2010-11 Pacific Division Preview
The confident, defensively-stout Kings should win at least a playoff round
Two new goaltenders will make San Jose's season very interesting
The Coyotes aren't Cup contenders, but they are a team to be feared
|PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH|
Staff picks: Awards and more
2009-10: 46-27-9, 101 points, third in Pacific
FRESH FACES: Alexei Ponikarovsky (Pittsburgh), Johan Fransson (Sweden), Willie Mitchell (Vancouver)
OTHER PLACES: Alexander Frolov (NY Rangers), Sean O'Donnell (Philadelphia), Fredrik Modin (Atlanta), Jeff Halpern (Montreal), Randy Jones (Tampa Bay), Raitis Ivanans (Calgary)
STORYLINE: Wise drafting and a healthy dose of patience finally paid off last season for a team that vaulted from 34 to 46 wins and tasted the playoffs for the first time since 2002. The question now: what do they do for an encore? The year was defined by significant developmental leaps by young players like Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick. To take the step from "happy to be here" to legitimate contender, the Kings need all three to build on their success.
MVP: Drew Doughty. It's hard to believe how quickly the chubby kid drafted second overall out of Guelph in 2008 has matured into a Norris Trophy finalist and the true face of the franchise. The poise and confidence he displayed during his first taste of the postseason hinted at a player on the verge of becoming the defender who makes the biggest impact in the Western Conference.
KID TO WATCH: Jonathan Bernier. Unseating Jonathan Quick one season after he set a new Kings mark for wins might seem like a lark, but Bernier is the real future of the franchise. If Quick falters, the 22-year-old could usurp his throne much the way Tuukka Rask deposed Tim Thomas last year in Boston. Don't be surprised to see Bernier do just that, and place himself in the running for the Calder in June.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Ryan Smyth. No one will ever question his heart -- it's just the rest of his body that can't be trusted. His importance to the team in terms of leadership and production can't be understated, but at 34 you have to wonder if he has enough tread left on his tires to give the Kings his critical mix of grit and goal scoring for more than 50 games.
BOTTOM LINE: Making the playoffs was a nice first step, but now expectations will run considerably higher for a deeper, more mature squad. No one's calling for a Cup just yet, but winning a round in the spring seems mandatory. With this blueline, and the confidence built from last season, that seems like the least the Kings should do.
2009-10: 51-20-11, 113 points, first in Pacific
FRESH FACES: Antti Niemi (Chicago), Antero Niittymaki (Tampa Bay), Jamal Mayers (Toronto), Andreas Lilja (Detroit)
OTHER PLACES: Evgeni Nabokov (Russia), Rob Blake (retired), Manny Malhotra (Vancouver), Brad Staubitz (Minnesota)
STORYLINE: The Sharks essentially gored goaltender Nabokov with the sword of blame after another season of unmet expectations. (Since no other NHL team was interested in picking him up, it looks like their disdain was widely held.) Now the weight of expectation falls on a pair of Finns. One led the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup last season. The other was the MVP of the 2006 Olympics. Skins on the wall? Sure...but are either of them a certain upgrade over Nabokov? All you can say is that they're different. Whether that's enough to carry this team over the playoff hump should make this a very interesting season in San Jose.
MVP: Patrick Marleau. One year after shedding the weight of the captain's C, Marleau quietly took hold of this team and drove it to its greatest success to date. Career-bests in goals and shots spoke to a new assertiveness that this team desperately needed and suggest a better understanding of what he's capable of doing. With the underachiever tag shed after a stellar playoff performance, Marleau doesn't need a letter to prove his leadership.
KID TO WATCH: Logan Couture. The 21-year-old winger had 53 points in just 42 AHL games last season and looked comfortable during a brief 25-game call-up to the Sharks. He's smart, competitive and plays a decent two-way game, so it's conceivable that he could be inserted onto one of San Jose's scoring lines to alter the chemistry.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Joe Thornton. The Jumbo Joe we've always wanted was on full display as the Sharks toppled the Red Wings and finally moved into the Western Conference Final last spring. And then the guy we've become used to seeing skated around ineffectually for much of that series against the Hawks. With his contract up after this season, it's not unreasonable to wonder if this will be his last campaign in teal. Given what he'll cost the team, anything short of a stellar playoffs could force their hand.
BOTTOM LINE: Any conversation about legitimate contenders has to involve the Sharks, but it feels like an awful lot would have to go their way to finally break through. Of course, if Niemi can simply avoid the spirit-crushing softies that Nabokov used to let int, you never know...
2009-10: 50-25-7, 107 points, second in Pacific
FRESH FACES: Ray Whitney (Carolina), Andrew Ebbett (Minnesota)
OTHER PLACES: Zbynek Michalek (Pittsburgh), Matthew Lombardi (Nashville), Daniel Winnik (Colorado)
STORYLINE: The good news? The team's still-unstable ownership situation isn't the only story in town. The bad news? How can a team of overachievers top a season in which they vaulted from the depths of the conference to the fourth seed in the playoffs, especially after losing their top defenseman and their third-leading scorer? The perennially underappreciated Whitney will help up front, but this is a team whose success is predicated on defense. Addressing the loss of Michalek, and maintaining strict adherence to Dave Tippett's plan, will be set the tone for their season.
