For all of our East Coast readers—these are the teams that are still playing when you go to sleep. But don’t feel bad if you don’t have this Division all figured out, none of us do. There are question marks all over the Pacific: From the President’s Trophy winning team without a captain to the team without an owner. Southern California has a team that is 2 years removed from a Cup that barely made the playoffs last season; and another that shows signs every season of turning potential into wins—yet never does. And there’s a team that resides in Texas that plays in the Pacific Division. Maybe we should have a mandatory geography class for all officials at the NHL offices in New York. Tell me that isn’t a huge question mark.
To maintain what little dignity that we have left, I removed myself from the discussion. No one wants to hear how the Kings are going to win the Cup this season and frankly, I don’t really want to have my credibility take that kind of hit. So we were smart about it, went out and got 4 very good bloggers and a journalist. Some may even say RESPECTED journalist. Regardless—we have 5 very capable contributors here to break down the Pacific Division.
Here to explain how this April will be different than last April is Mike Torres from Sharks Chum Bucket. The Yotes Sign Girl Amy Jo Green is here to tell us more than Jim Balsillie is a bastard and Gann Matsuda is here from Frozen Royalty to tell us that using the world “Bastard” is not acceptable when speaking about the Kings. Big D Hockey’s Ben Ellis is here to inform and educate us for all things Dallas Stars. For people that read hockey blogs on a normal basis, Earl Sleek from Battle of California should need no introduction—and since he’s a Ducks blogger, that’s the introduction that he shall get.
After you check out these 5 different points of view, let us know what you think! Did the bloggers nail it? Are they completely confused? Are you completely confused?
For prior Division Preview Roundtables, here’s a link to find your favorite team. Check out what our guest bloggers have had to say—there have been some truly great contributions. Tomorrow our Roundtable sessions conclude with the Northwest Division. See you back here tomorrow.
1. Why is your team going to be better than they were last season?
Mike Torres (Sharks): They won’t be. This is the tough reality Sharks fans have faced this offseason – it is nearly impossible to improve a President’s Trophy winning roster in the salary cap era. GM Doug Wilson made a rare verbal slip-up early in the offseason promising major changes. Those changes never occurred, so I think fans in San Jose are resigned to having a roster that, at least on paper, is inferior to last year’s.
The most promising area of improvement? Possibly the coaching staff headed by Todd McLellan. Coach McLellan showed he could implement a dynamic offensive system emphasizing contributions from the blue line, but was also made the expected mistakes of a first year head coach. Sharks fans should be excited for his sophomore season.
Earl Sleek (Ducks): If the Ducks are going to make any improvement in the western conference next year, it will be because of improved scoring depth, something they lacked going into last year’s postseason. The Getzlaf-Perry-Ryan line provided most of Anaheim’s offense through two playoff rounds (and they’ll each be a year better), but now they’ll have some capable scoring support behind them in Selanne, Koivu, and Lupul. Anaheim also has some lesser-known possibilities in Nokelainen, Christensen, Artyukhin, and Ebbett — if any of them could crack the top six, even as passengers, it could help spread the scoring throughout three lines. That’s what I’m hoping to see, at least.
Ben Ellis (Stars): The Stars are going to be better than they were last season for a couple of main reasons. The first is that they will get many injured bodies back on the ice. The Stars had nearly 400 man games lost to injury last season – among the highest in the league. These injuries weren’t to third and fourth line guys either. Brendan Morrow & Sergei Zubov were gone for most of the year, while significant players like Brad Richards, Jere Lehtinen & Steve Ott also missed many games. While Zubov has left, all other players will be returning, and will be hungry – none more so than our team captain, Brendan Morrow. The second reason I think they will be better is Marty Turco. There were plenty of haters out there when he struggled last season, some of them in Big D. But Turco is a guy who is pushed by competition and hates having a bad year. He’s competitive, but when there’s no competition pushing him directly, he can tend to slack. He had NO one pushing him in 2008-09. Last season’s performance will haunt him and bring out better play. Also, he should be pushed and challenged by backup netminder Alex Auld and the “goalies of the future” in the Stars’ AHL affiliate – Richard Bachmann and Matt Climie. If that’s not enough, next off-season he will be a UFA, and he may want to sparkle for potential suitors.
