2010-11 Pucking Awesome NHL Preview: Pacific Division
Only three teams have ever won the Pacific Division since the three division per conference re-alignment for the 1997-1998 NHL season. They are the Sharks, Ducks and Stars. The Coyotes and Kings both had remarkable seasons last year and both teams hope to build upon that success and perhaps clinch their first Pacific crown. This division also boasts two Stanley Cup wins in the past 12 years, with the Stars winning the cup during the 1998-99 season and the Ducks winning it during the 2006-07 season. Discounting overtime losses, each team in the Pacific was ten games over .500 at home except for the Kings and Coyotes who were nine over.
Rear-view Mirror: The Sharks rolled their way to a second straight Western Conference title and advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2004. They then lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The addition of Dany Heatley (39G-43A-82P) added to an already potent line consisting of Joe Thornton (20-69-89) and Patrick Marleau (44-39-83). On the backend Dan Boyle (15-43-58) paced the Sharks logging 26.12 of ice time per game, 4th in the league, and he was also 4th in the league for defensemen in scoring. The Sharks were the 4th highest scoring team in the league, they had the 4th best power play and the 5th best penalty kill at 85%.
Evgeni Nabokov recorded his best SV% (.922) of his ten year career and he also faced the most shots (2168) of his career. His GAA (2.43) was right around his career average but, along with backup Thomas Greiss , it was good enough as a team to finish 8th in the league.
In the playoffs the Sharks were led by Joe Pavelski (25-26-51) who had a breakout postseason with 17 points. A very welcome changed from a Sharks team that sometimes struggled to score in past postseasons. The Sharks pretty much owned the Avalanche peppering Craig Anderson with a barrage of shots. The series was only closer because of a few gaffes. The Sharks then almost swept the Red Wings pretty much demolishing them impressively. The Sharks run came to an end against the Blackhawks, where they seemingly couldn’t get much going. They were basically manhandled in the same way they manhandled their previous opponents.
Offseason Ins: Antero Niittymaki, Jamal Mayers, Antti Niemi
Offseason Outs: Evgeni Nabokov, Rob Blake (retired), Manny Malhotra
What Makes Them Tick: The Sharks are an experienced yet still somewhat youthful bunch. They have pretty much been through every scenario possible, except a Stanley Cup Final, while still being just below the average age for the league. They have two really talented scoring lines that rival any other teams. The Ryan Clowe (19-38-57), Pavelski and Devin Setaguchi (20-16-36) line is a great second option to the potent Thornton, Heatley and Marleau. Defensively Boyle will continue to log major minutes but expect Jason Demers to creep into more minutes. Demers just came off his 1st NHL season and along with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, both 23, they are the future of the Sharks defense. Vlasic led the Sharks in +/- with a +21. The Sharks were also the top faceoff team in the league, winning 55.6% of their faceoffs.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: The Sharks were looking to upgrade their goaltending, so the let Nabokov walk and signed experienced but somewhat unproven Antero Niittymaki. They also signed Antti Niemi to a one year deal. A great move for the Sharks but one that may become controversial. Niittymaki signed with the Sharks thinking he would be the number one goalie. While that may still be the case, the addition of Niemi certainly clouds that picture. Certainly the Sharks have upgraded their goalie tandem and how they utilize both will be interesting. Niittymaki only brings two games worth of playoff expereince to the table but Niemi brings 22 games and a Stanley Cup. Niemi is the first Sharks’ goalie to have won a Stanley Cup since Mike Vernon did so with the Flames. The Sharks must find a way to stay motivated throughout the season, even though they are only interested in the postseason. Losing Blake will be somewhat of a blow, with no other veteran acquired to take his place, but Demers and Vlasic should be more than capable to handle the load. They also need to cut down on turnovers, as they were the 5th worst in the league with 810 giveaways.
