Last year saw a changing of the guard as the Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings made the playoffs for the first time since the lockout. On the flip side, perennial powers in Dallas and Anaheim saw their grip on expected playoff spots loosen. It will be interesting to see if the youthful Kings and Coyotes can continue to build on their successful 2009-10 seasons. The Ducks and Stars will do their best to show it was only a one year aberration.
And the San Jose Sharks? Well, they were still the Sharks.
Here are the writers we have lined up to break down the Pacific Division from a local perspective.
Earl Sleek from Battle of California (Ducks)
Brandon Worley from Defending Big D (Stars)
Keith Korneluk from Kingscast (Kings)
Jenna from the Hipchecks blog (Coyotes)
Matthew Taylor from Fear The Fin (Sharks)
1. Tell us why your team will be better this season than they were last.
Earl (Ducks): For one reason, no J.S. Giguere in the net. Giguere is an Anaheim legend, but he certainly cost the Ducks last year — he didn’t pick up a win until the week of Thanksgiving and struggled throughout the early season with a 3.14 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage. Jonas Hiller had a 2.73 GAA and a .918 sv%, and Curtis McElhinney had a 2.76 GAA and a .917 sv%, for comparison — Giguere was noticeably worse. In fact, McElhinney appeared in 10 games in a Ducks uniform and picked up 5 wins; Giguere appeared in 20 games for the Ducks and picked up only 4.
Also, we should have about eight fewer players going to the Olympics this year; that’s a good thing.
Brandon (Stars): Hopefully it’s because the Stars have a season under their belts in Marc Crawford’s system. It was obvious the first half of last season that the team was struggling to find their identity under Crawford. Unfortunately, by the time it appeared that things were finally clicking, the season was already lost. Crawford didn’t change everything but his slight shift in philosophy was certainly enough to throw this team off a bit. Whether that’s on the players or the coaches…well, we’ll find out this season.
Now, I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, but there is something to be said about a team where every single player is buying into what the coach is selling. There were two players on the team last season, now departed, who appeared to not be all that interested in being complete team players. Blasphemy, I know, but with the Stars moving forward with players who are moving forward as a (hopefully) cohesive unit, the overall effectiveness of the team as a whole should improve.
Keith (Kings): The Kings are stronger defensively with the addition of Willie Mitchell and the subtraction of Randy Jones. This gives the team a puck mover on every pairing (assuming one of the young kids takes that final spot) along with a defensive defenseman. At an average age of 27.2, the Los Angeles Kings are poised to receive a boost from their young core who should take an additional step forward from last season. Assuming prized prospect Jonathan Bernier makes the team, the Kings will be stronger in goal. Having a reliable backup goaltender will allow workhorse Jonathan Quick a few additional nights off.
Jenna (Coyotes): Tippett is very good at working with what he is given. He is one of the reasons that the Coyotes transformed like they did in such a short time. Don Maloney is doing the best to put together a competitive team, given the constraints of what he has to work with.
Also, Bryz now has a full season of starter under his belt. I started to feel much more confident with him in net about half way through last season. He has now proven he can be a starter. Upshall will be back and healthy. He was really getting in the grove of things before his injury. If we had him for the playoffs, I think we would have been a better team.
Matthew (Sharks): That’s a tough one, especially because the Sharks lost some pieces over the summer and added very few. The biggest loss is franchise goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who was given his walking papers after starring for the team for over a decade. Although Nabokov’s numbers were pretty exceptional, his backups have had similar numbers over the past few years which suggests that the Sharks system can succeed with nearly any goalie.
Antero Niittymaki and Thomas Greiss will split time in goal, and the Sharks have some pretty decent prospects left in the system. They might not be ready this year, but the strength of the system was a reason that Niittymaki only got two years.
What really makes Sharks fans nervous, though, is the defense. Although Rob Blake was a shadow of himself while in teal, he was still a very capable shut down defenseman who logged heavy minutes. He’ll be missed, because as of now, Niclas Wallin finds himself in a top four role.
The improvement from last year will come from the young talent on the roster. First, Marc-Edouard Vlasic is expected to continue to improve. Although he’s already a four-year NHL veteran, he’s only 23 and is already one of the top defensive defensemen in the NHL. If he adds some offensive numbers to his game, the Sharks defense will look alot more complete.
