What Key Questions Face Pacific Division Teams?
The wait for the 2012-13 season is nearly over. What questions do each NHL team need to answer to be successful, and do they have the resources to provide said responses? Well, let's take a division-by-division look at some of the key quandaries for each NHL franchise as the campaign beckons. Next up is the Pacific Division, which includes the two highest-scoring active players and the defending champs.
It probably goes without saying that coming off a season in which they finished 13th in the Western Conference and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by 15 points, there are no shortage of questions facing the Anaheim Ducks.
Since claiming the franchise's first championship in 2007, the Ducks have won a single playoff round. They've made the postseason three times and failed to get there twice, but their overall performance last season was particularly vexing.
1. What will Bruce Boudreau be able to achieve in his first full season in Anaheim?
Although he couldn't pull off the miracle comeback he did when he first became an NHL coach in Washington, leading the Capitals back from last place in the Eastern Conference to the first of four consecutive Southeast Division titles in 2007-08, Boudreau re-energized the Ducks -- most notably goalie Jonas Hiller and the team's defensive efforts in front of him -- and created expectations of better things to come.
In the three full seasons Boudreau coached the Capitals, they finished first in the division each time. The Pacific boasts the defending Stanley Cup champs (Los Angeles Kings), the other Western finalist (Phoenix Coyotes) and two other very solid teams (San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars), so a top-three seed is a lofty goal, but it isn't unreasonable to expect Boudreau can lead the Ducks back into the playoffs.
2. What kind of production will the Ducks get from their vaunted top line?
Perry, who went on a goal-scoring binge near the end of 2010-11 to win the Hart Trophy, slipped from 50 goals and 98 points to 37 and 60. Ryan's scoring line dipped from 34-37-71 to 31-26-57. Getzlaf managed 11 goals (down eight) and 57 points (down 19), his worst production since his rookie season.
In order for the Ducks to finish above the line that divides the West's top eight from its bottom seven, they'll probably need the No. 1 unit to at least produce at a rate that falls between its sizzling 2010-11 output and its underwhelming follow-up performance.
3. Will Bobby Ryan remain a Duck, and if so, will he be happy about that fact?
The 25-year-old right wing, who has scored 30-plus goals in each of his four full NHL seasons, made comments after the season that suggested he wouldn't mind continuing his career somewhere other than Southern California.
Any team looking to add an impact player on offense would figure to have Ryan in its sights. The Philadelphia Flyers, in particular, were rumored to have interest in the native of nearby Cherry Hill, N.J., but it's unclear what the Ducks might want for him -- or if they're inclined to deal him in the first place.
4. Can Teemu Selanne continue to produce at an elite level at 42 years old?
The Finnish Flash defied Father Time again last season by leading the Ducks in scoring, registering 26 goals and 66 points. Perhaps even more remarkably, he played in all 82 games for the first time in five years.
Considering Hiller missed almost the entire final two months of the 2010-11 season plus the Ducks' first-round playoff defeat to the Nashville Predators because of vertigo, that he was able to come back last season and lead the League with 73 appearances was a remarkable feat.
It also indicated the Ducks didn't have a lot of faith in their goaltending depth. Fasth has had a decorated career in Sweden, including at the international level, but he's recovering from groin and hip injuries suffered in November while playing for Norfolk in the American Hockey League. Assuming he adjusts to the NHL well and gains Boudreau's confidence, it's not unreasonable to think he could he could steal some starts this season.
6. Who will step up and make an impact on the blue line?
Over the past few seasons, the Ducks have traded away Chris Pronger and Lubomir Visnovsky and saw Scott Niedermayer retire. Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa, who represent the future on defense, are at crucial stages in their development.
Fowler's offensive numbers regressed in his sophomore season, but he just turned 21 in December and still has all the makings of a future star at his position. Sbisa, 22, set career highs across the board last season and flashed a lot of the potential the Ducks saw when they acquired him as part of the deal for Pronger. Aiding the young duo will be veteran holdovers Francois Beauchemin and Toni Lydman. The Ducks added experience by signing free agents Bryan Allen and Sheldon Souray.
-- Brian Hunter
The Dallas Stars led the Pacific Division on March 30, but they ended the season with five consecutive losses to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth straight year. General manager Joe Nieuwendyk was active in the offseason, bringing in front-line forwards Derek Roy, Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr. Will the moves pay off with a return to the postseason?
1. What did coach Glen Gulutzan learn?
In his first NHL season, Gulutzan experienced the ups and downs that come with coaching in the NHL. After eight seasons in the minor leagues, including the past two in the American Hockey League, Gulutzan said the biggest thing for him was adjusting to the NHL schedule. Adding an experienced assistant coach in Curt Fraser could help, as could the addition of veterans Jagr and Whitney. Like any other rookie, having a season of experience under his belt only can help Gulutzan moving into this season.
