Pacific Division Preview
Here is a preview of the Pacific Division teams in no particular order.
San Jose Sharks
After stealing one of the best players in the game, who eventually turned into the league’s MVP, the Sharks vaulted themselves to among the league’s elite.
The biggest move last season was the Joe Thornton to the Sharks trade. Doug Wilson fleeced the Bruins and added a star and franchise player to Northern California. Now with a tremendously talented group surrounding Thornton, the Sharks are poised to improve upon their 3rd and 2nd round playoff appearances the last couple of seasons. But in the ultra competitive West, the Sharks will need their A game to make that happen.
One of the team’s two top goalies will need to emerge as the go-to guy. Last season Vesa Toskela seized the opportunity by getting off the injury list first, and playing too well to take out of the lineup. Though Evgeny Nabokov has the big $4 plus million ticket, his job as the number 1 guy is not certain. He will still need to win the job in camp One possibility is for one of these goalies to get traded. With Nolan Schaefer about ready to at least assume a backup role (and a player who now would come cheap) moving one of the two vets may make sense. Either way, the Sharks should have very strong goaltending going in.
The Sharks, despite having plenty of star power, have a very unheralded defence. Scott Hannan is the team’s defensive stud and horse back on the blueline. Hannan is not very offensively inclined, but he’s a real stalwart in other facets of the game. Him and rugged Kyle MacLaren bring plenty of sandpaper and leadership on the defensive side of the game. They give San Jose two players who can handle opposing teams top forwards. Providing offence is the swift skating Matt Carle and big shooter Christian Ehrloff. Carle came straight out of college to the NHL and gave the Sharks tremendous mobility and puck skills on the back end. It allowed them to move Tom Pressing who was the teams leading scorer on D last season. With the very poised Josh Gorges around as well as Rob Davison and Doug Murray, the Sharks have a relatively unknown, blue collar D that could surprise many by how good they are.
The real show in San Jose is the forwards and their monster 1-2 punch up the middle. Between Thornton and captain Patrick Marleau, the Sharks have two dominating centres who can control a game with their speed, great size and skill. They are near impossible to handle and do a great job taking attention away from eachother as opponents dont know which one to target on any given night. Thornton is probably the more likely choice to face the opposing teams top defensive players and that may have plenty to do with him playing with 56 goal man Jonathan Cheechoo. Those two clicked immediately and were nearly unstoppable. The acquisiton of Mark Bell should round out a great top line as he can not only score, but provide the size and muscle and do the dirty work for the two studs. With this top line full of power and the second unit of Marleau, Steve Bernier and Milan Michalak full of speed and skill, goal scoring will not be a problem for the Sharks. With the additions of Bell, Ville Nieminen, Curtis Brown and Mike Grier the grit and defensive awareness is there now to give San Jose a very well rounded forward group.
If the young nucleus continues to improve and the goalie picture clears up, the Sharks could be the eventual team to beat out West.
After a tumultueous season that involved injuries, losing and gambling, the Coyotes have retooled and are looking to get back on track and back into the hunt for a playoff spot in the West.
Turnover was the name of the game last season for coach Wayne Gretzky as bodies were in and out of the lineup daily. With some key additions, the Yotes hoping this is the year they not only get back to the big dance, but actually win a playoff round which they haven’t done in almost 20 years. The toughest test is for them to survive their own division which consists of several strong playoff contenders. Can they do that without having the kind of speed and skill required in the new game remains to be seen.
The team should get good goaltending from Curtis Joseph. The more overworked he is, the better he plays. The Yotes were not a very good defensive squad and as a result, Cujo saw plenty of rubber. Him and David Leneveu will likely see plenty more this season and much of the Coyote’s hopes lie on them being able to steal some games, especially against their tough divisional opponents.
