NHL Pacific Division 2009-10: Review and Preview

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NHL Pacific Division 2009-10: Review and Preview
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

 

Pacific Division    

The third weakest division in hockey last year was the Pacific Division. The .548 winning percentage was brought about by a decline from Dallas and no compensating improvement from LA or Phoenix.

 

Here’s my look at how these teams finished last year ,what changes they made and how they should do in the coming regular season.

 

I’m looking at the teams in the order they finished last year.

 

 

 

San Jose Sharks

 

San Jose won the Presidents trophy for finishing first in the entire league for the regular season.

 

This was no guarantee of playoff success, as the Sharks lost to a first-round opponent, the eighth-place Anaheim Ducks, who just looked better than them in every aspect of the game. 

 

GM Doug Wilson promised sweeping change in the new year. It was a long time coming, but change has certainly come. Todd McLellan, brought in last year to replace Ron Wilson, will get another chance to make those changes work. 

 

Goaltending has been handled by the steady Evgeny Nabokov. One of the NHL’s work horse goalies he plays over 73 percent of his team’s minutes. His .910 save percentage is pretty ordinary among goalies who play at least a third of their teams minutes (25th out of 43).

 

San Jose gave up the fewest shots in the league last year. You’d expect the team goals against average to be near the top of the league and they were third overall.

 

Last year's back up, Brian Boucher, has moved on to Philadelphia. They still haven’t settled on a back-up in San Jose.

 

The fear has to be that Nabokov, who looked ordinary against Anaheim in the playoffs, might be a medium-skilled goalie as opposed to the elite one he is touted to be. Thomas Greiss from the AHL might play behind Nabokov to help the cap-strapped Sharks.

 

The defense was the strength on this team last year. Dan Boyle has been one of the best Canadian-born offensive defenseman in the league for the last five years. He’s a skilled puck mover and power play quarterback.

 

Marc Edourd-Vlasic has become the center of this defense. He’s a great skater who doesn’t make mistakes. Huskins missed most of last year with foot problems. The former Duck should be able to give them a solid twenty minutes a night this year.

 

Douglas Murray hits like a tank and had a great year for San Jose in 2008-09. He gives them a nasty physical edge.

 

Rob Blake is being called upon to play big minutes for San Jose next year. At age 40 he’s coming off a big offensive year for the Sharks.

 

If he sits back playing the point on the power play, he and his big shot can make a valuable contribution. If he takes a full turn on defense, you’re asking for disaster. That’s if he stays healthy.

 

His last year in LA he was disinterested and dangerous in his own zone. He seems to have gotten his motivation back in San Jose but at this age his game could go south at any moment.

 

Journeyman Brad Lukowich and German Christian Ehrhoff were dumped to Vancouver for questionable prospects. This was widely seen as salary dump by a team that’s been paying players like they were a Stanley cup champion for years now.

 

To paraphrase Captain Renault from Casablanca, you probably shouldn’t give away NHL quality defensemen, someday they may be scarce.

 

The San Jose organization that gave up premier prospect defenseman Ty Wishart in the Dan Boyle deal will be looking for a minor leaguer to fill the sixth defense slot on their roster.

 

After years of tossing prospects out the window, the cupboard may be getting bare in San Jose.

 

Offensively, San Jose has needed a first-rate sniper to pair with Thornton since they got him from Boston. Jonathon Cheechoo was thought to be that man but the mucking sniper has gone from 56 to 37 to 23 to 12 goals in a season.

 

He’s on the verge of playing himself out of hockey and resembles a Warren Young more then a Bobby Hull.

 

San Jose traded Cheechoo; speedy Milan Michalek, a second line offensive player; and a second-round pick for sniper Dany Heatley and a fourth-round pick. Heatley and Thornton will thrive together.

 

Look for Heatley to approach 50 goals and Thornton to be near 110 points. Their linemate, the creative Devin Setoguchi, will also benefit from this best possible use of perhaps the best play-maker in hockey.

 

San Jose’s secondary scoring has been gutted. Speedy Patrick Marleau and his 38 goals were retained but after him Clowe and Pavelski there’s no one on the team with any offensive history.