Jason Demers, another young defenseman, is a relative lock to make the team after he signed a two year extension over the summer that will start after this season. He’s no stopper, but he has the puck moving and scoring skills that are extremely valuable in the NHL today. He scored 21 points in just 54 NHL games last year, and should expand on that total.
Perhaps most important, though, is rookie Logan Couture. He showed last year that he was deserving of the hype that accompanied him as a top ten pick in 2007. He could find himself anywhere in the top nine group of forwards, and could easily score 30-40 points. He’ll essentially replace Manny Malhotra, who was lost to Vancouver.
Other rookies will be looked to to contribute, but one has to remember that this team is still filled with NHL All Stars. Thornton, Heatley, Marleau, Boyle and Pavelski will all be expected to produce, and if they do, the team should be able to overcome the apparent weakness on the back end.
2. What part of your team are you concerned about this season?
Earl (Ducks): Oh, the blueline for sure. The Ducks have parted ways with their #1, #2, #3, #4, and #6 defensemen in terms of total ice time last season, most notably with Scott Niedermayer’s retirement. Even though they’ve brought in some reliable defenders in Toni Lydman and Andy Sutton, and even though they’ll enjoy a full year out of Lubomir Visnovsky, and even though there’s some legitimate wildcards in play with Luca Sbisa and Cam Fowler, that’s still a lot of parts that need to come together somehow. Special teams is a real concern — Niedermayer played more shorthanded minutes last season than Lydman and Sutton combined.
Brandon (Stars): As it’s been for about three seasons now, it’s the defense. The Stars haven’t been able to significantly upgrade this group in a long time and are once again relying on the continued development of a number of younger defensemen. When Brad Lukowich is your difference-making addition on the blue line, then you know things are going to be interesting. The only real hope is that Matt Niskanen is able to reset and finally live up to his potential, while Nik Grossman and Mark Fistric continue to grow into very solid young defensemen. Stephane Robidas needs someone to take the pressure off of him in that No. 1 spot as he has faded in each of the past two seasons. There are a few bright spots on the horizon though, with Philip Larsen on the cusp of making the team and free agent acquisition Severin Blindenbacher providing an interesting option for the future.
Keith (Kings): Offense. There are five top-six forwards on the team (although you could argue there are four). Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams like to spend some relaxing time on injured reserve each season. If they decide to do it together, it’s Kopitar and Brown (arguably) who have bonafide top-six talent. The Kings seemed poised to land Ilya Kovalchuk this off-season which would have given Kopitar an elite winger who can score in bunches. At this point Kings fans need to hope that two rookies have terrific training camps and make cases for the Calder Trophy. Further, substituting Alexi Ponikarovsky for Alexander Frolov is not an upgrade. While Poni is capable of 20 goals, he doesn’t control the puck nearly as well as Frolov. The Kings, again, will need to score by committee unless a trade happens (unlikely).
Jenna (Coyotes): My biggest concern is the loss of Zbynek Michalek. It seems most Penguin fans do not know what Z has done for this team. They look at his stats, not many goals or assists but he is a true defensive defenseman. He practically becomes the teams backup goalie on the ice. There was a joke last season (and I can’t remember who said it) but if for some odd reason Bryz and LaBarbera couldn’t play, they would stick Z in net. He covered for the likes of Jovo, which is going to be a hard role for the Coyotes to fill. He is our biggest loss this off-season and will be missed by those of us who have seen him play year in and year out.
Another concern is without a real owner, it seems we are putting together a hodge-podge team. I feel almost like we are taking a step backwards signing vets like Ray Whitney and hoping the younger guys are ready to step up. This reminds me of Gretzky’s last team here and that was not good.I know Don Maloney and Dave Tippett aren’t Gretzky but it still scares me. I will need to see it to believe it.
Matthew (Sharks): As mentioned before, it’s the defense without any doubt. Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Douglas Murray are the only defenseman capable of playing a top four role. Jason Demers will improve, but not enough to throw him into situations which require a defensive stopper. Niclas Wallin is getting long in the tooth, but Doug Wilson decided to invest $2.5MM in the player next season. Although he was injured last year and didn’t contribute as Wilson expected him to, there’s little reason to believe that he will be much better this year.
