Tuesday, August 30, 2011

2011/12 NHL Preview - Pacific Division

Today in part 1 of our previews of the upcoming NHL season, we look at the Pacific Division. Each day we'll look at projected team depth charts and a number of other factors that could make or break teams this year, before culminating in our predictions on September 7th.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Corey Perry - Ryan Getzlaf - Bobby Ryan
Jason Blake - Saku Koivu - Teemu Selanne
Brandon McMillan - Andrew Cogliano - Dan Sexton
Matt Beleskey - Maxime Macenauer - George Parros

Lubomir Visnovsky - Toni Lydman
Cam Fowler - Francois Beauchemin
Luca Sbisa - Kurtis Foster

Jonas Hiller
Dan Ellis

The Ducks failed to make any major acquisitions this off-season but did bring in Andrew Cogliano from Edmonton to shore up their depth at center. Once a highly touted prospect, Cogliano's offensive game and consistency have been questioned at the NHL level, but perhaps a change of scenery is just what he needed. He and Brandon McMillan will need to perform to support an aging 2nd line of Jason Blake, Saku Koivu, and Teemu Selanne (assuming Selanne does decide to return, that is, which is still not a given).

The Ducks' top line is perhaps the best in the game, but they'll need to lean an awful lot on it to have a successful season since they are lacking in scoring support. Things aren't that grim though as a number of promising rookies have a chance to see action at some point whether this season or next including Kyle Palmieri, Emerson Etem, and Peter Holland. Another interesting storyline up front will be Mark Bell, once a budding young power forward with the Chicago Blackhawks, but whose off-ice activity and life issues derailed his development. After spending two seasons in the Swiss league, Bell hopes to return to the NHL this year, but is likely to start with the Ducks' affiliate in the American League.

It hasn't taken Anaheim long to successfully replace the win pillars on the blueline of Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. With no offense intended towards Ryan Whitney, the club outright stole Lubomir Visnovsky from the Oilers, while Toni Lydman may be amongst the more underrated defensemen in the game. The fun one to watch this season will be Cam Fowler - an unexpected draft day slider who made his NHL debut as an 18 year old and put up an impressive 40 points in 76 games. While he still needs to polish his defensive game, he certainly has Drew Doughty'esque potential, and makes a good gamble for any fantasy hockey pools out there.

The real success factor for the club this season resides in goal. Jonas Hiller put up incredible numbers during the first half of last year, but was sidelined with concussion syndromes after being hit in the head during the all-star game. If he can return to form, Anaheim looks good to lock up a playoff spot. If he can't, however, it is unlikely that back-up Dan Ellis will be sufficient to extend the team's season beyond April in the tough and competitive Western Conference.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Low seed playoff team.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Brenden Morrow - Mike Ribeiro - Loui Eriksson
Steve Ott - Jamie Benn - Michael Ryder
Adam Burish - Vernon Fiddler - Radek Dvorak
Toby Peterson - Tom Wandell - Jake Dowell

Alex Goligoski - Stephane Robidas
Trevor Daley - Nicklas Grossman
Sheldon Souray - Adam Pardy

Kari Lehtonen
Andrew Raycroft

The Stars were active on the UFA market this summer, but as was the nature of the market, most signings were depth players unlikely to make a difference in the overall success of the team's season. Michael Ryder is coming off a resurgent UFA year, scoring 41 points in the regular season but more importantly having been an integral piece to the Boston Bruins Stanley Cup championship, where his great two-way play helped the team past the Montreal Canadiens, and he added 8 goals and 17 points in the 25 playoff contests. In Dallas, he will perhaps be reunited with former Hab linemate Mike Ribeiro, who for all the negative press he gets, remains a competent and productive top pivot. With three straight seasons over 60 points, the last two of which were over 70, Loui Eriksson has proven he is amongst the league's most talented wingers, and at the age of 26, he is still in the prime years of his career. Due to his age and the nature of his game, Stars captain Brenden Morrow, on the other hand, would appear to be in decline, but will still see top line minutes on a team lacking in offensive depth.

On the back end, the most interesting player to follow will be Sheldon Souray, getting a new chance at an NHL job after half a season sat out and a full year in the AHL due to a situation-gone-wrong in Edmonton. Habs fans will fondly remember Souray's booming pointshot and will be curious to see if he still has it in him, even if the Stars may keep Alex Goligoski and Stephane Robidas as their number 1 powerplay pair. Those in very deep hockey pools may consider gambling on Souray in a late round, but the overall outlook for Dallas this year doesn't seem to be particularly positive, so combining that with Souray's known defensive deficiencies, expect a poor +/- rating.

Between the pipes, Andrew Raycroft has gotten his career back on track and appears to be a reliable back-up keeper, but clearly the team needs Kari Lehtonen to stay healthy to have any chance of reaching the playoffs. His 69 games last year was a career high and he'll look to build off that even if he'll never live up to his billing as a former 2nd overall selection (albeit in a weak first round in 2002).

