NHL Pacific Division Preview

Matt SitkoffCorrespondent ISeptember 7, 2009

ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 27:  (R-L) Center Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks fights with center Ryan Getzlaf #15 of the Anaheim Ducks at the beginning of Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinal Round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Honda Center on April 27, 2009 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Welcome to the Wild, Wild West!

A lot of us on the East Coast don’t stay up late enough to see the great hockey action that happens on the West Coast, so don’t forget that the President Trophy team came from the Pacific last season.

The Stars are two years removed from a Western Conference Finals run and the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007.

Then, there is the bottom of the division: the Hamilton/Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles-two-years-away-Kings.

So here we go in our exploration of the Pacific Division

1. San Jose Sharks

Rear View Mirror: The good for the Sharks was a President Trophy run and the bad was a first-round exit. The team was lead by a balanced scoring attack that led by their captain Patrick Marleau and sophomore sensation Devin Setoguchi.

Last year, also saw a resurgence of both 30+ defenseman Dan Boyle and Rob Blake. Even with a franchise-record 117-point season and all the talent in the world, the Sharks bowed out disappointingly in a six-game series to the Anaheim Ducks.

Offseason Ins: C Scott Nichol, D Derek Joslin, RW Jed Ortmeyer, G Thomas Greiss

Offseason Outs: D Christian Ehrhoff, RW Mike Grier, C Jeremy Roenick, G Brian Boucher, LW Travis Moen, D Alexei Semenov, C Tomas Pilhal

What Makes Them Tick: Up front this team is fast, deep, and excels in scoring the difficult goals, exemplified by their top scorer Joe Thornton (86 points).  Big Joe has been dynamic since his trade to the Sharks and will once again be asked to be the team leader, especially on the power play.

The team will also expect bigger things from their improving young guns, Setoguchi and Joe Pavleski, who are both restricted free agents at the end of the season and both coming off career seasons last year.

What Could Make Them Go Boom: Their former captain, Marleau, had a career high in goals and was responsible at both ends (career-best +16 rating) but had a disappointing playoff and with only one year left on his contract rumors will fly about the end of his 11-year run in San Jose.

Another player on the last year of a long-term contract and on the long list of Sharks who disappointed in the playoffs, is goalie Evgeni Nabokov. 34-year-old Nabokov was clearly outplayed by Jonas Hiller vs. the Ducks and missed significant time with two separate injuries last season.

With Brian Boucher, Nabokov’s back up for the last two seasons, gone off to Philadelphia, the backup duties are now held by former third-round pick Thomas Greiss.

Greiss played in the 2006 Olympics for his home country Germany but has only seen action in three NHL games, so Nabokov’s health and stability will be counted on more this season.

Player to Watch: Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the man they call “Pickles,” will be counted on heavily on the back line this season. The 22-year-old signed a big four-year, $12.4 million contract extension and will be elevated to the top defensive line.

Vlasic already saw significant minutes on the penalty kill and, with the recent trade of Christian Ehrhoff, will see his power play minutes increase.  “Pickles” who once scored 73 points in QMJHL, is primed for a big offensive season for the Sharks.

Prediction: Once again, this team will be evaluated on the playoff success.  We all know they are talented and should win the Pacific Division for the third straight year. 

If they come out slowly, or are not meeting expectations, don’t be surprised if Doug Wilson pulls the trigger on trading Patrick Marleau or Evgeni Nabokov, as the GM has said change is needed a team that consistently does not live up to their potential.

I predict another great regular season followed by disappointing playoffs, but that seems like an easy prediction.

2. Anaheim Ducks

Rear View Mirror: The Ducks were inconsistent for most of last season, but turned it on to upset the top seeded, and division rival, Sharks and even took the Red Wings to a seven-game series in the second round.

Offensively, they are led by the dynamic duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and Calder Trophy candidate Bobby Ryan. Defensively, they relied heavily on their two pillars, Chris Pronger and Captain Scott Niedermayer.

The Ducks had an up-and-down season but the biggest surprise for the former Stanley Cup Champions was the emergence of Jonas Hiller as their starting goalie.

