Colorado Avalanche, Connor McDavid, Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, Jason Robertson, Mark Stone, Season Previews, Vegas Golden Knights

3 Western Conference Stanley Cup Contenders for 2023-24

The 2023-24 NHL regular season is underway, and it sure figures to be exciting, with playoff races that could come down to the final week. Of course, some teams will be safer than others, some of whom will be legit Stanley Cup contenders. In a two-part miniseries, let’s look at three teams from each conference, with a fourth as an honorable mention, that are legitimate Stanley Cup hopefuls heading into the new season. Let’s start with the Western Conference. 

Vegas Golden Knights

The reigning Stanley Cup champions are no worse for wear, as they’re returning largely the same team that won the Stanley Cup just a few months ago. Their most notable subtraction was Reilly Smith, who’s now with the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

Their title defense got off to a strong start on Oct. 10, as they dispatched the Seattle Kraken 4-1. There aren’t many flaws with the Golden Knights roster, but the strength of their group is up front, specifically their top-nine that’s led by Jack Eichel. 

Eichel’s become a well-rounded player who can produce at a point-per-game, but there’s also plenty of support around him. Jonathan Marchessault and Ivan Barbashev played key roles in Vegas’ march to a championship a season ago and will be among their main scoring threats on the wing in the top-six. 

Mark Stone’s health will always be a bit of a question mark, but he’s still one of the best two-way wingers in the game when healthy. Add Chandler Stephenson as the team’s second-line center, and there’s some pop in the top-six. Even when moving down the lineup, players like William Karlsson and Nicolas Roy give the team plenty of depth. 

Mark Stone Vegas Golden Knights
Mark Stone of the Vegas Golden Knights celebrates with the Stanley Cup (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Golden Knights’ forwards are their strength, but their defense isn’t half bad either. Alex Pietrangelo had a rebound year in 2022-23, as did Shea Theodore. Brayden McNabb is one of the better shutdown defenders in the league, and their defense should even improve a bit more once Zach Whitecloud and Alec Martinez return from injuries. 

The one question mark for the Golden Knights could be in net. But as we saw last playoffs, Adin Hill is perfectly capable of leading the team in between the pipes when it matters most. He enters the season as their 1A, with an underrated Logan Thompson backing him up. 

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All the pieces are in place for the Golden Knights to defend their crown, but it won’t be easy. They’ll have competition from other contenders in the West, and repeating as back-to-back champs is a tall order. But as we’ve seen from the Tampa Bay Lightning and Penguins in the last decade, it’s not impossible. 

Edmonton Oilers

It’s taken longer than expected for the Oilers to become Cup contenders in the Connor McDavid era, but they are legit Cup hopefuls entering the 2023-24 season. It obviously starts with McDavid, the best player in the world, who’s coming off an outrageous 64-goal, 153-point season. 

The Oilers are not just McDavid anymore, though. Leon Draisaitl has posted 100-plus points in four of the last five seasons, and the one time he didn’t was the COVID-shortened campaign in 2020-21; he still produced at a 100-point pace. 

There’s support around McDavid and Draisaitl these days, too. Zach Hyman has become a perfect complement for McDavid, while Evander Kane will contribute top-six production. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is unlikely to score 100 points again, but somewhere around 70 is not unreasonable. 

GM Ken Holland has made some shrewd moves to improve depth, like signing Connor Brown to a one-year deal this past offseason. If Ryan McLeod and Dylan Holloway contribute some scoring depth in the bottom-six, the Oilers will very likely finish 2023-24 with the best offense in the NHL. 

Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Even on defense, the Oilers should be fine, especially since their offense is so productive. It’s far from the best blue line in the NHL, but players like Darnell Nurse, Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm will be good enough to carry the group. If prospect Philip Broberg finally contributes meaningful minutes, then all the better. 

