NHL preview: Pacific Division

Can Joe Thornton help the Sharks get over the hump? Courtesy of the NHL (joe-t)

San Jose Sharks

2009/2010 Record: 51-20-11, 113 Points, 1st in the Pacific Division, 1st in the Western Conference

Key Additions: G Antero Nittymaki, F Jamal Mayers, D Andreas Lilia, G Antti Niemi

Key Departures: G Evgeni Nabokov, D Rob Blake (retired) and F Manny Malhotra

On the Rise: Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Devin Setagouchi

On the Hot Seat: G Thomas Greiss, G  Antero Nittymaki

Big Question: Can the Sharks finally get to the Stanley Cup final?

Outlook: As usual the Sharks go into the season as one of the top teams in the West. After losing to the Blackhawks in the West final, they had a busy off-season, locking up several keys pieces.  Patrick Marleau appeared to be heading elsewhere but he re-signed for four years. GM Doug Wilson opened up the purse strings, re-signing Joe Pavelski, Jason Demers, Devin Setagouchi, Niclas Wallin and Scott Nichol.

Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov headed home, signing a contract with SKA St. Petersburgh in the KHL. For several seasons Nabokov seemed to be scapegoat for the Sharks and their failure in the playoffs.  He did let bad goals in at the wrong time but there are questions to be asked of others.

Joe Thornton had another outstanding regular season but has often been questioned for his lack of production in the big games. Is this the year that “Gentle Joe” finally dominates the playoffs the way he does during the regular season?

Dany Heatley scored 39 goals in the regular season but managed only two in 14 post-season games, including three assists in the six-game series loss to Chicago in the West final.

Niemi replaces Nabokov in the net for San Jose. He won the Stanley Cup with Chicago last season but wasn’t considered a lockdown netminder the Blackhawks’ run. Critics felt he was average and the talent of the Blackhawks covered up his deficiencies in the net.  Niemi is going to get his chance to prove he wasn’t a fluke but are the Sharks as complete as the Hawks were last year?

Prediction: 1st in the Pacific Division, 105-115 Points

Phoenix Coyotes

2009/2010 Record: 50-25-7, 107 Points, 2nd in the Pacific Division, 4th in the Western Conference

Key Additions: F Ray Whitney, C Eric Belanger

Key Departures: Matthew Lombardi

On the Rise: Ilya Bryzgalov and Sami Lepisto

On the Hot Seat: Kyle Wellwood, Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Viktor Tikhonov

Big Question: Who wants to buy them?  Will people show up?

Outlook: What a difference a year makes. Last year Coyotes were predicted to be one of the worst teams in NHL history. In addition, the team made plenty of news off the ice with poor attendance, and ownership woes. So, what did they do? With rookie head coach Dave Tippett in charge they went out and had the best season in franchise history with 107 points, including their first playoff appearance since 2002.

Now the biggest issue facing the club is can they repeat or improve from last year’s performance?

Can Lee Stempniak fill the void left when Lombardi took his talents to Nashville? Or will Stempniak look like the player who did very little in his two years with Toronto?

The Coyotes lack some quality down the middle. While Martin Hanzal and Eric Belanger may help fill the void left by Lombardi, the biggest question remains Turris.

After an uninspiring rookie year in 2007, Turris played last season in the AHL for the San Antonio Rampage where he scored 24 goals and assisted on 39 others. Now 21-years-old will be looked upon to provide some offence in the third slot.

Ed Jovanovski and Derek Morris will log a ton of minutes but will Sami Lepisto and Keith Yandle improve upon their seasons? Add Adrian Aucoin and that’s a pretty good top five. After that it becomes a who’s who scenario.  Kurt Sauer and David Schlemko are the sixth and seventh defenceman to make the team and it will be interesting to see how their skill set improves the overall defence.

Prediction: 3rd in Pacific Division, 90-100 Points

Los Angeles Kings

2009/2010 Record: 46-27-9, 101 Points, 3rd in the Pacific Division, 6th in the Western Conference

Key Additions: D Willie Mitchell and F Alexei Ponikarovsky

Key Departures: F Fredrik Modin, D Sean O’Donnell, F Jeff Halpern, F Alex Frolov and D Randy Jones

On the Rise: D Drew Doughty, G Jonathan Bernier and D Jack Johnson

On the Hot Seat: F Scott Parse, G Erik Ersberg and F Brayden Schenn

Big Question: Can Jonathan Quick repeat last year’s performance? Can the Kings top their 24 road wins?

Outlook: Last season the Kings made the playoffs for the first time since the lockout and seem to have energized the finicky hockey fans in So Cal – for what that’s worth. Despite losing to Vancouver in the first round, the Kings are a young team on the move.