2. Can Kari Lehtonen stay healthy?
Injuries always have been an issue with the goaltender, notably a pesky back problem. Last season, though, he played 59 games and set personal bests with a 2.33 goals-against average and .922 save percentage, each of which ranked in the top 10 in the League. He missed a month with a groin injury and the Stars went 7-5-0 in his absence. Rookie backup Richard Bachman played well, but the Stars need Lehtonen to be healthy if they have any hope of returning to the postseason.
3. Are the Stars tough enough?
Steve Ott isn't the biggest forward in the League, but he has no problem jumping into the fray to stick up for a teammate. Same for Adam Burish and Sheldon Souray, who along with Ott had three of the top four penalty-minute totals on the Stars last season -- and all of whom will be playing with other teams in 2012-13.
So who supplies the muscle for Dallas this season? Captain Brenden Morrow can play nasty, as can defenseman Aaron Rome. But will they be enough to keep teams from getting overly physical with the Stars' more skilled players?
4. Will the older players hold up for 82 games and the playoffs?
Jagr and Whitney have combined for 2,575 regular-season games and 283 Stanley Cup Playoff games. Both players turned 40 last season. Do they have enough left for one more big run?
Nieuwendyk certainly thinks so. He landed Whitney for precisely that reason -- the Stars were the only team offering him a two-year contract. And though Jagr appeared tired at times late last season for the Philadelphia Flyers, Nieuwendyk said he believes Jagr has enough "gas in the tank." Their ability to be prime players will determine if the Stars will be able to extend their season.
One of the main reasons the Stars reconstructed their top lines was in hope of improving their power play, which finished 30th in the League last season at 13.5 percent. Gulutzan said improvement will come from better and simpler play in the offensive zone.
Jagr is second among active players with 189 power-play goals, and Whitney was second on the Coyotes last season with 20 power-play points. With a healthy Morrow providing a net-front presence, the Stars should see their numbers with the man advantage improve.
6. Who plays defense?
Alex Goligoski and Stephane Robidas likely will make up the top pairing, but beyond that, nothing is set in stone. Veterans Rome and Trevor Daley will compete for spots with youngsters Brenden Dillon, Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth.
Dillon, an undrafted free agent who had 29 points in 76 American Hockey League games last season, could be a player to keep an eye on.
"He had a real good first year last year in Texas," Stars director of player personnel Les Jackson told NHL.com. "I believe he's going to be around the big team this year. He's really taken a huge step forward. He's going to have a real good chance of making the big club this year."
-- Adam Kimelman
LOS ANGELES KINGS
The Kings won the Stanley Cup and brought back every significant player from the first title-winning team in franchise history, so there aren't going to be a lot of questions for the club to answer during the 2012-13 season. Los Angeles will be considered one of the favorites in the Western Conference, but the Kings were not one of the best in 2011-12 until late in the season. Some production levels from players may not be sustainable, and injuries are bound to occur.
1. What can Jonathan Quick do for an encore?
Quick had two strong seasons for the Kings prior to 2011-12, but even then he wasn't clear of the possibility of uber-prospect Jonathan Bernier usurping him. Not only did Quick put that idea to rest last season, his rise to superstardom was one of the biggest reasons for the Kings' title run.
After a Vezina Trophy-finalist and Conn Smythe Trophy-winning season, Quick cemented his place in Los Angeles with a 10-year, $58 million contract extension. He also had what the Kings deemed "minor surgery" on his back in August repair a disc fragment and an inflammatory cyst.
2. Can the Kings avoid the dreaded "Stanley Cup hangover?"
The NHL has a long history of dynasties and teams defending their championships, but that hasn't been the case recently. No club has repeated since the Detroit Red Wings captured the Cup in 1997 and 1998. The Red Wings were one game from completing the feat in 2009, but the Pittsburgh Penguins denied them.
Last season proved to be unlike any other in Kings history, but this season will be as well. Los Angeles now is the target for 29 other teams, and expectations never have been higher. That said, the Kings are loaded, and on paper look primed for a serious run at a repeat. One of their biggest opponents may be themselves -- can they recapture the incredible form that helped them steamroll through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, or at least a close facsimile?
3. Will the power play be better?
For the second straight season, a team claimed the Stanley Cup despite a porous power play in the postseason. Though Kings players and coach Darryl Sutter defended it on a daily basis, Los Angeles' work with the extra man (with a few exceptions) was deficient.
Los Angeles' power play was middle of the pack during the regular season (tied for 16th at 17.0 percent), but the Kings converted just 12.8 percent of their chances in the postseason. Having sniper Jeff Carter around for a full season, as well as more man-advantage time for defenseman Slava Voynov, could help the Kings boost their power play back to more respectable figures.
