Los Angeles Kings

John Mayer’s song “Belief,” or track three on his 2006 studio album Continuum, was by all accounts not written about the Calgary Flames. But after Wednesday night’s humiliating 19-shot effort at home against an opponent not only competing for what the Red Mile hoped was its #8 seed, but also one being coached by the very man who took the Flames to within one booth review of the Stanley Cup eight years ago, many of Mayer’s realist, if not indicting, lines seem very relevant to the current state of the hockey franchise in Calgary.
Oh everyone believes
In how they think it ought to be,
Oh everyone believes
They’re not going easily.
Year after year, the Flames seem to get themselves in this position of needing to put a run together at the end of March to make a charge for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference. The rhetoric never changes: “Calgary is one of the hottest teams in the league right now (despite a pedestrian record);” “If the Flames find a way to get in, those division winners better watch out… after all, the playoffs are won by the hottest goalie, and Calgary’s got one with pedigree;” “None of the teams battling the Flames in the standings have the kind of heart and soul that Iginla & the boys do,” and so forth and so on.

Come the end of the year, every year, supporters of the Flames work themselves up enough to believe in how they think it ought to be — specifically, that the Flames are molded in the fashion of a good old underperforming-yet-peaking lower seed that can skate toe-to-toe with any squad that it may face in the playoffs. What’s more is the belief that despite habitually trailing multiple teams and spotting said teams a game in hand or two, Calgary seems to always believe that the old “win out” scenario is normal and achievable in the first place.
After all, everyone believes that they’re not going easily.
But after last season’s attempt at pole vaulting out of purgatory fell considerably short, and this season had many wondering why GM Jay Feaster a) would not consider trading Iginla before the deadline to rebuild this stagnant ship, or b) still has a job, the old end of the season desperation set in and everyone forgot all of the problems that still torture the Flames. Despite all of the negativity that comes with following a Canadian team in the NHL, everyone assumed that a home ice meeting with the L.A. Kings, who sat one point ahead of Calgary and without the tiebreaker over the Flames, would go just brilliantly. Because the Flames sure as hell aren’t going easily.
Then, the Flames went easily. By the time the puck was dropped, the lid to the candle was being slid over the Saddledome. Less than six minutes in, Kings’ defenseman Willie Mitchell scored the game winner. Less than twenty minutes later, Dustin Brown, the very much questioned, trade-dangled and under-appreciated captain of the Kings, fired home the insurance goal.
Calgary got outshot 30-19. They were outhit 17-14. Takeaways were 7-6 in favor of the Kings, and the Flames gave away a vomit inducing 15 pucks, compared to L.A.’s grand total of 2. Penalty minutes and faceoffs won were drawn, at 10 and 29 apiece respectively. Again, Calgary was at home.
Everyone believes
From emptiness to everything,
Everyone believes
And no one’s going quietly.
If “emptiness to everything” doesn’t sum up the way most of the hockey world views the Flames’ own self-image over the course of a hockey season, I’m not sure what does. Except maybe “Potential to everything to emptiness to everything to hell in a hand basket.” And yes, in that exact order.
We’re never gonna win the world
We’re never gonna stop the war
We’re never gonna beat this
If belief is what we’re fighting for.
Am I the only one who notices how much of Feaster’s plan seems to be PR-based? Granted, in an age when the public can chant its way to firings, promotions and trades, a lot of Feaster’s job has to be coaxing the public into believing in his plan. I just wonder at what point we realize that there are a lot of educated fans out there who have evaluated the situation and called for a rebuild. When is it alright to make the hard decision to go down the tougher road with the idea that in four or five years the franchise will be much better off?

