This may come as a surprise to some, but the Pacific Division was by far hockey’s best from top to bottom last season. Dallas brought it up the rear, but still came in ninth in the west, and that was only after losing on the final evening to miss out on the final playoff spot (which went to Chicago out of the Central).
But the Pacific failed to perform in the playoffs, as the division went 1-3 collectively in series against teams from other divisions (San Jose beating Detroit in seven games was the lone series victory). This season, I expect the Pacific to have two teams in contention for the conference crown, while there are two other teams that I think are set up to take a step backward. Let’s get to the meat.
1st: San Jose Sharks 2010-11: 105 points, 1st in division
This was tough. I typed out two paragraphs about why the LA Kings will win the Pacific in 2011-12 before I came to the conclusion that I don’t believe they will. On paper, I think the Kings might be the better team, but there’s something to be said for a group of players that have won four division titles in a row and knocked their new challengers out of the playoffs last year.
Of course, these Sharks won’t be the same team, as they shipped Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota in separate deals that landed them winger Martin Havlat and defenseman Brent Burns. But the Sharks are good enough in their top six, four, and one that I think it’s slightly more likely that they win the division than it is that LA does.
That top six is indisputably led by center Joe Thornton, who has been maligned by some for failing to yet win a Stanley Cup. But putting blame aside, Thornton should be evaluated as a supremely gifted hockey player. He is a 6’4” center with hands like few who’ve ever played the game, and he’s listed at 230 pounds. Because he’s fast for his size and can protect the puck with his frame and strength, Thornton can play pretty much any type of game he wants. And it’s not like everyone didn’t already know he was a freak — he was the #1 overall pick in the 1997 entry draft. At 23 years old he was the captain of the Boston Bruins. The Bruins traded Thornton to San Jose in 2006, and Thornton was named league MVP after splitting 81 games between the two teams. Thornton had 125 points that year.
Perhaps the best reason why Thornton is not thought of as a prodigy the way seemingly every #1 overall pick is these days is because of the timeline of the internet. We all remember the outpouring of joy the Pittsburgh Penguins showed when they were awarded the #1 pick to draft Sidney Crosby with in 2005. He wasn’t even legal yet, but he had a nickname (“The Next One”), and we all knew it largely thanks to the internet. As the internet has evolved, everyone’s access to amateur player rankings has increased, and it has gotten to the point where we have to assume who the top pick will be, and why all of the bad teams need him. We had the attempt to dub the Edmonton Oilers’ abysmal 2009-10 season “the fall for Taylor Hall” that rightfully never really caught on. But as solid as most of these #1 picks always are, I don’t think there should have been more hype surrounding guys like Taylor Hall and John Tavares than there was around Joe Thornton. At 32 years old, Thornton only has a few more years left before his game could drop off a little bit, so the time for him to finally make good on this incredible hockey gift he’s been given has just about come.
Surrounding the elite centerman in the Wild’s top six will be Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture. All of these players offer different strengths (and in some cases, weaknesses), and that’s what could make San Jose’s top two lines a couple of the more intriguing in the NHL this season. It will be interesting to see how the Sharks fare without Heatley. He is regarded as a top-notch scorer in the league, but he only scored 26 goals last season, and hasn’t reached 40 in a season since 2007-08. The Sharks sent him to Minnesota in exchange for Havlat, who offers a salary that is $2.5 million less than Heatley’s. If Havlat can keep from kicking players or being immortalized in one of the greater parodies / diss songs of all-time, there’s no reason he can’t pour in at least 20 goals and give the Sharks a more physical presence than Heatley did. But of course, Havlat must stay interested, which he says he will now that he’s on a team that should be participating in playoff hockey. Of course the last time Havlat played some playoff hockey, he got Kronwalled.