 

Little Scottie Nichol has been brought in to be a checker. Torrey Mitchell is a streak on the ice and may add some offense.

 

I think San Jose will come to resemble some other top-heavy teams from the past like Ottawa and Tampa Bay who have four or five top-end players and not much else.

 

I expect San Jose to slip down the depth chart to sixth or seventh in the west and be that first round opponent no one wants to play. San Jose despite their salary dumps are still going to be hard-pressed to stay under the salary cap all year long.   

 

 

 

Anaheim Ducks

Anaheim finished eighth in the West, barely making the playoffs. They then handled the President’s trophy winning Sharks in six games.

 

They took everyone’s Stanley cup favourites the Detroit Red Wings through a grueling seven game series. Getzlaf almost willed his team past Detroit in that series.

 

After their cup win in 2006-07, the Ducks suffered through some of the problems many champions face. Their salary structure got bloated while players seemed more complacent.

 

Yet last year and this off-season, they’ve shed salary and added youth changing their dynamic from an aging veteran team in decline to that of a young talented team with maneuvering room under the cap. The instant retool has been almost magical to watch.

 

Goaltending is one of the Ducks strengths. They have former Conn Smythe trophy winner and Stanley Cup winning goalie JS Giguere under contract for $6 million a year.

 

They have their current starter Jonas Hiller making $1.3 million a year. They have former leaf prospect Justin Pogge waiting in the minors. Mattias Modig from Sweden may be brought over for organizational depth if the Ducks manage to move one of their goalies (Giguere?) for a player or two.

 

Most of the teams out there that need a starter would also have to dump salary to pick up the pricey Gigeure. Anaheim also has to be sure Hiller can do the job long time before losing the successful veteran Gigeure. His six million in salary could be used elsewhere if Hiller can handle the job.

 

One of the biggest off-season moves in the league was the trade of preeminent shut-down defenseman Chris Pronger.

 

At 35, Pronger is on the downside of his career and he’ll probably finish his time with Philadelphia. He’s a big physical hard skating defenseman who can make a great pass out of his zone and still gives his team more then a half a point a game.

 

Pronger has been widely regarded as a key component in Edmonton’s run to the Stanley cup finals in 2005-06 and the Ducks win in 2006-07.

 

Anaheim dumped the veteran’s $6 million salary and picked up Philadelphia defense prospect Luke Sbisa, two first-round picks and former Duck Joffrey Lupul, who should provide offensive depth.

 

The physical Pronger will be more and more susceptible to injury as time goes on. The Ducks have retained a veteran power play quarterback to lead the defense and the team.

The aging Niedermeyer has shown himself to be more vulnerable (-14) in his own zone last year. He still provides almost 60 points a season from the back end.

 

The third of Anaheim’s big three defensemen Francois Beauchemin was signed away by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He leaves with his big point shot, smooth skating, and physical presence and will be missed.

 

Anaheim added young depth last year plucking James Wiesnewski from Chicago and Ryan Whitney from Pittsburgh. Whitney was seen as a Pronger clone and it’s always been shocking to me that Pittsburgh let him go.

 

He did suffer a nasty foot injury and there might be some fear he won’t recover from it. Veteran bangers Nick Boynton and Steve Eminger have been brought out to fill in the depth chart, but more defensemen will be playing a lot more minutes what Beauchemin and Pronger leaving and Niedermeyer aging.

 

Young puck mover Brendan Mikkelson will probably get another shot at filling a defensive slot for the Ducks.

 

The offense is lead by a core of youngsters, power play maker Ryan Getzlaf (25), crafty nasty Corey Perry(25), and budding power forward Bobby Ryan(23).

 

Veteran Finns Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne will play with the offensively skilled Joffrey Lupul to provide second line offense. This team will challenge for the league lead in goals scored.

 

Their veteran Stanley cup winning checkers Travis Moen and Sami Pahlsson have moved on. Rob Niedermeyer and his -19 have signed with New Jersey. Veteran Todd Marchant is in place to lead and train a new checking line.

