Articles

The Season – Pacific Division

In Hockey Hits on October 4, 2010 by geespotting

THE SEASON

PACIFIC DIVISION

…As the new season approaches, I think of all the divisions in hockey, this one will remain pretty much the same as far as standings compare to last year. The Sharks will once again rule the division, while the Kings and Coyotes will be playoff bound again, and the Stars and Ducks will be looking in from the outside. Let’s break it down:

1. SAN JOSE SHARKS

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Joe Thornton

…Last year was like any other for San Jose in the past decade. Finish among the top as far as the league goes, then disappoint in the playoffs. Well, almost like any other year. The fact that the Sharks made the Conference Final was actually a surprise for a number of prognosticators. Also, the supporting cast lead the charge on a number of nights, giving the trio of Thornton, Marleau and Heatley a break. As a matter of fact, it’s that same cast that has a number of people (including me) thinking that maybe it could be the year of the Shark. In goal, Evgeni Nabokov is finally gone. Always a great tender, but, could never succeed in the post-season. A pair of Finns will lead the way, as Cup champ Anti Niemi is there, along with Antero Niitymaki. On defence, Rob Blake is gone, but, Dan Boyle is still there, and some of the younger players will get the chance to shine more often too. Up front, that trio will still pace the way offensively, but, expect bigger things from Joe Pavelski, who was  a star in the playoffs, and Ryane Clowe. Regardless of what will happen in the playoffs, this San Jose team is a lock again for the division, and possibly the Presidents Trophy too.

PRIME POOL PIX: Dan Boyle, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, Devin Setoguchi.

BUYER BEWARE: Marc-Eduard Vlasic

2. LOS ANGELES KINGS

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Drew Doughty

…I do expect that the Kings will be even better this season, and could move into that 4th spot to have home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. It starts in net where Jonathan Quick will have the reins again, and he should be better too. He had a pretty solid campaign, with a few struggles here and there, and was the star of the game a couple of times in their first round loss to the Canucks. If he is to stumble, Jonathan Bernier is ready to take over. The highly touted rookie has been of the top goalies the past couple of years in the minors, and seems poised for the NHL. On defence, Drew Doughty is the key. He was incredible in his sophomore season, and excelled at the Olympics and in the playoffs too. He could be a Norris winner this season too. The Kings are blessed with a ton of young talent on the blueline, and that also includes American Olympian Jack Johnson. That duo has a ton of skill, as well as grit. Up front, Anze Kopitar had a breakout season, and gave everyone reason to believe that he will be one of the top forwards in the NHL for years to come. Add to that experience from players like Ryan Smyth, Justin Williams, Michal Handzus and captain Dustin Brown, and L.A. could be one of those teams to really watch out for in 2010/2011.

PRIME POOL PIX: Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Ryan Smyth, Alexei Ponikarovsky.

BUYER BEWARE: Jack Johnson, Jarret Stoll, Justin Williams.

3. PHOENIX COYOTES

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Ilya Bryzgalov

…The rise of the Coyotes was the team story of this past season, no doubt. With all of the off-ice turmoil that has followed this team, they somehow put it all aside, and had their best season in franchise history. Coach Dave Tippett was awarded with the Adams Trophy as coach of the year, and well deserved, as he found a way to motivate this team to believe, and also how to win in the shootout! Well, I am sure the shootout part wasn’t taught, but, the Desert Dogs had an unreal string of victories in that department, and gave them home ice for round one against the Wings. I still believe this team can be playoff bound, but, they won’t be as strong as last year. First of all, it would be hard, and cruel at the same time, to think that Ilya Bryzgalov can have the same type of season he did last year. He will have to very good again, but, I don’t think those huge numbers from last year will be back. On defence, Phoenix will be strong, with the likes of veterans Jovanovski and Aucoin, and the young impact of Yandle and Ekman-Larsson. One gap that can’t be filled is the loss of Zbynek Michalek, who left via free agency for Pittsburgh. Those stay at home shut-down d-men are so hard to come by, and he was one of the best. Up front, another big loss was that of Matthew Lombardi. As far as points go, this speedster has always been an under-achiever, but, his wheels and timely goals were a perfect fit in the desert. He was replaced by free agent signing Ray Whitney. Whitney is a great producer, but, I think his days of the big numbers are behind him, although he should help out on the power play. Wojtek Wolski is now ready to be the leader as far as points go, and I do expect a bit of a bounceback season from the captain Shane Doan. A healthy Scottie Upshall will also help, as well as contributions from guys like Martin Hanzall, Radim Vrbata and Kyle Turris, who might finally get a chance to stay with the big team. I like Phoenix (my  favorite team actually), and believe that last season’s Cinderella story was not a flash in the pan. Should be playoff bound once again.