The organization showed they had faith in the undrafted free agent when they released backup goalie Ilya Bryzgalov during the 2007-08 season.

With original starter Jean-Sebastien Giguere struggling last season, Hiller split time him was given the playoff nod due in large part of his better overall numbers.

Offseason Ins: LW Joffrey Lupu, C Saku Koivu, D Nick Boynton, D Luca Sbisa

Offseason Outs: D Chris Pronger, D Francoise Beauchemin, RW Rob Niedermayer, D Bret Hedican

What Makes Them Tick: On draft night it was good news/bad news for the organization.  Good news was that their Captain Scott Niedermayer decided to come back for his 18th season. Bad news was that in the salary cap era they could not keep their other big time defenseman Chris Pronger.

Pronger was then traded to the Philadelphia Flyers.  This changes the dynamic of the franchise with their top line led by young guns of Getzlaf, Perry, and Ryan. Their second scoring line should improve with the signing of Saku Koivu to play with his countryman Teemu Selanne and the acquisition of Joffrey Lupul.

What Could Make Them Go Boom: How do you replace a player like Chris Pronger? The Ducks started laying the ground work last season acquiring former fifth overall pick Ryan Whitney from the Penguins and the tough James Wisniewski from the Blackhawks.

They finished off the total remodeling process by letting go of often injured Francois Beauchemin and replacing him with former All-Star Nick Boynton.

But the question surrounding this team will be how you replace a Norris Trophy, defenseman like Chris Pronger?

Player to Watch: It is a hard place to be when you are drafted right after the so-called savior of the league, but Bobby Ryan finally showed why he deserved to be the second overall pick of the 2005 NHL Draft.

Salary cap reasons kept the talented forward in the minors to start the season but got recalled for good in November.

Showing immediately that this is where he belonged, in January he scored a natural hat trick vs. the Kings.

Ryan, 22, led the Ducks with a +13 plus/minus rating and broke Dustin Penner’s club rookie records for goals and points. Ryan is poised to show the league that he isn’t just the guy drafted after Crosby.

Prediction: Their offensive talent is as impressive as any team in the league, yet they still lack that shutdown third line that made them so successful the last couple of seasons. 

Their defense will be the ultimate question mark and there could be some drama in net as Hiller has proven he should be the No. 1, but Jiggy wanting to prove that last season was linked to personal problems rather than his skills.

Expect one of these two not to be here at the end of the season, especially if the team needs to pick up some much needed defensive depth.

Overall, this team will be fighting hard for a playoff spot but that will have more to do with their offense and goaltending than their defensive play.

3. Dallas Stars

Rear View Mirror: In a season dominated by injuries to their top talent, the Dallas Stars 2008-09 season was one to forget.  Marty Turco played in a career-high 74 games but had a career worst .898 save percentage which ranked 42nd among NHL goaltenders.

Relying heavily on young, but talented, defensemen caught up to the Stars, who historically has been a great two way hockey team under Ken Hitchcock and Dave Tippett.

Offensively, they lost heart-and-soul captain Brendon Morrow early to knee surgery that forced him to miss the last 64 games, and top-flight center Brad Richards was limited to only 56 games.

Positive signs that came out of a relative down season were the emergence of “Sweet” Lou Ericksson, who scored 36 goals and played a dominant two-way game. Another positive sign was rookie James Neal, only 21-years-old, scoring 24 goals.

Offseason Ins: D Karlis Skrastins, G Alex Auld

Offseason Outs: D Sergei Zubov, D Darryl Sydor, RW Mark Parrish, G Tobias Stephan

What Makes Them Tick: The norm after a disappointing season is to replace the coach and GM.  Well, the Stars did both this offseason. Hiring only their third coach in the last 15 years, Marc Crawford and a full time GM in former Stars forward Joe Nieuwendyk.

The strength of the team will be to play Crawford’s more attacking style offense. They have relentless forwards in Morrow, Eriksson, Richards, Steve Ott, and Mike Modano.

I have not even mentioned the player that has lead the team in points all three seasons he has played in Dallas.