Amy Jo (Coyotes): Last year the Coyotes were very, very young. Ask any Coyotes fan where we lost it last year and they will reply, “after the All-Star break”. Going into the break, we had beat Detroit and were fifth in the Western Conference. Playoff bound! Then a mix of young egos and worn down bodies tossed us losses in 9 of the next 10 games. After the pickup of Matthew Lombardi, Scottie Upshall, and Petr Prucha at the trade deadline, and offseason signings of Adrian Aucoin, Jim Vandermeer, and Vern Fiddler (the guy from the Ernest movies?), we have a better balance between youth/speed and experience/grit. Hopefully that will serve us better.
Radim Vrbata is back and General Manager Don Maloney has spoken to what a good mentor he was for the younger players, especially Martin Hanzal. If he can finish the season as strongly as he starts it, he should be a huge help. Not only the additions will help, but losing some pieces that didn’t fit the puzzle will help. Thanks to our suspiciously cozy relationship with Calgary, Olli Jokinen and his attitude are gone. Brandon Prust is also gone, who was just without purpose.
Oh, and that Taylor Pyatt signing? All of Phoenix’s ovaries shuddered in delight with that one.
Gann Matsuda (Kings): First off, as a journalist, I’d prefer to say that the Los Angeles Kings are the team that I cover, as opposed to referring to them as “my” team. But to answer your question, the Kings are now entering the fourth year of a complete tear-down and rebuild of their team that has so far been executed awfully well by President/General Manager Dean Lombardi, despite what understandably skeptical and impatient fans might believe.
The sacrifice, so far, appears to have been worth it. Lombardi has established a young core of players that he can build around, the team appears to be a tight-knit group (they bonded a lot over the summer) and they should get players like Anze Kopitar to reach the next level of their development.
On top of that, expectations are higher all around, from management on down. Even the players expect more from themselves and they’re feeling the pressure, but in a good way. They know it is time for them to make the playoffs and that they have a team that is capable of doing it.
2. What part of your team scares the hell out of you this season?
Mike Torres (Sharks): You’re talking to a Sharks fan here – everything scares the hell out of us. The all-too familiar roster, The Red Wings and Ducks, and of course, the dreaded Playoffs.
San Jose fans are in the midst of a major crisis of faith right now. The lack of any significant moves this offseason means we’re sending out almost exactly the same roster we did last season, and the season before that, and so on. The Sharks have gone to war with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov for the last 4 seasons, and come home with absolutely nothing to show for it. So why should we believe this year is any different?
Most of all, I’m scared of getting my hopes up for 6 months and having them dashed in 2 weeks again.
Earl Sleek (Ducks): Right now, it’s every Anaheim defenseman that isn’t named Niedermayer or isn’t paired with Niedermayer. Losing Pronger and Beauchemin means that a ton of big-game blueline minutes need to be re-distributed and it’s all going to some fresh faces. Sbisa and Boynton haven’t made their Anaheim debuts yet, while Whitney and Wisniewski have only been around since the trade deadline — it’s a whopping amount of turnover in a very short period of time. The Ducks will probably need some time to re-adjust to an “only one top pairing” scheme, but there’s at least two silver linings: 1. Niedermayer has shown a knack for babysitting for a young defensive partner in the past (I’ve heard Sbisa mentioned for the spot) — it’s worked out well before with both Beauchemin and Festerling. 2. Between Giguere and Hiller, the Ducks have two capable goaltending options to test out behind the new Prongerless defensive scheme.
Ben Ellis (Stars): It’s strange for me to say this about a Dallas team, because historically we’ve had great teams in this regard, but… our defense. The weaknesses were exposed last year when Zubov went down with an injury and everyone had to “slide up a spot”. The only defenseman who didn’t look a bit out of place was Stephane Robidas. G.M. Joe (Nieuwendyk) went out in free agency and got a couple of defenseman, but neither pickup was a top pair defenseman, really. If the season was to start tomorrow, and no changes were made to our defense, it would be my main concern. I’m hoping the Stars brain-trust knows more than I do, and is comforted by some factors we have yet to see… but I’m doubtful.