San Jose landed smooth-skating defensemen Burns, also from Minnesota, in a separate trade with the Wild. Burns fits San Jose’s playing style perfectly, as he has no qualms using his superior skating to get involved offensively, a la Sharks D man Dan Boyle. Burns should skate with Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the second line, behind Boyle and hard-hitting Douglas Murray. I think Vlasic is the man who could be upgraded, but he’s good enough not to lose games. The Sharks aren’t great on their third defensive pairing, but then, who really is? They will probably skate out Jason Demers and newly-signed Jim Vandermeer.
In goal, Antti Niemi consolidated his 2010 Stanley Cup victory with a steadily improving second season last year. Niemi started out so bad that many were calling for Antero Niittymaki to take the starting job. But Niemi corrected, avoided the crash-and-burn, and actually ascended higher than ever before his season ended at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks on one of the weirdest goals in NHL playoff history. Niemi can be expected to be in the top ten in peripherals this season, as he was 11th and 12th last year with his 2.38 GAA and .920 save percentage. Those stats were clearly hindered by his awful start, and it should be safe to assume that Niemi should come out of the gates better than last year.
2nd: Los Angeles Kings 2010-11: 98 points, 4th in division
Those two paragraphs I had written about why the Kings should win the Pacific started with the fact that they should be improved from last season thanks to some key acquisitions and returns to health, and included the idea that it is possible that San Jose did not upgrade their roster through their own moves. We’ve evaluated the Sharks, but there shouldn’t be nearly as much of a question surrounding whether the Kings improved from last season to this one.
LA started by trading center Brayden Schenn, hockey’s ultimate prospect, along with Wayne Simmonds and a 2012 second round draft pick to Philadelphia for center Mike Richards, who not only captained the Flyers, but also played a key role in helping Canada win the 2010 Olympic gold medal. Outside of acquiring Schenn and freeing up some cap space, it’s unclear why the Flyers would trade Richards. Many have assumed that he must have been a problem in the locker room, but we really don’t have any publicly known facts to base that off of. Regardless of the validity of people’s suspicions, I don’t think there’s any reason to assume that Richards will blow up the Kings’ chemistry, which needs to grow anyway.
Richards joins a team that already has a star center in Anze Kopitar. The first Slovenian to play in the NHL will turn 24 later in August, just like Sidney Crosby. People have been calling for Kopitar’s breakout season for a couple years now, but he was sidelined at the end of last year with a broken ankle. The Kings were ousted by San Jose in six games without the services of Kopitar (or, of course, Richards). Some article that I didn’t read on ESPN insider called for Kopitar to win the MVP this year, which I think is probably a bit much considering he has never averaged a point per game in any season, although he’s been very close in three of the five he’s played in the NHL so far. There are some similarities between Kopitar and big Joe Thornton, starting with size, but Kopitar’s game is a little more forward-skating and a little less creative, although neither player gives up a whole lot to the other. I’d suspect Anze can finally break the point-per-game barrier this year, but I wouldn’t expect more than 90 from the big man.
Part of the reason I’m curbing my expectations for this so-called MVP candidate is the LA wingers need to step their games up a bit. The one true exception is Dustin Brown, who I think is one of the premier right wings in the league. Aside from being third in the league with 300 hits, Brown led the Kings with 28 goals and added 29 assists, good for fourth on the team. The stud from Ithaca, NY has been the captain of the Kings for three years, and does a fine job in that role. Brown will turn 27 in November.
The other right wing is Justin Williams, who matched Brown’s 57 point output despite missing 9 games to injury. Williams was solid, but the Kings need even more if they’re going to win the division and/or enjoy playoff success this year. Williams needs to stay on the ice (maybe even play more than 17:15 a night) and continue to improve his offensive game because the Kings need the goals.
Opposite Brown and Williams on the left side will be Dustin Penner and Simon Gagne, neither of whom were Kings when the calendar flipped to 2011. Gagne has tallied only 40 points in each of the last two seasons, but both were shortened by injury. Perhaps more importantly, Gagne has played in 34 playoff games in those seasons, which means his teams enjoy some playoff success. He didn’t just phone it in either; Gagne was able to score 14 goals in the last two playoff years with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, respectively. That pace would translate to 33 goals over an 82 game season, but Gagne hasn’t kept that pace during the regular season nor kept his health since 2008-09. If he can give the Kings a full season, the offensive numbers should be better than last year, when LA only outscored Columbus, Minnesota and Edmonton in the west.