The one question for the Oilers, and even more so than Vegas, is in net. Stuart Skinner is emerging as a reliable young goalie, but he did struggle in the playoffs last season, posting an .883 SV%. It was his first go-around in the postseason, so it’s hard to fault him. Now that he has the experience under his belt, perhaps it’ll be different next spring. 

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If not, the Oilers need more from Jack Campbell. And even if he doesn’t supplant Skinner, which doesn’t seem likely, the Oilers are paying him $5 million a year for the next four, this year included. He finished 2022-23 with an .888 SV%, which won’t cut it. He needs to get to at least .900 and, preferably, even a bit above. 

Goaltending is the one position group that could hold the Oilers back come the playoffs. But otherwise, they have a roster good enough to fall into the category of Stanley Cup contender. 

Dallas Stars

The Stars may be flying somewhat under the radar to begin the 2023-24 season, but they’re already knocking on the door of claiming the Western Conference as theirs. After losing to the Golden Knights in last season’s Conference Final, the Stars return a team capable of getting back to the NHL’s final four. 

GM Jim Nill didn’t have an overly busy offseason, but he did sign Matt Duchene to a one-year deal after the Nashville Predators bought him out. Duchene had a very productive 2022-23 season, finishing with 22 goals and 56 points in 71 games. He’ll likely operate as the team’s second-line center, but he’s also versatile enough to move to the wing if needed. 

What makes the Stars a legit Stanley Cup contender is a near-perfect mix of veterans and young players. At 24 years old, Jason Robertson has emerged as one of the best wingers in the league and is looking to repeat his 46-goal, 109-point season. He’s not just a scorer, either, as his two-way impacts are elite. 

Roope Hintz will turn 27 in about a month, and after back-to-back 37-goal and 70-plus point seasons, it’s safe to assume he’s a true No. 1 center. On the back end, 24-year-old Miro Heiskanen has emerged as a No. 1 defender, while 20-year-old Wyatt Johnston had a solid rookie season that saw him total 24 goals and 41 points. 

Jason Robertson Dallas Stars
Dallas Stars winger Jason Robertson (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That’s just the Stars’ young talent, too. Joe Pavelski doesn’t seem to age, as the 39-year-old is coming off a 77-point season. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin found new life under head coach Pete DeBoer last season and only strengthened the team’s top-nine after moving into lesser roles with the emergence of players like Robertson and Hintz. 

Not only do the Stars have talent on offense and defense, but they have one of the best young goaltenders in the game in Jake Oettinger. He did struggle a bit in the playoffs last season, posting an .895 SV%. But he was also coming off a busy regular season that saw him make 61 starts, so managing his workload will be key. 

There’s really not much to nitpick about the Stars. The one question is on defense and if they can find a way to reduce Ryan Suter’s minutes since he’s beginning to decline and could use a lesser role. But after reaching the Western Conference Final a season ago, don’t be surprised if the Stars are the last team standing in the West in 2023-24. 

Honorable Mention: Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche’s Cup window is far from closed, but they have a bit of a flawed roster with some question marks entering 2023-24. They still have elite star talent in Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar. But their depth — specifically up front — doesn’t seem to be at the level of the previously mentioned teams. 

The biggest question mark for the Avalanche is if Ryan Johansen can be a legitimate No. 2 center behind MacKinnon. His last few seasons with the Predators would suggest no. His production has fallen off quite a bit, and he was one of the worst rush players in the league in 2022-23. 

If there’s an organization that can resurrect Johansen’s career, the Avalanche would be one of them. But even then, their forward depth is lacking compared to the Stars, Oilers and Golden Knights. Tomáš Tatar was a solid late offseason signing, and Ross Colton should help their bottom-six, too. But it’s something GM Chris MacFarland may need to address ahead of the trade deadline. 

The Avalanche are good enough to be an honorable mention, but the Golden Knights, Stars and Oilers seem to be the West’s best teams heading into 2023-24. If the Los Angeles Kings had a less risky goaltending situation, they’d be in the conversation, too. Time will tell if one hoists the Cup next June, but odds are one will win the West. 

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