The last defensive spot appears to belong to Kent Huskins, who played well last year. However, Wilson has claimed that he will improve the defense at some point from now until the deadline, and has also championed the prospects in the system such as Nick Petrecki, Derek Joslin and Mike Moore. If one of them impresses, they could easily find themselves on the NHL roster.
Patience is needed with this group, if only because the GM has hinted a move will be coming.
3. Each year there are players who break onto the scene as all-stars or even superstars. Sometimes it’s a rookie who is already expected to be great, sometimes it’s a rookie who shocks the world, and sometimes it’s a younger player who simply comes into their own. Which player on your team should we expect to have a breakout season?
Earl (Ducks): It’s kind of tough to say, but it seems that either Luca Sbisa or Cam Fowler is going to have to have a breakout season if the Anaheim blueline is going to be successful; the team needs a power play pointman to play with Lubomir Visnovsky, and as far as I can see that spot is wide open (unless Getzlaf takes it). Even so, there’s just not enough experienced defensemen under contract in Anaheim to fill all the Niedermayer minutes — one of these kids will get a chance for sure. But I’ve seen very little out of either player, so it’s tough to pinpoint which kid it will be.
Brandon (Stars): The past three seasons for the Stars it’s been Loui Eriksson, James Neal and then Jamie Benn. It’s tough to say if there’s another team with the same potential this season since Scott Glennie is still about a season away and Philip Larsen will likely start in the AHL. If I had to hedge my bets, however, it would be that Tom Wandell will have a great season as the third line center for the Stars. He’s not going to approach “star” status anytime soon but he has the potential to be a very solid and potentially electrifying player for the Stars this season. He’s solid defensively and has the speed and playmaking ability to create havoc in the offensive zone. The question, however, is just how effective he’ll be while recovering from a torn ACL in the middle of last season.
Keith (Kings): Kings fans have been touting Jonathan Bernier as the second coming of Rogie Vachon since the day he was drafted. In three games with Los Angeles last season, he showed flashes of brilliance winning all three and posting a 1.30 GAA and a .957 SV%. Bernier certainly has the talent to flourish at the NHL level. His stability and excellent decision making should give Quick a run for his money or, at least, provide solid backup goaltending.
Jenna (Coyotes): Wow, there could be so many of them. I seriously don’t know where to start. Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker and Viktor Tikhonov have all had a year in the NHL, a year in the AHL (or KHL, whatever) and are primed to make the NHL again this year. Hopefully, with more experience, they will all live up to their expectations, even surpass them.
Then there are the newcomers, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Maxim Goncharov. Both are expected to make the team. One, or both, could fill the hole Z left on the blue line. These will be the two that everyone is watching at camp.
I also think we should keep our eye on Sami Lepisto. He didn’t have a great season last year but it wasn’t bad. It was his first full NHL season. He seemed to have lost some of his scoring dynamo but I expect him to get it back. Or maybe become even more defensively minded.
Oh and, Bizz’s twitter account. Definitely expect a breakout/all-star season there. It will be back on Tuesday!
Matthew (Sharks): There are two, and I mentioned both when answering the first question.
First, rookie Logan Couture will score at least 30 points. I’m almost certain of this. If he finds himself in the top six group of forwards for any prolonged stretch of time, that number could balloon to 50. He has all the talent and all the skill to succeed at the NHL level, and he was a 1.5 point per game player in the AHL. This kid is going to be a star. Many forget that he’s still eligible for the Calder, but they wont once the season starts. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is in the running come next offseason.
Second, Jason Demers will be given every opportunity to succeed with the team. He scored 21 points in 54 NHL games last year playing third pairing minutes, but with Rob Blake gone, he’ll get more opportunities to play and subsequently score. Demers should find himself in the lineup every day, and a 35 point season is well within reach if he progresses as expected.
Lastly, Marc-Edouard Vlasic is already one of the top defensive defensemen in the league, but is often overlooked. With San Jose’s defensive unit in shambles, he could make a name for himself by helping Dan Boyle carry them through the season.
