With a decline in the teams at the bottom of the Pacific Division, and little change at the top, the Pacific Division finished last season as the weakest division in the NHL, with a winning percentage at a paltry .548. But with young teams like the L.A. Kings and the Phoenix Coyotes gaining a little more experience, the division should be in store for much improvement, and an overall greater level of competition.
Sure, the Phoenix Coyotes have a lot more on their plates at the moment to deal with besides their roster, but the Pacific Division will no doubt sport a higher level of play overall than it had to offer a season ago. With the Presidents' Trophy winning San Jose Sharks proving that they have got the NHL's regular season down, there's no doubt that the Pacific Division is Sharks' Territory. But the grittiness of the Anaheim Ducks and veteran leadership of the Dallas Stars have proven that it's playoff hockey that counts, and as long as you are in the dance, you have as good a shot as any team.
(Teams listed in order of projected finish in the Pacific Division)
San Jose Sharks
Who’s In: Dany Heatley (Ottawa), Manny Malhotra (Columbus), Jed Ortmeyer (Nashville), Scott Nichol (Nashville), Benn Ferriero (Phoenix)
Who’s Out: Jonathan Cheechoo (Ottawa), Milan Michalek (Ottawa), Travis Moen (Montreal) Christian Ehrhoff (Vancouver), Brad Lukowich (Vancouver), Jeremy Roenick (retired), Mike Grier (Buffalo), Tomas Plihal (Finland), Marcel Goc (Nashville), Alexei Semenov (NY Rangers), Claude Lemieux (retired), Brian Boucher (Philadelphia)
With yet another early playoff exit after gliding through the regular season, the Sharks (and their management) are under more pressure than ever to win it all now. With a lack of heart & leadership being cited as the team's main weaknesses (again) the team made a publicity move in stripping the Captain's "C" from Patrick Marleau and handed it off to grizzled veteran Defenseman Rob Blake.
While the decision means little to the rest of the league, it is a move that lets the Sharks' players know that they need to win NOW, and the reigns of leadership have been handed off to a player who has seen it all, and won it all.
The biggest move of the NHL's offseason was made by the Sharks, when they acquired top-flight scorer Dany Heatley from the Ottawa Senators. Scoring hasn't been a problem for this team, but when one of the premier scorers in the league becomes available, especially one that is only 28 years of age, it is wise to do whatever is possible to get them. The Sharks had to give up fan favorite Jonathan Cheechoo and great two-way Forward Milan Michalek, but a top line of Thornton, Marleau, and Heatley could potentially score 250 points or more. What matters is what is done in the postseason though. The Sharks have a lot of new faces on the bottom half of their roster, so it could take a while for this team to mesh and gain chemistry, but once they do, they will be cup favorites once again. But another early playoff exit, and this team could be blown up from top to bottom, so there is no doubt that this is a do or die year in San Jose.
Who’s In: Saku Koivu (Montreal), Joffrey Lupul (Philadelphia), Evgeny Artyukhin (Tampa Bay), Luca Sbisa (Philadelphia), Nick Boynton (Florida), Justin Pogge (Toronto)
Who’s Out: Chris Pronger (Philadelphia), Francois Beauchemin (Toronto), Steve McCarthy (Atlanta), Rob Niedermayer (Devils), Brett Hedican (free agent), Drew Miller (Tampa Bay)
They may no longer by "Mighty," but the Ducks are certainly one of the league's grittiest and most physical teams. Making an enormous splash from a team chemistry standpoint, the Ducks traded away veteran enforcer Chris Pronger to the Philadelphia Flyers for some solid young contributors in Luis Sbisa, Joffrey Lupul (who was involved in the trade that brought Pronger to Anaheim in 2006), and Ryan Dingle, all guys who are expected to contribute off of the bench immediately. Also leaving the Ducks is veteran leader & solid contributor Rob Niedermayer, who may be missed the most of all.
The one vise in dealing Pronger away however, as the Oilers found out following their Stanley Cup run and subsequent failure to reach the postseason since, is that his physical presence not only helps get a team over the top and into the postseason, but he is also an enforcer who knows how to play playoff hockey.
There’s no doubt that the Ducks’ blue-line will miss Pronger’s presence, and the main question for the team this season is, can they score enough goals to make up for their much thinner defense? Luckily for the Ducks, the West, as well as the Pacific Division, are both pretty wide open. Now it will be up to their reconstructed blueline to prove their mettle, while their faster, deeper, and more talented group of Forwards try and push the pace for this team, in the pursuit of another deep playoff run.
