1. LA Kings: For the first time ever a returning Stanley Cup champion brings back their entire roster from the season before. On top of that they do so with the lockout giving them several extra months of rest. The Pacific Division is the Kings to lose. There are a couple of question marks early, the biggest being the health of Anze Kopitar. It was Kopitar’s evolution from standout to superstar in last year’s playoff (along with Jonathon Quick of course) that propelled the Kings to the Stanley Cup. With a deep group of forwards, strong goaltending and an elite lead defenseman in Drew Doughty the Kings are the odd-on favorites to win the Pacific and contend for the top overall record in the Western Conference.
2. Phoenix Coyotes: With all the excitement over the defending champion Kings last year’s division champs aren’t getting a ton of attention. The Coyotes aggressive style may not be exciting from a hockey purist standpoint, but they are deep and well coached and there’s no reason why the Coyotes can’t defend their division title. The big question mark across the board in the NHL is how teams will be affected by the lockout, good or bad. There are a few factors in the Coyotes favor. First, they had ten players actively playing during the lockout. Second, they have a number one goaltender in Mike Smith who had a massive workload last season. The extended offseason should benefit Smith. Like any small market team the Coyotes have to make tough financial decisions and it had to be hard to see Ray Whitney go to a division rival. Still, the Coyotes have done well to build from within and have kept the core of their roster. They’ll have to find a way to replace Whitney’s production offensively, but the addition of Zbynek Michalek will make a tough defense even tougher. The Coyotes will challenge the Kings until the end.
3. San Jose Sharks: The proverbial window of opportunity is probably closing in San Jose. After making deep playoff runs for consecutive years the Sharks fell back to seventh in the Western Conference last season, getting dismantled by the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the playoffs. After years of consistent success last year had to be a disappointment for the Sharks. They still have a roster of capable veterans. Up front the Sharks still boast one of the deepest groups of forwards in the NHL and the likes of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat and young Logan Couture surely are capable of propelling the Sharks back to the top. Defensively the Sharks brought back Brad Stuart who’ll anchor the second defensive pairing behind the excellent top unit of Dan Boyle and Brent Burns. Antti Niemi should once again provide steady goaltending. Like the two teams projected above the Sharks have had very little turnover which bodes well for a quick start. If the Sharks can get out of the gates quickly and if the brutal schedule doesn’t wear down the aging forward group the Sharks could very well make a run. Unfortunately they have the feel of a team battling for a final playoff spot.
4. Anaheim Ducks: When it comes to the Ducks, who really knows? They were brutal at the beginning of the year under Randy Carlyle then got hot right after they hired Bruce Boudreau, only to come back to earth. It all comes down to the first line. If Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan play like they did the year before last they can absolutely carry a team. If they continue to struggle and Getzlaf continues to be an enigma trade deadline moves may be in the offing. It’s a pivotal year in Anaheim. The Ducks are a high potential club but past the first line there isn’t a ton of depth. If the top line goes nuts they could contend, but that’s difficult to see considering the evolution of Phoenix and LA as elite teams. The Kings, Coyotes and Sharks are simply deeper and better.
5. Dallas Stars: The Stars head into the season with an interesting strategy, an almost anti-youth movement. In picking up Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney and Derek Roy and Stars have clearly gotten older, but they’ve also added some real veteran presence to the club. As noted before there’s really no telling how the short season will play out. On one hand the lack of a full regular season can be a boon to aging legs. On the other hand the back to back games and five games in seven days stretches might now. One positive is that Joe Nieuwendyk is clearly making moves to add a little excitement in Big D. We’ll see how quickly they can build chemistry. Even with the addition of the grizzled vets the Stars are a playoff long shot.
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