2013 Pacific Division Preview

The emotional roller coaster of the lockout is mercifully behind us, and we can finally turn our attention back to the ice. I’m James, a run-of-the-mill starving liberal arts major and rabid sports fan, though hockey is far and away my favorite; also, I’m addicted to sports discussion and analysis both in traditional media and the emerging online media. This season, my aim is to use whatever observations I’ve gleaned from years of watching and reading about hockey to share some ideas that I hope will turn out adequately insightful. To that end, let’s take a look at the Pacific Division.

The Pacific is always competitive and this year is shaping up to be no exception. The Kings’ Cup run last season brought the division some much-deserved recognition and Los Angeles looks to be the favorite for the Pacific title. But the Sharks shouldn’t be counted out and Phoenix is always an unknown quantity, as is Dallas this year after an active offseason. Anaheim was the weakest of the bunch last season, but has enough talent on their top line to make every game interesting. Regardless of how the cards fall, the Pacific should be a fun division to watch again this year.

 

Anaheim Ducks

 

Last season, Anaheim’s oft-discussed lack of depth meant a 13th place finish in the Western Conference, as well as last place in the Pacific Division. The depth problem remains an issue among the forward corps, though the signing of defensive-minded Daniel Winnik could alleviate some of the pressure on star forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who were offensively limited last season due to being forced into tough defensive minutes. If Winnik is properly utilized as a defensive asset, Getzlaf and Perry will be able to face easier competition and deliver the offensive punch they’ve shown in years past; also, both are UFAs after this season and will be playing for big contracts. The talented Bobby Ryan will also be looking to rebound after his point total took a dive last season and the Ducks will expect greater contributions from their younger forwards, particularly Devante Smith-Pelly, Kyle Palmieri, and Peter Holland, thereby making things a little easier for the elder statesmen, Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu.

As for the defensemen, gone is Lubo Visnovsky, but there are a couple of new additions: Bryan Allen, who can adequately handle the tough defensive assignments, and the more two-way oriented Sheldon Souray, who himself capably handled the toughest defensive minutes on the Stars’ blue line last season. Allen and Souray will join veterans Francois Beauchemin and Toni Lydman, as well as youngsters Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa, who have each shown glimpses of their potential in addition to the common drawbacks that accompany inexperience.

In net, the capable Jonas Hiller will carry the load, looking to rebound after a down year. Backing him up will be Viktor Fasth, a veteran of the Swedish Elite League as well as the international hockey scene. He may very well push Hiller for starts throughout the season.

Anaheim fans should not be particularly optimistic this season, but crazy things should be expected in a shortened season.

 

Dallas Stars

 

The Stars overachieved for the greater part of last season and came close to winning the division, but ended the year on a five game losing streak and finished 10th in the conference despite the continued emergence of Jamie Benn, another 70-point season from Loui Eriksson, and a career year in net from the underrated Kari Lehtonen. During the offseason, GM Joe Nieuwendyk shook up the roster by trading two fan favorites: Mike Ribeiro was dealt to Washington in exchange for two-way center Cody Eakin and a pick, and Steve Ott was sent to Buffalo, along with defenseman Adam Pardy, in exchange for Derek Roy. Dallas also signed two free agent forwards, Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney; both are 40 years old, but the Stars’ front office is betting that both have something left to offer and can help shoulder the load offensively while the team’s growing pool of prospects continue to mature. Dallas also signed defenseman Aaron Rome for depth at the blue line.

The forward corps isn’t overwhelming, though there is enough talent to keep the Stars in most games. Jagr and Whitney are past their primes, but should help improve on last season’s historically abysmal power play unit (13.5% on only 244 opportunities). Roy is capable of matching Ribeiro’s offensive contributions while being more reliable defensively than the latter. Dallas fans shouldn’t expect Michael Ryder to repeat last year’s torrid goal-scoring pace. His 16.6 shooting percentage last year was four percent higher than his career average, but the Newfoundland native should be a consistent scoring threat. Rounding out the top six are the team’s best two skaters, Eriksson and Benn, though the latter remains an unsigned RFA. Benn is the face of the franchise and getting him signed ASAP is the number one item on Nieuwendyk’s agenda. Captain Brenden Morrow is expected to anchor the third line, and while his days of scoring 30 goals are almost certainly behind him, he should be better than he was in his forgettable, injury-riddled campaign last year. After Morrow, though, the forward depth isn’t particularly promising, mostly consisting of unremarkable youngsters or dime-a-dozen veteran grinders. Young Cody Eakin is the exception, and will probably contribute meaningfully this season in a depth capacity.

