This division is pretty stacked at the top. The 2 conference finalists, 3 playoff teams last season, another in the Stars who just missed, and then there is the Ducks who got off to a horrendous start but put together a terrific midseason only to run out of gas in an attempt to get in the playoff race late in the season. So on the surface you would say it’s one of the top division’s in hockey. It’s good, but I think it’s trending down.
1. Phoenix Coyotes – Finally this team got over the hump last season. First time since 1987 that this franchise had made it past the 1st round. They might be the most boring team in the league, but you can’t deny that they have one hell of a coach in Dave Tippett. Now they’ll try to build on their amazing post season in what actually might not potentially be their last season in Phoenix.
It all starts in goal with Mike Smith. He was even better than Ilya Bryzgalov. But I have pointed this out before, Tippett’s system makes average goaltenders look good and good goaltenders look great. The big thing the system does is lend confidence to a goaltender. To start last season Smith got shelled in San Jose, and by the end of the year he was amazing. When a goaltender is seeing all the shots and his d-men are clearing all the rebounds it makes life a lot easier. Confidence goes up and then that’s when you start seeing them make acrobatic saves like Smith was doing in last year’s playoffs. He should be even more so motivated this season because if he has a big year he could cash in huge as he is a UFA after this season. I would look to just stay in Phoenix, but a big pay day would be tough to turn down.
I love the depth they have on defense, but I don’t like the number 1 guy. Keith Yandle is a product of the system, and he has been badly exposed in the last 2 playoffs. But lucky for the Coyotes they have a guy who can be their number 1 guy and that is Oliver Ekman-Larsson. This kid plays a lot like Yandle but does everything at a higher level. He’s more smooth, has a better stick, is more patient, and he is a smarter player.
Added to these 2 this season will be Brandon Gormley who has a similar game to these 2. Smooth defenseman, he doesn’t do anything to wow you but he just does really good. David Rundblad could step in this season, Rusty Klesla is a soid vet as is Derek Morris and the returning Zbynek Michalek. Like I said, they have ridiculous depth on this blueline and more than enough to make a deal to upgrade their forward group.
And trust me this forward group needs some work. They lost their top scorer from last season Ray Whitney in free agency. This will allow a kid like Mikkel Boedker a chance to show he can produce at the level he was expected to be producing at by now. Steve Sullivan though was a shrewd signing by Don Maloney. He won’t produce at Whitney’s level, but if he stays healthy the 38 year old can still put the puck in the back of the net. Not much to say about Shane Doan, he’ll be Shane Doan and while he can’t produce the way he used to he’s still a great all around winger. The key up front though really isn’t how much they score in this system. Down the middle they’re big, they play 200 feet, and they win draws. It’s not flashy but it’s effective.
Taking the Coyotes to win the division again this season might seem like a reach with the defending champs in the same division, but the Kings know that they don’t need to finish high in the standings, they just need to get in. The Coyotes are a machine under Tippett. It is horrible to watch, but it works.
2. Los Angeles Kings – It took 40 years, and then it took a few extra months, but the Kings will finally get to hang a Stanley Cup championship banner. Now they look to defend their title and they are returning almost the exact same team. Some people will think that is a huge advantage for the Kings but I don’t really see it that way. Glen Sather was always of the belief that you need to change 15% of your team from year to year no matter what. You need to keep your core in place, but you need changes just to keep things fresh.
There is a lot to love about this team. Say what you want about Darryl Sutter as a GM, he’s a great coach. Of course Jonathan Quick is one of the best in the world in goal. Down the middle they’re loaded with Kopitar (out for at least the first week of the season), Mike Richards, and the Joe Namath of the NHL (off the ice) Jarret Stoll. Drew Doughty is an elite d-man, and Slava Voynov is going to be a beauty moving forward. So they’re pretty loaded on paper, but they were going into last year too and it took them all season to put it all together. They do have things that worry me though and one is the lack of speed up front.
If I was Dean Lombardi I would look to deal Carter who is really a 1 dimensional player at this point and see if I could aquire a guy with more speed and maybe plays a better 2 way game than Carter. What I see happening with the Kings is because there shouldn’t be a Cup hangover is that they have a much better regular season, but I don’t see them repeating unless Dean Lombardi can make a big deal to get some new faces in the lineup.
Now that I’ve told the GM of the Stanley Cup champions how to do his job….speed is just one area where I wonder about this team. I’ve heard it brought up by a few people now that they believe the Kings being such a heavy team could really hurt them in an attempt to get their legs. These are people whose opinions I respect saying this so I’m going to suggest that is a strong possibility as well.
Also a potential big issue for this team could be that Jonathan Quick is coming off back surgery. They may need to lean on Jonathan Bernier early on. However if he can shine in those starts it will be a blessing in disguise for the Kings because as we all know there are a lot of teams out there desperate to upgrade their goaltending.
