LAST SEASON: 43-27-12, sixth in West; lost in conference finals to Edmonton KEY ADDITIONS: D Chris Pronger KEY LOSSES: RW Joffrey Lupul,D Ruslan Salei,D Vitaly Vishnevski
The mobile Niedermayer averages more than 25 minutes a game.
David E. Klutho/SI
Life in the O.C. got even sunnier in July when superstar defenseman Chris Pronger was acquired in a trade with Edmonton that unites him with another Norris Trophy winner, Scott Niedermayer. (Pronger won it in 2000, Niedermayer in '04.) The Ducks, who play an aggressive, high-tempo game, will have at least one of those elite blueliners on the ice virtually all the time -- and that immediately makes them a Stanley Cup favorite.
"Scottie's like a thoroughbred; Chris is like a Clydesdale," says G.M. Brian Burke. "In terms of skating the puck out of trouble, Scottie has a clear advantage. [And] he's such a smooth passer. Chris is more physical and uses his stick more to beat people with a pass. They'll complement each other well."
In exchange for the 6'6", 215-pound Pronger, who is in the second year of a five-year, $31 million deal, Anaheim gave up promising forward Joffrey Lupul, defenseman Ladislav Smid, a 2007 first-round pick, a 2008 second-round pick and a conditional first-round pick. But the Ducks, who have top scorers Teemu Selanne (40 goals) and Andy McDonald (34) coming back, have the depth to overcome those losses. More important, after watching the Pronger-led Oilers dominate his Ducks in the conference finals, Burke was convinced Pronger was the missing piece on his team.
"I was wishing I had Chris when I saw him warming up for the first game [of the series]," Burke says. "I've been coveting this player ever since I drafted him [for the Hartford Whalers] in 1993."
By adding Pronger to his current team, Burke now has everything in place for the Ducks to win the Cup.
San Jose Sharks
LAST SEASON: 44-27-11, fifth in West; lost in second round to Edmonton KEY ADDITIONS: LW Mark Bell, C Curtis Brown, RW Mike Grier KEY LOSSES: C Alyn McCauley, LW Scott Thornton
After toiling in obscurity for four seasons in Chicago, newly acquired left wing Mark Bell is finally getting attention -- just not the kind of attention he wanted. Ten days before training camp began last month Bell, 26, allegedly rear-ended a pickup truck, left the scene and walked for about a quarter mile before San Jose police caught up to him. No one was seriously injured, but Bell, who is still expected to play alongside Hart Trophy winner Joe Thornton and right wing Jonathan Cheechoo on what could be the NHL's best line, was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and felony hit-and-run. His arraignment was postponed until October.
The Sharks' other newcomers have kept a lower profile. After a disheartening loss to the Oilers in last season's playoffs (the Sharks once led the series two games to none), San Jose brought in free-agent center Curtis Brown and winger Mike Grier, a defensive specialist, to take critical face-offs and to help kill penalties. They join a club that has great depth on defense -- and very high expectations. Says coach Ron Wilson, "This team is competing for the Stanley Cup. Anything short of that is a disappointment."
LAST SEASON: 53-23-6, second in West; lost in first round to Colorado KEY ADDITIONS: C Eric Lindros, C Patrik Stefan, D Darryl Sydor KEY LOSSES: C Jason Arnott, C Niko Kapanen, D Willie Mitchell
Turco's playoff failures have the Stars looking for an alternative in goal.
Goalie Marty Turco's disappointing performance in the playoffs -- the heavily favored Stars were knocked out by the Avalanche in the first round in each of the last two seasons -- has exhausted the patience of coach Dave Tippett. "I put trust in a lot of [veterans], and the results haven't been there," says Tippett. "When that happens, you tend to trust less. You make sure things get done without relying on those players."
The 31-year-old Turco's career postseason record is 8-14, yet Dallas gave him a four-year, $22.8 million contract extension based on his 137-62-26 record and 2.08 goals-against average over the past five years. (That's also a reflection of the dearth of experienced goaltending in the league.) This fall, however, the Stars are giving three netminders whom they drafted in 2000, '01 and '02 -- Dan Ellis, Mike Smith and Tobias Stephan, respectively -- a shot at winning a job in the NHL, whether it's as Turco's backup, as his replacement or as the go-to goalie in the playoffs. "Last year the NHL finals proved a young guy can make an impact," says Tippett, referring to Carolina rookie Cam Ward, who appeared in 28 regular-season games then backstopped the Hurricanes to the Cup. "We want one of these guys to push Marty."
Los Angeles Kings
LAST SEASON: 42-35-5, 10th in West KEY ADDITIONS: G.M. Dean Lombardi, coach Marc Crawford, D Rob Blake, G Dan Cloutier KEY LOSSES: G.M. Dave Taylor, D Joseph Corvo, C Pavol Demitra, C Jeremy Roenick
When he took over as G.M. of the Sharks before the 1996-97 season, Dean Lombardi needed just three years to turn them into a playoff threat, but he'll be lucky to get that much time to transform the long-suffering Kings. L.A.'s pattern of starting the season strong before falling out of playoff contention, plus the emergence of SoCal rival Anaheim as a Stanley Cup front-runner, has created a sense of urgency. That's why Lombardi made wholesale changes, bringing in former Cup-winning coach Marc Crawford; Dan Cloutier, who will be the Kings' No. 1 goalie; and former Norris Trophy winner Rob Blake.
"We're probably not going to score a ton of goals, but if we can limit the opposition's chances, that will be a key," says center Craig Conroy. "We don't have the superstars on offense that other teams have." That's why some hockey fans hop onto the Santa Ana Freeway and head south.
LAST SEASON: 38-39-5, 12th in West KEY ADDITIONS: D Nick Boynton, D Ed Jovanovski, RW Georges Laraque, C Jeremy Roenick KEY LOSSES: D Paul Mara, LW Geoff Sanderson
To survive in the Western Conference, says Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky, "You can't stand still." Hoping to avoid Phoenix's third straight last-place finish, Gretzky and G.M. Mike Barnett set out to improve the defense and to add a physical presence up front. For the blue line, they signed All-Star Ed Jovanovski and traded for versatile Nick Boynton; they gained muscle in 6'3", 243-pound Georges Laraque. "Some nights we just couldn't match up against the bigger teams," says Gretzky. Laraque may help solvethat problem, but the Coyotes have too many others -- a shortage of scorers, a poor power play -- to finish anywhere near the top of the Pacific. -- Yi-Wyn Yen
MVP: Joe Thornton, C, Sharks
After acquiring Thornton from the Bruins last Nov. 30, the Sharks, then 8-12-4 and 13th in the conference, went 36-15-7 the rest of the way to storm into the playoffs. Thornton, 27, led the league with a career-high 126 points and helped linemate Jonathan Cheechoo become the NHL's top scorer (56 goals).
The 118th pick of the 2000 draft, the 5'10", 188-pound Slovakian used his mobility to have a breakout season in '05-06, leading L.A. with 67 points (17 goals). His total was better than those of heralded defensemen such as Scott Niedermayer, Mathieu Schneider, Sergei Gonchar and Chris Pronger.
On the Spot: Jean-Sébastien Gigučre, G, Ducks
The 2003 Conn Smythe winner was replaced in last year's playoffs by backup Ilya Bryzgalov, who then sparked controversy in July when a Russian newspaper quoted him as saying Anaheim wanted to trade Gigučre but "no one wanted him." The two will battle for the No. 1 job.