The Pacific Division was the most competitive in all of hockey last season. The Dallas Stars finished the season with 95 points, and ninth in the Conference standings. Had the Stars not played so terribly down the stretch, and remained ahead of the Blackhawks, it would have been the first time since the NHL aligned into three divisions in 1998 that all five teams from the same division would have made the Playoffs.
As I did in my article on the Central Division, I will discuss each team in reverse order, starting with who I predict will be the worst team in the division until the division winner.
Key Additions: Daymond Langkow, Mike Smith, Raffi Torres, Kyle Chipchura and Boyd Gordon
Key Losses: Ilya Bryzgalov, Ed Jovanovski, Eric Belanger,Vernon Fiddler and Lee Stempniak
Analysis: The magical run of overachieving seems destined to finally end. After a couple of years of relying on Ilya Bryzgalov to provide support for the Coyotes anemic offence, Bryzgalov has finally moved onto greener (financially) pastures. However, losing Bryzgalov is not the only cause of concern for the Coyotes. Kyle Turris, the Coyotes best young talent is holding out of training camp, and apparently is looking for a deal in the 3 yr/$12 million range- a sum that I can guarantee you Coyotes management will not pay to a player with a career high of 25 points.
Jason Labarbera last season had a 3.26 GAA and a .909 SV%. Numbers like that simply will not provide the Coyotes the security that they need in goal. Unless Mike Smith can somehow become a superstar goaltender, it is safe to say that goaltending will not be a strength in Phoenix anymore. To compound matters Ed Jovanovski signed in the off-season with the Florida Panthers leaving a hole on the blueline that Phoenix is desperately hoping Ekman-Larsson can fill.
Not only did the defense and goaltending take a hit, don’t expect much out of the Coyotes offense either. While they have Shane Doan, quietly one of the best players in hockey, the rest of their lineup compares rather unfavorably with just about every other set of forwards in the sport. They lost Lee Stempniak and Eric Belanger. While they aren’t Stamkos and St Louis, they did provide solid production for a team dedicated to scoring by committee. As mentioned above, it does not look like Turris is going to sign with the Coyotes, which I am sure was some potential internal growth that they were hoping for. Ray Whitney is only getting older, and is not capable of putting up the numbers that he is supposed to, and Daymond Langkow who was acquired for Stempniak, is only one hit away from missing another complete season due to injury. Don’t be surprised to see Yandle as the top scorer, and if he doesn’t put up huge numbers again this season, the Coyotes are most definitely going nowhere.
Putting them at the bottom of the division does not necessarily mean that I think they are going to stink. Dave Tippett is notorious for getting the most out of his players. He has only coached one team in his eight seasons behind the bench that has missed the Playoffs. While I do expect the Coyotes to miss it, I don’t think it will be by much. Being last in the division has a lot to do with the quality of the division and less to do with the Coyotes themselves.
Key Additions: Sheldon Souray, Vernon Fiddler, Michael Ryder and Radek Dvorak
Key Losses: Brad Richards, Jamie Langenbrunner, Jason Williams and Jeff Woywitka
Analysis: It is going to be interesting to see what life will be like without Brad Richards. He developed such nice chemistry with Loui Eriksson over the past couple of seasons, that it is crucial for the success of the Stars that Eriksson can continue to put up the big numbers without the gifted center. In my opinion the key to the success for the Stars is the growth of Jamie Benn. In the 69 games that he played, Benn had 55 points despite not seeing much playing time on the Power Play.
The underlying question in Dallas right now is if Mike Ribeiro is capable of handling the number one center duties. He played quite well on a line last season with Brendan Morrow, and the two of them will need to elevate their games if the Stars would like to remain relevant. Another key factor is that the Stars traded away James Neal at the trade deadline last season for defenseman Alex Goligoski. While the Stars got the better end of the trade in my opinion, it nevertheless makes them even thinner on the offensive end. I am sure the Stars are hoping that Ribeiro and Ryder can re-kindle some of the chemistry that they had in 2005-06 as members of the Montreal Canadiens.
The Stars are looking better on the defensive end than they have at any point since the days of Sergei Zubov and Darryl Sydor. With the addition of Sheldon Souray, there is a lot of offensive potential on the back end for the Stars. If Goligoski and Souray can both stay healthy all season, look for each of them to top 45 points. Also with Robidas, Daley and Grossman, the Stars have some talented players on the second and third pairings.
As with most teams, the Stars season rests largely on the play of Kari Lehtonen. The former second overall pick has proven that he has the talent to play in the NHL, and now he only needs to show that he can stay healthy and continue to play with consistency. His backup Andrew Raycroft has shown that he is adequate in a backup role, but is in no way capable of handling the starting job for any significant amount of time.
The Playoffs will be a tough goal for the Stars this season, and I think they will be neck-in-neck with the Blue Jackets for most of the season for the final playoff spot.
