2011-12 Pacific Division Preview
The Sharks are hoping new blueliner Brent Burns can lighten Joe Thornton's load
Adding Mike Richards to a healthy Anze Kopitar has boosted the Kings' Cup hopes
Age may doom the Ducks; the loss of Ilya Bryzgalov is huge for the Coyotes
Teams are listed in order of predicted finish.
*Denotes playoff pick
2010-11: 48-25-9, 105 points, first in Pacific
FRESH FACES: Brent Burns (Minnesota), Michal Handzus (Los Angeles), Martin Havlat (Minnesota), Jim Vandermeer (Edmonton), Brad Winchester (Anaheim)
OTHER PLACES: Dany Heatley (Minnesota), Scott Nichol (St. Louis), Devin Setoguchi (Minnesota), Jamal Mayers (Chicago), Ben Eager (Edmonton)
STORYLINE: A good team that should challenge for the Cup. Film at 11.
Nothing much has changed in Silicon Valley, other than five generations of computer technology, and the Sharks are once again a team that can and should compete for the chance to play for the Cup in June. Despite many past power-packed squads in San Jose, this has yet to happen, but Burns, Havlat and Handzus are the latest imports who'll try to get it done. An immediate challenge: injuries in net. Thomas Greiss may have to man the barricades until Antti Niemi (leg cyst) and Antero Niittymaki (lower body injury) return to full health and form.
MVP: Brent Burns. There are no more questions about captain Joe Thornton's heart, not after he played with a separated shoulder in San Jose's final playoff game of last season, at Vancouver. Burns has all the tools to make life easier for Thornton and Co. He's excellent at both ends, with a real leadership quality to his game.
KID TO WATCH: Justin Braun. On a veteran team with few realistic job openings, don't expect the Sharks to produce the Calder Trophy-winner. Braun, who was sent to the AHL to start the season, has a good chance of getting another stint with the big club. He played 28 games of respectable defense last season for the Sharks.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Martin Havlat. Far from a savior in Minnesota, where he signed a mammoth free-agent contract three years ago, Havlat is just hoping to be a normal player again with a good new team. He wasn't exactly a bust last season with the Wild -- 62 points in 76 games -- but his play too often lacked passion and consistency during his two-year stay, so the Sharks are hoping for a rejuvenation season.
BOTTOM LINE: They have a fine roster and every chance to go to the Cup final, but we've been saying that about the Sharks for years and years and years now. When, pray tell, is it ever going to happen?
2010-11: 46-30-6, 98 points, fourth in Pacific
FRESH FACES: Mike Richards (Philadelphia), Simon Gagne (Tampa Bay)
OTHER PLACES: Wayne Simmonds (Philadelphia), Ryan Smyth (Edmonton), Brayden Schenn (Philadelphia), Michal Handzus (San Jose), Alexei Ponikarovsky (Carolina)
STORYLINE: Their record was respectable, a playoff berth was achieved, but it never quite seemed like the Kings got going last season, which explains some fairly significant changes by GM Dean Lombardi over the summer. They were supposed to be serious contenders for the Cup, but this franchise still hasn't won a playoff round since 2002. The veteran Richards, imported from Philadelphia, brings better talent and presence up the middle behind first-line center Anze Kopitar -- whose loss to a broken ankle late last season essentially killed any Cup hopes.
MVP: Anze Kopitar. He turned 24 in August, but he's already a veteran of 393 regular-season games. Assuming his ankle is fully healed, this could be the year he challenges the 100-point mark. He had 73 in 75 games last season, and might have the best combination of size and skill among all Western centers.
KID TO WATCH: Andrei Loktionov. The former fifth-round pick has 20 games on his NHL resume with the Kings, and should get a good chance for a lot more this year. Though a bit small (5-10, 180), the Russian center has some toughness and enough skill to make it as a regular depth player, maybe more.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Drew Doughty. No other word can compete with "disappointing" when it comes to describing Doughty's 2010-11 output. His points regressed from 59 to 40 (in six fewer games), and there was plenty of grumbling about his work as the quarterback of a power play that finished 21st overall (16.1 percent). There is no doubt, however, the Kings need him to have any kind of Cup chance. Maybe his new eight-year, $56 million deal will light a fire under him.
BOTTOM LINE: It's tempting to give the Kings a pass for yet another first-round exit because of Kopitar's injury, but the fact is they were mediocre too often even with their star center. The pressure is really on this time to get closer to the Stanley Cup Final. This is still a good team, with two fine young goalies (Jon Quick, Jonathan Bernier) and young foundation pieces in Kopitar, Doughty and Jack Johnson. Adding Mike Richards to the mix could be enough to keep realistic Cup hopes alive.
