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Posted: Tuesday September 29, 2009 8:22AM; Updated: Friday October 2, 2009 6:48PM

NHL Preview: 2009-10

Western Conference: Pacific

EASTERN CONFERENCE: Atlantic | Northeast | Southeast
WESTERN CONFERENCE: Central | Northwest | Pacific

PACIFIC

San Jose Sharks
Last season: 53-18-11 (1st in West); lost in first round to Anaheim
Key additions: LW Dany Heatley, C Manny Malhotra, C Scott Nichol, RW Jed Ortmeyer
Key losses: RW Jonathan Cheechoo, D Christian Ehrhoff, C Marcel Goc, RW Mike Grier, D Brad Lukowich, LW Milan Michalek, LW Travis Moen, C Jeremy Roenick

 
 San Jose's Patrick Marleau is coming off a career-best 38 goals.
San Jose's Patrick Marleau is coming off a career-best 38 goals.
Robert Beck/SI
After yet another mystifying early exit from the playoffs, G.M. Doug Wilson let it be known that change was necessary and imminent. "The frustration is overwhelming," Wilson said days after San Jose's loss to the Ducks, the fourth consecutive year that the Sharks were upended in one of the first two rounds. "Everything will be evaluated. There's nothing that's off the table. This is going to be a painful summer, and it should be."

Despite that declaration, Wilson didn't make a major personnel change until training camp opened and he announced the acquisition of forward Dany Heatley, who had been demanding a trade from Ottawa since May. The price was dear -- promising winger Milan Michalek and veteran Jonathan Cheechoo -- but Heatley's 35 points in 34 career playoff games is precisely the track record San Jose was looking for.

"When the Senators went to the Stanley Cup finals [in 2007], Dany was the leading scorer in the playoffs," Wilson says. "He's Canada's alltime leading scorer at the World Championships.... [Producing in big spots] is not something you just hope he's going to do. He's done it."

Heatley joins a roster that, as ever, remains impressive on paper, with six forwards who can easily contribute 20 goals and 50 points each (including a perennial MVP candidate in center Joe Thornton) as well as strong goaltending in Evgeni Nabokov, who will be playing for a new contract and a starting job on the Russian Olympic team. The Sharks traded defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich to Vancouver in an apparent salary dump two weeks before getting Heatley, but their defense should still be solid, especially given the emergence of 22-year-old Marc-Edouard Vlasic (nicknamed, inevitably, Pickles), who led the team in ice time last season.

But what San Jose needs most is scoring when it counts. After averaging 3.06 goals per game during the regular season, the Sharks mustered only 10 total in six playoff games. With Heatley, those numbers should go up.

Anaheim Ducks
Last season: 42-33-7 (8th in West); lost in second round to Detroit
Key additions: RW Evgeny Artyukhin, D Nick Boynton, D Steve Eminger, C Saku Koivu, RW Joffrey Lupul, D Luca Sbisa
Key losses: D Francois Beauchemin, C Rob Niedermayer, D Chris Pronger

Minutes after he'd traded Chris Pronger to Philadelphia in June, G.M. Bob Murray got a call that eased the sting. It was Anaheim's other franchise defenseman, 36-year-old Scott Niedermayer, alerting Murray that he would put off retirement and return for his 18th NHL season.

In the Pronger deal the Ducks got fine young defenseman Luca Sbisa and top six forward Joffrey Lupul, an acquisition that along with the signing of center Saku Koivu provides needed offensive depth. "Now we have two groups [of forwards] that can push each other for ice time," says top-line center Ryan Getzlaf. "We know that if we [on the No. 1 line] can't get it done, somebody else will."

There's a competitiveness throughout the team: Pronger's absence creates opportunities for defensemen Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski, while in goal, veteran Jean-Sébastien Giguère will have to fight off the emerging Jonas Hiller for the No. 1 role. "Competition within [the lineup] is healthy," Murray says.

As is Anaheim's bid for a fifth straight playoff appearance.

Los Angeles Kings
Last season: 34-37-11 (14th in West)
Key additions: D Rob Scuderi, LW Ryan Smyth
Key losses: D Kyle Quincey

Despite finishing last in the division for the second straight year, the Kings believe they're on the verge of a breakthrough. Management has been patient, and the players feel that they've had the opportunity to grow as a unit. "In the past we've overhauled every year, and it's hard to build anything that way," says 24-year-old captain Dustin Brown.