Amy Jo (Coyotes): I can say that my answer will be different from everyone (except maybe the Lightning).
OWNERSHIP – The ownership situation scares the living hell out of me. I’m not going to dump the legal jargon on you (but I’ve been to court!). I’ll just say that if my team wins the Cup next year and the NHL buys the team, Bettman’s name might be on the cup. Or the names of some guys who want to play some of our home games in Canada. Or my team may not even be my team anymore because if Balsillie kidnaps the boys to Canada (I’ll first issue Amber Alerts), they will no longer be my team. I’m currently taking applications for a backup team. (I’ll need references Ovie.)
GOALIE – Ilya Bryzgolov is capable of greatness (see his performance for Russia this summer). I think if he lets two goals in, he starts thinking about hotdogs, gets distracted and suddenly the net is pretty easy to hit. When he is on, he’s amazing. When he is off, we’re screwed (or playing the Blackhawks). Al Montoya showed flashes of brilliance at the end of last year, but he may not even get the backup position as we signed Jason LaBarbara this summer. If LaBarbara makes the big team, I’m demanding a significant change in his goalie mask, because Phoenix may be on the verge of being stolen, but we have standards, damnit!
New Faces/Old Faces – 6 of the 13 forwards currently listed on our roster were not on the team opening night of last year. I’m not sure how our offense is going to gel. Ed “Oh-No Jovo” Jovanovski is still pulling in 6 million so it scares me that our highest player evokes the most yelling from me for boneheaded plays.
Gann Matsuda (Kings): I wouldn’t use the term, “scare,” but what concerns me is veteran left wing Justin Williams, who has proven to be very injury-prone throughout his NHL career. Will he return to his thirty-goal form, or get close to it? Will he be the top six forward Lombardi believes he will be? If he isn’t, the Kings are going to be scrambling to come up with the goals they need from that left wing position.
3. Every year there are players that break onto the scene as all-stars or even superstars. Sometimes they’re rookies that are expected to be great, sometimes they are rookies that shock the world and sometimes they’re younger players that simply come into their own. Who is someone on your team that we should all look to have a breakout season?
Mike Torres (Sharks): Without a doubt, Torrey Mitchell. Mitchell has had a horrible run of luck in his NHL career. He got tangled up with Kurtis Foster in an unfortunate incident where Foster broke his leg, and later, ironically, broke his own leg in a preseason practice. That injury caused Torrey to miss the entire 08-09 regular season.
But Sharks fan will clearly remember the potential displayed in Mitchell’s rookie season. The kid has breakaway speed, great hands, and is so responsible defensively he headed our top PK unit. This goal should give you an idea of what we’re hoping to see all year!
Earl Sleek (Ducks): I think the correct answer here is “Bobby Ryan”, who was limited to 64 games last season because of salary cap issues, but still managed an impressive Calder runner-up with 57 points (31 goals). While it’s easy to remember that B-Ry ended the year alongside Getzlaf and Perry, that’s not how he spent most of his season — Ryan was juggled up and down the lineup, and was able to contribute with a variety of linemates (even George Parros!). Give the kid some linemate stability and a full season (plus this is a contract year for him), and I’m not even sure where his ceiling is — this could be a fun year to find out.
Ben Ellis (Stars): The Stars’ contribution to last season’s Young Stars Game in Montreal was a name I think we’ll hear lots of in the coming years – James Neal. The kid has size, poise, and a really nice pair of hands. He’s quick and physical, and can make the pretty play when he has to. Last season was his first “full” on in Dallas (he played all but 5 of the games) and he scored 24 goals. I think it’s very possible we could see a 35-40 goal season this year.
Amy Jo (Coyotes): There are three main suspects.
Peter Mueller – Slump? Concussion? Sophomore jinx? Overweight/sluggish? Peter had a tough year after a promising rookie campaign. This year he can return to form and from what I’ve seen of him, he’s back to being a lean, mean, non-fighting machine.
