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Pacific Division: Will Sharks get it right this time?

by | Staff Writer

Anaheim Ducks: Few teams understand the old adage 'the more things change, the more they stay the same' better than the Ducks. The offseason retirement of franchise backbone Scott Niedermayer left Anaheim's roster with only a passing resemblance to its 2007 Stanley Cup-winning lineup, but with some of the same -- and unfortunately, unsettling -- characteristics.

No doubt there were several factors that contributed to Anaheim's first and only NHL title, but one of the most basic was the team's physical and often intimidating nature. Back then, the Ducks had the talent to overcome the penalties that came with their aggressive style of play. Not anymore. The personnel transition, particularly on the back end, has started to cost the team. As the new season approaches, it is threatening to do so again.

2010-11 Season Preview

Anaheim didn't make the playoffs last season in large part because it was the most penalized team in the NHL (including a league-high 78 fighting majors) and had one of the worst penalty-killing units around. And with the new campaign's start only a few days away, the Ducks seem to be reverting to old habits, taking lots of penalties and giving up goals on seven of the first 13 they took in preseason games.

"We want to see passion and emotion, but it has to be controlled," coach Randy Carlyle said.

Meanwhile, the offense has been inconsistent, the new-look defense is still adjusting to all the new faces and, as a result, Carlyle is likely to be on the hot seat quickly if top players Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry and ageless wonder Teemu Selanne can't lift the team essentially on their own. Newcomers Toni Lydman -- when he returns from an eye injury -- and Andy Sutton will help along the blue line and mentor first-round pick Cam Fowler, who looks like he'll stick with the team.

But for the first season of the post-Niedermayer era, the outlook for Anaheim doesn't look particularly bright.

Dallas Stars: Owner Tom Hicks is in the process of finding a buyer for the team, but a new era has already begun because the Stars said goodbye to franchise icons Mike Modano and Marty Turco, letting both walk as free agents during the summer. And for the foreseeable future, it doesn't look particularly promising.

And since the sale effort has severely constrained GM Joe Nieuwendyk's budget -- the team's self-imposed salary limit is just above the cap floor -- the changes he made to the lineup were minor in nature, with forward Adam Burish coming from the Blackhawks and backup goalie Andrew Raycroft arriving from Vancouver.

In essence, that means the Stars will again be throwing darts against the wall and hoping some stick as they try to avoid a third consecutive playoff miss. Dallas still has some good firepower up front, with Brad Richards setting the pace and youngsters Loui Eriksson, James Neal and Jamie Benn providing finishing power. And captain Brenden Morrow, who had an off season last year, has been finding the back of the net frequently in preseason games.

Still the key to the Stars' playoff hopes, restrained as they are, is whether goalie Kari Lehtonen finally figures out how to deliver on the promise he had when Atlanta drafted him second overall in 2002. Of course, first he has to figure out how to stay healthy for an entire season. Then again, that might be easier for him than the defense Lehtonen will be behind this season, which might remind him a little too much of the one he had too often in Atlanta.

The Stars ranked 23rd in defense last season and 27th on the penalty kill, and head into the new campaign still lacking a true No. 1 guy on the blue line. Stephane Robidas has done a fine job trying to fill a role to which he is not particularly suited, although his presence has helped younger defensemen like Mark Fistric, Matt Niskanen and Nicklas Grossman progress.

If they can speed up the process, Dallas might have an outside shot at the playoffs. But it would probably be a better shot if Hicks can speed up the sale process.

Los Angeles Kings: The Kings didn't get the big scorer they were after because Ilya Kovalchuk shunned them for the Devils, but Los Angeles could end up better off without him.

This is a talented young team that has gained some confidence, and it has showed during preseason games when the Kings have looked pretty good on offense. There hasn't been much competition for forward spots because Los Angeles is set with its top three lines. Anze Kopitar is centering Dustin Brown and Ryan Smyth on the top unit, Jarret Stoll is in between Justin Williams and Brad Richardson on the second unit, and Michal Handzus is anchoring Wayne Simmonds and newcomer Alexei Ponikarovsky on the third line, with several players -- including some rookies -- in the mix for the second spot.