Up front the Kings are loaded with quality NHL players but no elite No.1 centre. With Frolov’s departure, that job falls to Anze Kopitar. His track record suggests a 30-35 goal season but what happens when he sees the oppositions top defensive pairing? That’s why the Kings went so hard for Ilya Kovalchuk during the off-season. With Jarret Stoll and Michal Handzus, projected as the second and third centreman, repectively, there may be problems with goal depth up the middle.

To take the pressure off the centre position, the Kings have loaded the wings with several potential 20-goal scorers.

Quick was a surprise last season, starting 72 games and winning 39.  Prior to last year he won no more than 23 games, going back to his stint in the ECHL in 2007-2008.

He was selected to play for the U.S. Olympic team in Vancouver, where he saw no action in two weeks. After that, he wasn’t the same. Quick won six of his last 22 starts heading to the playoffs, where he posted a 3.50 GAA and .884 in six games.

So, was he over worked or have teams found weaknesses in his game?  We’ll find out soon enough.

On the back end Los Angeles is strong. With Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, the Kings’ top pairing takes a back seat to no unit. Add Rob Scuderi and Willie Mitchell to the mix and you have a top four that can compete with any in the league.

Prediction: 2nd in the Pacific Division, 95-105 Points

Anaheim Ducks

2009/2010 Record: 39-32-11, 89 Points, 4th in the Pacific Division, 11th in the Western Conference

Key Additions: D Cam Fowler, D Toni Lydman, D Andy Sutton

Key Departures: D  Scott Niedermayer

On the Rise: F Bobby Ryan

On the Hot Seat:

Big Question: Filling the void left by Niedermayer, cutting down on penalty minutes and adding depth.

Outlook: Anaheim had a tough season last year, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2003-2004.

The biggest issue the Ducks have to iron out is their discipline. Last year they were second in fighting majors with 79 and third with 1,317 penalty minutes.  What really killed them was their penalty kill. They allowed 67 goals, which ranked 28th in the league.

With the retirement of Niedermayer, Lydman and Sutton will be asked to fill the role of one of the most decorated defenceman to ever play the game. Anaheim will struggle to make the post-season in the highly competitive Western Conference and it can’t afford to let a lack of discipline do them in again.

So, how will the Ducks replace the skills of Niedermayer? The simple answer is, they can’t. He led the team in average ice time, average ice time on the penalty kill and was sixth in team scoring. While Lydman and Sutton are bona fide NHL players, they can’t replace the leadership and topnotch skills Niedermayer brought to the table.

A telling sign is that Cam Fowler has a chance to make the team. It’s a possible desperation move when an 18-year-old gets a starting job out of junior hockey.

With Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Joffrey Lupul, the Ducks possess four top quality forwards. Aside from that, the scoring gets sketchy. Teemu Selanne, Jason Blake, Saku Koivu are all over the age of 35, with Selanne the oldest at 40. The rest of the forward roster is populated by unproven talent and grit.

Jonas Hiller gets his chance after Jean-Sebastien Giguere was traded to Toronto last year. How will he do behind a porous Anaheim defence? Only time will tell. His backup is Cutis McElhinny, who split time between the Flames and Ducks last season, and went 8-5 in 20 games.

Prediction: 4th in the Pacific, 85-95 Points

Dallas Stars

2009/2010 Record: 37-31-14, 88 Points, 5th in the Pacific Division, 12th in the Western Conference

Key Additions: none [brought in Jonathan Cheechoo for tryout]

Key Departures: F Mike Modano and G Marty Turco, F Jere Lehtinen  [may retire. Still undecided about his playing future

On the Rise: F Jamie Benn F James Neal

On the Hot Seat: G Andrew Raycroft and G Brent Krahn

Big Question: Who’s on the backend?

Outlook: Last season wasn’t much fun for the Stars. Winning wasn’t contagious at all. In fact, the Stars were the only team in the NHL not to win three straight games during the year. They also lost 14 of 16 road games, including 10 straight from November through to February.

If the Stars want to make a return to the post-season they must decrease their goals against. Dallas has allowed far too many goals over the past two seasons; 254 last year and 257 the year before. It’s not surprising that they didn’t make the playoffs in either one of those seasons.

The penalty kill was 27th in the league last season, allowing 65 goals. They allowed two power-play goals in a game 17 times, and three times they gave up three power-play goals in a game. Head coach Marc Crawford will have to design a system to combat the glaring special team’s weakness.

So does he have the players to improve upon those stats?

Considering they are returning the same personnel group on defence, it’s highly unlikely.

Dallas used to be a place where goals went to die. A blueline that consisted of the likes of Sergei Zubov, Darien Hatcher, Craig Ludwig and Richard Matvichuck has been replaced by Stephane Robidas, Matt Niskanen, Karlis Skrastins and Trevor Daley. The Stars have the lowest paid defence in the Western Conference. Money doesn’t always equate talent but in this case it seems to.

Prediction: 5th in the Pacific Division, 80-90 points.