Mikkel Boedker – Mikkel is a Danish blur. He crashes the net and is quick enough to skate away from everyone, but just struggled hitting the net. After being picked for the Young Stars game at All-Star Weekend, high hopes rest with Mikkel and fans really like our Baby Dane.
Martin Hanzal – Marty is our shutdown defensive forward. He’s gets the toughest assignments. Ask Getzlaf and Thornton how much it sucks to play against Hanzal. He’s our big Czech who had our only hat trick last year. With Vrbata (his mentor) coming back to the team, Marty could have that offensive chemistry to go with his defense.
Gann Matsuda (Kings): Although he’s not a rookie, all eyes will be on center Anze Kopitar this season because last year, he took a step back offensively as he worked to add solid defensive play to his game. He was successful at that, but strength and conditioning became a factor.
During the summer, both Lombardi and head coach Terry Murray were very blunt about what Kopitar needed to do to reach the next level: get stronger and into top shape so that he can not only play 25 minutes a night, but match-up physically against physical centers such as Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf. Unless he can do that, he will not become one of the top centers in the league, even though he has the skill to do so. Indeed, Kopitar is probably the most important factor, outside of goaltending, for the Kings this season.
4. We all know that watching a team for 82 games, you start to appreciate things that casual fans won’t necessarily know. Who’s the guy on your team that doesn’t get nearly the respect that he deserves?
Mike Torres (Sharks): Ryane Clowe used to be that guy, but I feel like he’s moved from the “underrated” category to “properly rated”. He’s the heart and soul of the Sharks and a very talented player, in case you were wondering.
How about Joe Pavelski? Joey Pavs gets overlooked even by Sharks fans quite a bit. He’s a quiet leader centering the second line. Pavelski has a knack for scoring clutch goals when they really count. Early in his rookie campaign, Pavelski scored a beauty in Detroit with 6 seconds remaining to win the game.
Pavelski is currently auditioning for a role on USA’s Olympic Team and is a front-runner to get a “C” or “A” stitched on his chest come October. This could be a breakout year for the 25 year old.
Earl Sleek (Ducks): Well, Corey Perry doesn’t get much respect, but he certainly doesn’t deserve any either. I’ll offer one personal answer — Mike Brown, because when the Ducks acquired Brown I had less-than-zero expectations for the guy. I thought he was just a punching bag on skates, a salary that Vancouver was happy to discard — but it turns out the guy can skate, hit, and most importantly for the punch-happy Ducks, he’s a decent penalty killer. He plays a hard-working game, stands up for his teammates, and is dirt-cheap against the salary cap — a very useful player for Anaheim. Of course Red Wings fans are probably still crying about the iffy hit that knocked Jiri “Admire the Pass” Hudler to the KHL, but I’ve grown largely deaf to that whine by now.
Ben Ellis (Stars): The easy answer for me (now that Zubov is gone) is Jere Lehtinen. He’s a three-time Selke winner (nominated six times), but has only played in one All Star Game. Put those numbers along-side other three-time Selke winners, and tell me that Dallas isn’t overlooked by the national media from time to time.
Amy Jo (Coyotes): Coyote Czech Hockey ~ Battered & Bruised Brutality
Zbynek Michalek – Z led the NHL in blocked shots last year. The man doesn’t care about his body. The man doesn’t care about his face. Every night, he puts himself between the puck and the net with more accuracy than our goalies at times.
Martin Hanzal – Marty gets to beat on the best offensive line of the other team every night. He’s big, physical, and frustrates the best forwards in the NHL.
Petr Prucha – Petr crashes the net fearlessly. He gets knocked around like a rag doll, but pops back up and goes right back at the goal.
Our Czech players are tough, love to play hockey, do the little things to be successful, and are good for ‘the room’. You can’t ask for more.
Gann Matsuda (Kings): Many fans know that center Michal Handzus was horrid two seasons ago, coming off of surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, which often takes a year or more to recover from. But last season, Handzus was very, very solid. No, he was not an offensive juggernaut. He has never been that in his career. But he was an effective shutdown center, he was one of the few Kings forwards who went to the front of the net to create traffic, he was always digging hard for loose pucks along the boards and in the corners—in short, he never took a shift off and was always willing to do the dirty work.
