NHL 2011-12 Preview: Pacific Division

MJ Kasprzak@BayAreaCheezhedSenior Writer IISeptember 17, 2011

NHL 2011-12 Preview: Pacific Division

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    According to Adam Proteau of The Hockey News, the San Jose Sharks' run of consecutive division titles will end at four:

    "I like the job GM Doug Wilson has done as much as anybody, but the four players he brought in this summer—Brent Burns, Martin Havlat, Michal Handzus and Jim Vandermeer—were a combined minus-40 last season. That’s unlikely to help their charitable penalty kill unit (24th in 2010-'11). The Sharks won’t be able to withstand a serious injury to one of their big three (which, as far as I’m concerned, now includes Logan Couture to go along with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau) and still finish atop the Pacific and second in the West as they did last season. In no way will they miss the playoffs, but I think the increasingly competitive division in which they play will temper their regular season success."

    Seems to me, Proteau is painting a picture of a team that is a pretender, not a contender. Rather than being the elite team they have been, he has them falling to fifth in the Western Conference.

    The plus-minus rating of all of the players mentioned above is misleading because they were on the ice in tough situations, with three of them playing on poor teams. However, the overall perception that the Sharks may not win the division is not uncommon.

    Who does Proteau (and most others) see passing the Sharks? The Los Angeles Kings are a sexy pick right now, and the brains come with it since the two teams are so close.

    Last year, my Pacific Division Preview predictions was one Anaheim win from being spot-on. So how do I see them playing out this season? Here they are from basement to penthouse.

The Desert Dogs Are an Endangered Species

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    The Phoenix Coyotes are the kind of team that never takes a shift off, much less a game. Much of that credit goes to coach Dave Tippett, but this team also made teams work against them under Wayne Gretzky.

    Some credit has to go to the leadership of Shane Doan. The only player to follow the team down from Winnipeg, he could be donning the jersey of another franchise for the first time ever before 2012 is up.

    I believe the league waited to realign in order to give the Yotes one more year to find a buyer in Phoenix. If not, there are multiple destinations they can choose from.

    If that happens, the team may make a Ray Bourque-like trade to send Doan to a place he can win a Stanley Cup rather than lose him in free agency. As they are likely to be taken out of the Pacific Division anyway, they will not care as much about helping a rival.

    Phoenix has gotten by in the last two years without much talent, in part, by playing good defence. However, their back end was depleted further during the offseason with the departures of Ilya Bryzgalov, Sami Lepisto and Ed Jovanovski. Goalie Mike Smith (.899 save percentage, 2.90 GAA as a back-up in 23 games) was the best replacement within the Yotes' budget.

    You just cannot lose two of your top-five defencemen and a very good goalie unless you become a scoring team. Adding Daymond Langkow and Raffi Torres will hardly make for a truly high-scoring team that was 16th in scoring last season.

    The way this team will likely give up goals will not help generate more interest in the Coyotes. Once they know they are sellers of the franchise, they will know they are sellers at the trade deadline, trying to establish talent for a new owner and GM to rebuild.

    I predict the wheels come off this season, and Phoenix finishes not only last in the division, but in the conference.

    Then again, if Smith plays well, they could well be this year's Dallas Stars. The longer they are in contention, the more focus and talent they will retain to stay in the playoff hunt.

The Stars at Night Do Not Burn Brightly Enough Deep-in-Da-Hearta

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    If Sheldon Souray can recapture even most of his play from two seasons ago (23 goals, 30 assists, 98 PIM, and a positive rating on a bad team), he will be the steal of the free agency.

    However, I see him being closer to what he did in the rest of his time in Edmonton: 23 points in 63 games. That is, still good production for the price (about a third of what the Oilers paid him), but it will not be enough to elevate the Dallas Stars into contention.

    Kari Lehtonen is a solid goaltender, but he is not at the level where he can carry a bad defence. Stephane Robidas (one of the NHL's truly underrated players on the blue line) is the only other player  worthy of being a top-four defenceman on either the San Jose Sharks, the Los Angeles Kings or the Anaheim Ducks.

    That is why, while Lehtonen was top-four in save percentage last season, he was 19th in goals against. The Stars do not have the stud forwards to score on the deep defences of the division, and were in the bottom half of the league in scoring last year.

    After losing their best scorer, Brad Richards, the Stars added good depth to replace him, including forwards Vernon Fiddler, Radek Dvorak and Michael Ryder. That gives them five or six guys who can score 20 goals, but they could have no one that scores 30.

    Last season, I had the Stars finishing last but thought they were barely contenders for a playoff spot. This season, I respect them more, but still see them struggle to make the playoffs in a tough division.

Duck Will Not Be on the Pacific Menu

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    The Anaheim Ducks made a late push in the standings despite losing their goalie to vertigo. But, they also became the first playoff victim of the Nashville Predators six games into the playoffs.

    Thus, it is essential that they have standout goalie Jonas Hiller back in net. Since that is expected, this team is a dark horse for the Pacific Division title.

    They kept most of a team together that had five players with over five points every six games, and only one of them is old enough to expect any drop-off in production. They have two very good lines and two very good pairs, and are at least average in the other eight skaters and beyond.

    However, they will fall short because they often start too slowly to eventually take a title in their division. They have just one in their history despite two trips to the Stanley Cup Finals and another to the conference finals in the last seven seasons.

    Instead, they will again be the team every division winner is hoping to avoid in the playoffs.

Kings Still Without Crown in Pacific

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    Drew Doughty is still not under contract, and, therefore, not present for the start of training camp.

    This is an issue, since some perceive his problem last season as a lack of conditioning. It could fester enough to make him, or management, unpopular among fans and with each other.

    This team still has not won a playoff round, much less a division, in this millennium. Still, I will bet on the team that knows how to finish.

    Without Doughty, the Kings' blue line is not as good as San Jose's. My guess is that he will come into camp late and not play as well at the beginning of the season because of it. That will add to the pressure and be just enough to keep them short of the division title.

    With Doughty, the Kings have one of the top-three blue lines in the NHL—but the Sharks are not far behind them, and have the edge at forward. The goaltending is comparable, and experience will break the tie.

Sharks Remain Top Predator in Pacific

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    The San Jose Sharks lost some of their standard forward strength in order to upgrade their blue line, possibly making it the best one the franchise has ever had.

    Dan Boyle was second in the league in minutes last season. He will be second on the team after the arrival of Brent Burns, who will be the Sharks' best defenseman in 2011-'12.

    Boyle will still lead the team in points, however, giving the Sharks a potent top-two pairs for a unit that is also deep. If the Kings are able to put Drew Doughty back on their payroll, the Sharks will have more room to make moves to upgrade their roster.

    In a division that was best in the league last year, and may be even better this year, the Sharks will need that edge to take the title.

    They will definitely use it, and it will be just enough.