Penner, on the other hand, appears to be stalling somewhat. After being traded to LA on deadline day this past season, Penner had two goals and four assists in 19 games. He added a goal and an assist in the first round loss to San Jose. People say he underachieved, but I’m not sure everybody realizes exactly what kind of a player Dustin Penner is. Because of his size and 32-goal season in 2009-10 for the Oilers, everyone assumes he has to be a top-six forward in the NHL. I’m not sure it wouldn’t be better for him to play third-line minutes and get into that grinding mentality. Unfortunately, the Kings don’t have the luxury of trying that out right now, as Penner and Gagne are, until further developments, the best two left wingers on the team.
Defensively, the Kings should be alright on the top four, but any injuries could expose their lack of depth. One way or another, Drew Doughty is going to play hockey for the LA Kings this year, unless they choose to trade him at some point. He’s waiting on a big contract, and talks could progress now that Shea Weber’s situation has been sorted out and there’s a dollar figure attached. Whether the Kings should shell out crazy terms for Doughty long-term is another matter, but in terms of 2011-12, Doughty is a much-needed piece of the Kings’ puzzle. Along with Doughty are Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi, who play some pretty good defense. Rounding out the top four is Jack Johnson, who plays defense like he’s chilling on a beach with an acoustic guitar, singing about rabbits. He’s not that Jack Johnson, but he is no more of a defensive success than the musician. Johnson hits a good amount of guys and skates some high minute totals, but he’s never seen a minus-1 that he didn’t like. But, he poured in 37 assists last year, so he’s great. On the last line of defense, the Kings have basher Matt Greene and then a slew of options at sixth defender. Many assume that spot will go to Alec Martinez.
The Kings’ goaltending situation doesn’t need a lot of previewing. Jonathan Quick has now gone 3-for-3 in having good seasons, and turned in his best one yet in 2010-11. Quick’s .918 save percentage tied Marc-Andre Fleury for 13th in the league, while his 2.24 GAA was good for fifth. Behind Quick is fellow youngster Jonathan Bernier, who had a Niemi-like season, except that he made his turnaround over only 25 appearances. Both goalies are entering the penultimate years of their contracts, with both (especially Quick) looking for a payday come summer 2013.
Los Angeles has the goaltending, centermen and team defense to win this division in 2011-12, but I’m leaning slightly in the direction of the San Jose Sharks.
3rd: Anaheim Ducks 2010-11: 99 points, 2nd in division
This prediction has two conditions: 1) Jonas Hiller must be ready to play hockey, and 2) Teemu Selanne must want to continue to play hockey. If either of these conditions are not met, especially condition #1, I’m picking Anaheim fourth. Let’s examine why.
Everybody knows and loves the Ducks’ top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. And why not? It’s a great line. They do it all, and more impressively, all of them do it all. But after them, Teemu Selanne is absolutely needed on the roster in order for the Ducks to score the goals to overcome those that they statistically should give up. Selanne is considering retirement after kind of shocking the hockey world with an 80-point season in 73 games last year. The Finnish Flash is 41 now, but he’s still needed for this Anaheim offense.
The reason why Selanne is needed might lie with Hiller’s condition. The Twitterverse is abuzz with photos of Hiller skating recently, so it looks like the left-handed goalie should be ready to return from his season-long bout with vertigo. If he is fully recovered, the Ducks are solid at starting goaltender. If he’s not, this could be a grease fire. Anaheim was 10th in the west last year in goals allowed, and surprisingly were only 7th in goals scored. That’s an average of 8.5, which makes the Ducks a borderline playoff team, which is what I believe they will be this year. Hiller’s backup appears to be Dan Ellis, which begs the question, “Why the hell didn’t Anaheim give Ray Emery a new contract?” Whatever the reason, they didn’t, and now if Hiller suffers a relapse of vertigo or comes down with any injury at all, the Ducks will be left with Dan Ellis to hold down the fort. Forgive me for not loving a repeat of Anaheim’s second-place finish in the Pacific.
