The Cover 4.com presents you with the NHL Season Preview Part 3:Pacific Division! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour
Today, we have our next installment of our division previews, and again we head out west, this time to the Pacific Division. This division should be one of the most competitive divisions, and solid goaltending is a theme for most of the teams in the Pacific. Another common theme of this division is the story of a successful regular season, followed by playoff disappointment. Let’s look at the ins and outs of the Pacific Division.
The Ducks, under the tutelage of Bruce Boudreau, had a surprising second-place finish in the Western Conference last year. But there’s a big piece missing from last year’s team. Bobby Ryan was shipped to Ottawa in exchange for Jakob Silfverberg, a very young and talented forward. Returning are veterans Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne. Selanne has already designated this as the last season of his Hall of Fame career. Former Cup champion Dustin Penner is back in town as well, joining old friends Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf both of whom signed long-term deals with the Ducks. Defenseman Cam Fowler will look to rebound after a sophomore slump, and Bryan Allen and Francois Beauchemin will both be rocks on the blueline. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Ducks is the group of five young, extremely talented players. Forwards Matt Beleskey, Nick Bonino, Kyle Palmieri and Emerson Etem all had their coming out parties last season and look to build off of that. Goaltender John Gibson is possibly the best young goaltender in the game, and he may not even start the season in the NHL. Viktor Fasth and Jonas Hiller look to backstop the Ducks out of the gates.
Dark days are here for the Flames. After the very heart and soul of the Flames, Jarome Iginla, was moved to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline last year, any hope for the Flames began to fade. Since then, franchise goalie Miikka Kiprusoff has called it a career. Defenseman Mark Giordano was named captain this offseason, and he is deserving of the honor. Veterans Lee Stempniak, Curtis Glencross and Mike Cammeleri will lead the way to a presumably awful season for Calgary. An interesting player to watch is Sven Baertschi, who enjoyed moderate success as a rookie last season, and he comes in with a pedigree. Expectations are high for the kid, but let’s be serious, the Flames top two goaltenders are Joey MacDonald and Karri Ramo. Yikes.
The future is now for this Edmonton Oilers team, and they need to seize it. It seems like over the past few seasons, we have come into the year thinking this is the year the youthful Oilers emerge, and we come out of the season wondering where it went wrong. Injuries to star players like Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall have severely hampered Edmonton over the past few seasons, but inconsistent goaltending has ultimately sunk them. Unfortunately for Oilers fans, the goaltending situation has not been resolved. Devan Dubnyk has shown some flashes of his skill, but has yet to develop into a consistent NHL goaltender. The good news is Dubnyk is another year older, more mature and confident. The same goes for RNH, Eberle and Hall. The Oilers have high top-end talent with those three, supported by Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky and Nail Yakupov. In addition to talent, the Oilers have taken steps to solidify their bottom six as well, bringing in underrated player Boyd Gordon from Phoenix. Gordon is the type of guy that excels defensively at even strength and on the penalty kill. You won’t see him on the power play unit, but he will log of ton of minutes short-handed, and he can pitch in the odd goal on occasion. Ben Eager, Mike Brown and Ryan Smyth provide the grit and toughness that the star players need in order to create space. On the blueline, the Oilers are very underrated. Franchise defenseman Justin Schultz looks to take the next steps in his progression, and free agent signing Andrew Ference will help solidify their top-four that also features hard hitting Ladislav Smid and skilled puck-mover Denis Grebeshkov. The Oilers could sneak into the playoff hunt, but only if they stay healthy and get consistent goaltending.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
The beat goes on for the Kings as they should be in contention for the Stanley Cup yet again this year. Last year, the Kings lost to the eventual Cup champion Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals, a year after winning the Cup themselves. There are many holdovers from the past two seasons. Captain Dustin Brown is the heartbeat of the team, and he brings it each night. He’s a true warrior of the game. The forward ranks boast the skill of Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Justin Williams, supported by the grit of Mike Richards and Trevor Lewis, along with the power forwards Dwight King, Kyle Clifford and Jordan Nolan. The well-rounded group of forwards needs to find more consistent scoring, but the Kings do not need to find too many goals to win every night, as their backend may be the best in hockey. The defensive corps has some tight competition among their ranks as there are eight legitimate top-six NHL defensemen on their roster, led by franchise defenseman Drew Doughty. We know what it comes down to every playoff series, and that is goaltending, and the Kings have the best goalie in the world right now. Jonathan Quick nearly single-handedly won the Stanley Cup for his team two seasons in a row. His performances the last two playoff years have been as good, if not better, than those of Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur in the past, and Quick is still considered young. If the Kings can develop a consistent scoring touch, without sacrificing defense for it, they could be a dominant team in the league and should contend for the division title.