Alex Ovechkin, Brad Richards, Ryan Kesler, Tim Thomas and other major stars talk about whose highlights they always watch, their toughest foes, speed demons, the worst trash talkers in the NHL and more hot topics.
2010-11: 47-30-5, 99 points, second in Pacific Division
FRESH FACES: Andrew Cogliano (Edmonton), J-F Jacques (Edmonton), Kurtis Foster (Edmonton)
OTHER PLACES: Andy Sutton (Edmonton), Andreas Lilja (Philadelphia)
STORYLINE: With arguably the best first line in the league, a reliable, veteran defense corps, and their standout goalie proclaiming himself healthy again, Orange County's NHL team will represent well. But unless the Ducks get scoring from unexpected sources and the recently vertigo-stricken Jonas Hiller plays out of his mind for eight months, this appears to be another good-but-not-good-enough outfit.
The top trio of Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and reigning Hart Trophy-winner Corey Perry will send serious shivers through every opposing team when they take the ice, but after that there is too much age and mediocrity. Jason Blake and Saku Koivu would make for a nice second-line left wing-center combination, but only if this was 2006 or so. In 2011, there are too many candles on each player's birthday cake.
MVP: Corey Perry. He already had a Stanley Cup ring and an Olympic gold medal, but not many expected the right winger to add a Hart to his trophy case. With 50 goals and 98 points, however, that's exactly what he did in 2010-11. At 26, Perry could just be warming up, especially when he has two linemates with so much skill and chemistry. Perry doesn't wow you with speed or freelance artistry. He just puts the puck in the net an awful lot.
KID TO WATCH: Emerson Etem. It may still be too soon to count on much from this teenage winger. Etem, 19, had a standout season with Medicine Hat of the Western Hockey League, scoring 45 goals and 80 points in 65 games. If he gets his shot on the big club, and plays reasonably well, this native of Long Beach, CA, will become an instant fan favorite.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Jonas Hiller. In the midst of his best pro season, entering a Feb. 2 game against San Jose, Hiller began experiencing symptoms of vertigo that didn't lift until August. The Ducks did well to get into the playoffs without him, but it figures to take a healthy-for-the-duration Hiller for a repeat inclusion. He says the symptoms are finally gone, which is terrific news for GM Bob Murray's crew.
BOTTOM LINE: Coach Randy Carlyle was deservedly awarded a contract extension over the summer. He has never had a losing record in six years in Anaheim, and has a Stanley Cup ring (2007) on his finger. It's difficult to see how he gets a second one with this current roster, however. After Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry, there are just too many offensive question marks and nobody knows if Hiller's vertigo will return.
2010-11: 43-26-13, 99 points, fourth in Pacific Division
FRESH FACES: Raffi Torres (Vancouver), Boyd Gordon (Washington), Mike Smith (Tampa Bay), Curtis McElhinney (Ottawa), Daymond Langkow (Calgary)
OTHER PLACES: Ilya Bryzgalov (Philadelphia), Vern Fiddler (Dallas), Ed Jovanovski (Florida), Eric Belanger (Edmonton), Andrew Ebbett (Vancouver), Lee Stempniak (Calgary)
STORYLINE: The Coyotes have made the playoffs the last two seasons, but almost as unfathomable is that the team's dismal ownership situation remains unsettled going into another campaign in the Valley of Hockey Apathy. The NHL's most tired storyline -- the league continues to fund Coyotes operations as it looks for a buyer while fans stay away in droves -- hasn't stopped resourceful coach Dave Tippett from getting them into the postseason. Can he do it again? Sorry, not without talented, workhorse goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who left for big bucks with the Flyers.
Last season, 42 of Phoenix's 82 games were decided by one goal, and thanks mostly to Bryzgalov, the Coyotes got at least a point in 34 of them. With less stellar netminding, another cut-rate payroll and a lame-duck ownership atmosphere, this is a franchise that has cried financial wolf too many times for people to care anymore.
MVP: Keith Yandle. The Boston native's ascent to All-Star status is one reason why Coyotes loyalists still have reason to believe. The 25-year-old defenseman accumulated 59 points (11 goals) in 82 games last season and is a combined plus-28 the last two years. Yandle is a strong delegator of the puck from the blueline, with a slap shot big enough to back defenders up. The Coyotes also don't have to worry about him going anywhere a la Bryzgalov, as he is signed through the next five years at $5.25 million per.