Phoenix did retool their defence and on paper looks pretty good. Ed Jovanovski was added, as was Nick Boynton. They join Zbenyk Michalek, Keith Ballard and Derek Morris to form a much more mobile and skilled blueline. The big question is health as Morris, Jovanovski and Boynton all spent time on the injured list. They will need to last the full season and play at a high level. Boynton was particularly bad as he was penalty prone struggling to meet the new standards along with fighting injuries. Ballard and Michalek were horses who took over when they were basically the only blueliners left. Despite the mounting losses, last season was huge in the development of these two youngsters and they appear to have passed the litmus test. The Coyotes are hoping to lessen their burden by having an impact player like Jovocop roaming the D. Jovanovski should really be able to jumpstart a poor offence and add a big hitter to replace the departed Denis Gauthier.
The Coyotes are also looking at a couple of newcomers up front to have a big impact as well. Jeremy Roenick returns to Phoenix and Owen Nolan returns to the NHL after 2 years away. Both are looking for huge comeback seasons and the team needs it as there is not as much depth up front as there is on defence. Nolan is a true power player on offence and the Yotes need that physical presence up front to help captain Shane Doan who appear often to be the only one willing to hit something. JR was terrible last season, but appears to be in good shape and hungry to have one more cup run. With these two to go with Doan, Ladislav Nagy, Mike Comrie and Steven Reinprecht, the Yotes should have enough offence to get by. This team wont win many races, but should be smart and saavy enough to be competitive. But again, like the D, they need to stay healthy which has been a big problem, especially for Nagy who is arguably their best player.
But not only do the Yotes need to stay healthy, they need to improve in so many areas such as special teams, discipline and team chemistry. It will be a huge job for coach Gretzky to mold this group into a contender. It would be difficult to ever bet against the Great One who always seems to do the impossible but there may be far too many roadblocks ahead for the Coyotes to get to where they want to go.
Los Angeles Kings
After seeing their California cousins stock up on big name talent and emerge as pre-season favorites to compete for top spot in the West, the Kings feel a bit left out of the party.
It may be a little while before the Kings acquire the kind of talent the Sharks and Ducks have brought in but armed with a new GM in Dean Lombardi, who is considered one of the bright young minds in the game, there is nowhere to go but up for LA.
Bringing in Marc Crawford to handle the coaching duties was a good move as Crow is a proven winner and he should bring plenty of energy and enthusiasm behind the bench. He should allow the Kings to play a bit more wide open than the tight defensive plan of former coach Andy Murray. The problem may lie in the fact that their new coach is a yeller like their old coach and in short time the players began to tune Murray out. It remains to be seen if the same kind of thing happens under Crawford.
A key on-ice move was to bring in Dan Cloutier to take over the number 1 job in nets. He however is not guaranteed that job as he first
must beat out in*****bents Mathieu Garon and Jason Labarbera who shared the duties last season with little success. Cloutier is coming off a lost year with injury and including the lockout year, has barely played in the last 24 months. He is going to need to re-establish himself as a number 1 goalie again but it will help that his former coach has joined him in LA. The competition with Garon should be a good thing as it should get the emotional Cloutier fired up and ready to go. Garon also could use a kick in the pants to jumpstart a career that stalled when he got the starting role he always coveted. He needs to redeem himself as well. This healthy battle should help both players.
A huge coup for LA was luring back blueliner Rob Blake into the fold. The former Kings captain gives LA a huge horse on defence at both ends of the ice. He can still handle 25-30 minutes a game, QB the PP and be the punishing hitter putting fear into opponents. The Kings really needed this type of player. Current captain Mattias Norstrom is slowing down a bit but still is a warrior in the defensive end. So is Aaron Miller but unfortunately he can never stay healthy enough to have a lasting impact. The big impact star on D last season was Lubomir Vishnovsky who was a points machine for LA. The new rules really boosted his game and he showed off more skill and more production than ever. LA will need him to keep up that pace. With Brent Sopel very familiar with coach Crawford from his Vancouver days and young Tim Gleason getting better, the Kings should really have a very good blueline. Health will be a big issue as this is an old group, but if they can stay in the lineup, LA should be pretty good on the backend.
A big problem for LA may be scoring as one of their big guns Pavol Demitra was moved out in the summer. It has left only Craig Conroy and youngsters Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov and Mike Cammellari as the only experienced true skilled scoring threats in this lineup. Frolov is really going to need to pick up the production as he may be the team’s most dangerous forward. His inconsistency where he dominates one game and should be benched the next needs to end. Conroy is a very steady point producer but Brown and Cammellari are going to need to continue to get better. The Kings will also need role players like Eric Belanger, Alyn MacCauley, Sean Avery and Derek Armstrong to pick up some scoring slack. And they will need prospects Patrick O’Sullivan, Anze Kopitar and/or Lauri Tukonen to deliver if they make the team as rookies.