Stephane Robidas and Sheldon Souray comprised Dallas’s top pair on the blue line last season and were deployed as a shutdown unit, a task at which they performed passably. With Souray’s departure, the steady (though not spectacular) Trevor Daley will likely take over in this capacity, joining Robidas, who Stars fans hope has something left in the tank. Alex Goligoski, being the only defenseman on the roster capable of really leading a transition game, will fill that role by necessity; fortunately for the Stars, he excels at that. The young Dane, Philip Larsen, has a sizeable reserve of untapped offensive potential and will look to continue improving after a solid rookie season last year. Aaron Rome figures to see his role greatly increased from his Vancouver days, given the talent disparity between the Canucks and the Stars. After Mark Fistric’s trade to Edmonton, the 6th blue line slot will be filled by a rotation of Brenden Dillon and Jordie Benn (the elder brother of Jamie), two undrafted free agents with legitimate potential that serve as a credit to the good work done by Dallas’s scouts in western Canada.

Kari Lehtonen’s health should not be taken for granted, but if he holds up the Stars are set in goal; Lehtonen’s body of work suggests he can succeed behind a porous defense. Richard Bachman, having delivered some big performances last year as a rookie, will back up Lehtonen, though Bachman will start the season in the AHL so that he may enjoy a “preseason” of sorts; until that time, Swedish FA Cristopher Nilstorp will ride the bench. He’s worth keeping an eye on: as a newcomer to the North American game this season, Nilstorp has taken the starter’s mantle from the highly touted Jack Campbell in the AHL.

The future looks potentially bright for Dallas and the team should compete for a playoff spot once more, though the roster is still glaringly deficient in some areas.

 

Los Angeles Kings

 

The Kings’ title run last season came as a surprise for many, though it shouldn’t have: despite sneaking into the postseason as an eighth seed, Los Angeles was a fantastic team all along, regularly dominating their opponents in puck possession but just not getting the goals to show for it. Wise hockey fans knew their luck was bound to change, and after replacing head coach Terry Murray with Darryl Sutter and swapping Jack Johnson for Jeff Carter, the Kings caught fire. They would only lose four games during their entire postseason run, in which they became the NHL’s first #8 seed to eliminate each of their conference’s top three seeds in the playoffs.

The Kings remain an outstanding team despite not making any noteworthy roster additions. Their forward group enjoys an abundance of two-way talent, led by a tremendous top line featuring Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Justin Williams, a trio capable of bringing the offense despite being given tough match-ups (though Kopitar will miss the first few games with a knee injury). Complementing the top forwards will be players such as Carter, Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, and Dustin Penner; with Kopitar’s health issues, the team’s line combinations are nebulous, but there remains plenty of talent to keep the wins coming, particularly if Gagne can stay healthy and generate offense at a better pace than last season. The forward unit is also armed with talented depth, led by the versatile Jarret Stoll, who can win faceoffs in abundance and will appear on both special teams units.

The biggest name on the Kings’ blue line is, of course, Drew Doughty. While he has received some silly criticism in recent years over his declining point totals, it must be stressed that this decline is largely a result of him being tasked with tougher defensive assignments as he matures, and he remains an absolute force both defensively and on the opponents’ side of the rink. Doughty will be joined by defensive stalwarts Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi; the former will miss a handful of games, but with the Kings’ depth on defense fans should have little cause for concern. Matt Greene is underappreciated and could likely handle tougher assignments in the short term, while young Slava Voynov should continue to emerge as a valuable offensive defenseman capable of sparking the Kings’ transition game.

Of course, the spotlight will be on Jonathan Quick in net. After delivering one of the greatest postseason campaigns in the history of the sport, the Conn Smythe winner will be looking to cement his status as one of the league’s elite; though goalies often regress after enjoying breakout seasons, Quick won’t need a Vezina-worthy season to get the Kings back to the playoffs. He will again be backed up by Jonathan Bernier, but the former super prospect is still highly regarded by many and it would not be a huge surprise if he finished the season elsewhere.

With no glaring weaknesses, the defending champs should be one of the teams to beat in the West this season.

 

Phoenix Coyotes

 

There are not many coaches in pro sports who are better at getting more from less than Dave Tippett. Under Tippett, the Coyotes have reached the playoffs for three straight years despite being mired in financial uncertainty and working with a roster lacking in star power. Led by the outstanding play of goalie Mike Smith, Phoenix reached the Western Conference Finals last season, but the Coyotes will have their work cut out for them as they try to make their fourth straight playoff appearance.

Though they managed to retain Shane Doan, longtime face of the franchise, Phoenix lost Ray Whitney, arguably their top forward last season. Furthermore, Radim Vrbata’s goal total last year was likely a fluke; his shooting percentage was an absurdly unsustainable 15.1 percent, up from his career average of 9.4. Prior to last year’s breakout, Vrbata only managed to top the 20-goal mark twice. While regression to the mean will almost certainly come into play, Vrbata can still put up the points working with tough matchups, as can linemate Martin Hanzal. Guys like Antoine Vermette and Lauri Korpikoski can help out with the scoring, and Mikkel Boedker has the potential, but at the moment Phoenix’s forward corps is not one of the league’s most intimidating. If the aging Steve Sullivan can provide top-six offensive value, it would be a big help; he did so admirably for the Penguins last season, but fulfilling such a role will be much more difficult in Phoenix given the talent disparity between the two teams. At the very least, the Coyotes do have a reliable group of gritty depth forwards that know how to play Tippett’s style.

