NHL Hockey

Defending champion Blues surrounded by tough teams in West

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

By LARRY LAGE

AP Sports writer

St. Louis had better dig in for its repeat bid.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues will have their hands full in the Western Conference, which seems to have a slew of contenders. And, every team in the entire league is going to give the Blues its best shot each game.

"There's going to be a whole different feel for us that we've got to figure out, `OK, how can we elevate our game?' We're not going to catch teams by surprise," said Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, last season's playoff MVP and top defensive forward. "We're going to need to make changes and grow ourselves to be better this year and to do it again."

Dallas, Vegas, Calgary, Colorado, San Jose and Winnipeg all go into the season with a shot to knock off St. Louis and keep the Cup in the West after the coveted trophy was won by Eastern Conference teams the previous three years. And even though the Nashville Predators appears to be somewhat overlooked this season, it's not wise to count them out in the race, especially with the addition of center Matt Duchene.

The Central Division, which may earn both wild cards again in the conference, may be the strongest in the NHL.

"It's hard not to say the Central with the Blues being in it," Arizona center Derek Stepan said.

SHINING STARS

Dallas seems set up for success with star players all over the place, giving the franchise a legitimate chance to reach the conference finals for the first time since 2008.

Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn provide plenty of scoring power. Second-year coach Jim Montgomery can roll four lines after the front office bolstered the team's depth by signing 35-year-old Joe Pavelski, who was an All-Star last year with San Jose for the third time in four years.

"Getting a guy like Pavelski to us is going to be huge for us obviously with the net front (presence) and leadership-wise in the locker room," defenseman John Klingberg said.

The 27-year-old Klingberg is potentially going into the prime year of his career and 20-year-old Miro Heiskanen is a future star on the blue line, coming off a 33-point rookie season in which he was durable enough to play all 82 games.

Goaltender Ben Bishop looks like he might be at his best at the age of 32. His save percentage led the league last year and he ranked second in the NHL in goals-against average, giving up fewer than two a game for the first time in his career.

THIRD TIME A CHARM?

The Golden Knights are hoping their third year is more like their first, when they reached the Stanley Cup Final, and not like their second season that ended in the first round with a Game 7 loss to the Sharks. Vegas returns its top nine scorers and three-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as the franchise makes another run with familiar faces. Talented forward Mark Stone starts his first full season with the Golden Knights after signing an eight-year deal in February.

"We have something to prove to show that we are a top team in the NHL," Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault.

GROUNDED JETS

Winnipeg's chances may hinge on when, or possibly if, restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor sign to stay with the franchise.

"If we don't have those two guys for the whole season, which I don't think is going to happen, then it does change our team a little bit because then we've lost a lot of players," Winnipeg Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers said.

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

- Connor McDavid is one of the game's greats and teammate Leon Draisaitl is a 100-point scorer, but the Edmonton Oilers might be relegated to playing only in the regular season for a third straight year and 13th time in 14 seasons.

- Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews may not have enough talent around them to avoid missing the playoffs a third straight year in Chicago for the first time in more than a decade.

- The Minnesota Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year, $98 million contracts in 2012 and they may miss the playoffs two straight years for the first time since then.

- The Los Angeles Kings hired former San Jose and Edmonton coach Todd McLellan, but he will have a hard time stopping the franchise from falling short of the postseason in two straight years for the first time since a six-season drought that ended in 2010.

- Under first-year coach Dallas Eakins, the Anaheim Ducks may miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2000-2002.

- The Arizona Coyotes have failed to make the playoffs for seven straight years, a drought that trails only Buffalo's in the NHL, and probably will extend the run this season. The Vancouver Canucks could sit out a fifth straight year, which would be a franchise record.

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS (in order)

Central: Stars, Blues, Predators

West: Golden Knights, Flames, Sharks

Wild card: Avalanche, Jets

West champion: Stars

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AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report. Follow AP Hockey Writer Larry Lage on Twitter at https://twitter.com/larrylage

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The story has been corrected to change the first wild card prediction to Colorado, not Nashville.

