No clear favorite as teams open NHL season

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No clear favorite as teams open NHL season

After the Chicago Blackhawks raised the Stanley Cup on home ice in June to celebrate their third title in six years, they spent the summer figuring out how to pay for it.

That meant making significant changes, including the departure of several key players.

That also left the Stanley Cup race remarkably wide-open.

The league has no overwhelming favorite when play begins Wednesday night with four games. Seemingly half of the NHL’s teams have legitimate hopes of being the next to raise the Cup in a league that’s financially healthy, remarkably competitive and ready for a busy winter.

“No team can live on what they did in the past,’’ said Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown, whose Kings missed the playoffs last spring after winning the Cup in 2014. “You always have a new challenge at this time of the year, and everybody has it this season.’’

Chicago is the closest thing to a modern NHL dynasty after its lengthy run of excellence, but the Blackhawks will have to do it again without Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Johnny Oduya, Antoine Vermette, Brad Richards and a handful of other contributors.

Chicago coach Joel Quenneville plans to lean on Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and his other veteran leaders to get through this transition period.

“It’s what we’re bred to do. It’s what we’re all about,’’ Quenneville said. “You get to this level, or at any level, I think you want to win every shift, you want to win the game, you want to be productive, you want to contribute in a meaningful way. Nothing is better than winning.’’

The Anaheim Ducks are a popular preseason pick for their franchise’s second title after taking the Blackhawks to the seven-game limit in the Western Conference finals. Coach Bruce Boudreau’s squad is loaded with an enviable mix of veteran excellence and young talent, but has been knocked out of the last two postseasons by the eventual Stanley Cup champion.

While the West still appears to be the superior conference with St. Louis, Los Angeles and hard-charging Calgary and Winnipeg in the mix, the Eastern Conference could finally break through next summer after losing seven of the last nine Cup series.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are widely considered the favorite to defend their East title after making few changes to an impressive squad. Washington, Montreal and the New York Islanders all are title contenders, while returning powers like the New York Rangers will look to stay in the race.

“There’s no guarantee that you will keep your spot,’’ Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. “It’s hard to get there, and it might be harder to stay there. It keeps everyone on their toes.’’

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