Make no mistake about it, continually chasing the eighth seed and refusing to consider flipping the few assets one possesses is not choosing the harder route. Sure, there’s honor in the fight, but it’s fun to chase the playoffs. Fans forget this all the time — just look at the sentiment in Toronto right now — but the truth is that prior to the clinical depression that comes with a 9th, 10th or 11th place finish (or a first-round beatdown) is a euphoria of mild success mixed with grandiose hopes and expectations. That euphoric part is fun. A lot of fun. If it wasn’t, nobody would use drugs a second time. Nobody would gamble. Smart people wouldn’t secretly like pop music.
The hard decision would be to start over and gut the thing. The reason this would be hard is that there would be absolutely no foreseeable moments of euphoria for a few years. The team would suck and miss the playoffs. There would be no “we almost made it” salability. Truths would have to be faced. Everyone involved would have to go through rehab.
So instead of making the hard choices that should give the Flames a better chance of being a true Stanley Cup contender five years from now — or “winning the world,” in a hockey sense — the Flames will continue to fight for belief. Belief of the fans, the players, and themselves at the top. Flames’ brass will continue to do what it has to do in order to convince itself that the squad is just one or two pieces away; never mind that those hypothetical pieces would be much too big to fit through the doorway.
The real Cup contenders have built themselves into such. They know they are capable; the only question that remains is whether or not they will win their world, and (temporarily) stop their war. But a team like the Flames will never beat this if belief is what they’re fighting for.
Is there anyone
You can remember
Who ever surrendered
With their life on the line?
Yep. Again, sitting in 11th place and spotting a game in hand to all but Colorado, the Flames’ playoff lives were on the line last night. And I don’t know how a 19-shot performance at home can be called anything but a surrender. There was never a lead to protect. The penalties were even. Calgary simply put 19 pucks on net in a must-win home game.
For those who think the Flames are still in this thing, let’s go to the schedule, shall we? Calgary has four games left, which is one more than Colorado but one less than every other relevant team in the West. The Flames are at home against Colorado on Friday night before heading to Vancouver for an HNIC late game the very next night. After the four days off that follow, Calgary then hosts Vancouver before closing out at home against Anaheim on one of those patented lazy weekend afternoon games (Saturday at 2 p.m. local time).
Those who disagree with my pronouncement that the Flames are doused will cite the three home games coming in. How’d that home thing go last night? They will claim that Vancouver may be resting up for the playoffs. For starters, the Canucks would probably like to finish ahead of St. Louis for home ice throughout the conference playoffs (and probably SCF). On top of that, did anyone notice that 1-0 shutout that Cory Schneider pitched Wednesday night against the desperate-and-actually-playing-like-it Avalanche? Unlike Calgary, Colorado fired an impressive 43 shots on goal in a road game at a superior opponent. Schneider handled them all, and this came just two days after his buddy Roberto Luongo did the Kings in with his own 38-save 1-0 shutout. If Vancouver doesn’t care, somebody forgot to tell the team’s entire defensive system.
With no relevant games to this situation on Sunday, we will know the outlook for the Flames by the end of their HNIC game this weekend in Vancouver. Anything shy of four points between now and then should see the team eliminated by the time the Canucks make the return trip to Calgary. On top of that, there are a few Pacific Division games that could head to overtime and whittle that tragic number down even further.
Let’s see if the Flames play this thing out with true belief, or if 19 shots at home in a must win game was the surrender it seems to be.

There are still a few days left in the NHL’s trading window, but I’d like to take a minute to analyze the highest profile deal yet — “the Jeff Carter trade.”
If you’re reading this, then by now you know that center Jeff Carter has been traded to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for defenseman Jack Johnson and a conditional first-round pick in either 2012 or ’13.
Contrary to where most people want to start, let’s look at this deal for the Columbus Blue Jackets first. I think this is a smart move for the Jackets, though I acknowledge that time will tell whether this is a good move.
The Move for Columbus

As I and some other people wrote in the summer, the trade acquisition of Carter made very little sense for Columbus thanks to the overpriced and over-termed (11 years, $58 million) contract that Philadelphia had just signed the player to seven months prior. The argument everyone else was making was that Jackets’ star winger Rick Nash finally had a true number one center to play with, and also that the long-term investment (paired with the acquisition of James Wisniewski’s rights and subsequent five-year deal the team gave him) signified the Blue Jackets’ intent on building a winner.