Player to Watch: Joe Thornton is in the last year of his deal you have to assume the Sharks would like to retain him for at least three more years to anchor the Marleau and Heatley line. Depending on how he preforms in the regular season and playoffs, he might price himself out of the Sharks budget. But in order for any team to want him, including the Sharks, he will need to step-up his game in the playoffs. This postseason he lead all players with a -11, a dubious distinction no player would ever want. This season and post season is a make or break, put up or shut up for Thornton.
Prediction: The Sharks hope to wrap up a 4th consecutive Pacific Division crown and a 5th consecutive 100+ point season. There really shouldn’t be any reason they won’t unless Niittymaki falters greatly. As always though, the Sharks season is measured but what they do or do not do in the playoffs. They didn’t really lose any significant pieces in the offseason other than Nabokov. However they have replaced him nicely with Niittymaki and Niemi. The Sharks have to hope that Dan Boyle does not suffer an extended injury as that would be a huge blow to the Sharks. The Sharks are once again early favorites to capture the Stanley Cup. Unlike prior seasons when this was the case, this version of the Sharks have learned enough mentally through past mistakes and have acquired the necessary goaltending pieces to make it into a reality.
Rear-view Mirror: The Kings had their most successful season in awhile making the playoffs for the first time since 2002. They then lost to the Canucks in the 1st round in six games. During the regular season the Kings were one of only two teams, the Capitals were the other, that had eight players score 40 or more points each. The Kings were led by Anze Kopitar (34G-47A-81P) who set career highs in goals, assists, points, +/- and shots on goal. Kopitar also flirted with the league scoring title for a few weeks. Wayne Simmonds (16-24-40) in his 2nd season continued to develop into an all around player. While he was only 8th on the team in points, he almost doubled his point total from last season and he was 1st on the team in +/- with +22 and 2nd in PIM with 116.
On the defensive side Drew Doughty (16-43-59) emerged as one of the premier defensemen in the league and his hard work paid off with a Norris Trophy nomination in only his 2nd season. He was also second on the team in assists, +/- (+20) and points. Jonathan Quick became a workhorse goalie in his 2nd full season and played in 72 games, the 4th most of any goalie. None of Quick’s major stats (2.54 GAA, .907 SV%, 4 SO) were better than his previous season however.
Offseason Ins: Alexei Ponikarovsky, Willie Mitchell
Offseason Outs: Alexander Frolov, Sean O’Donnell, Randy Jones
What Makes Them Tick: The Kings boast an extremely talented and dynamic defensive group. Featuring young Olympians Doughty and Johnson paired with veterans Rob Scuderi and newly signed Willie Mitchell. With the young defensive stars having another year of NHL experience and the addition of another experienced veteran to learn off of, the Kings defense will only get better. Offensively the Kings have a very balanced attacked as alluded to above with eight players with 40+ points each. Kopitar almost had the breakout season everyone was expecting him too before he started to slump somewhat. He still had a great season but this year he should even top that. He should be a 100+ point player this season.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: The Kings will now have expectations for the first time in a long time. How they handle them mentally will determine how successful their season is. Kopitar will need to play more consistently as the Kings are 34-21 when he scores a point and 12-15 when he does not. Overworking Quick is also a potential problem discussed further below. The Kings could also work on turnovers, as they gave away the puck the 4th most with 815 giveaways.
Player to Watch: Jonathan Quick will be under a lot of pressure to preform this year, as the Kings have higher expectations. Quick faltered in the playoffs, where he had the 3rd worse (3.50) GAA and 3rd worse (.884) SV% of playoff goalies who stated at least four games. In order for the Kings to reach their full potential they must get good consistent goaltending from Quick. If Quick falters, the Kings do have a number of options. Erik Ersberg and Jonathan Bernier are two such options. Bernier was sensational in the limited action he saw last season. It’s no doubt that the Kings view Quick, the third goalie on Team USA, as the long term option. It might be wise to play him less games this season, as fatigue was probably a big factor in his playoff slump and the Kings possess more than capable backups.