PRIME POOL PIX: Ilya Bryzgalov, Keith Yandle, Wojtek Wolski, Shane Doan.

BUYER BEWARE: Ed Jovanovski, Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata.

4. DALLAS STARS

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Brad Richards

…For me, the Dallas Stars are one of those make or break teams. While many are not going to give them much of a chance for a playoff berth this season, I think they will be very close. The Marty Turco days are officially over, and there are question marks in goal as Kari Lehtonen is the go-to guy. He is a quality tender, but, Lehtonen’s injury woes are a cause of concern anywhere he goes. If he can stay healthy for a whole season, and piece together some great play, the Stars have a chance. Defensively, Stephane Robidas will lead the charge, but, after that it’s a rag-tag team of no names who will have to provide a huge amount of support for Lehtonen, or Andrew Raycroft if it gets that far. Where I think Dallas has the chance to roll is on forward. It was a resurgent year for Brad Richards, who was healthy all year, and back among the top 10 scorers. It was also a big year for Swede Loui Eriksson, as he proved that he can be among the elite goal scorers in the league. After that, it’s the Dallas depth. Throw in the toughness and skill of Steve Ott and Brenden Morrow, and the play-making skills of Mike Ribiero, and you have 2 pretty good lines. But, there is more in the Lone Star state as youngsters James Neal and Jamie Benn will only continue to get better. Add some muscle with Adam Burish and Krys Barch, and you have 4 pretty competitive lines. For that reason, I think Dallas has a chance, but, they will have to keep that door shut pretty tight if they want a shot at the stars!

PRIME POOL PIX: Kari Lehtonen, Brad Richards, Loui Eriksson, Mike Ribiero, Brenden Morrow, James Neal, Jamie Benn.

BUYER BEWARE: Stephane Robidas, Fabiann Brunnstrom, Steve Ott.

5. ANAHEIM DUCKS

FRANCHISE PLAYER: Ryan Getzlaf

…The Ducks might just be the best last place team of any in the NHL. They have some pretty good ingredients. In net, Jonas Hiller has proven himself to be an elite goalie, at the NHL and international level. He will get a lot of work this upcoming season, so, if he can handle it, and play well, that’s a good start for the Ducks. On defence, they have one of the best PP d-men in the league in Lubomir Visnovksy. He should excell given all the talent that Anaheim has at forward. After that though, and Anaheim has a thin blueline, which might be their achilles heel. Adding Toni Lydman was a good off-season pick-up, but, beyond that there is just too much in-experience, and not enough mustard to get it done. No offence to Andy Sutton, but, if he is your number three d-man, then, it could be a long year. At forward, the talent is there once again, with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan all expected to put up big numbers again. After that, you have Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu and Jason Blake, but, I think that all three have seen their better days, and for all of them to stay healthy at the same time would be a miracle. Anaheim does have good young players in Nick Bonino and Emerson Etem, but, their time to shine maybe a year or two away. The talent is there in Anaheim, but, the gap between their top players and supporting cast is way too big, which means another season on the sidelines for this once mighty Duck team1

PRIME POOL PIX: Jonas Hiller, Drew Doughty, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan.

BUYER BEWARE: Saku Koivu, Jason Blake, Joffrey Lupul.

…That does the Pacific Division. Just one more to get to, as I will preview the Northwest, and look at the expectations of the Canucks, Oilers and Flames. Also coming up, a look at to the NHL Awards, and some of this season’s front-runners.

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