I understood the argument, but I’m a value guy, and the fact is there is not and probably never will be value in Jeff Carter’s salary cap hit. The only way Carter’s $5.27 million annual cap hit makes any sense is if over the next few years the salary cap is raised significantly and individual player salaries start going through the roof. Fat chance of that happening, since we are almost certainly going to see a lockout this summer by the owners specifically designed to achieve the opposite result.
Since Carter’s contract made him undesirable, I think it was a smart move for Columbus to move him off the books and free up some more cap space (for the next decade, remember). The team sucks on defense and mostly in net, so to have a “goal scorer” like Carter doesn’t really help you unless he makes you an elite offense. The Jackets’ 27th-best goals per game figure quashes any semi-argument that could have been made there.
The man that was sent the other way, Johnson, also carries a somewhat hefty contract, but it’s smaller and shorter than Carter’s, and in that sense Columbus benefits from the deal. Johnson’s actual impact on a hockey team’s record has been, in my opinion, greatly overstated, but if the expectation is for him to be a second-pairing guy then I think he can fill that role well enough. One problem with this rational expectation is that Columbus might need him to be a top-two blue liner, but there is at least hope that David Savard and/or John Moore, both selected in the 2009 entry draft, may pan out to be good enough top-four defensemen to compliment Wiz and Johnson. Both rookies are currently with the Jackets, although it is unclear to me how importing Johnson will affect the look of the blue line for the rest of this season. I would suspect it might not matter: this is clearly a club looking forward to next year and beyond.
Another obvious hinge that will determine whether this trade was a good move for Columbus is what happens with that conditional first-round pick. If the Kings miss the playoffs this year, then Columbus will get L.A.’s top pick in 2013. If the Kings hold on and make it into this spring’s top eight in the Western Conference, then the Jackets will get to choose whether they want that first rounder this summer or next. It would be silly to try to project how this unidentified subject’s career will pan out versus Carter’s, so let’s make a note of the existence of the pick and move on.
The Move for Los Angeles

For Los Angeles, I guess the move is alright if we’re looking at the Kings as a Stanley Cup contender in the medium term. While I tend to bash Carter based on his performance versus his contract figures, the guy is inconsistently productive. I mean that as a semi-compliment. He has some upside, which I’ve seen a few times this season in Columbus. But far more often Carter has little impact on a game, and that’s where I hate him as a $5.27 million player.
The move is also alright enough if we’re looking at the price the Kings paid. Most of the talk was that Columbus would trade Carter if they could get their next starting goalie out of the deal. Well, Carter’s in Hollywood now, and yet, so is Jonathan Bernier. If and when the Kings finally trade Bernier, they probably will be able to get that first-round pick back (or at least a second and possibly a roster player) anyway.
Losing Johnson doesn’t really hurt the Kings’ hope for a playoff run because they play a defensive style to begin with, and Johnson’s game is not conducive to keeping the puck out of his own net. In 343 career NHL games, all with the Kings, Johnson is a cool minus-90. You can bring up the fact that he plays on the power play, and yes that’s true, but dude, he’s minus-90. That includes a minus figure every single season he’s been a professional, which may mean he’ll transition seamlessly to Columbus’ playing style. Hey-O!
Carter’s move to L.A. is interesting on a personal level in two ways. First, it was Rick Nash who was supposedly on the Kings’ wish list. The idea was that overused cliché, “imagine if Nash had a center like Anze Kopitar,” and/or “imagine if Kopitar had a wing like Nash!” These “imagine the partnership” pre-trade hypotheticals are getting more tired and less reputable, since we heard the exact same assertions after Columbus traded for Carter (to pair with Nash) in the first place.
The second human element that makes this move familiar for L.A. is that Carter is now reunited with his parter in ran-out-of-Philly-dom, Mike Richards. With the top line of Kopitar, Justin Williams and team captain Dustin Brown playing pretty well together (given L.A.’s defensively-skewed style), it would be normal to assume that Carter will skate on the second line with Richards. Maybe the duo can rekindle the fire that helped them lead the Flyers to the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals. I would think not (this year anyway), since Chris Pronger is not walking through that door…
GMs Gripping: Howson & Lombardi Had to Make This Trade

