The time has come for some July predictions.
Who will win and who will lose in the NHL Pacific Division?
No need to look further.
The Pacific teams will finish in the following order in 2009:
This was a tough one. I tend to defer to the reigning champions until they are dethroned, but in this case, I made an exception.
And despite the coventional wisdom from those who don't consider hockey played West of Colorado "real," Anaheim has gotten better.
The draft day trade of Chris Pronger to Philadelphia, of course, was the big offseason news in the NHL. And if that is all one focuses on, it would appear that the Ducks are weaker without him.
If you ask "Are the Ducks better with Chris Pronger than they are with 19 year old Luca Sbisa playing D?"
Obviously, the answer is 'yes'.
Sbisa may turn out to be a very good player. But Chris Pronger is an all-time great and you can't replace a guy like that.
However, by trading Pronger, Anaheim was able to clear major cap space and made significant moves because of it.
If you look at the bigger picture and instead ask yourself the following question: "Were the Ducks better last year with Chris Pronger, Drew Miller and Andrew Ebbett than they are now with Luca Sbisa, Nick Boynton, Saku Koivu, and Joffrey Lupul?"
The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding "no'.
On defense, without Pronger (and Francois Beauchemin who followed former GM Brian Burke to Toronto) Anaheim still has team captain Scott Niedermayer, Ryan Whitney, Luca Sbisa, Nick Boynton, Sheldon Brookbank, Brian Salcido, Brett Festerling, James Wisnieski, Brendan Mikkelson and newly acquired veteran Steve McCarthy.
Competition in camp will be fierce for the last three spots behind Niedermayer, Sbisa, Whitney and Boynton. They have enough quality there to compensate for injury to anyone except Niedermeyer.
The Ducks have not lacked in recent years for defensmen or goaltenders. Their weakness since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006 has been second line scoring. Ever since Andy MacDonald was traded to St Louis and Chris Kunitz went to Pittsburgh , Anaheim has struggled to find a center and left wing to play effectively with right wing Teemu Selanne.
Doug Weight, Brendan Morrison, Ryan Carter, Todd Bertuzzi and even Travis Moen have tried to skate with Teemu and failed. Drew Miller and Andrew Ebbett stepped up admirably last year but never quite achieved the ability to play at the speed Selanne needs to be effective.
Even though the Ducks defeated the Sharks with Ebbett and Miller playing top six forward positions, the lack of production in their second line was exposed by a deeply talented and very physical Detroit team.
Detroit pounded Bobby Ryan into submission, dominated Ebbett and Miller, and Perry, Getzlaff and Selanne couldnt generate enough offense to win the series. Hiller kept them in most games, but the differential between Detroit's depth (Cleary, Hossa, Franzen, Samuelsson, Filppula, Hudler) and Anaheim's was obvious as the series played out.
With the signing of center Saku Koivu and the return of Anaheim's 2002 first round pick Joffrey Lupul, the Ducks' major weakness has been addressed.
Furthermore, this will be the first season that Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan work together on the top line since day one of training camp.
With solid role players such as Ryan Carter, Todd Marchant, Peterri Nokeleinen, enforcer George Parros, Ebbett, Mike Brown, Eric Christensen, and Miller competing for the 3rd and 4th line spots, this is a team with no apparent weakness.
And they still might be able to keep Rob Niedermeyer, one of two Mighty Ducks left from the Disney Western Conference Championship team of 2001, after he tests the free agent market (Giguere is the other.)
On top of all of this, the Ducks have accumulated 2009 and 2010 first round picks and a conditional third from Philly for Pronger, prospects Nick Bonino (F) and Timo Pielmeier (G) plus a conditional third from San Jose for Travis Moen and Kent Huskins (See Dumbest Trade Ever in dictionary).
And they still have to decide what to do with J-S Giguere and Jonas Hiller with Germany's best goaltender prospect Timo Peilmeier waiting in the wings.
The Ducks' only weakness at this point appears to be that the coaching staff has to decide which top notch goaltender to start and which to trade, Giguere or Hiller.
First place and a top three seed.
2. San Jose Sharks
Last year was the Sharks' year. If life was fair, the Sharks would have won the Cup in 2008-09.
But life isnt fair. The Sharks had a stellar regular season but their encroaching age and apparent lack of toughness were exposed in the playoffs by Anaheim.
Since then, the Sharks have done very little to improve. They've gotten older and, other than Devon Setoguchi, are starting to pay the price for Doug Wilson's horrible draft performances. Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Evgeni Nabokov were all worn out in the playoffs and it remains to be seen if they can get it up for another full campaign.
They will still win many regular season games. Count on that. They are too talented not to. But the Sharks have very little youth to spell the older guys and its showing, especially as the season wears on.
Signing Swedish League superstar goaltender Jonas Gustavsson would have been a step in the right direction but he signed with Brian Burke in Toronto.
Signing Rob Blake to a four-year deal is a positive step. Losing Moen wont hurt much since he never belonged in teal in the first place. Signing Huskins to a two-year deal for $1.7 million seems bizarre but he's serviceable.
But Roenick, Cheechoo, Marleau, Thornton and Nabokov are all on the off ramp of great careers and there appears to be no-one waiting in the wings to take their places.
The Sharks could still turn their immediate fortunes around by bringing in a guy like Danny Heatley or Alex Tanguay but there aren't many other saviors left out there. And they have no valuable assets to trade, other than Setoguchi and I would think he's untouchable.
The Sharks only true young prospects, F Nick Bonino and G Timo Pielmeier were traded to Anaheim, along with a draft choice, for Travis Moen and Kent Huskins in the aforementioned Dumbest Trade Ever so, unless Wilson loads up with free agents, this year is "FIN" for The Fin.
The Sharks are clearly a playoff caliber team and will make one more run this year for the Cup.
Detroit has gotten only slightly weaker.
And San Jose has just gotten older.
This is a team which had a 2-3 year window and hasnt won. Next year, it will be time to clean house and rebuild.
Signing 30 year old Anaheim castoff and turnover specialist Kent Huskins isnt going to get them there.
Second place and a playoff spot.
3. Dallas Stars
An aging Marty Turco finally gets a solid backup to spell him in Alex Auld. They are in a semi rebuilding mode. Turco will always keep them in games.
Could fight for a low playoff seed.
4. Phoenix Coyotes:
Offseason turmoil (Will they stay or will they go?) will take its toll. Good young players but cant seem to take the next step like Columbus did.
No playoffs again but they'll give Anaheim and San Jose headaches when they play them.
5. LA Kings
Its hard to get excited about the Kings. The organization just doesnt seem to care. From their dumb-ass goal song (I love LA!) to their questionable personnel moves, it's hard to take them seriously. The best thing about the Kings is Heidi Androl, and they even use her incorrectly. They are trying to create this squeaky clean, kid friendly product and it sucks. Its almost as bad as the Mighty Ducks used to be with Tinker Bell throwing fairy dust on the scoreboard. Embarrassing.