Key Additions: Andrew Cogliano
Key Losses: Kyle Chipchura and Todd Marchant
Analysis: The Anaheim Ducks had a remarkable end to the season last year, which ultimately allowed them to finish as the fourth seed in the Western Conference. The Ducks are extremely heavy on top end talent. They have six All-Stars on their roster, but very little depth behind those stars. Jason Blake and Saku Koivu are getting old, and they cannot provide the secondary scoring that they were capable of a few years back.
The most discouraging news about the Ducks is that their main competition in the division has significantly improved and addressed weaknesses, while the Ducks essentially will be returning with the same roster this off-season. Also, last season almost everyone on the Ducks roster had career seasons. Corey Perry had over 50 goals, and his 19 goals in the last 16 games was one of the best samples of 16 games of the decade. He single-handedly got the Ducks home ice for the first round, and took home the MVP trophy for his efforts. Lubomir Visnovsky had the best season in the NHL amongst defenceman and most definitely should have won the Norris Trophy last season. Teemu Selanne played like he was 30 years old again, and put up one of the best point totals in the NHL last season. Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf continued to improve and round out the best top line in hockey.
However, what happens now? If that group could not catch the Kings and Sharks with their career seasons, how can they be expected to catch them in the division when both teams ahead of them improved in the off-season? I think that the Ducks will make the Playoffs but they will slip a little in the standings and while their star players will produce, I don’t think that last years numbers will be repeated.
Los Angeles Kings
Key Additions: Simon Gagne and Mike Richards
Key Losses: Wayne Simmonds, Ryan Smyth, Brayden Schenn, Alex Ponikarovsky and Michal Handzus
Analysis: The Kings have finally made the proper changes and improvements to their top six forwards, and are now ready to take the next step and come close to catching the Sharks atop the division. With the additions of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne, to the already existing core of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Dustin Penner and Justin Williams, you are looking at one dangerous group of forwards that can score a ton of goals. I think that Richards will be a perfect complement to Kopitar, and not allow other teams to focus on shutting the young Slovenian center down. While scoring has been a problem for this team in the past I think that Dean Lombardi has more than adequately addressed the issue.
While the Kings will miss some the loss of Wayne Simmonds from their current roster, with Jarret Stoll bumped to third line duties, together with Richardson and Lewis, there will be ample grit on the third line with some goal scoring ability.
On the defensive end the Kings are rock solid. After finally coming to terms with Drew Doughty on a $56 million contract, the Kings have a remarkable combination of skill and physical play amongst their group of defensemen. Doughty and Johnson is the best under-25 pairing in the league, and are the leaders of the group. Rob Scuderi and Willie Mitchell provide a solid veteran presence on the second pairing, and have remarkable shutdown capability.
As the saying goes, your defense is only as good as your goalie, applies very favorably for the Kings. The Kings have two legitimate star options in goal, and it is only a shame that they are not able to play both of them more often. With Jonathan Quick entrenched as the number one option, Bernier is waiting in the wings should Quick ever falter. He remains great trade bait should the Kings ever feel they need to upgrade a different area of their team.
This is a clear cut playoff team, and the only reason that I don’t think they will win the division is because the Sharks have made some important changes as well. Yet, I do think that they will end off the season with a better record than the Red Wings who I predicted will win the Central division.
San Jose Sharks
Key Additions: Brent Burns, Martin Havlat, James Sheppard, Michal Handzus, and Jim Vandermeer
Key Losses: Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Ben Eager, Kent Huskins, Niclas Wallin and Jamal Mayers
Analysis: The Sharks dealt from a position of strength when they dealt Devin Setoguchi for Brent Burns. Burns gives the Sharks the perfect complement to Dan Boyle. He is a great shooter on the Power Play and he gives the Sharks the second threat from the point that they have been sorely lacking.
One of the big questions going into the season is who will play with Thornton and Marleau now that Heatley was traded to the Wild in the off-season. Will it be Havlat? Will Couture step in? The Sharks most definitely are not low on options, as they have six solid options on offense. The way that I see it breaking down is that Havlat will join Thornton and Marleau with Couture on the second line with Clowe and Pavelski. All six players are easily capable of putting up 60 points this season, and with their size and skill will be a nightmare to play against.
One thing that should be concerning for the Sharks is the health issues surrounding Martin Havlat. The Sharks have never really had a star that does not usually play a full 82 games. The team has not been hit with the injury bug in years and it would be interesting to see how they would adapt should Havlat get injured. Barring injury I think that he will mesh extremely well with Thornton and possibly get the big center back on track, as his production has been slipping slightly in the last two seasons.
In goal the Sharks are set with Antti Niemi. After a slow start to the season last year, Niemi played remarkable and won back the starting job from Nittymaki and in the process lead the Sharks back to the Conference finals. With Nittymaki injured the first few months of the season, look for Niemi to face an even larger workload, a prospect that I am sure he is thrilled with.
This team is a clear and obvious playoff team. The only question is if they can challenge the Canucks for first place in the conference standings. I for one am confident that they have what it takes.
Hope you enjoyed!
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