2009-10 Pacific Division preview
The underachieving Sharks are out of excuses, the revamped Ducks are a threat
The Stars will be a sleeper team with comeback seasons from three key players
The young Kings still aren't ready for prime time, the Coyotes are likely doomed
Here's how I see them shaking out, in predicted order of finish:
SAN JOSE SHARKS
2008-09 RECORD: 53-18-11, 117 points, first in Pacific
FRESH FACES: Dany Heatley (Ottawa), Manny Malhotra (Columbus), Jed Ortmeyer (Nashville), Scott Nichol (Nashville), Benn Ferriero (Phoenix)
OTHER PLACES: Jonathan Cheechoo (Ottawa), Milan Michalek (Ottawa), Travis Moen (Montreal) Christian Ehrhoff (Vancouver), Brad Lukowich (Vancouver), Jeremy Roenick (retired), Mike Grier (Buffalo), Tomas Plihal (Finland), Marcel Goc (Nashville), Alexei Semenov (NY Rangers), Claude Lemieux (retired), Brian Boucher (Philadelphia)
STORYLINE: Not to belittle the process of the regular season, but it doesn't matter if the Sharks run the table on the way to an 82-0 mark or just squeak into the postseason with the eighth seed. The simple fact is that they won't play a meaningful contest until Game One, Round One. Between now and then, the Sharks are simply experimenting with line combos and trying to stay healthy until the games count.
MVP: Dany Heatley. The silent treatment finally paid off, earning the reluctant Senator a fresh start in Silicon Valley. He'll skate with one of the game's elite assist men in Joe Thornton, but also with the weight of a prima donna reputation that will make him a target of fans across the league. His ability to shrug off a season of what's certain to be unpleasant attention will be key to both his personal success and that of the team.
KID TO WATCH: Benn Ferriero. Like Boston's impressive Blake Wheeler, Ferriero (pronounced FAIRY-oh) is a collegian who the Phoenix Coyotes drafted but failed to sign. Given a chance by the Sharks just prior to the team's rookie camp, the Boston College grad earned a contract and a trip to the main camp, where he has three goals in four games while keeping Heatley's spot warm on Joe Thornton's line. A longshot even to make it this far, he's caught the attention of Todd MacLellan and could stick with the team. "He's been one of our top players," the coach said.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. The one clear conclusion from last spring's debacle is that the Sharks were suffering through a crisis of leadership. Despite their prodigious talents, neither Marleau nor Thornton possess the gravitas to rally the troops in times of crisis, and that led to the letters being stripped from their chests in the aftermath of yet another disappointing run. It'll be interesting to see how the removal of that responsibility impacts their play and if either responds to the challenge in a way that forces them back into the leadership picture.
BOTTOM LINE: It's Stanley Cup or bust for a team that has consistently failed to meet expectations and, after adding a proven sniper with Cup experience in Heatley, has run out of excuses.
2008-09 RECORD: 42-33-7, 91 points, second in Pacific
FRESH FACES: Saku Koivu (Montreal), Joffrey Lupul (Philadelphia), Evgeny Artyukhin (Tampa Bay), Luca Sbisa (Philadelphia), Nick Boynton (Florida), Justin Pogge (Toronto)
OTHER PLACES: Chris Pronger (Philadelphia), Francois Beauchemin (Toronto), Steve McCarthy (Atlanta), Rob Niedermayer (Devils), Brett Hedican (free agent), Drew Miller (Tampa Bay)
STORYLINE: Who are the Ducks? Fair question. Brian Burke resigned as GM less than a year ago and he'd probably need a program to recognize all the new faces acquired over that span by his successor, Bob Murray. Under the new boss, Anaheim is less truculent but better balanced. Lighter on the back end but deeper than ever up front. Such a rapid turnover can wreak havoc on chemistry. So can the loss of a towering presence like Pronger, who was as important in the room as he was nasty on the ice. Taken in context, it's a stunning re-imagining of Ducks hockey. Can this disparate group make it work?
MVP: Ryan Getzlaf. Wasn't long ago that he was considered one of the top young centers in the game. Now you can drop the young -- he's simply one of the best. With 25 goals and 91 points, Getzlaf was the second-leading scorer in the Western Conference in 2008-09 and, at 24, he's yet to show off his best hockey. He could get off to a slow start as he recovers from offseason hernia surgery, but he'll round into shape before long.
KID TO WATCH: Luca Sbisa. The prize return in the Pronger trade is a potential top-flight defender of a different sort. While he lacks Pronger's physical inclinations, Sbisa is a smooth skater who makes smart decisions with the puck. Confident and creative, he's bound to be a good one...but he's also just 19. The Ducks may decide live through a bumpy learning curve in order to take advantage of what could be Scott Niedermayer's swan song. A year under the captain's wing could be the best path for Sbisa's development.
KEEP AN EYE ON: J-S Giguere. The grave illness and, ultimately, demise of his father made it impossible to maintain his focus and grip on the starting job during the early part of last season. To his credit, he remained a good soldier, staunchly supporting Jonas Hiller as the Ducks marched to within a goal of upsetting the Red Wings in the second round. This season, Giguere has every intention of regaining the No. 1 role. He's played better, though not spectacularly, during training camp and it's possible he'll suffer from the loss of goaltending coach Francois Allaire.
KEEP AN EYE ON 2: Corey Perry. With a chance to snare an Olympic berth on the line, look for the natural winger to get off to a fast start. But it won't just be his point totals that Canadian GM Steve Yzerman will be eyeballing. Perry needs to prove that he can play a disciplined game without eliminating the jam that makes him so effective down low.
BOTTOM LINE: There's an inclination to underrate the Ducks and, honestly, it's hard to defend. Though the reconstituted blueline will need to prove its worth, the forwards are deeper, faster and more skilled than last season when they wiped out the Sharks in the first round. If the defense gels, the Ducks can challenge San Jose for the Pacific title...and maybe even take a legitimate run at the Cup.
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