Instead, this summer was about augmenting a promising young nucleus with two carefully targeted veterans. Rob Scuderi, fresh off winning the Stanley Cup with the Penguins, bolsters a precocious defense led by Drew Doughty, who had a remarkable rookie season playing in all situations and averaging a team-high 23:49 on the ice. And the acquisition of 33-year-old winger Ryan Smyth brings grit and a leave-it-all-out-there attitude (as well as 30-goal potential) that exemplifies the consistency such players as gifted winger Alexander Frolov and 22-year-old first-line center Anze Kopitar need to develop.

"The influence [of Scuderi and Smyth] will be tremendous," coach Terry Murray says. Murray's right; the Kings are ready to leave the cellar behind.

Dallas Stars
Last season: 36-35-11 (12th in West)
Key additions: G Alex Auld, D Karlis Skrastins, Coach Marc Crawford
Key losses: LW Steve Begin, RW Chris Conner, C Brendan Morrison, D Darryl Sydor, D Sergei Zubov, Coach Dave Tippett

The first significant move Joe Nieuwendyk made after taking over as G.M. of the Stars in May was to dismiss longtime coach Dave Tippett and appoint the sometimes tempestuous Marc Crawford. The new coach immediately ditched the Stars' cautious defensive style for a system that opens up the ice and relies on defensemen to activate the rush.

"Everyone's curious to see how we'll play," says goalie Marty Turco, who last year missed the playoffs for just the second time in his eight seasons with Dallas. "This is a completely different coaching staff with a different view of the game."

Roster changes have been few, but the Stars should benefit from relative health (they were second in the West in man games lost), especially with captain Brenden Morrow recovered from right-knee surgery. Sergei Zubov, who even at age 39 would have jibed well with Crawford's approach, bolted for the KHL. That leaves the rest of the defensemen with the challenge of finding out if they can learn, so to speak, on the fly.

Phoenix Coyotes
Last season: 36-39-7 (13th in West)
Key additions: D Adrian Aucoin, LW Lauri Korpikoski, LW Vernon Fiddler, G Jason LaBarbera, D James Vandermeer, RW Radim Vrbata, Coach Dave Tippett
Key losses: LW Todd Fedoruk, D David Hale, D Dmitri Kalinin, C Steven Reinprecht, Coach Wayne Gretzky

There has been more interest in an Arizona bankruptcy court than in the Phoenix dressing room lately. As the season opener neared, the ownership battle between the NHL and Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie dragged on (and on and on), and with it the fate of a team that was also shaken by the 11th-hour resignation of coach Wayne Gretzky. "It's out of our control," says defenseman James Vandermeer of the legal proceedings, "but it's hard not to follow it."

Through the clouds that loom over them, the Coyotes can try to see light in their 8-4-1 record to close last season and in the acquisitions of Adrian Aucoin and Radim Vrbata, which add depth and experience to a team that G.M. Don Maloney admits was "too young" last year. Mindful of its payroll, Phoenix will still rely largely on young, affordable and decidedly uneven players to surround captain Shane Doan, who remains a force on the wing.

"It's been a long summer," Maloney says. Expect a dreary season too.

Throwback: Corey Perry

 
Corey Perry.
Corey Perry.
David E. Klutho/SI
The Ducks' 6' 3", 209-pound winger makes a living bulling through traffic in search of rebounds, tumbling over goalies and, most important, finding ways to put the puck in the net. He had a team-high 32 goals last season.

On the Spot: Marty Turco

The Dallas goalie will be a free agent next summer. The interest he draws will depend on if he improves on a 2008-09 season in which his goals-against average was a career high (2.81) and his save percentage a career low (.898).

On the Verge: Jack Johnson

The Kings defenseman, slowed by a shoulder injury last season, is fully healed. At 6 feet, 218 pounds, he has the size and the offensive potential (six goals in 41 games) to show why he was drafted at No. 3 in the 2005 draft.

-- Sarah Kwak

Pierre McGuire's In the Crease

Don't be surprised to see Dany Heatley score 55 goals in San Jose. The Sharks also get a boost with the return of speedy forward Torrey Mitchell from a broken left leg.... In Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan the Ducks may have the best first line in the league.... The Kings could turn out to be the NHL's most improved team. While Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson receive deserved praise, young defensemen Thomas Hickey and Colten Teubert could also develop into bona fide stars.... The question in Phoenix, especially if things go bad early, is how long before Shane Doan asks for a trade. Doan could put a Stanley Cup contender over the top.

EASTERN CONFERENCE: Atlantic | Northeast | Southeast
WESTERN CONFERENCE: Central | Northwest | Pacific

This article appears in the October 5, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated

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