It seems that financial stability has come to Glendale, and that should benefit the on-ice product tremendously. Phoenix hopes to return to the form of two seasons ago, and put a rough year last season in the past. Franchise goaltender Mike Smith has been locked up long-term, and that should make things better for the Yotes, as their success depends squarely on his shoulders. Smith battled injury last season and did not have the year he wanted in a lockout-shortened season, but he should be able to bounce back splendidly this year. Gone is Boyd Gordon, who is a vastly underrated player, but standout center Mike Ribeiro joins the club, and adds some needed skill. Ribiero will join Antoine Vermette, Mikkel Boedker and Radim Vrbata in leading the offense, supported by the likes of Martin Hanzal and captain Shane Doan. The Coyotes play a simple, solid, well-rounded game, and feature an abundance of players that play that style, like forwards David Moss, Lauri Korpikoski, and defensemen Zbynek Michalek, Derek Morris, and Rusty Klesla. Phoenix’s top two defensemen, Oliver Ekman-Larrson and Keith Yandle, rival any team in the NHL’s top pair. Goaltending will tell the tale of their season.
SAN JOSE SHAKRS
Led by one of the best netminders in the game in Antti Niemi, the Sharks have the potential to contend for the division this season, but it stands to reason that the Sharks are skating on thin ice. For the better half of the last decade, the Sharks have put together great regular seasons, only to be ousted in the playoffs, without even reaching a Stanley Cup Final. Granted, it seems like every year they are eliminated by the eventual Cup champs, but no matter, they still lose. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are nearing the points in their careers where it’s time to you-know-what or get off the pot. The money the two command is extensive, but as long as they produce, that is no problem, but both tend to be streaky. Thornton is a power play wizard, dishing the puck all over, but is marginal at even strength. Young stars Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Brent Burns are the future of this team, and have showed that they can carry the offensive load. The Sharks brought in a clutch playoff player in Tyler Kennedy from the Penguins (Kennedy has more career playoff winning goals for Pittsburgh than Sidney Crosby does) to help address their playoff struggles. The defensive platoon includes Cup-winning veterans Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart, and is supplemented by Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun and Jason Demers. The story has been the same for the Sharks, regular season success, followed by post-season disappointment, and I see no reason to believe that regular season success won’t be the story again this season. The trick will be changing their playoff fortunes.
The 2013-14 Vancouver Canucks will be a vastly different team from last season. Gone is goaltender of the future Cory Schneider, who was shipped to the Devils at the draft, leaving embattled Roberto Luongo to carry the load between the pipes. Bobby Lu’s struggles are well documented by the intense Vancouver media. Speaking of which, that media has their wet dream of a coach in John Tortorella, who swaps cities with former Canucks coach Alain Vingeault, who heads to the Rangers. Torts is a task master on the players, and often a little too candid during his media time. Torts will do what he does, and that is take the public pressure off of his players and place it on himself, while in turn upping his pressure on the players behind closed doors. It will be a big change, but after playoff disappointment after playoff disappointment, it may be a good change for the organization. One key for the Canucks will be keeping Ryan Kesler healthy. Kesler is a world-class player at his best, but has not come close to being healthy the past three seasons, spending an enormous amount of time injured. The Sedin twins will put up their points, and Alex Burrows will too. A lot of pressure will rest on David Booth, Zack Kassian and Chris Higgins, who will have to supply the crucial secondary scoring. I believe free-agent pick-up Mike Santorelli could wind up playing an important role for them by the end of the season, but he first needs to develop consistency. Kevin Bieksa anchors a solid defensive corps with the likes of Jason Garrison and Dan Hamhuis behind him. The Canucks, more specifically Tortorella, will probably still look to upgrade the defensive corps, but Torts has a way of getting a lot out of his young players.
We will see if the teams of the Pacific will be able to shake their ever-growing history of playoff failure, and match LA is the Cup win column. Thanks for reading, and please stop back tomorrow as we finish our season preview with the newly formed Metropolitan Division. For now, we leave you with our picks for the three automatic division playoff bids:
Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks
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Chris Dazen & Patrick Riley
Guest Sports Activist for The Cover 4