The addition of Blake should improve the Kings woeful special teams but overall they will need to be more disciplined and much sharper in their overall play. It may take a season or two for the players to not only adjust to Crawford, but also for the kids to develop into legit NHLers. This is what Lombardi is building towards, having a young team stocked with players they have produced themselves.
The Stars had another year where they enjoyed a successful regular season only to falter in the playoffs. Dallas has been for the last few years retooling their system, trying to get younger and faster. Though this past summer, the Stars added several veterans to maintain the course in the West where several other teams have gotten significantly better. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen as the team took some hits in free agency and on paper may be a less talented team today than last season.
Doug Armstrong is a pretty decent GM as he has done a good job forcing the transition from renting for Habs players to building up an ok farm system and integrating young talent to the parent squad. Coach Dave Tippett has also done a fine job working in the young players but also keeping the Stars near the top of the standings. However he is getting to the point where he needs to have a long playoff run to save his job.
It would help if goaltender Marty Turco could win a playoff round or two. One of the best regular season goalies, Turco needs to shed a reputation of a goalie who cant win the big games. For some unknown reason, when the playoffs come around, his game goes into the tank. The Stars are committed to Turco after signing him to a long term deal and now it will be up to him to make believers out of everyone that he can play well when it matters most. He is one of the main reasons why the team is often near the top of the standings. Dallas will need that even more this season with a less talented team in front of him and much stronger opponents all around the West. Also, there is no proven backup this season after Johan Hedberg left. This means an even greater workload for Mr. Turco.
The blueline is deep and experienced and a body or two may need to be moved to relieve the log jam as there are 8 proven NHL blueliners with the team at camp. Darryl Sydor was brought back and he’ll once again join Sergei Zubov on the top pairing. Zubov enjoyed a great season returning to form after a pretty weak last couple of seasons. He was once again an offensive force and he seemed to thrive under the new rules. Trevor Daley will challenge Sydor on the top pairing as he was Zubov’s partner for much of last season. Daley is a terrific skater and may develop into a decent point producer if given the chance. Philip Boucher and Jaroslav Modry should reunite in Dallas after playing together previously in LA. Modry was added to give Dallas another big shooter on the PP and a bit more sandpaper. The battle for the last starting spot on D will be between Stephan Robidas, Jon Klemm and Janne Niinimaa. Robidas has the inside track as he is a good skater and played very well at the last World Championships which should be a boost of confidence for him. The other two Dallas would gladly move as salary dumps to cut costs.
Mike Modano is still the kingpin among the forwards and will once again be the focal point of the offence. He returned to form last year after a terrible 03/04 season where he looked old and washed up. The new rules are perfect for Modano to show off his speed and skill. He will miss however the likes of Jason Arnott and Bill Guerin who were proven scorers who added some balance to the Stars attack. The gritty Brendan Morrow is still around, as is the solid Jere Lehtinen and shootout star Jussi Jokinen should only get better. But the team is going to need newcomers like Eric Lindros, Jeff Halpern and Patrick Stefan to step in and provide some consistent offence. The Stars will probably need another youngster or two like a Loui Eriksson or Matthias Tjarnqvist to pull a Jokinen and emerge from obscurity. Lindros is the biggest wildcard as he is a tremendous talent but can never stay healthy. Dallas needs him healthy to at least give their team 2 decent scoring units.
It appears the Stars are looking to get back to being a hard team to play against which is evident by bringing in Sydor and Modry for the D and adding the likes of Halpern and Matthew Barnaby to join players like Steve Ott and Morrow who have tons of sandpaper. The team will need to play that way to squeeze out some victories as there is not as much scoring depth as in years past. Dallas should have good special teams so that may give them some advantage. Turco is going to need to be better than ever for Dallas to shake off the disappearing act often seen in the latest Stars playoff runs. There are jobs on the line that depend on it.