Finally while Drew Doughty is one of the best and I love how Voynov has developed, I still don’t know about this blueline. As a team they’re air tight defensively. But they’ll have question marks, 1 being Willie Mitchell and will he start to show his age this season? He’s now 35 and while I know he is still very useful, he likely peaked during last spring’s cup run. Rob Scuderi just recently hit 34 years of age and so he is running out of quality time and while I like both these d-men, they aren’t the most fleet of foot. They have time left in the league, but much like the forward group in L.A. the blueline has a few too many guys that don’t skate well on that blueline. To me you only want 1 or 2 guys that don’t skate well on defense, they have 3 with these 2 and Matt Greene. A change/upgrade might be needed.
But again, who am I to question this team? They won the cup, they shouldn’t have a hangover, they’re deep throughout the organization and they’re very talented. It is a team that as I said I don’t believe will get off to a great start, but as they showed last season all they need to do is get in. Home ice is no factor for them come playoff time.
3. Anaheim Ducks – Had a very difficult time picking between the Ducks and the Sharks in this spot. Both teams will be competitive, but I feel like the Ducks will bounce back with a solid season….provided Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan are all around for the entire season.
If they are, then that top line is still one of the best in the league. They’re so big and all 3 have no problem throwing their weight around and going to the dirty area’s on the ice. The 2nd line doesn’t suck either, despite Teemu Selanne being 70 years of age. Ok, once again you caught me trying to pull the proverbial wool over your eyes, he’s only 42. See that’s why I love my fan, because he or she is so smart. Anyway, Selanne STILL hasn’t fallen off and better yet hasn’t shown any signs of doing so. As for who will centre that line, I’m guessing it’s Koivu but Andrew Cogliano will get his chance to show what he can do in that role. I’m not a fan of the game Cogs plays, but he will get his chance as their isn’t much talent at centre throughout the organization (which is why re-signing Getzlaf is more vital than Perry).
I’m definitely not a fan of how thin not just this team but this organization is on the blueline. Cam Fowler is still going to be a train wreck in his own zone. People get mesmerized by how smooth of a skater he is which blinds them from a lot of his faults. He isn’t elite offensively, he never has been even in junior. He isn’t ever going to be Scott Niedermayer defensively. His ceiling to me is a poor man’s Scott Niedermayer, but don’t get me wrong that’s obviously still a very good d-man, just not the superstar that everyone was drooling over in his rookie season.
He will have Sheldon Souray to ride shotgun with him on the PP so that will be a nice luxery. Souray can still drill it, although after a great start to last season his numbers really dropped off. The big test for Souray as always is weather or not he can stay healthy. Luca Sbisa took a big step forward in his development last year, but he definitely isn’t a kid that should be leaned on to anchor a blueline at this point in his career (will turn 23 at the end of the month). Beauchemin, Allen, Lydman, they’re all shells of what they once were. Hampus Linholm could be on the team as soon as next season, but that doesn’t help much now does it?
A healthy Jonas Hiller will be HUGE for this team. That was THE reason this team started out so awful last year. He wasn’t healthy, the team had lost faith in him making big stops for him and of course that affects everyone’s game. He got his game back in the 2nd half last season and if he is on they’ll be well within the hunt for the playoffs. They’ve invited Team USA World Junior hero John Gibson to camp. I don’t know why they’re doing that quite frankly, but from how he looks he may only need 1 season in the AHL before he’s ready to get some time in the show.
As I said off the start, if they don’t blow it up they’ll be in the hunt. But I really don’t know weather or not they’ll blow it up. I would say “blow it up” is unlikely, but I would say moving 1 of Ryan or Perry is very possible. I believed strongly the reason they were shopping Ryan last season was they wanted to clear money to re-sign Perry and Getzlaf. This is a budget team, not a cap team and that won’t change coming off a down season followed by a lockout, and oh yeah…the defending champs are just up the highway. The fans will be tough to get back in that market.
4. San Jose Sharks – Yep, I’m calling it. This is going to be the season that the Sharks window officially slams shut. It probably closed with that generous bounce Kevin Bieksa got off the glass that nobody on the ice seen in O.T. of game 5 of the 2011 WCF, but now it will be official. They’re getting old, their blueline is thin, and their goaltending is average.
Todd McCllean is back as head coach which I had no issue with, I feel he’s got the most out of this team since he’s been behind their bench. But Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are both 33 now, Dan Boyle is 36, and they have nothing really on the way from the farm.
Thornton and Marleau are still the key to this teams success and while they are older they’ll still produce at a high level. I’m not sure Logan Couture has another level. Nothing is wrong with the level of player he currently is, but this team could REALLY use him to take his game above being a good 2nd line centre. If he could, than that 2nd line could be one of the best in the league with him and Ryane Clowe.
One of the big problems this team has always had is quality in their bottom 6. Doug Wilson has tried to address it in the past, but never done a real good job. Over the span of the last CBA they rarely had a good/great 3rd line centre. You’re all sick to death of me writing it but it’s what I strongly believe you must be loaded down the middle to win a cup. It shows up even more when the defense hasn’t ever been an elite group.
