Down
enlarge
NHL rookies to watch
0:51 | NHL
NHL rookies to watch

The NHL's Western Conference should be wild all season, perhaps as much as ever as parity reigns and points are tough to come by on any given night.

A slew of teams have a shot at advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.

The defending Conference champion San Jose Sharks, who had five players in the World Cup of Hockey finals , certainly appear to have a chance to be among the final two still skating in mid-June. That alone would be a feat because no team from the conference has pulled it off since the Detroit Red Wings, now an Eastern Conference team, won the Stanley Cup in 2008 and came within a win of repeating.

Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim and St. Louis will likely be among the contenders. Dallas, too.

The Blackhawks and Kings, who alternated as champions from 2012 to 2015 and won five Cups in a six-season span, failed to even make it out of the first round last in 2016.

Both teams certainly have a chance to bounce back this season.

NHL
Roundtable: Picking breakout players for the 2016–17 season

''This is my sixth season in the Central Division and this looks like the most challenging year yet,'' Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. ''The crunching between the top and bottom started last year, and it's going to be closer this year.''

Hitchcock and Stars general manager Jim Nill both believe the teams that were at the bottom of the conference last season on moving up.

''The Winnipegs and the Colorados are going to be better teams,'' Nill told the AP. ''I think it's going to be tighter than ever.''

How tight?

''Everyone has a shot,'' San Jose's Logan Couture said.

How many teams?

''Fifteen,'' Couture insisted. ''There are no easy-to-beat teams in our conference.''

Some things to watch for this season:

SHARP SHARKS

San Jose, which joined the league in 1991, advanced to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time last season. The Sharks pushed Pittsburgh to Game 6 before its speed proved to be too much to handle. The Sharks showed they have some of the best players on the planet at the World Cup with Couture, Joe Thornton, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic helping Canada win the title against Team Europe and one of their new teammates, Mikkel Boedker. The Sharks signed the forward to a four-year, $16 million deal on Day 1 of free agency.

NHL
Sharks' Brent Burns prepared for World Cup of Hockey with summer RV trip

HUNGRY HAWKS

The Blackhawks, who hoisted the Cup in in 2015, '13 and '10, are coming off their shortest postseason run in coach Joel Quenneville's eight seasons. The Blues beat Chicago in Game 7 of their first-round series, giving its players a longer-than-usual summer. ''I think it will help us recharge,'' Marian Hossa said.

SWAN SONG

Hitchcock has said he's retiring after this season more than 20 years after getting his first job with the Stars. The Blues plan to replace him with Mike Yeo. The 64-year-old Hitchcock led the Stars to the Cup in 1999 and St. Louis to the last conference finals, its longest playoff run since 2001. ''I'm excited about the year because we've raised the bar with expectations and accountability,'' Hitchcock said.

SPLASHY SUMMER

A handful of teams in the West made major moves July 1, including the Edmonton Oilers signing winger Milan Lucic to a $42 million, seven-year deal to give 19-year-old center Connor McDavid some help. Vancouver, which failed to make the playoffs in 2016 for the second time in three years, added winger Loui Eriksson with a $36 million, six-year contract to give the 36-year-old Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, an opportunity to make at least one more postseason push. Calgary signed forward Troy Brouwer to a four-year, $18 million deal, hoping he can provide a steady veteran presence to go with spectacular, 23-year-old Johnny Gaudreau. Four years after giving Zach Parise and Ryan Suter 13-year, $98 million contracts, the Minnesota Wild signed center Eric Staal to a three-year, $10.5 million deal.

---

Follow Larry Lage at www.twitter.com/larrylage and follow his work at www.bigstory.ap.org/content/larry-lage

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.