Mike Ribeiro has proven the skeptics from Montreal wrong. The 29-year-old forward followed a breakout year in 2007-08 with a good year, considering he was missing his winger (Morrow) the entire season.

Defensively, they have found a new leader to take over for the departed and often injured Sergei Zubov, in another Canadien castoff, Stephane Robidas.

The journeyman defenseman finally found a home in Dallas, and though he has not put up big offensive numbers, his +10 rating and ice time has proven he is ready to be the leader of this young defense core.

What Could Make Them Go Boom: Marty Turco is in his last year of a contract. The 34-year-old goalie will try to prove that last year was just a blip on the radar. The defense, like I’ve said numerous times in this preview, is talented but young, and prone to giveaways.

Best example is Matt Niskanen, who although he led the team in defensive scoring had a team high 49 giveaways and was a -11.

Another issue has to be health for this team. With so many of their top six forwards coming off serious injuries, one has to speculate if they are going to last through the season.

Also a team with not much depth this could turn into déjà vu all over again for the Stars.

Player to Watch: Fabian Brunnstrom was a highly sought after rookie free agent from Sweden. Teams were lining up to get him to come over to America. The Dallas Stars won that lottery and signed the former Swedish Elite League star to a two-year contract.

In Brunnstrom’s first NHL game he scored a hat trick, becoming only the third player in NHL history to accomplish that feat. Although he was in and out of the lineup due to injuries, he finished his rookie year with 17 goals and 12 assists in 55 games played.

With his contract only being for another year, this is his season to show that he was worth the hype and force his way into the top six forwards rotation.

Prediction: With a new coach usually comes a new attitude and that is what I expect to see in Dallas this season. Marty Turco should bounce back and now has a capable backup in Alex Auld, which should cut down on the games played a bit.

The key to the year will be the health of Brenden Morrow. Just go back and watch the Stars’ remarkable run toward the 2008 Western Conference Finals and tell me that this guy doesn’t make a big difference on this team.

4. Los Angeles Kings

Rear View Mirror: The Kings are the young and the fans are the restless. Last year’s early golf added to the sixth consecutive non-playoff season. The NHL’s youngest team saw 10 rookies suit up for the team last season.

None was bigger than 2008 second overall pick Drew Doughty. Offensively, they are lead by a trio of 20-year olds; 21-year-old Anze Kopitar, 24-year-old Dustin Brown, and wise old man at 27 years of age, Alexander Frolov.

Last season, with the hiring of Terry Murray, a point was made to be more responsible in the defensive end and the Kings responded, ranking fourth in the NHL in shots allowed and 11th in the league in Goals Against.

Speaking of the goaltending, three net-minders played last season, but rookie Jonathan Quick emerged as the leader of the pack.

Offseason Ins: LW Ryan Smyth, D Rob Scuderi

Offseason Outs: D Kyle Quincey, D Tom Preissing, LW Kyle Calder

What Makes Them Tick: With such a young roster, the team knew they needed to add some winning experience to teach these kids how to be successful in the NHL. Enter first, Justin Williams, a Stanley Cup Champion with the Hurricanes in 2006.

That was followed by the July signing of defenseman Rob Scuderi to a four-year deal. The last key to bringing some much needed leadership to this team was acquiring Captain Canada, Ryan Smyth, from the Avalanche.

After two years in Colorado, Smyth will be asked to take top line minutes and improve on his sixth season that saw him score 26 goals.

What Could Make Them Go Boom: Anze Kopitar led the Kings in points last season, but the Slovenian center saw his numbers take a big drop off. Now, with the acquisition of big winger Smyth and Justin Williams to play on the top line, big things are expected of this former first-round pick.

Health will also be a big issue for this team, as Justin Williams has shown the potential to be a top line 30 goal scorer when in the lineup. The problem is he has played only a total of 81 games in the last two years.

Talented, but controversial, defenseman Jack Johnson missed 41 games due to a shoulder injury and his health will be crucial to the team defense.

None of the three headed monster of Quick, Erik Esberg, and Jonathan Bernier have shown they are capable to be full time NHL goaltenders.

