Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pacific Division Preview

The sound of skates on ice and the ping of the puck hitting the post has finally returned to stadiums all over the US and Canada, after the season premier series in Europe ended Saturday. A (somewhat) new NHL franchise has been reestablished in Winnipeg, creating a mad rush for retro jerseys. The addition is requiring some teams to play musical chairs to even out the divisions in years to come. In the Pacific Division, it’s looking like another competitive season for the southwest.

The Anaheim Ducks are looking to best their poor showing in last year’s playoffs, after losing in the first round to Nashville in six games. Unfortunately, that’s not all they lost this summer.

Todd Marchant announced his retirement in late June, but will stay with the franchise as the Director of Player Development. The hole he’s left in the center of the ice will be taken up by new acquisition Andrew Cogliano, who will most likely add two-way smarts to the third line and speed to the penalty kill.

Also on the outs is goalie Ray Emery, which had left fans wondering if the streaky Dan Ellis will be stable enough to handle the pressure of the number one position if Jonas Hiller’s vertigo returns. Hiller has reportedly been feeling better, according to all reports, but fans can breathe a little easier after the Ducks picked up Jeff Deslauriers. Based upon his .901 save percentage in Edmonton, he’ll play the third string, but his character and size make him an adequate backup in the big show if Hiller gets dizzy again.

Fan’s wishes were granted on September 15, just days before training camp. Teemu “One More” Selanne announced his intent to keep playing for at least one more year. Since winning the cup in 2007, he’s flirted with the idea of retirement, but has always decided he’d rather be slapping hockey pucks than putting golf balls. The Ducks lured him with a season opener in his native Finland and the $4 million that’s left of the Duck’s internal payroll. The Ducks are right to be so invested – last season Selanne was number three on the team for goals with 31, and first for power play goals with 16.

Kurtis Foster, who should make an impact on the power play, was also acquired from Edmonton. Foster gained 14 of his 22 points on the power play last season. It’s a chance for Foster to add depth to the Duck’s volatile power play unit, and a big step up from Edmonton’s lackluster line. Another stand-out acquisition from the off-season is left wing Andrew Gordon, from the Washington Capitals. He was outstanding during the preseason, playing strong as part of the PK unit and scoring three goals.

Going into the season, the Ducks will still be relying pretty heavily on their first line of Corey Perry, the Hart Trophy winner last season after scoring a league-leading 50 goals, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf . Rated as one of the top lines in the NHL, the three were a little underwhelming in the preseason, but should pick up the pace in time for the home opener on Friday.

Thirty miles up the 5 interstate freeway finds the Los Angeles Kings sharing a stadium with only two other sports franchises, instead of four since the lockdown of the NBA.

Drew Doughty’s re-signing has fans hopeful for a better performance in the post-season than their first-round loss to division rival San Jose last season. After missing the last seven games of the regular season and six playoff games on an injured ankle, Anze Kopitar is back in his skates to put the pressure on high. Also returning is netminder Jonathan Quick, who stood on his head to keep the Sharks on their toes in the playoffs.

One of the biggest off-season news stories was Ryan Smyth’s trade to Edmonton for an injured Colin Fraser. The Kings have filed a grievance with the Oilers, stating that the Oilers claimed he was days away from being healthy at the time of the trade. When the Kings took a closer look, it was determined that Fraser will need foot surgery before he can even think about putting on his skates. Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi is having serious buyer’s remorse, claiming he “would have rather invested my money with Bernie Madoff than invest in Edmonton’s word,” according to the LA Times. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will have to make a ruling eventually, but it’s doubtful there will be any direct changes.

What has changed will leave fans mourning the loss of center Michal Handzus in the faceoff circle, but a nice addition was center and former captain Mike Richards in exchange for Wayne Simmonds to the Philadelphia Flyers. Richards is an elite two-way center and a born leader. With Richards and Kopitar, the Kings are strong in the center.

Richards is also a familiar face to coach Terry Murray, who coached him in Philadelphia. Richards is looking forward to playing for him again, and possibly notching 70-75 points this season, after getting 23 goals and 66 points in 81 games in 2010-2011.

Richards also has a buddy in former teammate Simon Gagne from Tampa Bay, who played with Richards in Philadelphia in 2008-2009. Gagne scored 34 goals that season, and could have a much bigger impact in California if he can stay healthy. Though he’s been plagued by several injuries, Gagne is a superb skater with solid defensive instincts that can be deadly on the penalty kill. If he spends a few days building his strength at nearby Muscle Beach, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

The Kings still lack a big enforcer to protect their top scorers, an issue they’ll have to work out before they get too deep in the season.

Last season saw the Kings surrender to the San Jose Sharks at the end of six games in the first round of the playoffs, a disappointing end for the Kings. San Jose was also left wanting more when they were knocked out in the third round in five devastating games to the Vancouver Canucks.

In a bizarre team-up with the Minnesota Wild, the Sharks have made key decisions in trading away some of their top players, including Dany Heately, prized prospect Charlie Coyle and Devin Setoguchi. In return, the Sharks landed Martin Havlat and Brent Burns, respectively, and also acquired James Sheppard in exchange for a third-round draft pick in 2013.

While Martin Havlat was somewhat underwhelming in Minnesota, he’ll have a supporting cast in San Jose with players like Joe Thornton and Ryan Clowe that ought to let his star really shine. His speed will also be an asset in scoring highlight-worthy goals. He’ll have to watch out for heavy hits though, as he’s prone to more injuries than a diving Italian soccer player.

