One of the NHL's marketing campaigns coming out of the lookout had ads featuring several star players wondering if the coming season was going to be their team's year.
Funny thing about that question is that the San Jose Sharks have been asking it of themselves for much of the last decade. So naturally it will be front and center as the season approaches and the NHL's most disappointing team once looks for a way to get over the playoff hump that has perennially ruined solid regular seasons.
|Patrick Marleau was the top scorer for San Jose last season with 44 goals. (Getty Images)|
The conventional wisdom at the time was that San Jose's latest setback provided the perfect opportunity for general manager Doug Wilson to change directions and overhaul his roster. But Wilson has resisted the temptation for the most part this offseason, largely because his group finished in the league's top five in offense and special teams and had the NHL's eighth-best defense. In fact, Wilson opted to make only one major change by signing free-agent goalies Antero Nittymaki and Antti Niemi while letting veteran Evgeni Nabokov go to Russia.
San Jose lost future Hall of Famer Rob Blake and grinder Manny Malhotra to free agency as well, but the Sharks used some of the savings to sign Marleau and another key forward, Joe Pavelski, to four-year contract extensions, in essence keeping together the guts of a lineup that always seems on the verge of a breakthrough -- one that Wilson apparently believes is imminent.
"The players know they left it all on the ice and that's a big difference," the GM said after the loss to Chicago. "Last year, I don't know if they felt that way and that's a big step."
Maybe, although a couple of traditional Pacific Division bottom feeders last season could probably say the same thing because both the Los Angeles Kings and the Phoenix Coyotes were among the league's best stories for vastly different reasons.
The Kings in many ways resembled teams like the Blackhawks, Penguins and Capitals of a few years ago, made up mainly of young talents drafted and developed by the organization that showed the initial signs of developing into a potential powerhouse. That could happen this season. Center Anze Kopitar is coming off an offensive breakthrough, 20-year-old Drew Doughty has blossomed into one of the league's best defensemen and the Kings have the kind of quality goaltender in Jonathan Quick they have been lacking since the mid-1990s.
Los Angeles can still use a little more firepower up front, which is the reason the Kings were in on the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes for much of the summer. But in the meantime, they have solidified the back end by adding rugged stay-at-home defenseman Willie Mitchell.
Meanwhile the Coyotes, expected to contend for the lottery draft pick, head into the new season as something of a wild card, one that is unlikely to catch teams by surprise the way they did last season.
Phoenix stunned the hockey world with the best season in franchise history thanks to Vezina-quality goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov, a stingy defensive system created by coach Dave Tippett and a remarkable success rate in shootouts. But the ownership issues have not been settled and the franchise's future in Phoenix still remains in question as training camp approaches, a situation that limited the team's activity during the offseason.
Even so Phoenix added veteran Ray Whitney and managed to bring back Lee Stempniak after he tested the open market, while losing defenseman Zbynek Michalek and speedy forward Matthew Lombardi to free agency. Those moves should be enough to keep the Coyotes in playoff contention, particularly since division rivals Anaheim and Dallas are essentially in rebuilding mode.
The Ducks will be entering the post-Scott Niedermayer era this season with the future Hall of Famer retiring and leaving a gaping hole along what was once a dominant blue line. The arrival of defenseman Toni Lydman will help and the return of Teemu Selanne boosts an offense led by the big three of Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry. But unless goaltender Jonas Hiller stands on his head all season, the Ducks might be a team challenged to reach the .500 mark this season.
For their part, the Dallas Stars would probably be thrilled to get close to that kind of record this season. The Stars have been going through major changes in the last year with owner Tom Hicks trying to sell off the team and sophomore GM Joe Nieuwendyk trying to keep the team relevant in its market while working with a shoestring budget.
Dallas does have some big-time talent up front with Brad Richards, Loui Eriksson, James Neal and Brenden Morrow, but the group along the blue line leaves much to be desired and goalie Kari Lehtonen has yet to live up to his hype. Nieuwendyk's inability to spend money kept him from adding any impact players this summer, but what Dallas fans will notice most about the team this season will be the absence of franchise icon Mike Modano and veteran goalie Marty Turco, both of whom were allowed to leave via free agency.