YourCanadiens Verdict: Out of the playoffs.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Justin Williams - Anze Kopitar - Dustin Brown
Simon Gagne - Mike Richards - Dustin Penner
Kyle Clifford - Jarret Stoll - Brad Richardson
Scott Parse - Trevor Lewis - Ethan Moreau

Jack Johnson - Drew Doughty
Willie Mitchell - Rob Scuderi
Matt Greene - Alec Martinez

Jonathan Quick
Jonathan Bernier

While the Kings do still have to get star defenseman Drew Doughty under contract, it is our expectation that is done in the next couple of weeks prior to the start of training camp. Los Angeles was aggressive in improving their roster over the summer and now possess what may be the best group of top 6 forwards league-wide. There have been some questions about Dustin Penner's off-season training and conditioning, but the additions of him (trade deadline), Simon Gagne (UFA), and Mike Richards (off-season trade) give the Kings a scary arsenal of offensive weapons. Skilled winger Justin Williams was finally healthy last season, with his 73 games being the first time he topped the 50 game mark since 2006-07. If he can build on the success he had with 57 points and 4 more in 6 playoff games, he rounds out a top 2 lines that Habs fans could only dream of - all players at 6'0" or greater with a nose for the net.

The Kings had to sacrifice their top prospects in Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds to make their moves, but the cupboard isn't bare, with many expecting talented Russian forward Andrei Loktionov to establish himself full-time at some point during the season. He put up 7 points in 19 NHL games and 31 more in 34 AHL games last year, so if your pool needs a good rookie and the obvious ones are gone, he might be a good risk. Similarly on the blueline, after the big names in Doughty and Jack Johnson, this may be a breakout year for the highly underrated Alec Martinez. After scoring 16 points in 20 games with the Manchester Monarchs last season, he made the jump to the big club and his solid two-way play earned him a role in the top 6 right through the playoffs.

Many eyes may be on the developing situation in goal, as Jonathan Quick is a high calibre starting goaltender but will be a UFA in 2 seasons. Jonathan Bernier has dominated at the AHL level but has yet to truly prove he can be a consistent NHL starter, leading to a question of whether he will get that chance in L.A. or be moved for other assets.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Conference contender.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Ray Whitney - Kyle Turris - Shane Doan
Raffi Torres - Martin Hanzal - Radim Vrbata
Taylor Pyatt - Daymond Langkow - Mikkel Boedker
Paul Bissonnette - Boyd Gordon - Petteri Nokelainen

Keith Yandle - Rostislav Klesla
Derek Morris - Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Michal Rozsival - Adrian Aucoin

Mike Smith
Jason Labarbera

Stunts in the development of a few of Phoenix's top prospects slowed the rise of what was not long ago seen as a true up-and-coming team. Kyle Turris will be given every chance to prove himself as a 1st or 2nd line center this season or he'll be dealt for someone equally enigmatic. Mikkel Boedker should see regular ice time in a secondary scoring role, while Viktor Tikhonov looks to continue to battle his way back into the NHL after his surprising rookie season as an 18 year old in 2008-09. The recent acquisition of Daymond Langkow has sound potential upside bringing veteran presence to a third line after the 35 year old returned to the NHL from injury towards the end of last season. There isn't too too much to work with though, so the Coyotes need to hope for a huge pre-UFA year from captain Shane Doan to lead the team up front - a simple Raffi Torres won't do it.

If there aren't many bright spots up front, the Coyotes have two pillars on defense for the foreseeable future in Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Unfortunately, the rest of the group is getting up there in age and isn't particularly quick of foot, which will be a problem given that the club can no longer rely on a main reason for their past success, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. His trade to the Flyers means the team is now counting on a pair of netminders who are at best 1B goaltenders and seem better suited for back-up roles, but between Mike Smith, Jason Labarbera, and even third stringer Curtis McElhinney, perhaps the club will receive sufficient performances to remain in contention.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Out of the playoffs.


Projected depth chart / lines:
Martin Havlat - Joe Thornton - Patrick Marleau
Logan Couture - Joe Pavelski - Ryan Clowe
James Sheppard - Michal Handzus - Torrey Mitchell
Jamie McGinn - Andrew Murray - Ben Ferriero

Dan Boyle - Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Brent Burns - Douglas Murray
Jason Demers - Collin White

Antti Niemi
Antero Nitttymaki

For a team that has seen such tremendous regular season success for many seasons in a row, the Sharks certainly were busy this summer. It is debatable if the team is better up front, with Martin Havlat, Michal Handzus, and James Sheppard replacing notably Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, but the team did land a big fish on defense in Brent Burns (a huge upgrade over trade deadline acquisition Ian White). The offense will depend on many of the same key contributors of a year ago, with a top 6 rivaling that of the Kings provided that Ryan Clowe and Joe Pavelski continue along in their quick progression as offensive threats. It would appear as though Havlat has put his prior injury problems behind him with three straight seasons of more than 70 games, but the team's offense doesn't extend deep into the bottom 6, so they will need to remain as healthy as possible if they are to challenge for the conference title.

On the blueline, the Sharks are a young, mobile, two-way group anchored by veteran Dan Boyle. The club made a couple of important depth moves in signing both Collin White and Jim Vandermeer to cheap value deals, and they will be crucial veterans should any of the younger players slump.

Antti Niemi may have led a team to a Stanley Cup as a rookie, and did post solid numbers last season in San Jose, but I'm far from sold on him as a top notch starting 'tender. Fortunately, Antero Niittymaki is arguably a goalie of similar calibre, so between the two of them, the Sharks goaltending tandem should be up to par with what it was with Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala back in the day.

YourCanadiens Verdict: Conference contender.

Thanks for reading. Tomorrow we hit the Central Division!

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