On defense, there's plenty of league-wide chatter about Drew Doughty being a potential Norris Trophy winner at age 21 this season. Doughty was in the mix with his breakout season last year, and his new partner, stay-at-home defenseman Willie Mitchell, should give him the freedom to think even more about offense. They seem to have found a comfort zone together this preseason.

Jack Johnson and veteran Rob Scuderi will be on the second pairing. Davis Drewiski and Peter Harrold are set to be the third-unit defensemen, with rookie Jake Muzzin likely to hold the seventh spot until Matt Greene recovers from shoulder surgery. The Kings were hoping Thomas Hickey, the fourth overall pick in 2007, would finally make the grade, but they sent him back to the AHL last week.

Hickey won't be seeing goalie Jonathan Bernier in Manchester, though, because the Kings are going to have him with the big club as part of their tandem. Jonathan Quick took hold of the starting job last season at age 23 and was good enough to land on Team USA for the Olympics. Bernier, meanwhile, is 22, and has been groomed to be a franchise goalie since being drafted 11th overall in 2006.

Should be interesting.

Phoenix Coyotes: You have to wonder if they can pull off another miracle. They might have to, because it might be the only way to keep the NHL in the desert. And even that's not a guarantee.

That's too bad, since the Coyotes are coming off a great season played out in spite of the relocation threats that hung over their heads. It was what athletes like to call a gutsy effort, with the only problem being that it really hasn't made the franchise any more viable than it was. No matter how you cut it, the business is a money-losing operation and will continue to be located in a market that won't sustain high ticket prices.

Phoenix captured more of the locals' imagination than usual down the stretch and in a great seven-game battle with the Detroit Red Wings in the first round, but the Cinderella story ended quickly and everyone got on with their lives. Meanwhile, the problems of ownership and the arena remain and pose serious problems for the franchise's future in the desert. There is no real settlement in sight, and the NHL has set a deadline for relinquishing control of the team, which could have it end up back in Winnipeg.

In the meantime, Phoenix will still have to play the games. The Coyotes' big season had a lot to do with their ridiculous success rate in shootouts, but goalie Ilya Bryzgalov was Vezina-worthy and coach Dave Tippett and his staff had them playing very tight defense. The offense wasn't very good, although the addition of forward Ray Whitney through free agency should be a boost and so should the return of Lee Stempniak. And another newcomer, Eric Belanger, will help the team on the third line and in the faceoff circle.

What should help more, though, is everyone having gone through and dealt with the situation before.

San Jose Sharks: One of these years, the San Jose Sharks will have to get it right. They have what seems to be a near-perfect blend of size, skill and experience with stars like Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle leading the way. And yet the only thing they seem to win consistently is the title for the league's most disappointing team.

Last season might have been the worst for this well-run franchise because the Sharks finally shook off a major conference nemesis in the second round by eliminating Detroit. However, they followed that by getting swept in the next round by the eventual Cup champs from Chicago.

On the surface, it seemed like the perfect time to overhaul a lineup that has been so close yet so far in each season since the lockout, but instead, GM Doug Wilson has stayed the course and will enter the new season with a lineup that looks very much like it did in the previous one.

There will be some noticeable changes of course, with goalie Evgeni Nabokov now in Russia after nearly a decade with the Sharks, and future Hall of Fame defenseman Rob Blake retired at 40. But San Jose managed to re-sign Marleau after a career year, while locking up key young players Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and Jason Demers. The Sharks also dipped into free agency to deal with their goaltending, signing Antero Niittymaki and Stanley Cup goalie Antti Niemi for less money combined than what the team paid Nabokov last season.

That was part of the philosophy of Wilson, who suggested several times during the offseason that big-money goaltenders weren't necessarily worth it. And he might be on to something -- if the rest of the Sharks finally get it right.


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