Things look much better for the defense, which boasts an enviable number of talented, young players. Chief among them is the blossoming two-way force Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a major factor in last year’s playoff run as a mere 20-year-old. Talented puckmover Keith Yandle is only 26, and the blue line also features two capable, defense-first 30-year-olds, Rostislav Klesla and Zbynek Michalek, who returns to the desert after spending a couple of seasons in Pittsburgh. While Derek Morris is past his prime, and Adrian Aucoin and Michal Roszival will be playing elsewhere, the Coyotes’ defense has a respectable handful of young prospects on the radar. The team can afford to wait on them; the defense as it stands now is a definite strength.

But most of all, the hockey community will be keeping its eyes on Mike Smith. Tippett’s system has a reputation for turning good goalies into great ones, and Smith began his career as a backup with Tippett’s Dallas squad. Smith performed well enough in Dallas that the Lightning, in need of a starting goalie, were convinced to trade Brad Richards to the Stars, with Smith being the main piece of Tampa’s return haul. Thus, Smith’s talent has never been in question, even though his time with the Bolts was one of disappointment. But the Coyotes signed him at a bargain and didn’t regret it, as Smith set a franchise record with his .930 save percentage last season. That kind of performance is extraordinarily difficult for a goalie to replicate, moreso, we may assume, when that goalie earned a reputation as an underachiever before his breakout season. While Smith should still be expected to give his team above-average netminding, regression to the mean should be expected here as well. Jason LaBarbera will keep the bench warm for Smith on the occasion that the starter needs a night off.

At this point, it’s no doubt that the Coyotes are greater than the sum of their parts. But after losing Whitney, and considering the likelihood that Vrbata and Smith will suffer major and moderate regression, respectively, another trip to the playoffs might be too much to ask from this club.

 

San Jose Sharks

 

For San Jose fans, last season was not one of the more enjoyable campaigns in their franchise’s history. They didn’t help their reputation as underachievers by bowing out quickly to the Blues in the first round, a fitting conclusion to a disappointing regular season in which they finished 7th in the conference. With many of the roster’s big names well into their thirties, the fans are growing ever more restless. Given the team’s reputation, and last season’s results, one might be tempted to dismiss the Sharks this year; however, they’ll enter the 2013 season as arguably the division’s second best team after Los Angeles.

Thornton and Marleau are past their primes, yes, but they can still play. And the presence of the versatile Joe Pavelski, as well as Logan Couture, a 23-year-old with multiple 30-goal seasons, gives San Jose a chance to challenge the Kings as the Pacific’s best collection of top six forwards, particularly if Martin Havlat can stay healthy and Ryane Clowe can rebound from a down year. After the first two lines, however, the Sharks’ forward depth is questionable at best. Michal Handzus is not the stabilizing asset he once was. Torrey Mitchell, a decent depth piece, signed with Minnesota, and the defensively underrated Daniel Winnik now plays with the rival Ducks. Offseason FA addition Adam Burish should be a defensive asset, but in general the Sharks’ forward depth consists of mostly younger players, though they are not without potential, particularly Tommy Wingels, a physical, defensively responsible grinder.

Among San Jose’s defense corps are Dan Boyle and Brent Burns. Between scoring playoff OT goals on their own net and showing up to training camp looking like a fur trapper, respectively, the two are the butts of many a joke, but each is a dynamic two-way talent and are the kind of valuable players who can rack up point totals despite being utilized against tough matchups. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, one of the league’s most overlooked defensive assets, will also return, and the blue line will be joined by the steady Brad Stuart, who began his career with San Jose. Douglas Murray is a plus defensively, but is a liability in the transition game. Jason Demers and Justin Braun round out the defense, and each has the talent to contribute significantly in a third-pairing capacity, although Demers took a big step backward last season after a great 2010-2011 campaign.

The good-but-not-great Antti Niemi will continue to man San Jose’s net, with Thomas Greiss backing him up. While San Jose doesn’t get a whole lot of respect from hockey fans, they’re entirely capable of challenging Los Angeles for the Pacific Division title, particularly in a shortened season in which a hot streak or a cold spell might make a critical difference. If San Jose improves significantly on last season’s woefully bad penalty kill (29th overall), then the race for the Pacific figures to be an exciting one.

 

Projected Standings

 

  1. Los Angeles
  2. San Jose
  3. Dallas
  4. Phoenix
  5. Anaheim

The safer bet is that the Kings squad we’ll see this season will resemble the team we saw post-Sutter and Carter last season. That makes them the early favorites, but the hockey gods are fickle, and in a 48-game season there could be any number of surprises to come.