Editorials

Western Conference: Players To Watch In 2015-16, Part I

By Colin Likas
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Every team in the NHL has changed in some way since the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. Whether it was solely through the entry-level draft or also by way of trades and free agent signings, no squad will look exactly the same come early-October as it did in mid-June.

More From Blackhawk Up — Central Division’s 5 Most Hated Players

All players on a team are impacted when it undergoes roster changes. So we’re going to take a look at a player from each Western Conference team you should keep your eye on during the 2015-16 season. Whether it’s because he’s new to the club or because he’ll have to take on an increased role with the club he’s been with for some time — or because there’s really no one else to watch for — each team has at least one player who will receive extra attention from hockey fans beyond their own fanbase.

We’re going to start this glance by heading to the Pacific Division, and we’ll tackle the Central Division later this week:

May 22, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; New York Rangers left wing

Carl Hagelin

(62) skates against the Tampa Bay Lightning in game four of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Anaheim Ducks

Carl Hagelin, LW

Last season (with New York Rangers): 101 games, 19 goals, 21 assists, plus-14 rating

Why we should watch him: Hagelin followed up a pretty rough 2015 playoff run, in which he tallied just five points with a minus-4 rating in 19 games, by receiving a four-year contract from the Ducks. Hagelin is tied for sixth on his new club in largest cap hit per season at $4 million, so he’ll be expected to do things a top-six forward would do.

Will he be able to do that in Anaheim? His surrounding cast could certainly help; you imagine he’ll get to play alongside Ryan Kesler, who isn’t a pushover at center. Hagelin has averaged 15:38 in ice time through his four years in the NHL, so he should expect that number to rise. But what it comes down to is this: Hagelin is going to need to surpass his 35 points from last season, and in a big way. He hasn’t topped the 38-point mark he established in his rookie season, which saw him place fifth in Calder Trophy voting.

Hagelin should have the pieces around him to blow by 40 points, but it’s up to him to make it come together. He’ll also have to deal with being the big offseason signing (it’s either him or Kevin Bieksa) for a team that has Stanley Cup Final appearance aspirations.

Apr 7, 2015; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Arizona Coyotes defenseman

Oliver Ekman-Larsson

(23) skates against the Calgary Flames during the third period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Calgary Flames won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Coyotes

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D

Last season (with Arizona): 82 games, 23 goals, 20 assists, minus-18 rating, 10 powerplay goals

Why we should watch him: I guess we could put Dylan Strome here, but he’s not exactly in the same situation as Connor McDavid in Edmonton or Jack Eichel in Buffalo. Those two teams, as bad as they were last season, appear to be building up to revivals. The Coyotes aren’t going anywhere but further down the standings next season, and there’s not far to fall.

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But Ekman-Larsson is a huge bright spot on this team. There’s a reason he gets paid more than just about everyone on the team. He just turned 24 this offseason and has been in the league for five seasons, pushing his stats and the team each step of the way. His 23 goals last year were a career high, and his 43 points were one short of the total he put up last season — although the 24 he posted in 48 games during the lockout season of 2013 probably would’ve swelled well past 43.

After averaging less than 16 minutes a game his rookie season, he saw more than 22 minutes of ice time per contest in 2011-12. That figure has jumped to more than 25 minutes a game each of the last three seasons. He lays the body (167 hits last season, a career high), gets in front of shots (77 blocks), and helps his team offensively in all situations (12 even-strength and 11 special-teams goals last season). He just doesn’t have much around him to make his star status mean something, beyond individual plaudits.

Arizona isn’t going to ship off the franchise’s cornerstone, but it’ll be interesting to see if he can make the leap from low-first-tier defenseman to that upper echelon that gets Norris Trophy consideration despite not having much around him to aid that quest. It’ll certainly be more interesting than watching John Scott try to do his best Raffi Torres impersonation in the desert.

May 5, 2015; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau (13) celebrates goal by Calgary Flames center

Mikael Backlund

(not pictured) against the Anaheim Ducks during the overtime period in game three of the second round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Saddledome. Calgary Flames won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Calgary Flames

Johnny Gaudreau, LW

Last season (with Calgary): 91 games, 28 goals, 45 assists, plus-9 rating, third place in Calder Trophy voting

Why we should watch him: Gaudreau is in a contract year after exploding on to the scene in Calgary. That might be reason enough to watch him, but there’s plenty more to discuss here.

The Flames were a super surprise as a playoff team last season and probably overachieved in the regular season. If they can get back to the postseason in 2015-16, and not so much as an overachiever, Gaudreau will be a key reason why. The kid’s middle name might as well be Highlight Reel. He’s fantastically skilled and a shade over 22-years-old on a team that’s been aching for a leader since Jarome Iginla left. Can Gaudreau fill that role? You bet he’ll want to, at least for contract’s sake.

He averaged nearly 18 minutes of ice time per game in his rookie season and scored about a third of his points while on special teams. His shooting percentage was an unsustainable 14.4 percent last season, but Gaudreau knows how to make plays and set up himself and his teammates for offensive success.

The Flames are going to need him to a) not go through a sophomore slump and b) turn into a solid two-way player who demands the captain’s “C” at some point in the future. It should be fun to see if Gaudreau can step up to the plate.

Next: The Oilers, Kings, Sharks and Canucks

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