Stars shine above Pacific
Once again, the Pacific will be a dogfight among its three best teams -- the Stars, Sharks and Ducks -- but it's quite likely that one of its young and usually downtrodden members will finally claw its way into the fray: the Coyotes. As for the Kings and their impressive array of potential, well, they're still a playoff contender under construction. Give 'em some more time.
I've already addressed the big questions in the division, but here's a closer look at each team, in predicted order of finish:
2007-08 RECORD: 45-30-7 -- 97points; third in Pacific; lost to Detroit in conference finals
KEY ADDS: Sean Avery (Rangers), Fabian Brunnstrom (Sweden)
KEY LOSSES: Niklas Hagman (Maple Leafs), Antti Miettinen (Wild), Stu Barnes (retirement)
STRENGTHS: Team defense, coaching
Once No. 1 defender Sergei Zubov returns to the lineup -- he's lost for the first month due to hip surgery -- the Stars will ice a deep blueline that's built to excel in the modern game. If Matt Niskanen, Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric can build upon their impressive rookie campaigns, it's a group that should define the 2008-09 Stars. But as impressive as that unit may be, the key to the team's success lies in coach Dave Tippett's ability to extract a consistent defensive commitment from all four forward lines. He and his long-tenured staff (now bolstered by the addition of the freshly retired Barnes) excel not only at instilling discipline, but adapting to changing conditions. Despite a generally low profile, this bench crew ranks among the league's best.
WEAKNESSES: Netminding depth
As long as Marty Turco is on his game, the Stars benefit from playing in front of one of the league's best goaltenders. But this veteran has a way of losing his focus for three or four games at times, and he benefits from more rest than he'd like to take. That means rookie Tobias Stephan will be on the hot seat for something like 15-20 starts. After two years spent percolating in the AHL, the Swiss-born first-rounder looks ready for that task, but he'd be hard pressed to succeed if an injury to Turco forces him into a larger role. And with the Stars up against the cap, bringing in a veteran reinforcement is unlikely.
MVP: Brenden Morrow
It cost former GM Doug Armstrong his job, but in the end it proved that he knew what he was doing when he ripped the C off Mike Modano and slapped it on Morrow's sweater. The left winger led the Stars with 32 goals, including a team-leading 12 power play markers and seven game-winners, and is the defensive conscience of the forward corps. But it was with his heroic play in the postseason that he fully established himself as the Dallas' most important player. There are just a handful of forwards that can carry a team. Morrow is one of them.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Fabian Brunnstrom
The Stars won an intense free-agent bidding war for the late-blooming Swede last May. Now it's time to see whether those scouting comparisons to Daniel Alfredsson were hyperbolic or on the mark. Brunnstrom has been solid in the preseason, earning a look on the top line with Mike Ribeiro and Morrow. But he has to play at a level that earns that kind of ice time. Brunnstrom's cap hit --he could earn $2.25 million this season -- ensures him a spot on the team, whether he belongs or not.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Sean Avery
Avoiding suspensions and long-term injuries for the first time in his career, Avery will play all 82 games and hit the 20-goal mark.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Putting it all together at precisely the right time, the Stars surprised everyone -- including their own fans -- with their three-round run last spring. With the improvements up front, the expectations are that they'll re-assert themselves as one of the league's best teams. Anything less than a Pacific title and a return to the conference finals would be a disappointment, but they'll need a few breaks in order to advance past the superior Red Wings.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
2007-08 RECORD: 49-23-10 -- 108 points; first in Pacific; lost to Dallas in second round
KEY ADDS: coach Todd McLellan (Detroit), Rob Blake (Los Angeles), Dan Boyle (Tampa Bay), Brad Lukowich (Tampa Bay)
KEY LOSSES: Brian Campbell (Chicago), Craig Rivet (Buffalo), Patrick Rissmiller (NY Rangers), Matt Carle (Tampa Bay), Curtis Brown (Switzerland)
STRENGTHS: The rebuilt blueline
When the frontline includes Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek, and the Vezina runner-up (Evgeni Nabokov) is in net, it'd be safe to list the forwards and the goaltending as key assets for the Sharks. But this team will live and die with its reconstructed blueline. It'san older, savvier group thanks to the additions of Blake, Boyle and Lukowich, and one that should have an easier time executing McLellan's puck possession style. The presence of Blake and Boyle ensures that the Sharks will generate chances more effectively from the backend, something they failed to do consistently last season. Expect to see them finish in the top-five in the power play rankings as a result.
WEAKNESSES: The month of April
The Sharks have been one of the league's most fearsome predators over the past four seasons, averaging 104 points during the buildup to the playoffs. But once the games start to count, this team loses its bite. Expectations ran high last spring, and yet another failure to advance past the second round led to the sacking of former coach Ron Wilson and the decision to revamp the defense corps. Both moves should ensure that the Sharks maintain a level of regular season excellence, but it won't be until April that their success can be measured. If there's another early ouster, a significant roster shakeup seems inevitable.
MVP: Evgeni Nabokov
It plays off a cliché, but it's true: If Nabokov dressed for an Eastern conference team, odds are that he, not Martin Brodeur, would be staring at last season's Vezina on his mantle. But you can't get bogged down in hypotheticals. The real question is, can Nabokov top -- or even match -- a season in which he played 77 games and won 46 of them with a 2.14 GAA? It says here that he'll stay in that statistical neighborhood and remain the team's most important player, though he'll likely lose some starts to new backup Brian Boucher, which will keep him fresher for the playoffs.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: None
The Sharks expect to enter the season with a veteran lineup, although rookie Mike Moore could get an early call-up if they decide there's a need for a physical presence on the blueline.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Patrick Marleau will be a Shark at the end of the season
Let's face it: no one faces more pressure in San Jose this season than the captain. Marleau was brutal last season, and his struggles (compounded by the weight of a hefty contract) posed a significant stumbling block for the team. There won't be a repeat. McLellan's approach, expected to mirror the one he helped craft in Detroit, should take full advantage of Marleau's speed and guile. Look for a big bounce-back year for the veteran.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: The Sharks have all the pieces in place for another year among the league's top teams. Look for them to finish second in the Pacific, fourth in the conference...and then flame out once again in the second round.