4. Will the Kings score more?
If the Kings play like they did in their last 40 games or so (including the postseason), offense will not be a problem. Having a healthy Simon Gagne and a full season of Carter, Jordan Nolan and Dwight King could even make the Kings an above-average offensive club.
5. Will any of the kids get their shot?
By returning almost everyone who donned a sweater during the 2012 playoffs, general manager Dean Lombardi has ensured the Kings will be among the favorites in 2012-13 -- but he also blocked several young players from a clear path to NHL opportunity.
Bernier has been waiting for three years, but at least he's doing so at the big-league level and earning some NHL experience in the process. Others may not be so lucky this season. Andrei Loktionov, Kyle Clifford and Jake Muzzin have NHL experience, but all could end up waiting their turn with Manchester in the American Hockey League. The same goes for players who'd almost certainly see an NHL debut in other organizations (Tyler Toffoli and Martin Jones). Should the Kings run into injury problems, there will be some exciting options available.
6. Will Lombardi make any moves?
Lombardi re-signed every notable free agent Los Angeles had and locked up Quick with a long-term deal, but the GM didn't add anyone until acquiring forward Anthony Stewart from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Kevin Westgarth this week.
There were reports that Lombardi was interested in Zach Parise, just as the GM had tried to lure another Devils forward, Ilya Kovalchuk, to Los Angeles. The Kings don't need anything; however, a serious injury -- or just the desire to inject new energy -- could lead Lombardi to tweak his roster again.
-- Corey Masisak
Since taking over in 2009, Tippett has kept the Coyotes focused despite distractions away from the ice with the ownership situation and on it with key defections, leading them to three consecutive Stanley Cup Playoff appearances. The White Out was back in in the desert and Jobing.com Arena was rocking last spring until Phoenix ran into the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings after dispatching the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators in the first two rounds.
1. Who is going to score?
Ray Whitney is gone to the Dallas Stars, but retaining captain Shane Doan was huge, and Steve Sullivan and David Moss are free-agent signings who could end up in top-six forward positions. Sullivan had 17 goals last season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Moss had 17 the year before for the Calgary Flames, so somewhere around 35 goals from them is a reasonable expectation if they receive premium minutes.
The Coyotes boost their scoring by committee approach with an above-average amount of offense from the blue line.
2. Can Mike Smith prove he wasn't a one-hit wonder?
Not only did Smith produce a regular season worthy of a fourth-place finish in the Vezina Trophy voting, he got stronger in the postseason -- something Ilya Bryzgalov did not do in his two seasons with Phoenix.
Smith posted a .944 save percentage in the postseason -- and he put up at least a .920 save percentage in 14 of the Coyotes' 16 playoff games. Now Smith will have to prove he can do it again, and his workload from last season is worth noting. Smith played in 83 games in 2011-12, including the postseason. His previous highs at any major level were 58 as an 18-year-old in the Ontario Hockey League and 57 in the American Hockey League at age 23.
Vermette joined the club before the trade deadline and ended up as Phoenix's leading scorer in the postseason with five goals and 10 points. Boedker had a nice rookie season, then spent two years shuttling back and forth to the AHL. Last season he had 11 goals and 24 points in 82 regular-season contests for the Coyotes, but ended up with four goals and eight points in the playoffs.
They teamed with Doan to form Phoenix's most productive line in the postseason. The trio will likely be together again -- something north of 25 goals and 50 points combined from Vermette and Boedker would certainly help ease the loss of Whitney.
4. How much can Steve Sullivan help the power play?
One sure-fire way for the Coyotes to produce more offense would be to fix the power play. Phoenix finished 29th in the League last season at 13.6 percent with the man advantage. Ceding control of the possession battle in a defense-first style also leads to fewer chances to draw penalties. Toss in six shorthanded goals against, and the Coyotes’ net gain on the power play was the worst in the NHL.
5. Is the next wave of defensemen ready to make an impact?
Yandle (26 years old) and Ekman-Larsson (21) are still young and evolving, but there is another group of quality prospects vying to join them. Brandon Gormley and David Rundblad have significant offensive potential, and Michael Stone had nine goals in 51 AHL games last season. Even Maxim Goncharov put up strong numbers in the KHL before two seasons in the AHL.
There is probably only room for one of those four to start this season with the Coyotes (Stone got some spot duty in the postseason), but any or all of them could see time with Phoenix at some point. The other stalwarts besides Yandle and Ekman-Larsson aren't likely to be impact guys at the offensive end, but one of the kids could be. Even another minor boost from the back end could help offset the losses.