 

Anaheim is a better deeper team then San Jose, and I think they’ll pass them and win the Pacific division this year, finishing second in the west.

 

This Anaheim team still has what it takes to challenge for a cup. That’s a nice turnaround in a year and a half.

 

 

 

Dallas Stars

 

Dallas has been a tricky team for me to figure out. Two years ago I saw them as aging veterans on the way down. They made a playoff run to the western final.

 

Last year I saw them as a strong team competing for first in the Pacific. They suffered through the Avery debacle, rampant injuries to their veteran core, a goaltending collapse by Marty Turco and finished 12th in the west.

 

This year, I’m hedging my bet and calling for them to be mediocre.

 

Turco played the second most minutes in the league last year behind Kiprusoff. His 33 wins left him tied for ninth. His .898 save percentage was fifth worst in the league among goalies who played at least a third of their team's minutes.

 

He was better than only Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala, Chris Osgood and Jonas Hedberg. Dallas has to hope part of his problem was the workload.

 

The Stars brought in veteran Alex Auld to do some of the heavy lifting. Perhaps if Turco only plays three quarters of his team’s games he’ll improve. If not, what was seen as a key Dallas strength will have to be addressed.

 

The Stars will need to seek out a veteran to play now and draft some youngsters to secure the future. Perennially disappointing former first-round pick Brent Krahn is not the answer in nets.

 

Dallas iced one of the cheapest defenses in hockey last year. They gave up only 28.1 shots per game. They were tied with LA for giving up the fourth fewest shots on goals in the league.

 

Normally, this insulates a goalie and inflates his statistics. Yet Dallas gave up 3.06 goals per game, which was sixth worst in the league.

 

They lost their veteran power play quarterback Sergei Zubov to the KHL. They added veteran shot-blocker Karlis Skrastins and the young physical Woywitka from St Louis.

 

Niskanen and Grossman provide an offensive element but a legitimate power play quarterback is essential for this team.

 

Marc Andre Bergeron would probably be an excellent cost-effective fit for them. Trevor Daley and Stephane Robidas fill out the most cost effective defense in hockey. It won’t be the worst.

 

Injury cut up the lineup last year. They need a full healthy year out of captain Brendan Morrow. He’s fighting to make the Canadian team for the Olympics in Vancouver so I expect a quick start from him.

 

Ribeiro, Loui Ericksson, Brad Richards, Jere Lehtinen, Modano and Fabian Brunstrom should produce enough offense. Steve Begin, Mark Parrish and Brendan Morrison won’t be missed.

 

Steve Ott gives them that Avery criminal edge without the full blown narcissistic personality disorder that seemed to be Sean’s downfall.

 

James Neal had a nice year in Dallas playing in 77 games as a rookie and scoring 24 goals.

 

If the team stays healthy he’ll move down the depth chart, but he looks like he could be a decent-sized checker who has some offensive ability. It’s always a plus if your checkers can score.  

 

This is a team with plenty of cap room and some obvious gaps. Ownership, however doesn’t seem willing to spend any of the 7-8 million they’ve got left. They’re still carrying almost a 2 million a year cap hit for Avery. Thanks, Brett.

 

I believe the offense will improve just by having a few healthier players this year. The defense I can’t believe will duplicate last year’s performance, but they’ll still be good. The goaltending has to improve from last year’s dismal performance.

 

Playing Alex Auld all season would be an improvement from last year. I see them marginally better then last year finishing 11th.

 

They may be passed in the Pacific by LA. This team needs to retool like Anaheim did. Can Joe Nieuwendyk manage that? Does he have any authority to try to do it? 

 

 

 

Phoenix Coyotes

 

Phoenix made a desperate effort to make the playoffs last year. They lacked the conviction to give their changes a year or two to work and gave up on their experiment at the trade deadline.

 

Running a sports organization from panic almost never works. They finished 13th in the west last year nosing out LA. 

 

Ilya Bryzgalof came over from Anaheim as a saviour with a .920 save percentage in 2007-08. Last year that number sank to a less then average .906.