Worth noting is the GM factor as well. It’s no secret that Scott Howson has done a pretty bad job of building that Columbus roster, as evidenced by their 27th-best offense and 29th-best defense this season. Perhaps what’s worse was sticking it out with head coach Scott Arniel as long as he did. It’s not that I’m an advocate of firing coaches quickly, but Arniel was eventually relieved of his head coaching duties, and only after division rival St. Louis scooped up Ken Hitchcock. Hitch has led the previously toiling Blues to within contention for the conference’s top seed. Prior to taking that job, he was just chilling in the Blue Jackets’ organization. Hiding right there, in plain sight. Howson did not have the wherewithal to make the obvious hire, and because of that he is still on the hottest of seats. Luckily for him, he got a do-over for that rather funny gaffe of trading for Carter’s contract in the first place.
The Kings, like the Blue Jackets and so many other teams this season, are also working under their second head coach of 2011-12. The old saying goes, “if you can’t change the players, change the coach.” That’s what L.A. general manager Dean Lombardi did when he brought Darryl Sutter in to replace Terry Murray. Now an attention grabbing player change has been made. If neither move works, it would logically follow that maybe the GM would be the next to go. Lombardi insists that this trade is for both the short-term and the long-term, but only the naive would not consider Lombardi’s knowledge that there might not be a “long-term” for him. Not in Los Angeles, anyway.
These moves, when analyzed as a pair of departures and arrivals, almost had to be made by the respective GMs. How they pan out may not be known until after those GMs are long gone; alternatively, this trade may be the catalyst for a very long extension for either Lombardi or Howson. Only time will tell, but the clock is already ticking louder than the promo for 60 Minutes.
The Inverse Relationship Between Contract Figures and Future Stanley Cup Shots

The last item worth mentioning for me is how taking too much can ultimately backfire. It’s a theme driven home to most of us from a young age: share, do not take more than you need or deserve, you reap what you sow, etc., etc. While I think Los Angeles is a pretty fly destination, especially for a dude with highlighted hair, the fact that Carter has been traded twice in the fifteen-and-a-half months since he signed that ridiculously inflated contract with Philadelphia only goes to show that in a league with a salary cap, it’s not all florets and no chunks to sign for way more money and years than your play warrants.
Wade Redden, Alexei Yashin, Cristobal Huet and others have been effectively blackballed from the NHL courtesy of the fact that they are incapable of contributing anywhere near the level of their overpriced contracts. Carter is still just 27 years old, but if he isn’t careful and doesn’t put it together soon, he could find himself the next victim of his own greed. I’m not saying that anybody in their right mind would turn down the offer the Flyers made to Carter, but what I am saying is that any player must understand that by agreeing to carry such a high cap hit for such a long time, said player has probably lost the comfort of just getting by. If you can’t give a contender a realistic hope at a championship, then you will play for a crap team. If you can’t give a crap team anything, then you will have only your youth as a selling point. Once that’s gone, so are you. 
Carter’s situation seems specifically like a good one now, but he’s lucky he’s still young enough to have a decent suitor. Life is give and take, and when an owner gives a player a lot of money for a long time, the owners can also essentially take away that player’s opportunity to compete for a Stanley Cup. Once it’s determined that a player’s contract is too high, that player becomes lucky to just be fodder for those teams chasing the cap floor. Carter has what might be his last best opportunity to prove that he can play up to his contract for a competitive squad. Let’s see how he plays this one.