Player to Watch: The smooth-skating Drew Doughty burst onto the scene last season for the Kings as a 19-year-old rookie.

He led all NHL rookies and his team with just less than 24 minutes of ice time per game, and though his offensive numbers weren’t anything to write home about, it was a fairly successful rookie season. Big things are expected from this big defenseman in La La Land.

Prediction:  The moves to get Williams, Smyth, and Scuderi and the core scorers of Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Alexander Frolov are something to be excited about in Hollywood.

This team, under the direction of Terry Murray and GM Dean Lombardi, seems to be going in the right direction and I am glad that they did not take the risk of acquiring maligned forward Dany Heatley.

Who will win the goaltending battle in camp and the preseason will be the biggest question mark heading into the season.

One of the candidates for the goaltending spot needs to step out of the pot and contribute for this team to be on the cusp of that elusive playoff berth that has haunted this franchise.

5. Phoenix Coyotes

Rear View Mirror: It was a long season that saw the Coyotes finish out of the playoffs for the seventh straight season. Team captain Shane Doan continued to show that you can be successful for a bad team.

GM Don Maloney made a ton of moves at the trade deadline, acquiring young talent in Scottie Upshall, Matthew Lombardi and Petr Prucha.

Offseason Ins: G Jason LaBarbera, RW Radim Vrbata, D Adrian Aucoin, D Jim Vandermeer, LW Lauri Korpikoski, C Vernon Fiddler

Offseason Outs: C Steven Reinprecht, LW Joakim Lindstrom, D Ken Klee, RW Enver Lisin, LW Nigel Dawes, LW Todd Fedoruk, D David Hale

What Makes Them Tick: They have a solid and barely legal core of players playing significant minutes for this rebuilding team. 21-year-old Peter Mueller leads the pack, followed by 6’5’’ 22-year-old Martin Hanzal.

These two big centers along with sophomores Mikkael Boedker, Kyle Turris, and Viktor Tikhonov show the fans of wherever this team plays, that they have something to look forward to.

Defensively, they will be a tough team to play against as Ed Jovanovksi, Jovo Cop, got some new hard hitters to his squad with the addition of Adrian Aucoin and Jim Vandermeer from the Flames.

What Could Make Them Go Boom: Well, Wayne Gretzky’s team still does not know where they will play their home games in the future.

The ongoing U.S. Bankruptcy court battle between the NHL and Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, has hung a dark cloud over this organization that has already moved from Winnipeg to the desert.

Beyond Shane Doan this team does not have a proven NHL scorer and although Keith Yandle had a decent statistical year the same cannot be said about the defense beyond Jovanovski.

Goaltending will be an issue for this team as Ilya Bryzgalov has not looked as sharp as he did when he first arrived via waivers from the Ducks.

The Coyotes signed Bryzgalov to a new 3-year deal in January and saw his save percentage drop from .921 in 2007-08 to .906 last season.

The team also has Jason LaBarbara (signed as a UFA from Vancouver) and Al Montoya (6th overall pick in 2004 draft) to push Bryzgalov more this season.

Player to Watch: Rushed from Wisconsin because the Coyotes needed something to get fans to come see them play, Kyle Turris struggled in his first full NHL season. Playing in 63 games the 20-year-old scored a meager 20 points and only lit the lamp eight times.

This season, Turris will most likely start the season in the AHL, which most experts will see as a step back in his development. I think this will help his progress and I would not be surprised to see him making an impact with the desert dogs sooner than later.

Prediction: With so much uncertainty surrounding who owns the team and where they will be playing, how can that not be a distraction for the team on the ice? All the players are saying the right thing to the media; “I will play hard wherever I play.” 

But the team is doing the opposite. Being around the lower cap limit, they are showing that they are not willing to spend because of the uncertainty.

I am not saying that in order to win in this league you need a high payroll. What I am saying is this organization has let the controversy surrounding it affect everyone involved from players, to management, to the fans, and it is not conducive for a winning culture.

Not until the U.S. Bankruptcy court can put this team up for new owners, whoever they may be, will we see new life in this losing franchise. Until then, they will continue to be the bottom-dwellers in the NHL.


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