 

Bryzgalof was one of the work horses in the league. He played the sixth most minutes in the NHL and Phoenix gave up the eighth most shots in the league at 28.8. That’s a heck of a dual burden for anyone to carry.

 

Veteran Jason Labarbara has been brought in to carry the load with Bryzgalof. Former sixth overall pick goalie Al Montoya is also in the mix.

 

He’s had four seasons in the AHL and five NHL games. At age 24, he’s still pretty young and could help out in a back up capacity this year.

 

Phoenix traded two defensemen off a weak defensive team to pick up Olli Jokinen. The loss of young puck-mover Keith Ballard and aging hitter Boynton showed and Phoenix gave up the aforementioned 28.8 shots per game.

 

Old Ed Jovanovski is being asked to play too many minutes and too many games at his age. They were lucky to get 80 games out of him last year. He’s a steady veteran who can hit and has a shot but he’s not young.

 

Phoenix retained Keith Yandle who is a reasonable NHL defenseman who showed some offense in the Q. Zbynek Michalek and Kurt Sauer were also retained. Yikes.

 

Phoenix also seems to have acquired all of Calgary’s reject defensemen. Adrian Aucoin had a good year under Keenan but he’s at the end and can be scary if given too many minutes to play.

 

Jim Vandermeer was too slow to play defense in Calgary. He’ll fight. David Hale is a slug of a defenseman and he was packaged with checker Fedoruk to Tampa Bay for Radim Vrbata.

 

This defense is worse then last years and more susceptible to injury then ever. If Jim Vandermeer plays on the back end you know they’re in trouble. Their $14 million defense will be worse then Dallas’s.

 

They have to pray they can bring up a quality minute eater on defense from the minors. New draftee Oliver Ekman-Larssen may get a chance to play defense for Phoenix this year.

 

Jokinen and Morris were dumped at the trade deadline and freed up $10 million in cap space. This young line-up still could have used Jokinen’s veteran presence.

 

Doan is the remaining veteran in Phoenix. His 70-80 points are critical.

 

Radim Vrbata was a former eighth-round pick by the Colorado Avalanche. After banging around the league he had a breakout year with Phoenix in 2007-08 with 27 goals and 29 assists. 

 

Phoenix has to be hoping the 28-year-old can reproduce that effort. Most of Phoenix’s high end young talent seemed to suffer from a sophomore jinx. Young, talented Peter Mueller will bounce back just by recovering his first line ice time.

 

A good number of the other youngsters have to be expected to improve. Martin Hanzal, Michael Boedker, Viktor Tikhonov and Kyle Turris all have to be expected to have better years.

 

Vernon Fiddler has been brought in to run the checking line. He’s a younger faster Steve Reinprecht but without the offensive upside.

 

The 28-year-old Mathew Lombardi is fast and is probably going to get his last chance to be an offensive NHL player here with Phoenix. Stone hands have held him back though he’s had some positive moments at the World hockey championships.

 

The Phoenix Coyotes have stacked draft picks and created almost 10 million dollars in cap room. Unfortunately the leaderless organization has just put coach Dave Tippet in place.

 

A caretaker owner will keep the Coyotes treading water in Glendale. Unfortunately Phoenix is already on the bottom of the pool.

 

Despite five of the best young talents in the game, including one of the best young Americans I’ve seen, I still see Phoenix finishing last in the Pacific, last in the west.

 

 

 

Los Angeles Kings

LA was last in the Pacific last year by a hair. They finished 14th in the west, and were the fifth worst team in the league. They drafted center Brayden Schenn as a result.

 

LA has been searching for a dependable starting goalie since Kelly Hrudey? Rogatien Vachon?  Terry Sawchuk? Most of their history seems to have been trying to make someone else’s goalie work in LA.

 

Vachon succeeded. Most of the others have failed. Jamie Quick appeared to win the goaltending contest in LA last year. His .914 save percentage places him in the middle (20th out of 43) of the other NHL goalies who play at least a third of their teams minutes.