Prediction: The 6th youngest team in the league, the Kings are poised to improve upon last years balanced success. Frolov and O’Donnell are somewhat significant losses but it shouldn’t have much of an impact on a pretty deep team. O’Donnell is essentially replaced with the Mitchell signing anyway. The Kings should pretty much be a lock to make the playoffs. If Quick can improve his game and Kopitar can take his game to the next level, it’s very possible the Kings could win the division. With the available cap space, I wouldn’t be surprised the Kings add one or two veterans to make a strong playoff run during the season.
Rear-view Mirror: The Ducks missed the playoffs for the first time in five years. A huge disappointment for a team that was a game away from making the Western Conference Finals the year before. Jonas Hiller emerged as the number one goalkeeper when the Ducks traded away fan favorite and former Conn Smythe winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere to the Maple Leafs. Still he wasn’t as sharp as the year before and he had half as many shutouts (2) in 20 more games. In Scott Niedermayer’s swan song he showed that he still had it logging the 3rd most minutes per game in the league but he finished with his lowest +/- (-9) of his 18 year career.
Injuries also plagued the Ducks for most of the year. Ryan Getzlaf (19G-50A-69P) had various injuries at the beginning and end of the season and Teemu Selanne (27-21-48) broke his hand and then his jaw. Joffrey Lupul (10-4-14) started out the season playing in 23 games and fairly well until he had back problems that kept him out the rest of the season. Despite their injuries the Ducks managed to have the 5th best power play in the league, scoring on 21% of their chances.
Offseason Ins: Toni Lydman, Andy Sutton, Aaron Voros
Offseason Outs: James Wisniewski, Scott Niedermayer, Steve Eminger, Mike Brown
What Makes Them Tick: The re-signing of Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu (19-33-52) was a huge relief for the Ducks. Now if the Ducks can finally sign Bobby Ryan (35-29-64) and if Joffrey Lupul is healthy enough to play, the Ducks will be boast arguably the best top 6 forwards in the NHL. Even if Lupul can’t play the Ducks will still be loaded. The Getzlaf, Ryan and Corey Perry (27-49-76) line is one of the best in the league. There are also rumors of a reunion with former Duck and team captain Paul Kariya. But those rumors were squashed when Kariya announced he will need to sit out this season due to post-concussion syndrome. Hiller is still on of the top young goalies in the league. He had stretches where he just didn’t look that great last season. But as he has shown during the ouster of the Sharks in the 2009 playoffs and more recently with the Swiss Olympic team, Hiller is capable of raising his game to another level.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: Not signing Bobby Ryan would certainly be a huge blow but that’s unlikely to happen. Injuries and the defense were the downfall of the Ducks last season and it could very will be that way again. Keeping everyone healthy especially the 40 year old Selanne will be hard to do. GM Bob Murray decided to scrap the whole defense after Scott Niedermayer retired. It’s never easy for any team to lose a future hall of famer on defense two seasons in a row. The Ducks have now done that and are hoping the late season additions they made last year (Lubomir Visnovsky (15-30-45)) , coupled with the changes this offseason of Sutton and Lydman will yield them a competitive defense. The Ducks are always one of the most penalized teams in the league and last year was no exception. They racked up 16.1 PIM a game 3rd worst in the league. The Ducks faceoff winning percentage has been taking a tumble recently. They were 4th worst in the league at 48.1%.
Player to Watch: Ryan Getzlaf is an elite player who boasts a impressive resume. Among his accolades are All-Star appearances, Stanley Cup Champion, Olympic Gold medalist and World Juniors Gold medalist. However, he has yet to produce a 100 point season or more than 25 goals in a season. Now entering the prime of his career and his 6th full season, Getzlaf will be expected to step up his game and also his leadership role on the team. The team captaincy is currently vacant and Getzlaf, a current alternate captain, is the front runner to receive it. Other options include the only other former Ducks captain on the roster Teemu Selanne and current alternate captain and long time Canadiens captain Saku Koivu. If he stays healthy, this could very well be Getzlaf’s elite breakout year.