Brent Burns’s contract came at a steep price, $28.8 million over the next five years, which equates to just over $5 million each year. That’s the equivalent of 1,577,218 gallons of gas. San Jose is hoping he’ll be worth it. Burns has proved himself to be a superb defenseman, though he started out as a right winger. At 26, he’s got great size and a high-octane speed that should take some pressure off of Dan Boyle and make a volatile power play. In 80 games, he had had 17 goals, 46 points, 133 hits, and 106 blocked shots last season.

The Shark’s third Minnesota deal landed center James Sheppard in the Bay Area. Sheppard was the ninth overall pick in 2006 but has yet to live up to expectations. He missed all of last season after breaking his kneecap, (Tonya Harding has denied any involvement in his off-ice accident) but has notched 11 goals and 38 assists in 224 career games. He’ll make an impact in the bottom six, which gives the Sharks some depth.

The Sharks also signed the recently bought out defenseman Colin White from New Jersey. White will be traveling from the Shore to the Bay to be yet another penalty killer and Stanley Cup winner to add to the Sharks roster. He’s a nice complement to the already-intimidating blue line that now includes Burns, and newcomer James Vandermeer from Edmonton.

These were blockbuster trades, but they were necessary. The Sharks have been in the playoffs every season since the 2002-2003 season, but still do not have a Stanley Cup to show for it. Perhaps this will be the turning point for the franchise.

A postseason appearance was all that the 2010-2011 Dallas Stars team could hope for, after a late-season push proved to be not enough to secure the 8th seeded spot. Their 95 point season trailed the division-leading Sharks by only ten points. They were the only team in the Pacific Division excluded from the playoffs, and had to watch from the sidelines as they have for the past four seasons.

Much like San Jose, the franchise is begging for a change. It seems the team has recovered nicely from the loss of Marty Turco in goal, relying on Kari Lehtonen and Andrew Raycroft to defend between the pipes. But the loss of Brad Richards might be more detrimental as they’re looking to fill the space left by the sharp-shooting center.

Winger Michael Ryder could be a major contributor to make Richards absence less noticeable. Coming off a Stanley Cup win with Boston, Ryder had a solid season with 18 goals and 41 points in 79 games. He’ll need a strong center to set him up with a sniper shot, and the Stars think they found an answer in Radek Dvorak. Dvorak will be a top-six winger with the Stars this year, after getting only seven goals and 22 points in 63 games last season. Inheriting the spotlight from Richards, players like Dvorak will have an outstanding opportunity to improve on that record.

The versatile Vernon Fiddler will also have a chance to shine. Fiddler can play on the wing or center in the bottom six forwards, and plays with enough hockey smarts to be a defensive threat as well. Also looking to make an impact is the almost-healed Adam Pardy, an acquisition from the Flames. Pardy has the size and defensive know-how the Stars need to add depth to their blue line, but remains on the injured reserve list for the time being.

It was a rough season last year, and perhaps toughest for coach Marc Crawford, who was relieved of his duties as head coach just two days after the Stars lost their last game to Minnesota, eliminating them from the playoffs. Crawford was faced with a tough conference, and Dallas was the only Pacific Division team that was left behind. He has been replaced with Glen Gulutzan, the former coach of the AHL Texas Stars who made it to the playoffs both seasons since its inaugural 2009-2010 season, and even advanced to the Calder Cup final that first year. Under his direction, the Stars hope to not only make it to the playoffs, but become a contender for the cup they haven’t won since 1999.

Phoenix has also been struggling for a Cup win, and the changes they made this summer could give them a chance to make another playoff appearance. The 'Yotes first off-season move was to fill the spot left by the sometimes spectacular, but mostly solid Ilya Bryzgalov.

Mike Smith’s saving grace came at the right time. Smith was traded to Phoenix from Tampa Bay where he was denied a chance to start and was shuffled down to the minors after Tampa acquired starter Dan Ellis and veteran Dwayne Roloson. Smith will have competition for the number one spot from Jason LaBarbera, who served as Bryzgalov’s backup last season, but Smith will remain in the big show either way.

It was a big day in Phoenix when the ‘Yotes captured defenseman Keith Yandle. Yandle scored 11 goals and ranked third among defensemen with 59 points in 82 games last season. His game has improved considerably over the past few years, and he’s got the offensive instincts that will become crucial in a power play situation. He’ll be the top defenseman in Phoenix, where he can continue to improve.

The Coyotes were seeking some true grit for their third line, and Raffi Torres came for the reward. Torres is tough in the corners, hard-hitting and, most importantly, can score goals. He’s not afraid to crash the net and by doing so, earned himself 14 goals and 29 points in 80 games with Vancouver last year.

The team’s defense-oriented system will be necessary as they will not be able to rely solely on Smith and LaBarbera. The franchise re-signed key players like Lauri Korpikoski and Radim Vrbata that work well in that system to shut down their own zone.

With four out of five teams making a postseason appearance, the Pacific Division has produced more championship contenders than an underage Chinese gymnastics team. Unfortunately, only three Stanley Cup championships have been awarded in the Pacific Division since its inception in 1993. However, that might change this upcoming season. At the end of the 2010-2011 season, there was only a ten point difference between San Jose’s division champion team, and the Stars team that was shunned from the playoffs. This division keeps getting tougher, it’s only a matter of time until Stanley comes calling again.