Work in Sports
Pacific Division Preview
Stars should claim crown with relative ease
JERSEY CITY, New Jersey (Ticker) -- The Dallas Stars again are expected to challenge for the Stanley Cup, but their chase for the Pacific Division title should not be as difficult.
The Stars have won the Pacific crown each of the past two seasons en route to the Stanley Cup Finals. They return most of their lineup in a quest to become the first team since the mighty Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s to make three straight Finals appearances.
Dallas has survived a pair of Game Sevens against Colorado in the past two conference finals, but its dominance within the division cannot be debated. It is the only team that has made a serious run at the Stanley Cup, although four other clubs will stake their claim.
One thing going against the Stars is age as right wing Brett Hull and centers Joe Nieuwendyk and Mike Modano are 36, 34 and 30, respectively. The team is waiting for young stars Brenden Morrow and Jamie Langenbrunner to carry the team into the future.
Modano led the Stars with 81 points this past season and he and Nieuwendyk are two of the NHL's most talented centers. Hull still possesses one of the deadliest shots and the future Hall of Famer remains a clutch player.
Shaun Van Allen and Ted Donato were brought in to help up front, but both are over 30 and must provide immediate help. The Stars got younger with the departures of Guy Carbonneau, Brian Skrudland, Sylvain Cote and Dave Manson.
Captain Derian Hatcher and Richard Matvichuk remain Dallas' top defense pair, but Darryl Sydor and Sergei Zubov were shaky in the playoffs.
Goaltender Ed Belfour is 104-48-26 over the past three seasons. Rookie Marty Turco will be his third backup over that stretch.
Is this the year the San Jose Sharks get past the second round of the playoffs? After an inconsistent regular season, they upset top-seeded St. Louis in the first round of the playoffs. But San Jose has never posted a winning season and has never made it past the conference quarterfinals.
Although he will be 33 in December, center Vincent Damphousse gave San Jose a lift this past season with 21 goals and 71 points. Selke Trophy finalist Mike Ricci and youngster Patrick Marleau provide depth up the middle.
Owen Nolan had a breakthrough season with 44 goals after combining for 33 the previous two years. But he was locked in a contract dispute and missed all of training camp. The Sharks are hoping left wing Jeff Friesen keeps progressing after ranking second on the team with 26 goals.
Defenseman Brad Stuart enjoyed a phenomenal rookie campaign with 36 points, finishing second in Calder Trophy balloting. But coach Darryl Sutter is counting on more from veterans like Marcus Ragnarsson, Gary Suter and Bryan Marchment after San Jose ranked 13th in goals-against.
Goalie Steve Shields had an uneven season, going 27-30-8 with a 2.56 goals-against average. The Sharks need Evgeni Nabokov to shoulder some of the load after making only 11 appearances as a rookie.
The Los Angeles Kings improved by seven wins under first-year coach Andy Murray, but they need more than 39 wins to be a factor in the West. The team has not won a playoff game since Game One of the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals.
Stephane Fiset and Jamie Storr again will share the goaltending chores. Fiset was 20-15-7 with a 2.76 GAA, while Storr went 18-15-5 with a 2.53 GAA.
Rob Blake gave up then reclaimed his captaincy, but the former Norris Trophy winner is in the final year of his contract and the Kings have considered trading him. Underrated Mattias Nordstrom is joined by free agent pickup Mathieu Schneider.
Veteran Luc Robitaille led the Kings with 36 goals and 73 points, but the Kings added some muscle at left wing by acquiring Stu Grimson. Zigmund Palffy is a capable sniper on the right side and Bryan Smolinski and Glen Murray are coming off big bounce-back seasons.
For years, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim have been about two players -- left wing Paul Kariya and right wing Teemu Selanne. The two scored 86 and 85 points, respectively, but Selanne's 33 goals were his fewest since the lockout-shortened 1995 campaign.
Steve Rucchin will miss the first month with a broken hand, and his loss at center will be felt. Antti Aalto, German Titov and Matt Cullen are being counted on to fill the offensive void as Anaheim continues to search for scoring depth.
With coach Craig Hartsburg implementing a defensive-minded strategy, the play of his corps of young blue liners will be key. It's a solid group with Oleg Tverdovsky, Ruslan Salei, newcomer Patrick Traverse and Vitaly Vishnevski.
The Ducks must improve a penalty-killing unit that ranked last in the NHL this past season.
Guy Hebert is the closest thing to a lock as the No. 1 goalie with Dominic Roussel fending off newcomer Jean-Sebastien Giguere for the backup role. This team has missed the playoffs two of the past three years and has not won a postseason game since 1997.
The Phoenix Coyotes are battling themselves before they battle the rest of the league. Director of hockey operations Wayne Gretzky was denied access to the locker room during the preseason while lame duck owner Richard Burke spars verbally with prospective successor Steve Ellman.
Add to the fact that the Coyotes have not won a playoff series since 1987 and you have a team desperately searching for an identity.
Re-signing goalie Nikolai Khabibulin and free agent winger Claude Lemieux are Gretzky's priorities once his ownership group takes control. Until that happens, however, Sean Burke and Robert Esche will handle the netminding.
The Coyotes are loaded at center as Jeremy Roenick led the club with 34 goals and 78 points. He turns 31 in January and is joined by free agent Joe Juneau, Travis Green and Juha Ylonen.
Left wing Keith Tkachuk must respond after a 22-goal season that was marked by persisent trade rumors. Shane Doan is an emerging star after scoring 26 goals and Mika Alatalo had 10 in a defensive role.
Teppo Numminen, Jyrki Lumme and Keith Carney lead a veteran defense that allowed 228 goals this past season to tie for ninth in the Western Conference.
The Pacific Division has belonged to the Stars since its creation. And while Dallas has taken some hits in the past two seasons, until someone else steps up, the Stars should hoist at least one more banner to the rafters before leaving Reunion Arena.
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