaltending issues this season. With Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Matt Tkachuk, Dougie Hamilton, and Mark Giordano, the Flames should still be pretty good and will get Mike Smith wins. But he should be your third goalie taken.

Will all the Dallas Stars’ offseason moves bring them back to the playoffs?

Two years ago, the Dallas Stars made the playoffs and won their division with the help of Jamie Benn, Tyler Sequin and John Klingberg leading the way. However, their defense and goaltending were a mess. Dallas gave up 262 goals, the second-worst in the league. That ultimately became their downfall last season, and Dallas was the seventh-worst team in points. The downfall ultimately caused Lindy Ruff to his coaching job.

This offseason, Dallas made a lot of changes. They signed Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal as free agents. Dallas also acquired goalie Ben Bishop and defensive-defenseman Mark Methot through a trade. Ken Hitchcock is their new coach, who is more defensive-minded compared to Ruff’s coaching style. They didn’t lose much other than Patrick Sharp. Dallas also has Julius Honka, John Klingberg and Esa Lindell, who’ve all shown potential and will be given bigger roles this season. They also have forwards Radek Faksa, Brett Ritchie, and Devin Shore. In short, Dallas could bounce back, but there will be an adjustment to start the season.

Radulov will likely be the Stars’ top line right winger with Sequin and Benn. As for Hanzal, he will give the Stars center depth and will slot behind Jason Spezza and Tyler Seguin. Mark Methot was one of the best stay-at-home defensemen in Ottawa for years and should help Dallas’ young defensive corp. It wasn’t that long ago when Ben Bishop was a Vezina trophy candidate. He struggled last season but could easily bounce back. Radulov and Bishop are fantasy relevant and will be picked in the middle rounds of redraft leagues.

Other Questions:

How will the Kings do under their new coach, John Stevens? For years, Los Angeles has been a defense-first team under Daryl Sutter. Now that Sutter is gone, Stevens wants to open up the offense. In which case, Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson will all benefit from this.

Will this be the year Arizona gets out of the basement? Arizona acquired Anti Raanta, Derek Stepan, Jason Demers, and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who will help Arizona out a bunch, especially on the defensive side. They also got rid of Shane Doan, coach Dave Tippett and Mike Smith, who have been mainstays for a while. The Coyotes will likely have rookies Clayton Keller, Christian Fischer, and Dylan Strome for the entire year. This team might not make it to the playoffs, but I’d be surprised if they are at the bottom of the standings this season.

Can Nino Niedereiter and Mikael Granlund be sustainable? Both Niedereiter and Granlund had breakout seasons and were a big reason for Minnesota’s success last season. Both of them have gotten better every season, but it remains to be seen if there’s much of a ceiling left.

How will Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp do in their return to Chicago? Chicago GM Stan Bowman decided to get the band back together this offseason by bringing in Saad and Sharp. They did lose a lot of players, namely Artemi Panarin. Sharp is getting older but could be productive, and Saad was pretty good in his Columbus stint. Not sure if they will replace every person they lost this offseason, though.

Did the Blues actually find their top line center in Brayden Schenn? Schenn had 55 points in 79 games for Philadelphia last season, and St. Louis has been waiting forever to get that center for Tarasenko. Dobber has projected him getting 70 points, which is certainly possible, but that’s likely his ceiling.

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