Four division-by-division previews down, two to go. (Click HERE to see the rest) The Southeast gets analyzed next week; the following Thursday, we'll roll out the final pre-season predictions, including my playoff picks.
Pacific Division (in predicted order of finish)
Coming: Todd Bertuzzi, Shane Hnidy, Mathieu Schneider
Going: Shane Endicott, Ric Jackman, Joe Motzko, Dustin Penner, Ryan Shannon, Shawn Thornton
Who The Hell Knows: Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne
Why 1st? Because, whether or not Niedermayer and Selanne stop playing hard-to-get and either return or retire, the Ducks still have one of the game's most well-rounded rosters and won't soon fade from championship contention.
And for as cohesive and focused as they are on the ice, the same holds true when it comes to perhaps the league's most astute management team. GM Brian Burke never has been afraid to take a chance and with some $8 million in salary cap space to work with (not counting Selanne and Niedermayer) Â– and a backup goalie (Ilya Bryzgalov) who could be one of the first netminders dealt this season Â– you just know he's not done making Anaheim better.
Ultimately, I believe the Ducks won't repeat as Stanley Cup winners. As well, the acquisition of Todd Bertuzzi is questionable and could have negative repercussions as the season goes on. But a post-Cup hangover that sees them miss the playoffs a la the '06-07 Carolina Hurricanes? In the words of clichÃ©d Â“urbanÂ” stereotypes everywhere: Aw hells, no.
San Jose Sharks
Coming: Jeremy Roenick, Alexei Semenov
Going: Mark Bell, Scott Hannan, Bill Guerin, Mark Smith, Vesa Toskala
Why 2nd? Because, after a second consecutive deeply disappointing post-season, the pressure is now squarely on San Jose Â– and that's just the way GM Doug Wilson wants it. Wilson is all about expectations and expects his young stars to rise to and exceed them.
Some have questioned the relative lack of change made to the Sharks' roster and nearly everybody questioned the late-summer addition of Roenick. But nobody can question the fact the Sharks continue to possess the same combination of speed and size the Ducks used to win it all last year.
And don't believe for a second the Sharks you see on paper now will be the Sharks who are fighting for home ice advantage in April. They've still got more than $12 million in unused cap room and, as Boston Bruins fans are painfully aware, the GM has shown a propensity to pick pockets of his colleagues in the past.
Anything less than a conference final appearance this post-season likely will cost coach Ron Wilson his job. The good news for him is, while San Jose may not be the odds-on Cup favorite at this stage, if their mix of youthful vigor and veteran hunger gets augmented a little as the season goes on, they'll be in a position to do major damage come spring.
Los Angeles Kings
Coming: Jean-Sebastien Aubin, Kyle Calder, Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, Tom Preissing, Brad Stuart
Going: Sean Burke, Mathieu Garon, Jamie Heward, Tom Kostopoulos, Alyn McCauley, Aaron Miller
Why 3rd? Because GM Dean Lombardi's many off-season moves figure to pay significant, if not playoff-guaranteed, dividends for the Kings this year. Handzus and Nagy can give L.A. a genuinely dangerous second line up front, while Preissing and Stuart will provide a young, smart second pairing to a defense corps that quickly is shaping up to be one of the league's deepest units.
Everybody and their brother knows a post-season berth for the Kings rides on the uncertainty of their questionable goaltending. Lombardi doesn't have a wealth of money to improve that position right now, but as the goalie market is a buyer's paradise of late, he'll have every opportunity to pick up someone during the year.
Regardless, with Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov and Jack Johnson (among others) in tow, it's clear this team has the best collection of young talent outside of Pittsburgh. Even if the Kings fall short of the playoffs this time around, there'll be no such disappointment for them in 2008-09.
Coming: Todd Fedoruk, Brad Winchester
Going: Matthew Barnaby, Jon Klemm, Eric Lindros, Ladislav Nagy, Patrik Stefan, Darryl Sydor
Why 4th? Because when you're a team that gets outscored by the Vancouver Canucks in the playoffs and then brings in only an Oilers castoff (Winchester) and Todd Â“Stretch(er)Â” Fedoruk in the off-season, you shouldn't expect prognosticators to give you the benefit of what is turning into a considerable amount of doubt.
The Stars' strongest suit is their stellar group of defensemen, which might be complemented by Niklas Grossman and Matt Niskanen, two of the organization's top prospects. Their forwards, on the other hand, leave much to be desired in the production of offense. And the fact four of their best players (Mike Modano, Sergei Zubov, Jere Lehtinen and Marty Turco) average 35 years on the planet can't be calming to those worried the injury bug that bit Dallas so deeply in '06-07 is again sharpening its fangs.
Unless they unload some of their defensive depth in a trade for a scoring winger, the Stars are in danger of slipping to the fringes of playoff competition. Once they're there, they may find out how thin the line is between those fringes and the outside looking in.
Coming: David Aebischer, Alex Auld, Tomas Surovy, Radim Vrbata, Mike York
Going: Kevyn Adams, Curtis Joseph, Owen Nolan, Pascal Rheaume, Jeremy Roenick, Dave Scatchard
Why 5th? Because the NHL hasn't engaged in another round of expansion (yet) and there isn't any sixth place.
Don't get me wrong Â– I think the Coyotes are, finally, committing to a necessary long-term build. They've already got a talented blueline corps (although you wouldn't have known it by their 28th-overall defensive efforts last year) and they've also built up a formidable group of elite prospects, including Kyle Turris, Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal and Keith Yandle.
But, as is the case with most long-term plans, a fair amount of short-term agony is almost certainly in the cards for Phoenix. In particular, their special teams are Â“specialÂ” in the cruel sense of the word; their goaltending is a dog's breakfast if ever there was one; and their forwards Â– well, the less said about that motley crew, the better.
Although coach Wayne Gretzky likely thought last season was about as enjoyable as a cactus enema, he may be in for an even more unpleasant surprise this year. At least he'll have a crying partner in Shane Doan.
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