6. Will Zbynek Michalek fit in well during his second tour of duty?
Michalek played his first five full NHL seasons with the Coyotes after arriving in a trade, but he signed a five-year, $20 million pact with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the summer of 2009. He scuffled at bit at times with the Penguins and struggled to fit into coach Dan Bylsma's uptempo system, drawing criticism along with fellow free-agent signee Paul Martin.
The Penguins wanted to clear salary-cap space in an attempt to lure Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, so the Coyotes were happy to take Michalek back with three years and $12 million left on his contract. Michalek, who is recovered from offseason hip surgery, is a defense-first guy and a shot-blocker. Combine that with his familiarity in Phoenix and he could provide an already strong defense corps with a nice boost.
-- Corey Masisak
SAN JOSE SHARKS
It's not often a conversation about the top teams in the Western Conference each season doesn't include the San Jose Sharks. They certainly were in the discussion last season, with two strong forward lines, a mobile defense and a goalie with a Stanley Cup ring. However, inconsistencies and injuries plagued them and it was a scramble for the Sharks to make the playoffs as the seventh seed. They return most of that group intact and healthy to start the 2012-13 season.
1. Is the window closing?
Since the Sharks acquired Joe Thornton in November 2005, they've been a serious Stanley Cup contender. But that was almost seven years ago, and their core players aren't getting any younger. Thornton is 33 and will be starting his 15th season. Patrick Marleau is 33 and will be playing his 15th season. Martin Havlat is 31, defenseman Dan Boyle is 36, newcomer Brad Stuart is 33 and fellow defenseman Douglas Murray are 32.
That's a lot of age in some key areas of the team. Can all those legs stay fresh for a long playoff run?
2. Where's the youth?
Trades during the past few years for Boyle, Dany Heatley and Brent Burns cost the Sharks young forwards Milan Michalek and Devin Setoguchi, as well as top prospect Charlie Coyle and first-round picks in 2009 and 2011. In fact, since drafting Logan Couture in 2007, the Sharks have had two first-round picks: Coyle and 2012 first-rounder Tomas Hertl. Their leading rookie scorer last season was Andrew Desjardins with 17 points.
Having one of their young prospects -- forward Freddie Hamilton or defensemen Nick Petrecki or Taylor Doherty -- win a roster spot would add some youthful enthusiasm to the team and perhaps add a missing ingredient to the locker room.
3. Can Martin Havlat stay healthy?
How important was Havlat to the Sharks? They were 25-11-3 with the high-scoring forward in action, and 18-18-7 without him. So when Havlat, acquired last June to add speed and skill to the lineup, missed three months with a torn hamstring, the Sharks fell down the standings while going 17-15-7 between Dec. 17 and March 15.
When healthy, Havlat knows how to create offense -- he has 539 points in 660 NHL games. However, he's played more than 75 games twice in 11 seasons and more than 70 games five times. A healthy Havlat scoring at his usual pace would go a long way toward any success the Sharks have this season.
4. Who makes the penalty kill better?
Since killing off 85.0 percent of man-down situations in 2009-10, the Sharks' penalty-killing has plummeted to 79.6 percent in 2010-11 to 76.9 percent last season, second-worst in the League. The Sharks were only the seventh-most penalized team last season, which eased the problem slightly. However, teams with sub-80 percent penalty-kill success rates generally don't make the playoffs, making an upgrade in this part of their game an imperative.
Adam Burish should help, as should a healthy Michal Handzus, who played through a groin/hip injury. Adding associate coach Larry Robinson could be the biggest boon. He helped oversee the New Jersey Devils' League-best penalty kill last season.
5. How will the new assistants help?
Coach Todd McLellan rebuilt his staff this summer, adding Robinson and assistant Jim Johnson to holdover Jay Woodcroft. Robinson, who won six Stanley Cups as a player and three more as a coach with New Jersey, should be an especially important asset for McLellan. Robinson will mostly focus on the defense and the penalty kill, and he'll draw a level of respect few assistant coaches in the League can match.
As Wilson said in announcing the hiring, "There's nobody in this business I respect more as a player, as a coach, and as a person than Larry."
6. Who else can help?
The Sharks' top two lines -- which should include some combination of Thornton, Marleau, Havlat, Couture, Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski -- will contribute the majority of the goals this season. But Wilson said something he hopes to see more of this season is balance, meaning someone from the group of bottom-six forwards will have to step up and supply support scoring.
"You take a look at the fourth line from New Jersey where you've got [Ryan] Carter, [Stephen] Gionta and [Steve] Bernier," Wilson said. "Look at Los Angeles, [Jordan] Nolan and [Dwight] King came in, [Colin] Fraser and [Trevor] Lewis. You have to believe in it, utilize all your players, understand that everybody on your team is important. We believe in that. We think that your big guys have to be top players and they have to play well, but everyone on your team is important."
-- Adam Kimelman