The Ducks have a well-defined top four on defense consisting of Lubomir Visnovsky, Toni Lydman, Francois Beauchemin and Cam Fowler. Visnovsky led all NHL defensemen with 50 assists last season, and was second amongst blue liners with 18 goals (losing out only to Dustin Byfuglien, who is a converted winger). The guy was a power play leader, tallying 31 special teams points, as well as skating over 24 minutes a night. Visnovsky was plus-18, which was only bested on the Anaheim roster by Lydman, who was an appalling plus-32 (the league lead was plus-33 (Zdeno Chara)). Lydman did the rest too, as he had 141 hits and 178 blocks. That block total was bested only by Beauchemin for the Ducks, who also had 122 hits of his own. The biggest question mark in Anaheim’s top four will be Fowler and the commencement of his second season. Last year, the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft lit it up offensively, scoring 10 goals and 30 assists. But the rookie turned in a minus-25 for the year, which screams of some liability. Granted, plus/minus is not the best stat to use to grade a player’s helpfulness to the team, but Fowler needs to cut that minus in half if his second season can be seen as a rightful improvement to a young career that seems to have no limitations.
After those four, the Ducks can probably feel comfortable rolling Luca Sbisa and Kurtis Foster as the third defensive pairing, but we’ll see if those two hold their spots.
Anaheim’s offense beyond the top line is worrisome if Selanne hangs them up. Centering that line is Saku Koivu, who while aging can still hold his own and at times show flashes of his previous self. But the fact that anyone is debating whether he or Andrew Cogliano will be the second line center kind of says a lot. And let me just say, it has to be Koivu.
Also in the top six is Jason Blake, who has never really lived up to the humongous contract he signed in 2007. Blake will count for $4 million against the cap for Anaheim this year before the Ducks will be out from under that one. He contributed 16 goals and 16 assists in 76 games last year. If Selanne does not round out the top-six, the Ducks may be inclined to increase the role of former Bowling Green Falcon Dan Sexton, whose scoring totals would need to increase drastically in order to soften the blow of a Selanne retirement from scorched earth to mere meteorite collision.
While I really like Anaheim’s defensemen at the top, I don’t think the Ducks have enough depth in any aspect of the game to get back to the top (or second) of the Pacific Division. And if Jonas Hiller is unable to resume regular starting duties, watch out.
4th: Dallas Stars 2010-11: 95 points, 5th in division
I discovered something while doing the research for this write-up: I actually like the Dallas Stars. I blasted them about a month ago for not trading Brad Richards, and while that has left them in shambles at the center position, they are actually above average at wing and on defense. Who knows what goalie Kari Lehtonen will bring to the table this year, but the former #2 overall pick certainly has the talent to also be above average, which I would call the top 15 goalies in the NHL (30 teams, but account for the fact that some use two goalies frequently).
Let’s start with the things I love about the 2011-12 Stars. If Sheldon Souray can give Dallas anything, literally anything, then he makes the Stars’ defensive corps good. Not above average, but good. How that translates to the goals allowed stat remains to be seen, but Dallas has every reason to trust its defensemen.
Stephane Robidas is one of my favorite players in the NHL. The guy had 216 hits and 135 blocks last year, as well as 30 points (17 on special teams) while skating 24:31 per game. He’s a fantasy gem for leagues that calculate stats like those — you know, stats that translate to on-ice team success. And now he’ll have a true #1 running mate in Alex Goligoski, who I touched upon in the preview of the Atlantic Division under the section on the Penguins, who traded the D man last season for James Neal and Matt Niskanen. More on Neal’s departure later. But Goligoski could be a game changer for Dallas.