Brent Burns flat out pisses me off when I watch him. This guy has the talent to be the best defenseman in hockey and he just could care less to be. When he has the body language of a guy who is just satisfied being good and could care less about being great. If he ever flipped that switch, look out. But he’s almost 28 now, I doubt it will happen. Boyle is still the top d-man on this team and it’s not as though he is a guy that takes a lot of punishment, but 36 is still 36. He might not drop off, but he’s not going to improve.
Brad Stuart was brought back to the team in the off season, but I just don’t see how he can vastly improve this blueline. Solid signing, he’s still a top 4 guy. But remember, he was a guy who’s play was very erratic before arriving in Detroit. They’ve had a lot of guys look great in that system and look terrible after they’ve left. Vlasic, Doug Murray, Justin Braun and Jason Demers round it out and while the former 2 are solid, they aren’t scaring anyone.
Back in net is 2010 cup champ Antti Niemi, but he’s not a guy that can carry this team to that level. The 2010 Hawks were absolutely loaded, and while Niemi showed up big when he had to he by no means had to carry them. Thomas Greiss is back after a year in Sweden, but he won’t steal the job from Niemi. Straight up, it’s not looking good for the Sharks between the pipes.
They’ve dealt a lot of prospects and young guys over the year’s in an attempt to get over the hump. Now they have a depleated system and they took a big step back last season. The Sharks are in no man’s land and I think when you add in the fact that a lot of these vets haven’t been playing this season, and things don’t look good for the Sharks to get in the dance. I believe it will be time for a rebuild.
5. Dallas Stars – They actually made a few splashes in the off season. Trying to replicate the Stars teams of the late 90’s they added the oldest players they could literally get their hands on. Jagr and Ray Whitney are now in and they’ll be part of a pretty good looking top 6 up front….as long as Joe Nieuwendyk can get Jamie Benn signed.
This team is actually built very similar to the Anaheim Ducks. Good up front, good in net, weak on the blueline. I don’t know how people would look at Joe Nieuwendyk’s tenure as a GM thus far, but 1 move I will crush him for is the Alex Goligoski trade. I realize he had a situation where his team was loaded up front and even weaker than they currently are on defense. But it was like when he made that deal he just targeted a puck moving d-man between the ages of x and x and was only making x. You just can’t run your team that way and in doing so he got CRUSHED on that deal. Goligoski can move the puck, but he is a nightmare in his own zone and I really believe what he gave up he could have got more than Goligoski.
I would actually say the guy that looks as though he should be the horse on this blueline is Trevor Daley. He can move the puck, and won’t hurt you in his own zone. He’s a very intelligent d-man which is the area where Goligoski lacks. Of course Stars favorite Stephane Robidas is still around as well averaging over 22 minutes a night. Those numbers will comes down as he closes in on 36 years of age, but still a very solid top 4 guy. This team has always drafted well so I wouldn’t completely rule it out but from a distance they not only don’t have much on the current roster, there really isn’t anything coming on the blueline either. Jamie Oleksiak is huge, but he’s a long way off and even then it would be far fetched at this point to call him a blue chip prospect.
The guy that might make this blueline look a lot better than it is would be Kari Lehtonen. If I killed Nieuwendyk for the Goligoski deal I have to sing his praises for the Lehtonen one. He pulled that trigger at the perfect time in Lehtonen’s career. Until that point he was perhaps the most injury prone goaltender in the league that didn’t have a 15 year contract. But since the trade Lehtonen has been money and developed into the franchise goaltender he was expected to be when drafted 2nd overall by the Thrashers in 2002.
Back to their forwards for a minute and as I stated off the top, they look really good in the top 6 as long as they get Benn signed which as of typing this nothing looks close. There was talk of a possible offer sheet in the off season (supposedly by a Canadian team) which makes me wonder if it might have been Been’s camp trying to get the Stars going on a legitimate offer. Benn would look great on several teams, especially after making the jump successfully from wing to centre last season. I have to believe that the Stars get this deal done but it’s always possible that while they want him, he no longer wants them.
If he did by chance walk they brought in Derek Roy in the off season, dealt Mike Riberio (pretty similar players), and got Cody Eakin in the Riberio deal so they do have guys that could somewhat fill roles at centre in the top 6. On the wings they’re deep with Jagr and Whitney joining Eriksson and Ryder in the top 6 and likely pushing Brendan Morrow down to the 3rd line with Vernon Fiddler (which will be one of the league’s best 3rd lines).
So while I do like quite a bit about this team, there is just nothing I really love about them. A playoff push is possible again but even if they got in anything other than a 1st round loss seems far fetched at this point. Lots of good, nothing great, and with a pretty bad blueline in a tough division it could go South pretty fast for the Stars.
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