With the recent release of next season’s NHL schedule, hockey fans everywhere can finally start scouring their squad’s calendar in an effort to pinpoint the most intriguing matchups and rivalry games of the campaign. It’s no different in Pittsburgh, where the locals eagerly await meetings with adversaries such as the Philadelphia Flyers and their new divisional rivals, the Washington Capitals. Furthermore, dates with clubs like the Bruins, Rangers and Islanders provide additional marquee contests for fans to salivate over.
While there are plenty of divisional games to look forward to in the upcoming season, though, fans can also be excited about the fact that every team will play in each NHL city for the first time in over 15 years. That means Pens’ fans will have the opportunity to see each Western Conference star at least once for at least the next three seasons. And with that spirit it mind, we take a look at, in no particular order, five Western Conference teams that Pittsburgh fans won’t want to miss this year:
The Oilers haven’t made the playoffs since 2006 but all that futility has allowed the club to reload at an almost unprecidented rate. Indeed, enjoying the first overall pick three years in a row (2010-12) allowed Edmonton to draft Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov to build their squad around. Throw in Jordan Eberle and Justin Shultz and you have the makings of a pretty entertaining hockey team.
While the club is moving in the right direction, the Oilers still have a few needs to address before they can truly be labeled contenders. Neither talent nor skill, however, are on that list. So, despite their lack of recent overall success, Edmonton is loaded with stars more than capable of bringing people out of their seats, making them one of the most entertaining squads in the entire NHL. As a result, the Oilers are a team that fans won’t want to miss.
Los Angeles Kings
The fact that Rob Scuderi jumped ship from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh makes this an intriguing matchup but that’s not the only reason the Kings make this list. No, like any good show from tinseltown, L.A. packs plenty of star power. In Jonathan Quick, the Kings employ arguably the best goaltender in hockey; in Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles employs one of the most talented two-way players in the NHL who isn’t mentioned in conversations about the game’s elite nearly as much as he should be. What’s more, Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov (two defensemen that Scuderi mentored) provide the Kings with two young studs on the blue line.
Aside from all the star power, though, the Kings have established themselves as a player in the Western Conference. Only a year removed from a Stanley Cup championship, it took the record setting Chicago Blackhawks to knock L.A. out of the Western Conference Finals this season. The team isnn’t going anywhere, either. With Quick in net, a solid defensive corp and a deep forward unit, the Kings will be contenders for the foreseeable future.
And if all that isn’t enough, there will be plenty of ex-Flyers, such as Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Daniel Carcillo, when “Philly West” comes to town for Penguin fans to rekindle their distaste for.
The Avalanche are admittedly in a rebuilding mode but the club does employ some dynamic talent. Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog (winner of the 2012 Calder Trophy) have bright futures but the real draw here comes from this year’s first overall pick, Nathan MacKinnon:
Aside from being forever linked to Sidney Crosby as another first overall pick from Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia, Colorado’s latest phenom appears to be headed for a stardom all his own. After all, for Colorado to pass on stud defenseman Seth Jones in order to obtain MacKinnon in this year’s draft, the club must have seen something they truly coveted. And according to the scouting report, it might be difficult to find fault in their assessment:
“A blend of speed, skill and desire, MacKinnon is not solely an offensive talent, but instead he’s one of the more complete players in his draft class. While he still needs refinement in his defensive game and he’ll continue to get stronger on the ice, his speed and willingness to throw the body makes him equally valuable at both ends of the ice. Offensively, he slices through opposing defenses like a hot knife through butter and has a quick release that often finds the back of the net.” – hockeysfuture.com
Regardless of how Colorado’s campaign plays out this season, the club’s collection of young talent, particularly Nathan MacKinnon, makes the Avalanche a team worth checking out.
After making a huge splash in free agency last off-season, Minnesota is hoping to join the Western Conference elite in the near future. With Zach Parise and Ryan Suter on board, the Wild snuck into the playoffs this season before bowing out to the juggernaut Blackhawks in the first round. With a season under their belts and a year for all the club’s young talent to mature, the Wild will surely be hoping for more than just qualifying for the playoffs in the coming years.
But let’s be honest; Minnesota makes this list mostly because of all the connections the club has with the Penguins. Surely, seeing Pittsburgh cap casualty and super-pest Matt Cooke in a Wild jersey will be an adjustment for Pens’ fans but he isn’t the only member of the Wild with ties to the Pens. No, Mike Yeo, the Wild’s head coach, was an assistant in Western Pennsylvania from 2005-10 while G.M. Chuck Fletcher spent three years as an assistant to Ray Shero in Pittsburgh. And while fans don’t pay to watch the coach or G.M., all of the connections betweens these clubs make the Wild an intriguing matchup for the Penguins.
How could the Stanley Cup champs not make the list? After all, having won two Cups in four years makes the Hawks the closest thing to a dynasty this side of the salary cap’s inception. And with players like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks are a must see for any hockey fan.
But aside from all the talent and success, there is another reason to be excited about this matchup. On March 1, the Pens and Hawks will meet in an outdoor game at Soldier Field. Say what you will about diluting the Winter Classic but this contest will no doubt be one of the most entertaining events of the season, a clash between two of the most marketable clubs in the NHL. After all, it’s Toews vs. Crosby; Kane vs. Malkin, all at one of the most historic stadiums in North America. How could you go wrong?
And with all the talent that will be displayed on such a large stage, it’s only a matter of time until another moment like this is created. Don’t miss it.
Sean Griffin is a lead writer for the Pittsburgh Penguins at The Hockey Writers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.