Sundays are almost always lean in terms of NHL scheduling. In my younger 20s, we would refer to Sunday as “the day of reflection,” which usually tied in with getting our minds and bodies right after a few nights of good ways to make bad decisions. I think given my advanced age and rededication to the upkeep of this blog, Sundays are a good day to reflect upon the week that was with specific regard to Tram’s Table posts that previewed something that could use a little reviewing as well.

Boston Bruins d. Philadelphia Flyers 6-0

On Friday I previewed the Saturday afternoon duel for first place in the eastern conference between Boston and Philly. The title of the post was “Concussions Hinder Flyers Ahead of Saturday’s Tilt with Bruins for East’s Top Spot.” While I may have upset some Boston fans by glossing over the B’s issues, specifically the concussion suffered by Daniel Paille, the angle probably was spot on. Granted, it would have taken more than just Giroux and/or Pronger to reverse a 6-0 drubbing on home ice, but the Flyers had the look of a team that was more limited than a typical “9-1 in their last 10” team should be.

The Bruins looked like a team capable of winning a(nother) Stanley Cup. To do so, they may have to face the Flyers for a third straight year, and after last spring’s second-round sweep, it’s hard to find anything from yesterday that would suggest a reversal of the outcome of this potential series. It’s even harder when you consider that Chris Pronger is, at least as it stands right now, not going to take part in any more hockey this season.

Bachman d. Poulin 3-2 as predicted… then gets torched at NJ

On Thursday I keyed in on the Dallas at New York Islanders matchup because it involved the two goaltenders with the least amount of combined NHL experience. Dallas trotted out its AHL usual, Richard Bachman, formerly of Colorado College. The Isles sent out their preferred AHL tender as well: Kevin Poulin.

There is no need to retroactively preview the game, since that was another post, but the “something in the realm of a 3-2 Dallas win” turned out to be something of an exact final score.

Since that game, New York went back to this season’s best starting option in Al Montoya (of the University of Michigan… gotta plug NCAA hockey & especially the soon-to-be-defunct CCHA). Dallas, meanwhile, chose to roll Bachman again on Friday night in New Jersey on Scott Niedermayer jersey retirement night. It didn’t go well for The Pen Name. The Devils beat the Stars 6-3 with no empty netters.

Dallas plays next on Monday night on Versus at 8:00 eastern time, where they will host the horrendously struggling Anaheim Ducks. We will see if Bachman gets his fifth straight start or if Dallas benches The Pen Name in favor of regular backup Andrew Raycroft (he of the 3.53 GAA).

Red Wings blast Kings 8-2

On Tuesday I put my two cents in on the firing of Kings’ head coach Terry Murray, and the possible changes in playing style that may necessarily follow. It was recently announced, to nobody’s surprise, that Murray will be replaced by a Sutter brother for the second time. Eleven years ago, it was Duane Sutter who took over for Murray in Florida. Now it will be Darryl Sutter to try to lead the Kings back to the playoffs.

One possible side effect of Murray’s axing that I noted was a rise in the goals against department for the Kings. This would not necessarily hurt the team, as they could allow 0.5 more goals per game, but score 1.0 more and end up doing better in the overall standings. But the opening up of play would have a negative effect on goaltender Jonathan Quick, and to a lesser degree his backup, Jonathan Bernier. The drawbacks would probably be more fantasy-related than actual hockey-related, since the goal of any netminder is ultimately to just win games. But both gentlemen are up for a contract renewal after next season, and statistics can have a way of affecting a free agent’s next deal.

In the end, I don’t think there should be too much to worry about for L.A.’s goalies, because I don’t believe many people consider Sutter’s style to be all that different from Murray’s. Sutter presided over Miikka Kiprusoff, who in 2004 was not all that unlike Quick as far as career plot. That Calgary Flames team came within one goal line review of winning the Stanley Cup. And who knows, maybe the best forward from that ’04 Flames team will be a King before long… I should note that I doubt this will happen, but the Flames probably should be preparing themselves to trade captain Jarome Iginla before he retires and they get nothing in a potential deal.

