Friday, 17 August 2012

Pacific Division Preview

In the final preview of the Western Conference, I take a look at the Pacific which has been dominated by the 3 Californian teams for quite some time. The Pacific Division title was up for grabs up until the last day of the regular season and four of the teams were all in contention until the last week. Here is what I see happening next season:

Anaheim Ducks

2011/2012 Rank: 13 (15 points out)

Offseason moves:

In - Daniel Winnik, Brad Staubitz, Bryan Allen, Sheldon Souray, Victor Fasth

Out - Lubomir Visnovsky, Niklas Hagman, Jason Blake, Kurtis Foster

With a less than stellar start to the season, Ducks GM Bob Murray decided it was time for a coaching change and scooped up Bruce Boudreau only a week after he had been let go by the Capitals. It's no surprise that the players had a tough time adapting from Carlyle's defensive system to Boudreau's run and gun game, which led to a rough first couple of weeks for Bruce. Even though they bounced back during the holidays, they did not fair much better with a coaching change as Boudreau lead them to a losing record of 27-23-8. I don't think it's a fault against Boudreau, but Bob Murray. The Ducks are just not deep enough up front after Ryan, Perry, Getzlaf and the ageless Selanne. Sure, they have some nice youngsters in Devante Smith-Pelly and Kyle Palmieri, but secondary scoring of Andrew Cogliano and Saku Koivu won't cut it in the tight Western Conference. Combine this is with the forever swirling Bobby Ryan trade rumours and the potential expiring contracts of Perry and Getzlaf next season, and I fear for the Ducks immediate future on offense.

They have tried to shore up their back end with signings like Bryan Allen and Sheldon Souray, but they stop gaps that aren't that impressive. Trading (pending) Lubomir Visnovsky for only a 2nd round pick and not replacing him is also unacceptable. Cam Fowler is a nice piece to have on the blue line, but he is young, raw and still has a lot to learn after a decrease in points from his rookie year to last year; as well as a combined -53 in his time in the NHL. I do believe that Jonas Hiller is one of the most underrated goalies in the league, but his set back with vertigo has prevented him from playing to his full potential. If these problems continue, they have Viktor Fasth as a backup. However, we have all seen what can troubles highly touted goalies from the SEL can have adapting to the smaller NHL ice (see Jonas Gustavsson). Right now, it seems that the West is just too strong for the Ducks to compete with their lack of depth, but they have the top end talent to make them competitive if all goes well.

Why they'll make it - The big 4 on offense, Fowler and Hiller put the team on their backs to a low playoff seeding

Why they'll miss - Lack of depth up front, lack of talent on defense

Dallas Stars

2011/2012 Rank: 10 (6 points out)

Offseason moves:

In - Derek Roy, Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney, Cody Eakin, Aaron Rome

Out - Sheldon Souray, Mike Ribeiro, Steve Ott, Adam Burish, Radek Dvorak

The Stars have been one of the most interesting teams this offseason, adding skilled vets like Jagr & Whitney and making some big trades by bringing in Derek Roy and shipping out Mike Ribeiro in separate deals. The question is, have they improved? If so, is it enough to get them back into the playoffs? My answers to these questions are yes, and no by a slim margin. While they have a very impressive offense with a young star in Jamie Benn and the often unsung but fantastic Loui Eriksson to go along with their new additions, I am skeptical of their defense. Stefan Robidas isn't getting any younger and their only other really noteworthy defender is Alex Goligoski.

I also don't believe that Derek Roy will prove to be an upgrade on Mike Ribeiro, and remain confused by the move as they are both undersized, soft forwards. Most of all, I think the loss of a heart and soul guy like Steve Ott will make opponents much less fearful of the Stars - especially with the importance physicality plays in the Western Conference. Much like Semyon Varlamov, Kari Lehtonen is an extremely talented goaltender that has been held back by injuries for most of his career. After coming off his most successful season to date, I still have faith in the Finnish netminder. It was one of the hardest predictions for me to make, but I see the Stars just missing the playoffs, ending up in 9th or 10th.