The University of Minnesota product put up 46 points last season with both teams, skated 22:14, blocked 106 shots and played a quarterback-type role on the power play. Pittsburgh could afford to lose that latter aspect of Goligoski’s game thanks to already having Kris Letang, but the PPQB is something that Dallas needed desperately. Robidas can handle those duties, but he’s better off being the second most offensively talented defenseman on the ice.
Also on the blue line are Trevor Daley, Nicklas Grossman, Mark Fistric and Adam Pardy. One of the above will be the odd man out, unless it’s Souray. Daley and Grossman could start out the year as the second pairing. Daley had 27 points and 124 blocks last year while skating over 22 minutes; Grossman hit 161 guys. Both finished last season a plus-7. I’ll admit my ignorance on Pardy’s game. He looks to me like the strongest candidate for healthy scratch-dom, but he’s got to have this $2 million cap hit for a reason, right? Either way, we’re debating third-line defensive pairings at this point, and I already like what Dallas has going on in front of that, so let’s move on.
The Stars are worthy of envy at the wings. Left winger Brendan Morrow is heading into his sixth season as the captain of the Stars, and his game is worthy of wearing the “C.” Watching him play usually makes me think of Clint Eastwood’s characters, which can only be taken as a great compliment. The guy does everything, complains about nothing, and has gold medals for Team Canada from the 2010 Olympics and 2004 World Championships. He has only the Stanley Cup left to join the Triple Gold Club, although I don’t think there’s any way that happens in Dallas in 2012. But, the Stars may be on the right track if they can add some centers.
Aside from Morrow, the Stars have a couple wingers with great hands who actually make that translate into scoring goals. Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn are supremely talented offensively. Having these wingers, specifically Benn, is the biggest reason the Stars could afford to trade away James Neal in order to get that much needed defensive piece in Goligoski.
The biggest question will be whether Benn and Eriksson will have a center who can set them up, or if they’ll be added to the class of Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik and all of the other sharp-shooting wingers who had to do it alone. It should be noted that neither Nash nor Gaborik will have that continued excuse anymore. Perhaps Benn and Eriksson will become the new poster boys for that club.
A guy who looks like he should be able to score with Benn and Eriksson is the freshly crowned champ, Michael Ryder. The enigmatic right wing seems to have all the tools but none of the consistency, as he has yet to reach the 60-point mark since his rookie season in 2003-04. It could be that we overrated his talent, or it could be that scoring in the 50s is a perfectly acceptable output for a second-line forward. But Ryder failed to approach even that number in his last two seasons in Boston, amassing only 74 points while playing all but three games since puck drop ’09. That’s an average of 37 points, and Dallas will want (need?) at least 10 more than that this year if they want to finish third in the division and have a shot at a return to the playoffs.
Below these four, Dallas has a couple wingers who can play center in Steve Ott and Vernon Fiddler. Both are good on faceoffs and physical in open play. The Stars may need one of them to center the second line, as they really have nobody after top center Mike Ribeiro thanks to the free departure of Richards on July 2 to New York. Dallas also has tough guy Adam Burish, who won the Cup in 2010 with Chicago and can be counted on to keep opponents from taking too many liberties on the rest of the talented Stars. Their lower lines are pretty much your stock NHL lower lines, although I really like Fiddler joining this team. He may play on the fourth line, but he tends to get things accomplished in his brief playing time. Watch him play and you’ll see how an average talent can make a career out of working hard and playing smart.
In goal, the Stars need Kari Lehtonen to just take ownership and get it done. He didn’t have the best team in front of him last year, but he certainly didn’t have the worst either. Lehtonen went 2.55 / .914 last year, good for 17th / 23rd in the league. There’s nothing wrong with having average peripherals while shouldering the bulk of the load for a team, but Lehtonen can do so much better. His career is starting to take a Van Wilder arc, as the guy with all the gifts who can’t seem to put it all together and ascend to world-class status. In his defense, last year was his first injury-free season since 2006-07, and there is still time for the 27 year-old to get the steady flow of games under his belt and show his improvement. But the time may be now, as he only has two years left on his contract at $3.55 million per, and in order to get another big one he’s going to need to play well.