After noting that L.A. was 6th in goals against per game in the NHL at the time of Murray’s firing, we looked at the five teams playing “better defense,” and noted that of the five, only Detroit had seemingly no shot at toting a Vezina-winning goalie. I’m sure my opinion is at least a little bit skewed by the fact that I root for the Red Wings, but I constantly hear people saying that Jimmy Howard is not that great, but that he plays for a team that doesn’t require great goaltending.

We broke the shots against per game statistic down and hopefully made a dent in some of that misguided armor.

Last night was a perfect Rug Game (it really tied the room together), as the Kings went into Joe Louis Arena and promptly got blown out of the building. Quick allowed 3 goals on 7 shots and was yanked less than 9 minutes into the contest. Bernier provided little relief, as he was only able to stop 15 of the 20 shots he faced en route to an 8-2 mauling. Howard saved 27 of 29, but as usual, that was of little note. Sutter will reportedly take over head coaching duties for the Kings on Tuesday, per Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times.

After the news broke Monday that Terry Murray had been fired as the head coach of the Los Angeles Kings (just a couple weeks after locational rivals Anaheim Ducks fired their head coach, Randy Carlyle), my immediate question was whether this would result in the Kings adopting a more offensive style.
Murray’s Kings have been killing it on the defensive end for a few years now, although I don’t think that fact ever got as much pub as the perceived offensive potential of star youngsters Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty. The truth of the Kings’ style is that they were largely based around a fundamentally sound system of positional responsibility, and only a few players tended to deviate from this JV Devils game plan (Jack Johnson comes to mind).

Kopitar has the physical gifts to be a 100-point scorer consistently, but under Murray’s system it seemed more and more like the big Slovenian had stabilized as a point-a-game player in this his sixth NHL season. And all that is fine… if you’re winning.
Photo via
As Anze Kopitar watches the Kings’ coaching situation intently, you could consider his fantasy upside under a more offensive system.

Kings’ management has apparently decided that 29 games is enough of a sample to determine that the team is not winning. Perhaps that firing across town expedited the process. It has been suggested that because of the town that the Kings play in, there is an onus on playing a more wide-open style that will yield higher scoring games. I think that while that may be true, it is a very soccer attitude to have — this idea that the home team somehow is required to take more risk than it wants to in order to appease the fans. In my experience, there is one thing that a team can do to sustain fandom: win games.
Of the Five Teams Playing Better Defense than LA, Only Detroit’s D Seems to go Unnoticed.

I looked it up and saw that LA was sitting in 6th in the NHL in goals allowed per game, and decided to examine the general feeling surrounding those five teams playing better D than the Kings.
In St. Louis’ case, Brian Elliott is on the tongues of every professional pundit I’ve heard giving an early measuring point on the Vezina Trophy. His tandem-mate Jaroslav Halak has picked his game up nicely since just before the firing of former head coach and 2006 Kelly Cup champion Davis Payne.
The other goalie up for mention with Elliott on everybody’s list is the incumbent, Boston’s Tim Thomas. He and Tuukka Rask have the defending champs allowing just 2.07 goals per game, second only to the 2.03 figure sported by the Blues.
Coming in third is the Minnesota Wild (2.10 GA/G), who have been known as a great defensive team throughout their existence, with the exception of the last year and a half before the hiring of rookie head coach Mike Yeo. The Wild have the luxury of what now looks like a trio of capable big leaguers in regular starter Niklas Backstrom, finally healthy Josh Harding and 21 year-old Matt Hackett.
Fourth place belongs to the perenially Vezina-worthy Henrik Lundqvist and his outstanding backup Martin Biron. The Rangers are built from the back out, and boast what many could argue is the best pure starter and the best sole backup in the league. Biron is that rare goalie who can post around a 2.00 GAA and at the same time not have anyone in the league believe he is worthy of consideration as even a time share. Amazing, but definitely to the Rangers’ benefit. Their GA/G number is 2.11.