MVP: Ilya Bryzgalov. The waiver wire pickup elevated himself to the ranks of the league's elite stoppers with 69 appearances, a 2.29 GAA, .920 save percentage and a franchise-record 42 wins. The Hart may have gone home with Henrik Sedin, but it's an easy argument to make that no player is more crucial to his team's success than Bryzgalov.
KID TO WATCH: Kyle Turris. The third overall pick in 2007 draft was a flop in his first go-around in the league, undersized and overmatched. Now, after spending all of last season in the AHL, Turris returns heavier, stronger and much better versed in what it takes to succeed in the NHL. He's no lock to make the team, but if he does, he'll have a better chance to show off the dazzling puck skills that got him selected so early.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Keith Yandle. Playing in Phoenix has ensured a low profile for the young defender, but he's quickly maturing into a reliable top-pairing option. With Michalek gone, it's likely he'll be the one taking on much of the extra workload. If he continues his impressive development, the Coyotes will be just fine.
BOTTOM LINE: They won't catch anyone by surprise this year, so it'll be tough to match their regular season success of 2009-10. That said, the experience gained in their tough first-round loss to Detroit sets them up for a longer postseason run. You can't really consider them a Cup contender, but they're not a team anyone should want to face in a seven-game series.
2009-10: 39-32-11, 89 points, fourth in Pacific
FRESH FACES: Toni Lydman (Buffalo), Aaron Voros (NY Rangers), Andy Sutton (Ottawa)
OTHER PLACES: Scott Niedermayer (retirement), Mike Brown (Toronto), Steve Eminger (NY Rangers), James Wisniewski (NY Islanders)
STORYLINE: Maybe this team needs a visit from Lorenzo MacIntosh and his grandmama to scare them straight. Discipline has become Anaheim's fatal flaw. The Ducks finished with the third-most penalty minutes and the 24th-ranked penalty kill last season. Now add to that a defense ravaged by retirements, trades and injuries, and this looks like a group that will be hard-pressed to keep the puck out of its own net.
MVP: Ryan Getzlaf. Coming off a season in which he was hobbled for long stretches by an ankle injury, Getzlaf is ready to resume his role as Anaheim's offensive leader. When he's on his game (admittedly, he slips into the occasional lull), there aren't many players who can match his ability to physically dominate the middle of the ice.
KID TO WATCH: Luca Sbisa. Their top draft pick, Cam Fowler, may cling to a roster spot to start the season, but it's the older, more experienced Sbisa who is expected to contribute serious minutes to a blueline that will sorely miss Niedermayer and, for a time, the injured Lydman. Sbisa impressed with his physical play in the preseason, laying the body and dropping the mitts, but the Ducks will need him to choose his spots carefully and focus on another skill: moving the puck quickly and smartly.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Bobby Ryan. A hefty new contract is sure to raise expectations, but new responsibilities might weigh more heavily on the mind of the young forward. With Niedermayer gone, Ryan is being asked to man the point alongside Lubomir Visnovsky with the extra man. It could be an all-eggs-in-one-basket situation (with Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne up front), but Ryan's heavy shot and ability to dish the puck could make for a deadly power play in Anaheim.
BOTTOM LINE: Anything's possible in the wild West, but it's not hard to come up with a list of eight teams that look a whole lot better on paper than these Ducks. They'll hang around until the end, but defensive woes suggest they'll fall short.
2009-10: 37-31-14, 88 points, fifth in Pacific
FRESH FACES: Andrew Raycroft (Vancouver), Adam Burish (Chicago), Severin Blindenbacher (Switzerland)
OTHER PLACES: Mike Modano (Detroit), Marty Turco (Chicago), Jere Lehtinen (possible retirement)
STORYLINE: The Stars might have been able to wring a few more drops out of the nearly dessicated careers of Modano and Lehtinen, but GM Joe Nieuwendyk wisely decided to point this cash-strapped franchise toward the future. While veterans Brad Richards and Brenden Morrow are right in that prime-of-their-careers sweet spot, the core of the team is considerably younger, with plenty to learn. Winning now won't be an issue for Loui Eriksson, James Neal, Tom Wandell and Jamie Benn. This season will be all about creating a new identity for the franchise and building a base for future success.
MVP: Stephane Robidas. The easy thing to do is write off Robidas as a guy ideally suited to be a solid No. 3 defender who is forced into a No. 1 role out of necessity. He doesn't appear to do anything quite well enough to fit the bill, but watch him closely and it's truly astonishing how much this undersized journeyman brings to every single shift. He makes good decisions, moves the puck well and, pound-for-pound, is as physical as they come. The Stars would be looking at the top draft pick next summer without him.
KID TO WATCH: Aaron Gagnon. It's no sure thing that he'll make the club, but the 24-year-old has been one of the most noticeable players in camp. He's spent his time in the minors well, adding a savvy defensive edge to the natural offensive tools that were on display all preseason. The Stars have a clear need for a right-handed center, so he should get a chance to prove himself on a depth line.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Kari Lehtonen. Just the Stars' third No. 1 goaltender since 1997, Lehtonen faces considerable pressure to follow Turco and Ed Belfour. He not only has to stand tall behind one of the least imposing bluelines in the conference, but the oft-injured Lehtonen also has to prove that he's physically and mentally capable of living up to the demands of the position.
BOTTOM LINE: Playoffs? Forget it. This team is a good bet for the lottery.
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