Thursday, September 9, 2010
Scottsdale Sees the Future Part 1: The Pacific Division
In the first installment of my pre-season predictions, I set my focus to the West. The warm weather hockey division that boasts three of the best offensive and defensive teams in the entire league. I speak of the Pacific Division that encompasses California, Texas, and Arizona. In my opinion, a fairly obvious division that while providing entertaining hockey, I fear will be all too predictable this season. Let's head over to San Jose California to check in on Joe Thorton and the Sharks.
Perhaps the biggest, if not only news in San Jose, is the switcheroo that took place at the Goalie position through Evgeni Nabokovs departure and Antti Niemi's not so surprising arrival. Niemi's arrival comes when the fans were just coming to terms with the likelihood that they would have to rely on Antero Niitymaki to carry the team. Now, with the Stanley Cup winning goalie on staff, there may be some debate, but little doubt that the ex-Blackhawk will get the start on opening day, and as long after as he can hold it. There in lays the question. How long can Antti Niemi carry a team that isn't the Defensively proficient Chicago Blackhawks. With all due respect to Dan Boyle and Kent Huskins, the San Jose blue line doesn't closely resemble the top 4 of Chicago's Cup run. They're going to need a breakout year from Jason Demers, and solid healthy play from Niclas Wallin to make Niemi feel at home.
Offensively, the Sharks will score. It's what they do. Thorton, Pavelski, Heatly, Marleau, Clowe, and Coutoure are still in town and working well together. They will put up another great goals for average, but the key will be their developing blue line and an everything to prove performance from Niemi. Injuries withstanding, there isn't much chance for developing youth on a proven and productive roster like this. They are who we think they are.
Now lets hop on over to Anaheim, where "Dedication" is the theme going into this year. Perhaps another "D" word should be the main concern here though. Forgive me for being redundant, but with the likes of Getzlaf, Ryan, and Perry in place (RFA negotiations willing), the Ducks have the offense they need to put them in the playoffs. What I need is for someone to tell me who is going to be their top line defensive pairing. Their blue line core is made up of a lot of third pairing candidates and healthy scratch opportunists. With Scott Niedermayer retiring in the off season, the once mighty Ducks of Anaheim are looking to fill pretty big shoes. Couple that with the move that shipped tough guy James Wisniewski off to the New York Islanders, (making that team even less relevant), and hockey fans in Disneyland need to consider putting an add in Craigslist for a solid skating, puck possesion defensemen. With the best option on the market being former Wild D Shane Hnidy, Ducks GM Bob Murray better work on youth and development if he expects to relieve any of the stress already mounting at the back of Goalie Jonas Hillers mind.
I'll call both Brendan Mikkelson and Brett Festerling out on this occasion on needing to have breakout years before they fall into a regular holding pattern on the third pairing or worse. Look for limited but inspired play from 40 year old veteran Teemu Selanne and a diamond in the rough performance from Matt Beleskey to be the potential difference maker.
I love L.A., well in moderation. As far as the Kings of Los Angeles go though, I have a hard time even liking them right now. They have arguably the second best defensive pairing on all of the NHL with Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson. Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown can create consistently on offense. However they missed the boat on Kovypalooza, and they let 51 point scorer Alexander Frolov go in Free Agency. Their answer? Sign veteran, post concussion syndrome, Willie Mitchell. Really guys, really? Sure, it solidifies an already tight defensive core, but where's the offense? Where are the goals going to come from? Ryan Smyth and Wayne Simmonds will have to step up and give an effort that will earn them the second line scoring status the Kings need.
In net, Jonathan Quick had a solid and impressive year between the pipes. He carried the team long enough when they weren't scoring in January, and will be expected to carry the majority of the load again this year. Based on last years performance and coupled with their off season inaction, this team lacks two solid scoring lines. If they younger staff in place doesn't produce, it could be a very big disappointment in the city of Angels this year.
Heading east, this bus must stop in Arizona, Phoenix, Arizona. The Coyotes weren't expected to be dominant, or even as a shoe in for a seed in the playoffs. What they did was simply play hard and desperate hockey in the stretch run, winning 9 in a row in March, securing the number 4 spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with standout performances from veterans Shane Doan and Wojtek Wolski, as well as a respectable showing by 23 year old Martin Hanzal. With these members in place for the upcoming season joined by veteran Ray Whitney and Andrew Ebbett, they added the extra scoring and checking forward with experience that could help Phoenix deliver a more complete season.
With youth and experience well balanced on the blue line, this Coyotes team threatens to be relevant right out of the gate. I am more excited about this teams prospects than any other in this division, but it still relies on the performance of the youth and the guidance of the coaching staff to point them in the necessary direction. With depth, a well seasoned staff of role players, and a solid enough goalie tandem of Ilya Bryzgalov and Jason LaBarbera, I give them no excuses for not making the top 8 in the conference this season.
Finally, we make a quick pit stop in Dallas Texas. The Stars have parted ways with two of the pillars of Dallas hockey with Mike Modano signing in Detroit and Marty Turco getting picked up in Chicago. Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson may have great showings again, but they'll need immediate help. Brendan Morrow needs to play a full healthy season. Mike Ribeiro needs to jump up in status to a full time points player. Newcomer Adam Burish, while a great locker room presence and agitator on the ice will do little to elevate the play of the scoring or checking lines. 24 year old D Mark Fistric will have to play like he wants to keep his job and set himself up for a consistant top line job this year.
I fear injury is in the future, or at least less minutes for veterans Brad Lukowich and Karlis Skrastins. Honestly, looking at the roster, I just don't see a stand out set of leaders and dominant defensive players to convince me they can be consistent and beat the better teams in the league. I might seem down on Dallas, but what I see is simply wrong time, wrong place. There will be post Modano expectations, and a lot of questions to answer. While there are a lot of unproven players on the Stars roster, I don't think this is the year they will start setting examples.
So, those are my thoughts on the Pacific. When all is said and done I see the division falling in the order as follows: San Jose, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Dallas, exactly like last season. The only difference that will come will be in Anaheim and Dallas falling behind sooner, and Phoenix and L.A. improving slightly on their point performance from last year.
What do you think? Let me know by emailing me at email@example.com. Or just comment to this post. You can also find me on twitter @bluelinehockey or on facebook: bluelinehockeychicago. If all else fails, give me a call during our show Tuesday nights 7-9CT on sportstownchicago.com.