Regardless of allegiances, Marty Biron’s mask is pretty awesome.
And then there’s the goaltender that may be the closest to the Jennings Trophy without ever having a shot at the Vezina: Jimmy Howard. Constantly dogged by the myth that Detroit’s team defense is so good that he only has to make 20 saves a game (the Red Wings actually give up 27.5 shots per game, which while 2nd in the NHL, is still only 5 shots away from dead last in the league), Howard will never get the respect he deserves as a mentally stable goalie with the ability to steal games. He will struggle to shake the comparisons to his predecessor, Chris Osgood, who played at the height of the Wings’ puck possession era.
Detroit is unlikely to get the Jennings for Howard and his backup Ty Conklin, but the fact that the Wings are 5th in total defense should raise some eyebrows after last season’s complete disregard for basket protection. En route to a surprising return to the top of the Central division in 2010-11, the Red Wings let it rain — into their own net. Their 2.89 GA/G stat was 23rd in the NHL. None of the 7 teams they beat out were even close to a playoff spot.
Photo via
Jimmy Howard doesn’t need your love. Or a mask.

So while it is funny and aggravating that so-called hockey people refuse to give Howard any credit for this season’s 2.21 team goals against average (Howard’s personal GAA is 1.85 with a league-leading 17 wins that he had nothing to do with), it only highlights people’s slowness to react. Detroit is not a juggernaut anymore, and in fact the entire league’s range of shots allowed per game ranges from 26.2 to 32.6. And yet, Howard will not be invited to the NHL awards as a Vezina candidate this year or ever, because the late-‘90s and mid-2000s Red Wings dominated the time of possession stat a little too much.
Getting back to the Kings, I wouldn’t be surprised if their goal scoring and goal allowing go up in tandem. Only time will tell if that’s a better recipe for success in the standings, and more importantly, in the playoffs.
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.

While I think Vancouver/Chicago is the most compelling western series, and Detroit/Phoenix may be the toughest to call, I think this Nashville/Anaheim series has the potential to be the most rewarding first round hockey series to watch.