Prediction: The Ducks can easily go from a mid seeded playoff team to not making the playoffs at all. They will probably get in as the 7th or 8th seed. The forwards, especially the big guns, need to stay healthy, if they do that they will develop chemistry and score a lot of goals. On the back end Hiller needs to play better than he did last season. How the defense clicks will ultimately determine the fate of this team. Luca Sbisa, acquired in the Chris Pronger trade, will really need to develop into a top four defenseman in his first full season in the NHL. He played well for the Swiss Olympic team, this past Olympics, with teammate Hiller. Sbisa is also looking to score his first NHL goal. The addition of Sutton will give the Ducks a gritty defenseman who will hopefully rub off on the rest of the defenders. Sutton was 2nd in the league in blocked shots with 204 and 21st overall in hits with 197. Though the Ducks as a team are physical themselves, as they finished 7th in the league in hits with 2050. But they could certainly use the help with blocked shots, as they were the 2nd worst in the league with 943.
Rear-view Mirror: The Coyotes had what you would call a magical season last year. They started the season unsure of whether they would stay in Phoenix and as such played to mostly empty arenas. But by the end of the season, they had flirted with the Western Conference’s best record, made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, recorded their first ever 100+ point season and played to packed “white out” crowds. Despite losing to the Red Wings in seven games in the 1st round of the playoffs, Phoenix accomplished a lot as a team and proved that hockey could make it in the desert.
Ilya Bryzgalov (2.29 GAA, .920 SV%) finally became a household name with his breakout season. He was 2nd in the league in shutouts (8), 3rd in wins (42) and he received a Vezina nomination. He helped the Coyotes to the 3rd best team GAA (2.39) in the NHL.
The Coyotes were an offensively challenged team, ranking near the bottom in goals scored. Shane Doan (18G-37A-55P) lead the Coyotes in points. Only the Bruins had a team leader with less points and the Maple Leafs leader (Phil Kessel) also had 55 points. Radim Vrbata (24-19-43) lead the team in goals, the only player on the Coyotes to crack the 20 goal plateau. On the backend Ed Jovanovski (10-24-34) and Zbynek Michalek (3-14-17) formed a formidable defensive one two punch.
Offseason Ins: Ray Whitney, Andrew Ebbett, Kyle Wellwood
Offseason Outs: Zbynek Michalek, Matthew Lombardi, Daniel Winnik, Lee Stempniak
What Makes Them Tick: Not really having a go to guy on the team means that opponents can’t really zero in on any one player to disrupt the flow of the team. Everyone chips in with their blue collar approach. The Coyotes do well in the shootout, where they had the most wins of any team at 14 and one of the higher winning percentages. They are a well disciplined team coming in with the 7th least PIM a game with 11.3. They also had the 2nd least amount of giveaways with 420. Wojtek Wolski (23-42-65) will now move to the center position and anchor the top line with Doan and Ray Whitney (21-37-58). Of course Ilya Bryzgalov is their biggest strength. Look for him to have another phenomenal season.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: The Coyotes didn’t really add enough players to make themselves a stronger contender in a very tough western conference. The offensive struggles of the Coyotes will more than likely continue which is not something you can realistically get away with two years in a row. Last season the Coyotes had the 3rd worst power play in the league but they did have the 6th best penalty kill. The addition of 18 year veteran Whitney will help, provided he can still prove his has some gas left in the tank. Michalek and his 9th best 156 blocked shots are also gone.
Player to Watch: Wojtek Wolski was the big acquisition last year by the Coyotes who gave up Peter Mueller and Kevin Porter. At the time it seemed like a steal, with Mueller struggling to fit in the with the Coyotes. However, Mueller flourished in the few games he played with the Avalanche and nobody is quite sure what the young Porter will develop into. The pressure is now on Wolski to have his break out season, especially on an offensively challenged team. Last season he set career highs in goals (23), assists (42) and points (65). Look for him to push towards a 30 goal 80 point season.