Another reason he’ll need to play well is the lack of a competitive backup. Andrew Raycroft returns as the second stringer in Dallas, and while he’s fine, he’s not going to push for a sizable chunk of starts. I expect Lehtonen to start around 68 games, and I expect top 15 peripheral numbers at the least. Anything short of that, and the Van Wilder arc continues. Anything within that realm, and Dallas has an excellent shot at supplanting Anaheim and Phoenix as a playoff team out of the Pacific. Although, it would be nice if they could find the money (they’re around the cap floor) to go get a legitimate center.
5th: Phoenix Coyotes 2010-11: 99 points, 3rd in division
I spent the spring bowing down to the Phoenix Coyotes and lamenting fans and observers for failing to see the beauty with which the ‘Yotes played. So, I’m an idiot. The Coyotes sputtered, gave up the fourth seed to Anaheim (and fifth to Nashville), and were the only team to get swept out of the first round of the playoffs. Subtract the starting goalie, a top-line defenseman and my beloved Vern Fiddler, and I can’t see the Coyotes getting back to the playoffs for a third straight season.
The biggest bright spot on the team might be defenseman Keith Yandle, who skates smoothly and distributes the puck with precision. He had a cool 48 assists last year along with 11 goals, putting him at the A-table as far as offensive defensemen go in the NHL today. Derek Morris and Adrian Aucoin are serviceable top-four defensemen who can get their hits in. Aucoin can still contribute some points despite having just turned 38. Morris added 136 blocked shots last year.
It appears as if the fourth piece is going to again be Michal Rozsival, who was alright splitting time last year between the Rangers and Coyotes. What’s staggering is his $5 million cap hit this year. Either pick up your defense, pick up your scoring, or skate the hell out of some minutes. Rozsival was in the low 100s in hits and blocks last year (100 and 108), scored 21 points and only skated 21 minutes. Those are fine numbers for an NHL defenseman. That’s actually chipping in. But at $5 million, the Coyotes need a lot more from the man who has seen a decline in his play since signing that big four-year contract that is finally set to expire next summer. The Coyotes are rolling out this top four after losing Ed Jovanovski to Florida last month. Jovo was a big reason why the Coyotes qualified for the playoffs two years in a row.
Shane Doan led the Coyotes last year with 20 goals. Somehow, a team that had only one 20-goal scorer managed to place 8th in the west in total offense. This offense-by-committee squad of forwards is mostly returning, with the exceptions of Eric Belanger and Fiddler. Phoenix added lower-line forwards Raffi Torres and Boyd Gordon. Center Martin Hanzal is a Doan-like player, and should be fun to watch in his fifth NHL season. But in total, the Coyotes would need another season of contributions from everyone in order to stay afloat, and with the loss of Jovanovski I don’t think the team is more apt to create scoring chances. Then again, maybe it’s time for BizNasty2point0 to take his rightful spot on an NHL team’s second line…
…And we’re back. On top of needing at least the same offensive output, the Coyotes might need substantially more offense to win games given the loss of starting goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. They brought in Mike Smith from Tampa Bay, who had a really great end to his season, but I’m not positive that being able to string together some heady starts as the bona fide backup translates into certainty that Smith has figured out the mental side of being an everyday starter in the league. He had countless opportunities to be just that in Tampa Bay before Steve Yzerman decided that they needed to trade for Dwayne Roloson in the middle of last season, but Smith never consolidated any of his breaks. I will say he looked like a calm man this past spring, and I hope he has finally figured out what he needs to do to be consistent in the league, but I don’t think anyone can be certain that he has. Even if he has, how is a consistent Mike Smith automatically an equal to what Bryzgalov has given the Coyotes over the past few years? It’s not automatic, probably not even likely, and so I guess I have to continue to be a skeptic.
All things considered, Phoenix looks to me like the best candidates for last place in the Pacific this season.