First off, I don’t think I’ve seen anybody confidently predict the winner.  Second, we see contrasting styles of sorts, with Anaheim boasting 5 of the league’s top 27 scorers, who will go against likely Vezina runner-up Pekka Rinne of Nashville.  Nashville’s three biggest stars play the back end, with olympic medalists Shea Weber and Ryan Suter cleaning up in front of their exceptional goaltender Rinne, while also pressing forward enough to stand 3rd and 6th on the team in scoring, respectively.  And that’s not considering the fact that Suter missed 12 games this year to injury.
But Suter and Weber will have their hands full with Anaheim’s top two lines, the first of which being the line in the NHL most in need of a legendary nickname.  The combination of Perry, Getzlaf and Ryan has been intact largely since the Stanley Cup winning season of 2007, although they were only youngsters then.  One of the veteran scorers on that team was the Finnish Flash, Teemu Selanne, who has shocked the hockey world this season by turning in an 80 point year at the age of 40, good for 8th in the league.  The Ducks have added another Finland icon in second line center Saku Koivu, who has offered solid two-way play along with being the only Duck center to win a majority of his draws (52.8%).  Koivu contributed 45 points on the offensive end, and was key in the Ducks’ weekend sweep of Los Angeles, which earned them home ice in the first round to begin with.
The Nashville Predators became the trendy team to pick over the last month as the qualified “team that nobody wants to play,” but I think that when one considers the alternatives, this team was actually probably the team that everyone would have preferred to play if the Los Angeles Kings weren’t an option.  The other two road seeds are Phoenix and Chicago.  While most people seem to think I’m off my rocker to peg Phoenix ahead of Nashville, I think things will play themselves out and folks will change their tune within a couple weeks.  And as far as Chicago goes, absolutely nobody would seriously want to play the defending champion Hawks instead of the never-won-a-playoff-series Preds if the goal was to advance to the second round.  So really, the Predators are not the team that nobody wanted to play.  They’re the team that is viewed as the third scariest team in the Central division.  And as far as that never won a playoff series thing goes, I know that records are meant to be broken, and there’s a first time for everything, and insert cliché here, but when push comes to shove I’m going to take the team that has shown playoff prowess in the past over the one that always seems to be one year away, or one piece short of taking that next step.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Barry Trotz has done a fantastic job this season and deserves to be a finalist for the Jack Adams award (which will certainly go to Penguins head coach and fellow BGSU alum Dan Bylsma), but I can’t bring myself to pick a team that is offensively challenged and has never won a playoff series to upset a squad that caught fire to earn home ice, boasts the possible league MVP in Perry, can roll out two game changing goalies (see Emery in ’07 playoffs; see Hiller vs. Team USA in ’10 Olympics; apologies to Dan Ellis), and has a pair of defensemen in Lydman and Visnovsky that are plus-50 with 93 points between them (and play nearly half the game) simply because I love the job that the road team’s coach has done.  Ultimately, Nashville just doesn’t have enough Mike Fishers up front or any Perrys, Getzlafs, etc. in order to take this series that I truly do think is there for the taking.  Since I do believe in Nashville’s fighting spirit and their ability to get to the brink of the next level, I’ll give them 3 wins in this series, but I have to go with the Anaheim Ducks in seven games due to experience and offensive firepower.  
To close out my look at the first round of the western conference playoffs, I’ll quickly pick the San Jose Sharks to defeat their Pacific division rivals, the Los Angeles Kings, in five games.  As with all NHL playoff series, I think the outcome of this one is still in doubt, but the bottom line is that LA just doesn’t score enough goals to win this series.  They are without leading scorer Anze Kopitar and also winger Justin Williams.  Although I love the goaltending tandem of Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier, those guys aren’t enough to get LA over this very difficult hump.  Also, the Kings will be without another key player during their regular season:  the shootout.  The Kings led the league with 10 wins coming by way of shootout this season, none of which would have been wins in the playoffs.  In fact, had ties been ties like they used to be, the Kings would not have even made the playoffs over the Dallas Stars, who would have boasted 90 points to Los Angeles’ 88.  The shootout got them here, but it won’t get them any further.  
Additionally, I really like the way San Jose has played with a chip on its shoulder over the second half of the season.  Everybody knows their reputation for playoff “chokes” (I hate that word as used to describe any loss in sports, but with SJ it sort of has been appropriate at times), but more than just the previous playoff losses, this team had to endure a rough start that saw them outside the top 8 somewhat deep into the season.  That brought out the detractors, calling the team’s $2 million signing of 2010 Cup winning goalie Antti Niemi irresponsible and a waste of money.  All Niemi did was shut down the NHL over the second half of the season and earn himself a 4 year extension that nearly doubled his yearly salary, while also giving the Sharks a bona fide backstop that they know can win a Stanley Cup, rather than Evgeni Nabokov, who they thought could probably, maybe, possibly win the western conference.  That never did happen, despite five division titles in eight seasons between Nabokov and the failed Vesa Toskala experiment.  These Sharks appear to have their heads right for a long playoff run, and have drawn what is probably the easiest first round opponent.  Will that get the ball rolling for round two and beyond, or only cover up the fact that the Sharks are still the Sharks?  Only time will tell, but I definitely fancy San Jose to get past the Kings and an additional round afterward, whether it is against Detroit or the Anaheim / Nashville winner.  Hmm, San Jose / Anaheim with the Sharks as the higher seed… feels like this has happened before…
The puck drops on the playoffs in 25 hours, cheers.