In the past few NHL seasons, there have been two assumptions made by most hockey experts before the start of each year:
- The Pacific Division is the most difficult division in the NHL.
- Both the Kings and Coyotes will be easy matchups for opposing teams.
Think again Hockey fans, we may be in for a rude awakening. Let's take a look at the "Big Three"—Dallas, Anaheim, and San Jose.
Dallas bounced an aging Ducks team from the playoffs last season, winning two out of three games in Anaheim, in route to four-games-to-two series victory.
The Ducks have young studs in Getzlaf, Perry, and Kunitz, but Pronger and Niedermayer are getting up there in age, and I question how that defense will fare after losing Matheiu Schneider to Atlanta in an offseason trade. I expect this team to make the playoffs, but I don't see them getting past the first round.
Dallas, the team that knocked out both divisional foes—the Ducks and the Sharks—in the playoffs last season, is once again being overshadowed in their division. And it is hard not to—both the Ducks and Sharks have star-studded rosters, with the likes of Giguere, Nabokov, Selanne, Thornton, Pronger, Marleau, Niedermayer, Boyle...I could go on and on about those teams.
Another year of age for some of Dallas' top players may push them out of the playoffs this season. Modano, Lehtinen, and Zubov are not getting any younger. And yes, the Stars have players in their prime, such as Morrow, Ribiero, and Richards, but I don't see enough up-and-coming talent for them to compete this year. The only prime acquisition this offseason was the pest Sean Avery—and with the rosters of the Sharks and Ducks, that may not have been enough.
The Sharks, despite a training-camp injury to young center Torrey Mitchell, are front-runners for the Pacific Division title, as they should be.
General manager Doug Wilson has addressed his team's needs this offseason. Brian Campbell signed with Chicago, so Wilson brought in Rob Blake, Dan Boyle, and Brad Lukowich to replace him.
He has also recently put declining defenseman Kyle Mclaren on waivers, making room in the starting six for up-and-comers Marc Eduoard-Vlasic and Douglas Murray. The Sharks have proven their defense can prevent other teams from scoring and that their forwards can put the puck in the net.
But their Achilles heel of years past is that they could not rely on offense from their defense. They have fixed that this year with the additions of Blake and Boyle.
They also have world-class goaltending from their starter Evgeni Nabokov, an experienced backup in Brian Boucher, an enforcer in Jody Shelley, and one of the best playmakers in the league in Joe Thornton. If this team plays to its potential, they will go wire-to-wire atop the Pacific Division.
However, with all that said, this article is supposed to show that the division is different this year.
For starters, do not sleep on the Coyotes. With "The Great One" Wayne Gretzky behind the bench once again, and with Ilya Bryzgalov between the pipes, the Phoenix Coyotes will win some games that they're not supposed to this year.
The Coyotes, unlike the Stars, have brought in a key piece of the puzzle, bringing in Olli Jokinen in an midsummer trade with the Florida Panthers. Adding Jokinen to the likes of Shane Doan, Derek Morris, and Ed Jovanovski, has given Phoenix a solid veteran base.
Not only are these four guys still premiere players in this league, but they can, along with Coach Gretzky, develop the younger players faster than most with their years of experience. Phoenix is still a few pieces away, but teams shouldn't overlook the Coyotes on their schedule.
And, finally the fifth Pacific Divsion team, the Los Angeles Kings—a team similar to Phoenix, and one should not be overlooked. For the Kings, it starts with All-Star center Anze Kopitar, who is quickly becoming one of the top centers in the western conference.
But the Kings have more offensive play-makers, including Alexander Frolov, Dustin Brown, and Patrick O'Sullivan. On defense they have acquired defensman Matt Greene from the Oilers to go along with promising youngster Jack Johnson, and veterans Tom Preissing and Sean O'Donnell.
As with Phoenix, the Kings are still a few pieces short of a playoff contender, but have made moves to make them more competitive this season.
Now after taking a look at the five teams in the pacific, the REAL reason there will not be three teams from this division making the playoffs is because of two teams that missed out on the playoffs last year—the Chicago Blackhawks on the Columbus Blue Jackets. They will join Detroit as the three teams representing the Central Division in the playoffs.
The Blackhawks have two number-one goaltenders this year in Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin, which could make them much like the San Jose team of a couple of season ago. They have young studs in Patrick Kane, Jonathon Toews, Patrick Sharp—and if veteran Martin Havlat can stay healthy, the Blackhawks could have a potent offense.
That firepower will play alongside a defense which added Brian Campbell to the mix, who will provide huge dividends on the Blackhawk power play. This team is a trendy pick to make the playoffs, and I agree 100 percent.
The Columbus Blue Jackets—that's right, I said it, the Columbus Blue Jackets—will make the playoffs this season. Columbus used to be all about All-Star forward Rick Nash, but now the Blue-Jacket front office has put players around him, picking up RJ Umberger, Raffi Torres, Kristian Huselius, and Mike Commodore.
All of them play in front of goaltender Pascal Leclaire, who had a 2.25 GAA, .919 save percentage and nine shutouts last season. This team, like Chicago, is dangerous this year, and look for them to be playing deep into April in 2009.
To conclude, three teams from the Central, as well as three from the Northwest Division will make the playoffs, leaving two spots open for the Pacific. Who gets bounced early from that division? We will just have to wait and see.