Like last summer, it was another uneventful summer in Anaheim. It was about a year ago the Ducks only got new owners, hired a new GM, and signed the most coveted free agent on the market. This past summer they only changed their team name and uniforms, and added the most coveted player in the trade market.
All kidding aside, the Ducks have established themselves as one of the elite teams in the NHL. Brian Burke has done a terrific job turning a non-playoff team into a top contender in less than two years. They have managed to lure top level talent, they have added depth to all positions and thei
r cupboard of young players is the envy of the rest of the league. Anaheim has been one of the teams with the biggest turnaround post lockout. Now armed with two of the top 3 blueliners in the NHL, the Ducks have emerged as one of the pre-season favorites to make a Cup finals appearance.
Anaheim is armed with 2 legitimate number 1 goalies. Like their California cousins, there is going to be quite a battle in camp to determine a number 1 man in nets. JS Giguere is their big ticket goalie who star shone brightest during their cup run in 2003. Though he has not played at that world class level since, he is still a very good goalie capable of getting hot at any time. Last season he lost his job to Ilya Bryzgalov who was brilliant in helping the Ducks to the 3rd round. Bryzgalov comes at a much cheaper price and is a bit younger than Giguere. These factors could lead to Anaheim moving out Giguere and handing the job over to the young Russian. Either way, Anaheim is very strong in goal.
But the team’s biggest strength is their defence. No team has had a 1-2 punch on D as talented as Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. They are with Nik Lidstrom, 2 of the top 3 defenceman in the NHL. This luxury of having these two workhorses on D has vaulted the Ducks to top contenders. Niedermayer has been a winner everywhere he has gone and is one of the best all-round Dmen. He skates like the wind and can break a game open with a tremendous rush, or a dazzling defensive play. Pronger is a monster physical force that can also impact a game with a huge goal or a big hit. He was unstoppable in this past playoff and simply amazing in helping Edmonton reach the finals as an 8th seed. Anaheim should have a great PP with these two running the points and should be also strong on the PK with both capable of playing the full two minutes shorthanded or with the man advantage. In fact, the Ducks could very well have one or the other or both on the ice for every minute of the game which would make opponents lives miserable.
But lets not discount the rest of the D as they will play an important role adding even more depth. Sean O’Donnell is a saavy veteran who plays rough. Francois Beauchemin is an emerging star who looked great with Niedermayer and proved he could handle a top role and a heavy load. Their top 4 is very strong as though the 3rd pairing is a bit unsettled for now, there may not be enough minutes for them anyway.
The only question for the Ducks is whether they can score enough goals. They first will need to find out if Andy McDonald was a one year wonder or an emerging talent that should be grouped among the league’s best centres. He was terrific last season and if he can score at a point-per-game pace again, the offence should be ok. Teemu Selanne re-established himself as a top flight forward again after a couple of down years and being written off as a has-been. Selanne too will need to be a force again and continue as the offensive star of the team. There may be no player who enjoyed the new rules more than the Finnish Flash.
It was tough for the Ducks to lose Jeoffrey Lupul but that is the price you have to pay to get a player like Pronger. Lupul was their only other consistent scorer and he will be tough to replace. Anaheim is looking to their young stars to make up for his loss. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf went through the usual growing pains as rookies moving up and down from the farm, but showed in the playoffs they belong. These two are on the cusp of having a big breakthrough and being stars for years to come. Anaheim will need them to continue their rise to the top. Stan Chistov returns after a couple of years away and is still only 23. The hope is he is a more mature player who could dazzle playing in the more wide open NHL after being bogged down in the rodeo show when he first started as an NHLer. And then there is Bobby Ryan who may be the best of the bunch. After another dominating Junior year, he will get the chance to make the big club and could have a big impact as a power player which the Ducks lack. If the Kids come to play, the Ducks will be more than OK.
Expectations have never been higher for the Ducks. Coach Randy Carlyle did a great job in his first year and will have even more weapons to deploy this season. But even he will need to do a huge job to meet the lofty goals the Ducks have. Anything short of at least meeting last years results will be failure. How times have changed. This is no Mickey Mouse team anymore.