Why they'll make it - Offense carries them, Kari Lehtonen makes up for sub-par defense

Why they'll miss - Lack of defensive talent and toughness up front will have them fall just short

Los Angeles Kings

2011/2012 Rank: 8th (Stanley Cup Champions)

Offseason moves:

In - N/A

Out - N/A

Honestly, I don't have much to say about the defending Stanley Cup Champions. After acquiring Jeff Carter at the trade deadline, the Kings were one of the best teams in the league and snuck into the 8th seed in the West. On paper, the team was supposed to finish much higher than they did but a struggling offense held them back. The addition of Carter seemed to reignite Mike Richards and the consistently steady defense of the Kings and stellar goaltending of Jonathon Quick was finally complimented with offensive support. As everyone knows, they followed up their impressive late season run with a stunning 16-4 record to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup. Not only that, but they were able to retain the entire Cup winning team with cap room to spare. Anze Kopitar has taken the next step to superstar level, and if Drew Doughty stays motivated and Jonathon Quick plays like he can, I don't see any way this team does not win the division. 

Why they'll make it - Stay the course, stars and depth at all positions

Why they'll miss - Stanley Cup hangover, Doughty major injury and Quick one hit wonder (so, very unlikely)

Phoenix Coyotes

2011/2012 Rank: 3

Offseason moves:

In - David Moss, Steve Sullivan, Zbynek Michalek

Out - Ray Whitney, Daymond Langkow, Gilbert Brule, Shane Doan?

The Coyotes surprised the hockey world by making it to the conference finals last season on the back of goaltender Mike Smith. It is sad that even with a division title to their name and playoff success that there continue to be ownership issues in the desert. It seems that with all of the issues with the new CBA and realignment, that the Coyotes ownership issues will be put to the back burner and they will lose their long time captain and hero, Shane Doan. I feel sorry for 'Yotes fans as I believe if this happens, it will be the final stake in the coffin for their dying franchise. With potential loss of Doan and Whitney, their already weak offense will have lost 2 of their top 3 scorers from last season.

Although Dave Tippett and Don Maloney are two of the best in the league at what they do, you can only do so much with the ownership restrictions. They are looking very strong on D with the re-acquisition of Zbynek Michalek and Oliver-Ekman Larsson looking like a stud defenseman in this league - oh and don't forget 2 time all-star Keith Yandle. However, their defense and Smith can only do so much to help this team win games without offensive support. For this reason, I see them near the bottom of the West.

Why they'll make it- Dave Tippett coaches his way to the playoffs, strong D

Why they'll miss - Lack of scoring, Mike Smith can't stand on his head forever

San Jose Sharks

2011/2012 Rank: 7

Offseason moves:

In - Brad Stuart,  Adam Burish, James Sheppard

Out - Daniel Winnik, Torrey Mitchell, Colin White

The Sharks haven't been able to shake their title of regular season heroes, playoff zeros. Well, that may not be entirely fair as they have made it to the conference finals twice in the last 3 years, but they have a combined 1 win from those series. I mostly blame Joe Thornton (as do most others), but that's beside the point. I really like the depth the Sharks have in their lineup and think that last year was an off year for them. Their offense continues to be led by Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but they have some very impressive secondary scoring in Joe Pavelski, the talented but often injured Martin Havlat, and one of my favorite young players in the league, Logan Couture. Newly acquired Adam Burish and T.J. Galiardi should provide a boost to their bottom 6 as well.

However, the true strength of the Sharks lies on their blue line. Although Boyle is a little grey in the beard, he remains a force on both the offensive and defensive side of the puck. Brent Burns and Marc-Eduard Vlasic will be core pieces on this back end for years to come, and Douglas Murray and re-acquired Brad Stuart add depth and sandpaper to a strong group. Although Antii Niemi is always a wildcard in goal, if he can play solid enough the Sharks should make the playoffs once again. I don't think they will set the West on fire like they have in recent years, but finish in the middle of the pack.

Why they'll make it - Strong defensive and offensive depth

Why they'll miss - Niemi struggles, older stars on the decline

Final Predictions

The final rankings in my Pacific Division preview are:

L.A. Kings
San Jose Sharks
Dallas Stars
Anaheim Ducks
Phoenix Coyotes

With the top 2 in the playoffs and Dallas narrowly missing the dance.