Prediction: It’s hard to imagine the Coyotes duplicating last years success. Teams will now take them as more of a threat. Key players like Doan and Jovanovski are now each a year older. The loss of Michalek will hurt the Coyotes without anyone really brought in to take his place. Still if any team can make it work and make a run for the playoffs the Coyotes could. Last year at this time things looked even bleaker for them. Kyle Turris the 3rd overall pick in the 2007 draft should see even more playing time this year. He is still low on the depth chart currently but could creep up fast. The Coyotes are also bullish on 8th overall pick of the 2008 draft Mikkel Boedker who only played in 14 games last season. How well these young guns can be integrated into the Coyotes, will determine their playoff fate.
Rear-view Mirror: After five consecutive seasons of making the playoffs, the Stars are currently on a two season streak of not making them. After an injury plagued year, Brad Richards (24G-67A-91P) played his first full season in a Stars jersey and lead them in assists and points. Defenseman Stephane Robidas (10-31-41) continued his exceptional level of play. He was 7th in the league in blocked shots (177) and 4th in the league in hits (269) but 1st overall for defensemen. Loui Eriksson (29-42-71) led the Stars in goals and was 2nd in points.
Marty Turco’s GAA (2.72) and SO (4) were pretty average but he had his best SV% (.913) since 2004. The Stars actually finished last in the Pacific Division for the first time since the NHL switched to the the three division format in the 1998-99 season.
Offseason Ins: Andrew Raycroft, Adam Burish, Brad Lukowich
Offseason Outs: Mike Modano, Marty Turco
What Makes Them Tick: The Stars are a very physical and great checking team. The lead the NHL in hits last season with 2338. Loui Eriksson is just coming into his prime and he should be able to produce another 30+ goal season. Paired with a healthy Brad Richards and gritty veteran and team captain Brenden Morrow (20-26-46) they make a formidable 1st line. The Stars have a lot of free cap space, so they should be in the market to make other improvements. Defenseman Mark Fistric (1-9-10) finished 4th in the league in +/- with a + 27.
What Could Make Them Go Boom: Kari Lehtonen is so far penciled in to be the starting goalie. Lehtonen is now entering his 7th season in the NHL and while he has played well, it’s nothing exceptional that you would want in your number one goalie in this day and age. So while he is not a bad option, he is probably only temporary anyway. The Stars have a few young goalie prospects that could come up this season or next. They include 2006 pick Richard Bachman, 2008 pick Tyler Beskorowany and the 11th pick overall in the 2010 draft Jack Campbell. Despite their physical nature of style, the Stars ended up with the 4th worst penalty kill. Like the Ducks, the Stars also struggle with faceoffs coming in at the 5th worst with 48.1%
Player to Watch: Jamie Benn was a relative unknown last season taken in the 5th round of the 2007 draft. However he was a standout player for the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL and was named to the all-star first team his last year there. He also helped Team Canada win a Gold at the 2009 World Junior Championships. Benn found a home on the 2nd line with the Stars in his first NHL season. He produced 22 goals and 19 assists for 41 points and 3 game winning goals tied for 3rd on the team. Look for more out of Benn in his 2nd season. He has the potential to be a consistent 30+ goal scorer.
Prediction: It’s a transition season for Dallas as the team shed two veterans (Turco, Modano) who most identified as the faces of the franchise. Playing in a fairly strong division it is not likely the Stars will make the playoffs and they seem destined for last place for the 2nd year in a row. However the Stars didn’t miss the last playoff spot by much, like a lot of teams out West. They still boast two impressive scoring lines and one of the top defenseman in the league in Robidas. The team certainly is not an easy win especially in Dallas. If Lehtonen or one of the young prospects can perform well in goal, anything is possible.
Author: Alex Mueller
Alex Mueller graduated from Temple University with a minor in journalism over a decade ago. He’s been writing about NHL hockey, on and off, since the Fall of 2009. He’s written for Pucking Awesome, the Checking Line and now Hockey Recaps. He played goalie at San Diego Ice Arena. His first novel, Bobby Sterling vs Truth, is available on Amazon now.