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

By Colin Likas
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Jul 2, 2015; Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; NHL draft number one pick Connor McDavid takes part in the Edmonton Oilers rookie camp at the Rexall Center. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Edmonton Oilers

Connor McDavid, C

Last season (with Erie Otters, OHL): 67 games, 65 goals, 104 assists, plus-60 rating (rating regular season only)

Why we should watch him: You need a reason to watch the NHL’s top overall draft pick on a team that regularly destroys them? I don’t believe you.

McDavid is going to be expected to make an impact at the game’s top level, and quickly. He tallied 49 points in 20 playoff games with the Otters. That alone is obscene. His skills are something Edmonton feels it needs to put its constantly broken puzzle together. It all comes down to how McDavid lives up to the expectations surrounding him.

Edmonton the city will chew him up and spit him out in a hurry if his first season is a disappointment. The Oilers themselves need to be careful with him, though. I’m not saying you coddle him and control his minutes down to the nanosecond, but this is a team that has taken Taylor Hall and Nail Yakopov with top draft picks and has pretty much allowed them to be broken down both within the team and outside it. Hall has handled it better than Yakopov, but there’s really no reason they, or McDavid, should have to deal with that in the first place.

So it’ll be interesting to see how McDavid handles his first year in the big leagues — he’ll be expected to play more than 67 games, at the least — and how Edmonton handles his maturation — he is only 18.

Mar 31, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Bruins left wing

Milan Lucic

(17) skates past the bench after scoring a goal during the third period against the Florida Panthers at TD Banknorth Garden. The Boston Bruins won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Kings

Milan Lucic, LW

Last season (with Boston): 81 games, 18 goals, 26 assists, plus-13 rating, 259 hits

Why we should watch him: I had a hard time with this one and was kind of tempted to take the easy way out and say “everyone.” The Kings have had an interesting offseason, with missing the playoffs the year after winning a Cup and the drug problems surrounding two now-former team members. But the Kings made a pretty noticeable acquisition around the NHL draft in Lucic.

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Lucic was the quintessential Bruin for eight seasons with the team and earned a Stanley Cup in the process. He scored a fair amount (his career high in points is 62), but he was the gritty, use-your-body type of guy who Boston fans love. So what do the Kings want with him?

That’s the million-dollar question. Sure, captain Dustin Brown is a hard-nosed guy, but he hangs out in the bottom six. Drew Doughty is mostly pouty, and Los Angeles’ top six has been primarily reserved for skill guys. Where does Lucic fit in? What role are they expecting him to take on? This opportunity could provide a career revitalization for Lucic, or it could have him joining Mike Richards on the buyout list. It’ll be an interesting viewing party either way.

Apr 7, 2015; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Los Angeles Kings goalie Martin Jones (31) is seen out on the ice as they took on the Edmonton Oilers during the second period at Rexall Place. Mandatory Credit: Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

San Jose Sharks

Martin Jones, G

Last season (with Los Angeles): 11 starts, 4 wins, 5 losses, .906 save percentage, 2.25 goals-allowed average

Why we should watch him: With Antti Niemi now in Dallas, the starting goaltender reigns have been turned over to a pair of career backups, to this point. Not that Jones nor Alex Stalock has been around that long — Jones is entering his third NHL season, Stalock his fifth. But the Sharks, who have been in flux over the past couple seasons so far as “will they go for a rebuild or do they feel they have a playoff window,” are putting a heavy workload on Jones, with not much to back up that confidence.

Jones has played in 34 NHL games, including 29 starts, behind Jonathan Quick in his career. He was fine in his first season, posting 12 wins and a .934 save percentage, but he was pretty bad last season, as shown by the numbers above. And it’s not as though Jones is moving out from behind a terrible defense in L.A. into an awesome one in San Jose.

So is the four-year deal Jones received justified? He’s going to have plenty of time to prove it is. And if he can’t, this spot on our list becomes Stalock’s, as does the pressure of carrying the Sharks from the back end.

(Editor’s note: I completely skipped over the Sharks when I first posted this. I apologize for that.)

Feb 24, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Vancouver Canucks center

Bo Horvat

(53) skates against the Boston Bruins during the first period at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Vancouver Canucks

Bo Horvat, C

Last season (with Vancouver): 13 goals, 12 assists, minus-8 rating, 14.0 shooting percentage

Why we should watch him: In all honestly, I feel there’s a fair chance this team finishes last in the Pacific in 2015-16. Pretty much every other team in the division is improving or not getting worse. Vancouver has done nothing to get better this offseason and may be going through the first stages of a youth movement (yeah, I know the Sedins and Ryan Miller are still around). So why not keep an eye on a guy who has a chance to be the team’s next young star?

Horvat was a first-round pick of the Canucks in 2013 after Vancouver got the ninth-overall pick from New Jersey in the Cory Schneider trade. Horvat cracked the big-league roster for the first time last season and fared decently, though he only averaged 12:16 of ice time. If head coach Willie Desjardins really wants to make this team his own and commit to a youth movement that’s inevitably coming, he’ll give Horvat a longer leash in 2015-16.

All of his points except one came at even strength last season. Horvat could have a breakout sophomore season and be a cornerstone for the Canucks in the future. Or they could piss him off and trade him away/buy him out. We’ll see.

Next: 5 Blackhawks Games Worth Missing In 2015-16

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