4. We all know that watching a team for 82 games allows us to appreciate things casual fans won’t necessarily recognize. Which guy on your bench doesn’t get nearly the respect he deserves?
Earl (Ducks): Well, when Teemu Selanne went down last season with his self-inflicted leg laceration, Dan Sexton came out of nowhere and played a serviceable second-line winger with Bobby Ryan and Saku Koivu. The “Registered Sex Offender”, as I call him, has a Selanne-like willingness to shoot the puck, despite being rather undersized. I’m not really sure that the Sex Offender is going to crack the everyday lineup this season in Anaheim — it seems he needs that sheltered top-six role — but when he’s needed he’s a surprisingly useful option.
Brandon (Stars): I’ve always been a big Toby Petersen fan. He’s extremely versatile and I don’t think he gets near the amount of respect he deserves as third and fourth line option for the Stars. He’s speedy, he’s solid defensively, and he’s a perfect example of a how a hard working player can overcome a talent deficiency in comparison to the players around him. He’s much more of a seasoned veteran than many realize and he uses that experience to his advantage when he’s out on the ice. He’s one of my favorite players on the team and yet it feels as if he’s just a forgotten guy on the team.
Keith (Kings): A lot of Kings fans will disagree with me but it’s got to be Oscar Moller has, somehow, landed on Terry Murray’s “bad list”. He’s small but he’s feisty, has great hands and can score some great goals. He’s got great character and plays hard. Sooner or later he will break through. I just hope it’s with the Kings.
Jenna (Coyotes): In the past I would answer this question with Z but he is no longer ours.
So I need to come up with someone new? Man, this might be difficult!
I would have to go with Petr Prucha. Even Rangers fans know how valuable he is to the team. He is the little engine that could. He never gives up and he always give it his all. And he loves to plant his little butt in front of the opposing goalie. And lord knows we need more players that are willing to get the deflections and rebounds.
Matthew (Sharks): I’ll be the first to admit that I was against the Scott Nichol signing last offseason. Boy, was I wrong.
Nichol has not only become a fan favorite, but also the heartbeat of the squad. He was the best face off man in the league last season, winning a whopping 60.6% of his draws.
But that’s not all. Nichol is also an agitator and a fierce competitor, and he’s not against taking on a larger opponent. He’s a necessary member of the team and one of the better free agent signings made by Doug Wilson.
5. The Moment of Truth: I understand that everyone is an expert BEFORE the season starts; so as bloggers, it’s important to throw up your pre-season predictions so everyone can mock you later. If your credibility was on the line, how would you rank the final standings of the Pacific Division? More importantly, which teams do you think will make the playoffs from the Pacific?
Earl (Ducks): Hahahaha, credibility? I’ll show you. Ducks, Kings, Sharks, Yotes, Stars, with some fluctuation possible on that Ducks spot. Kings and Ducks both qualify, but then the universe explodes from the two-SoCal-teams-in-the-same-playoffs paradox.
Brandon (Stars): Here’s how I think the division will shake out, although we all know there are just too many variables to accurately predict these things:
1. San Jose
2. Los Angeles
Anaheim and Dallas could be interchangeable here because they’re both going to be awful. I think San Jose, Los Angeles and Phoenix makes the playoffs.
Jenna (Coyotes): 1. Sharks
2. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say LA.
I’d say 4 and 5 are pretty interchangeable. Last year I put Coyotes to end 8th in the West and everyone mocked me, everyone put them dead last. I guess what I am trying to say is as a Coyotes fan… I am used to being mocked!
Matthew (Sharks): I agree that LA has improved, but I still give San Jose the edge in the Pacific Division. Here’s how I think it shakes out:
I think that the Sharks and Kings will make the playoffs as high seeds (top 5), but I’m not so sure about the Coyotes. I do know, however, that the Ducks and Stars will have a very hard time making the playoffs next year, and I don’t think either will end making the cut.
The next division up in our Blogger Roundtable Preview series will be the Central on Wednesday, September 15. If you want to take a look at the entire schedule, you can check it out here—or if you want to make sure you don’t miss anything, you can subscribe to VFMS (via email or RSS) for the next couple of weeks. If there are any writers you found interesting here, I urge you to go check out their sites. Each and every writer who participated has an extremely good site and pump out great content year-round!