KID TO WATCH: Andy Miele. Your 2011 Hobey Baker-winner as NCAA MVP at Miami (Ohio), Miele will have to overcome some skeptics' belief that he's too small for the next level, at 5-8, 175. Many previous Hobey Bakers have flamed out quickly in the NHL. (Anybody remember 2007 winner Ryan Duncan? He's played in Austria the last two years.) But this diminutive center did put up an eye-popping 71 points in 39 games for Miami, and you never know when the next Daniel Briere or Theo Fleury (minus the woes) will come along.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Lauri Korpikoski. Given some real ice time last year by Tippett, the former 2004 first-round pick of the Rangers had something of a breakout season with 19 goals and 40 points. The Coyotes placed more faith in "Korpy" by dealing veteran Lee Stempniak over the summer for Daymond Langkow, who may be a good fit centering for him.
BOTTOM LINE: No offense to newcomer Mike Smith, but losing Bryzgalov was a major blow. Bryzgalov made razor thin margins in goals for/against (231-226) stand up enough to secure a playoff berth. While there remains some good young talent like Yandle and a pesky group of forwards led by stalwart captain Shane Doan, the Coyotes look like a team primed to take a drop in the standings. If that happens, it certainly won't help attendance (29th last season) or Gary Bettman's efforts to find someone who will take this franchise off his payroll.
2010-11: 42-29-11, 95 points, fifth in Pacific Division
FRESH FACES: Glen Gulutzan (coach), Michael Ryder (Boston), Vern Fiddler (Nashville), Radek Dvorak (Atlanta), Sheldon Souray (Edmonton, last played 2009-10), Jake Dowell (Chicago)
OTHER PLACES: Brad Richards (NY Rangers), Jamie Langenbrunner (St. Louis), Aaron Gagnon (Winnipeg), Karlis Skrastins (KHL)
STORYLINE: Not often does one game have as many recriminations as did the Stars' regular season-ending loss to Minnesota last April. A win at Xcel Energy Center in Game No. 82, and Marc Crawford almost certainly would still have the head-coaching job. And who knows what might have happened in the playoffs? But with their playoff destiny in their own hands, the Stars fell to the lowly Wild (fitting justice for all those Norm Green haters) and finished ninth in the West.
Crawford was fired by GM Joe Nieuwendyk, top scorer Brad Richards was gone for the Big Apple. and what remains is a wobbly franchise with murky prospects and ownership uncertainty. Several good players remain, however, including heart-and-soul captain Brenden Morrow, scorers Loui Eriksson and Mike Ribeiro, and newly imported ex-Bruins shooter Michael Ryder. But first-year coach Glen Gulutzan will do well to get Dallas as close to the playoffs as Crawford did. The Stars will win their share of games, but there's just not a lot to get excited about here.
MVP: Loui Eriksson. Losing linemate Richards to the Rangers represents a career challenge for 26-year-old Swedish left winger. His new center could be Jamie Benn, who actually had a very good season with 22 goals and 56 points. Yet Benn still represents a step down from Richards, who led Dallas with 77 points and had a special chemistry with Eriksson. But Eriksson has too much talent not to thrive, and more responsibility could be the impetus he needs for a huge season.
KID TO WATCH: Scott Glennie. He's only 20 and barely got his first taste of pro hockey last season, playing four games for Dallas' AHL affiliate in nearby Cedar Park. So making the big club so soon is asking too much, especially now that he's suffering from concussion symptoms, but the talent is there. Glennie, a right wing, was drafted eighth overall by Dallas in 2009 and is an excellent skater with a knack for putting the puck in the net. It's just a matter of time before he gets his chance.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Alex Goligoski. After coming over in a deadline deal from Pittsburgh for James Neal, Goglioski acquitted himself nicely with 15 points in 23 games. There is every reason to believe that the 26-year-old defenseman will have a breakout season with the Stars at both ends.
BOTTOM LINE: While the basketball team that shares the American Airlines Center figures to sell out every night (when the NBA starts playing again, that is), the Stars are becoming more of a last resort for citizens' Dallas metroplex entertainment dollars. The team finished 23rd in attendance last season (15,073 per game) and now fans are being asked to get excited about a squad that lost its leading scorer largely because of the uncertainty that hangs over the ownership situation. In a town that likes to do things big, the Stars seem too much like a small-market franchise at the moment, on and off the ice.
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