Who’s In: GM Joe Nieuwendyk, coach Marc Crawford, Alex Auld (Ottawa), Karlis Skrastins (Florida), Jeff Woywitka (St. Louis), Warren Peters (Calgary)
Who’s Out: Sergei Zubov (Russia), Joel Lundqvist (Sweden), Chris Conner (Pittsburgh), Steve Begin (Boston), Darryl Sydor (St. Louis), Brendan Morrison (Washington), Mark Parrish (tryout, Vancouver)
The feeling in Dallas is that they have enough of the pieces from their more dominant days earlier this decade, but the truth is that this team is in a period of transition. Team mainstay Mike Modano is in the final year of his contract, and many believe this to be his last year in the league with his 40th birthday coming up in a few weeks. Another key piece on the time, netminder Marty Turco is also in the final year of his contract, and is coming off of a very disappointing campaign from a season ago. While many expect Turco to regain his normal dominant form, the Stars are a bit of a team without much of an identity right now.
The most important addition to the Stars’ lineup this season is someone who has been on the roster for years. Captain Brenden Morrow, out for much of last season and the playoffs, proved just how important his presence is to the Stars’ chances, as the team looked very flat without him. Now that he is back to full health, he gives the Stars a very big piece of their playoff puzzle, as well as a motivated and physical player, looking to turn the heads of Team Canada with the upcoming Olympic Games, as well the ones around the league.
The Stars have a lot of youth, a good mix of veterans, and there’s no doubt that they are a talented group, but with a new coach (Marc Crawford) and a lack of on-ice chemistry, Dallas will really have to pull it all together at the right time to have a shot at the playoffs. And even then, it is an outside shot.
Los Angeles Kings
Who’s In: Ryan Smyth (Colorado), Rob Scuderi (Pittsburgh)
Who’s Out: Tom Preissing (Colorado), Kyle Quincey (Colorado), Brian Boyle (NY Rangers), Matt Moulson (NY Islanders)
Probably the toughest team to peg in the Pacific Division (if not the Western Conference as a whole), the L.A. Kings have finally been able to pull together a nice string of high draft choices that appear ready for the big leagues. The biggest issue facing the Kings is their lack of offensive punch. With a miserable 207 goals in the ’08-’09 campaign, the Kings will have to score a lot more to make their playoff dreams anywhere close to a reality, which is where the young Forwards on the team will really have to step it up. However, while the depth at the Forward position is highly suspect, the Kings finally have a reliable guy between the pipes in Jon Quick, and a gritty veteran Winger in Ryan Smyth that have the Kings thinking playoffs for the first time in six years.
With youngsters Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jonathan Bernier, Drew Doughty, and Thomas Hickey on the rise, it will be up to them to set the pace for the team heading into the early part of the season. While a tough task to ask of players who have hardly played very meaningful minutes in the NHL, it would really set the foundation for this young team moving forward.
The Kings could very well be on the outside looking in come playoff time, but they have just as much of a shot as any other team in the West to break into the top eight outside of Phoenix or Colorado.
Who’s In: Coach Dave Tippett, Jason LaBarbera (Vancouver), Radim Vrbata (Tampa Bay), Vernon Fiddler (Nashville), Adrian Aucoin (Calgary), Lauri Korpikoski (NY Rangers), Jim Vandermeer (Calgary), Taylor Pyatt (Vancouver), Robert Lang (Canadiens)
Who’s Out: Wayne Gretzky (resigned), Enver Lisin (NY Rangers), David Hale (Tampa Bay), Todd Fedoruk (Tampa Bay), Nigel Dawes (Calgary), Brian McGrattan (Calgary), Brandon Prust (Calgary), Steven Reinprecht (Florida)
Not a whole lot else could’ve went wrong for the Coyotes this past offseason. Former Coach Wayne Gretzky resigned just weeks before the start of the season, and rumors swirled about the team being sold and relocated to Canada amid reports that it has been hemorrhaging money for several years while taking an abrupt tailspin towards bankruptcy. With all of that hanging over the Coyotes’ head, the bright side of things is that they have a team that is a pretty talented group.
Similar to the Pittsburgh Penguins back in 2005, who facing money troubles, low attendance figures, and an uncertain future, were able to hold tough with the young talent they had, and build a solid team who would go on to win the 2009 Stanley Cup. While the Coyotes don’t yet have the proper leadership and management in the front office for that scenario to seem likely, nothing is impossible for a team that finished just four points behind 3rd place in the division a season ago.
With the salary cap currently in good shape, Phoenix has some flexibility moving forward, and will likely try and move current team cornerstone Shane Doan to further build towards a future worthwhile. With Ilya Bryzgalov’s inconsistencies in the net from a year ago, Phoenix never really had a shot, but a late-season peak in performance has got to give the team a little hope.
New coach (and former Stars’ coach) Dave Tippett has a lot of work to do, but key youngsters Kyle Turris and Viktor Tikhonov champing at the bit in the minors, all is not lost just yet. But as a team that has to feel like they have a huge chip on their shoulders with the events of the past several months, the Coyotes could feasibly play that way and surprise us all. While it is more likely the distractions will be too much to handle, the Coyotes can find some solace in the fact that it’s not as much the men on the ice’s fault, but a long line of mistakes by management and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.