Perhaps more important, although Handzus never wants to talk about himself, even when he is the star of the game, he was clearly one of the leaders in the Kings dressing room last year. He was always talking to the young players, giving them advice. He wasn’t the up front, rah-rah type that many identify as traits that are required for being a leader. Nevertheless, a lot of the young players I’ve spoken with point to Handzus as someone they look up to and appreciate.
5. Prediction time: If you were throwing down some serious money, how do you think the final standings of the Pacific Division will shake out? More importantly, which teams do you think are going to make the playoffs from the Pacific?
Mike Torres (Sharks):
1. San Jose
3. Los Angeles
5. HamilNex CoyoteJets
There were very few shakeups throughout the division, aside from Anaheim shipping Pronger out to reload in the draft. The only change I predict is LA’s young talent overtaking Dallas’s retirement community.
Sharks and Ducks for the playoffs, again.
Earl Sleek (Ducks): My specialty is really just to make brazenly inaccurate game predictions, so please don’t go forwarding this to any of my bookies:
1. San Jose Sharks — they’ll be thinner than last year, but angrier, and that Presidents’ Trophy was no fluke.
2. Anaheim Ducks — the offense will be deeper, but the loss of Pronger & Beauchemin will sting.
3. Los Angeles Kings — probably will finish second, but I’m too proud to admit that before any real games have been played.
4. Dallas Stars — I have no sense of how this team really will finish; it all depends on which version of Marty Turco shows up. I’m glad they’re still paying Sean Avery some money.
5. Hamilton Coyotes — way too much attention has been diverted away from the on-ice product, unfortunately. As for the playoffs, we could see all three BoC teams qualify, and frankly, I can’t wait for the day when Rudy can finally shed some playoff-related tears.
Ben Ellis (Stars): I think the division is going to shake out like this:
1st: San Jose Sharks (113 points)
2nd: Dallas Stars (108 points)
3rd: Anaheim Ducks (106 points)
4th: Los Angeles Kings: (97 points)
5th: Phoenix Coyotes: (82 points)
Out of that – San Jose, Dallas and Anaheim will make the playoffs. The Kings *might* grab the 8th spot, but I think the points cutoff is going to be in the high 90s this season. The Stars and Ducks could very well face one another in the opening round. I’m a Homer – I’ll admit it – so I’d pick Dallas in 6 on that series. That’s all I’ll say before I get in too much trouble with the fine folks blogging for the Ducks. I think the Pacific is going to be *very* well represented this year, as always.
Amy Jo (Coyotes):
1. Sharks (Playoffs)
2. Coyotes (Playoffs)
Sharks – The winners of the Presidents Cup haven’t altered their roster much so they should do well. At the same time, they haven’t altered their roster so they will likely exit the playoffs in the 1st round. Changing your captain doesn’t change your choking and being brutalized by the Ducks.
Coyotes – Go us!
Ducks – Bye Pronger! Welcome back Grandpa Niedermayer! Who made that call? I, for one, am super happy that Pronger (and his elbows) are in the East. They are still gritty (Getzlaf and Perry aren’t afraid of filling the douchebag role), but I think the loss of Pronger drops them from 2nd to 3rd in the Pacific.
Stars – They are talented, but they have a new coach in Crawford. Hopefully, they won’t gel.
Kings – They added some nice talent, but their best player is a zombie.
Gann Matsuda (Kings): San Jose, despite their poor showing in the playoffs, will be tough once again. Anaheim is going to be in the mix as well. Who knows what’s going to happen with Phoenix and Dallas appears to be trending downward now, so, right now, before training camp has even started, I’d say that the Kings are well-positioned for third place in the division.
As for the Western Conference, you have to figure Detroit, San Jose, and Chicago are locks for the post-season. Vancouver might be a lock as well. Maybe Calgary, too. But after that, the West looks wide open and the Kings could easily get in at the eighth spot. Maybe even sixth or seventh, although I’d have to say they squeak in at eighth.