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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Updated September 19, 2019

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Teams Score Time
NCAA FB
NC State   Sat 12:00pm
Boston College  
Duke   Sat 3:30pm
Virginia  
North Carolina   Sat 3:30pm
Virginia Tech  
Teams Score Time
Pittsburgh   Fri 7:00pm
Syracuse  
Ohio State   Fri 8:30pm
Northwestern  
Auburn   Sat 12:00pm
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Clemson   Sat 12:00pm
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Miami  
NC State   Sat 12:00pm
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Minnesota   Sat 3:30pm
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North Carolina   Sat 3:30pm
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Tulsa   Sat 3:30pm
Cincinnati  
UL Monroe   Sat 3:30pm
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Baylor   Sat 4:00pm
Oklahoma State  
Missouri   Sat 4:00pm
Vanderbilt  
Arizona State   Sat 6:00pm
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Georgia  
Kansas   Sat 7:00pm
Texas  
Florida State   Sat 7:30pm
Wake Forest  
Michigan   Sat 7:30pm
Penn State  
Tennessee   Sat 9:00pm
Alabama  
Boise State   Sat 10:15pm
BYU  
Teams Score Time
American League
Houston   8:08pm
New York  
Teams Score Time
Miami   7:00pm
Orlando  
Atlanta   8:00pm
Chicago  
Minnesota   8:00pm
Milwaukee  
Portland   9:00pm
Denver  
Dallas   10:30pm
Los Angeles  
Teams Score Time
Kansas City   8:20pm
Denver  
Arizona   Sun 1:00pm
New York  
Houston   Sun 1:00pm
Indianapolis  
Jacksonville   Sun 1:00pm
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Atlanta  
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Buffalo  
Minnesota   Sun 1:00pm
Detroit  
Oakland   Sun 1:00pm
Green Bay  
San Francisco   Sun 1:00pm
Washington  
Los Angeles   Sun 4:05pm
Tennessee  
Baltimore   Sun 4:25pm
Seattle  
New Orleans   Sun 4:25pm
Chicago  
Philadelphia   Sun 8:20pm
Dallas  
Teams Score Time
Minnesota   7:00pm
Montreal  
New York   7:00pm
New Jersey  
Tampa Bay   7:00pm
Boston  
New York   8:00pm
Winnipeg  
Vancouver   8:00pm
St. Louis  
Detroit   9:00pm
Calgary  
Nashville   10:00pm
Arizona  
Ottawa   10:00pm
Vegas  
Buffalo   10:30pm
Los Angeles  
MONSTER ENERGY NASCAR CUP SERIES AT TALLADEGA
Pos # Name Start Pos
1 12 Ryan Blaney 9
2 6 Ryan Newman 13
3 11 Denny Hamlin 40
4 10 Aric Almirola 5
5 34 Michael McDowell 22
6 3 Austin Dillon 20
7 32 Corey Lajoie 33
8 9 Chase Elliott 1
9 17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr 7
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES AT DOVER
Pos # Name Start Pos
1 00 Cole Custer 3
2 7 Justin Allgaier 8
3 22 Austin Cindric 2
4 11 Justin Haley 11
5 98 Chase Briscoe 1
6 1 Michael Annett 16
7 9 Noah Gragson 7
8 23 John Hunter Nemechek 17
9 8 Zane Smith 10
NASCAR GANDER OUTDOORS TRUCK SERIES AT TALLADEGA
Pos # Name Start Pos
1 20 Spencer Boyd 25
2 4 Todd Gilliland 6
3 51 Riley Herbst 7
4 24 Brett Moffitt 8
5 52 Stewart Friesen 10
6 16 Austin Hill 13
7 17 Tyler Ankrum 2
8 88 Matt Crafton 1
9 2 Sheldon Creed 5