 

His 2.48 GAA is 14th best in the league. The hope has to be that first round pick from 2006 and world junior hero Jonathon Bernier at age 21 has his feet under him and at 21 he’s ready to be a back-up in the NHL and perhaps play a third of LA’s games this year.

 

Quick is good but Bernier is the man who could be that great LA drafted and developed goalie they’ve been looking for these last 40 years. Bernier should be an improvement over the more experienced Ersberg in the back-up role.

 

The defense last year took a big step forward. They gave up the fourth fewest shots on goal in the league last year, tied with Dallas. They let power play quarterback Vishnovsky go last year to pick up young defensive defenseman Matt Greene and role player Jaret Stoll.

 

Their defense is lead by the highly touted Drew Doughty. As an 18 year old he lead his team in ice time and displayed some of the offensive skills that were anticipated. He also killed penalties and played near flawless defense.

 

He’s a James Norris trophy winner in the making. RFA Jack Johnson finally resigned with LA and brings reasonable size and a nasty attitude to the mix. He’s also a good young skater with reasonable offensive skills.

 

Throw in first-round pick Colton Teubert and this might be the top three defensemen in the league, soon. Thomas Hickey is another young puck mover.

 

Rob Scuderi was brought in to be that veteran defensive presence and to make sure youngster Matt Greene isn’t the only defenseman spending time in his own zone.

 

Creaky old Sean O’Donnel is the only remainder from the dump of Mike Cammalleri on Calgary. He’s been suspended for five games including the first two of the regular season. He can’t have many useful games left in him.

 

This depth on D allowed LA to trade young power play hero Kyle Quincey and depreciating offensive defenseman Tom Preissing for aging power forward Ryan Smyth. They traded from strength to address weakness and didn’t effect their core.

 

Ryan Smyth is only 33, but power forwards tend to age quickly. He never has seemed to regain what little speed he had since he played on a partially healed ankle in one world championship for Canada.

 

He’s tough and he’s always around the net and may complement LA’s tiny group of skilled forwards. After dumping Cammalleri and Vishnovsky for little offensive return LA had huge trouble scoring goals last year.

 

There 207 total was twelve worse then Minnesota. They were the third lowest scoring team in the league.

 

The Slovenian superstar Anze Kopitar has blossomed as the best offensive player on the team. He needs a better sniper to play with and maybe Ryan Smyth will be it. LA needs a point a game from Anze.

 

Alex Frolov was one of the good young talents LA had picked up. He showed constant improvement until 2006-07 and then he’s shown steady decline the last two years. The talented Frolov is 27 and needs to break out this year for himself and his team. A point a game should be possible.

 

LA moved Patrick O’Sullivan in a three way deal that netted them Carolina’s Justin Williams. Williams had two-point-a-game seasons in Carolina before injury sidetracked him last year. LA is hoping he approaches 30 goals this season.

 

Jaret Stoll is a faceoff specialist with a big shot who has worked the point on the power play. His offense has never recovered since he had concussion problems in Edmonton. He seems to be a half a point a game forward who can win face-offs.

 

Dustin Brown is a little more hard nosed and at 25 gives you three quarters of a point a game. He could have more in him. Micahel Handzus is an older half point a game center.

 

Twenty goals is the most you can expect from him. Any other offense in LA will have to come from some of their younger players perhaps Oscar Moller or Teddy Purcell. This team desperately needs more offense. 

 

I’m expecting the goaltending to coalesce behind that rapidly improving LA defense. They have to score more then they did last year. I see LA passing Dallas and Phoenix and making up the 12 points that kept them from the playoffs.

 

I like LA to finish eighth and make the playoffs for the first time since 2001-02. They have some cap room lending them operational flexibility through the year. I also expect Jonathon Bernier to make his way back to the big club before the end of the year.

 

  Last Years Finish                             2009/10 Predicted Finish

1/San Jose (1)    117                            1/ Anaheim (2)        108

2/Anaheim  (8)      91                           2/ San Jose (6)         98

3/Dallas    (12)      83                           3/ LA         (8)         92

4/Phoenix  (13)     79                            4/ Dallas      (11)      85

5/LA         (14)     79                           5/Phoenix     (15)      65

 

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