Cory and I were thinking that since there were two of us writing now, perhaps it would be fun to occasionally have a debate, or a "point/counterpoint" feature for the blog. We decided to start this new feature off by speculating how each team in the league will finish in their respective divisions. The plan is to have one of these features each week.
While the rest of the NHL seems to be at a stand-still waiting on that svelte Swede, Mats Sundin to make a decision, we aren't going to wait around for him to sign a contract before we make bold predictions. (But we reserve the right to change our minds after he signs somewhere.)
Let's begin with the Pacific Division-
- San Jose
- Los Angeles
- San Jose
- Los Angeles
For the past few years, the top teams have been Dallas, San Jose, and Anaheim. Nothing really has happened during the offseason to make me think that any those teams won't dominate again this year. The hardest part is deciding which of the three will win the division. My pick is Anaheim.
The team is loaded on offense and defense plus has a proven vet in goal. Corey Perry quietly scored 29 goals in just 70 games last year and is now a year older and wiser. Ryan Getzlaf and Chris Kunitz are horses. The addition of Brendan Morrison is a nice bonus, while the deduction of Bertuzzi is addition by subtraction. They will have the services of Scott Niedermayer from the beginning of the year this time around, which can't hurt. They also have one of the top coaches in the league with Randy Carlyle. There are still some unresolved issues regarding the possible trading of Mathieu Schneider and re-signing of Teemu Selanne, but Brian Burke will have the Ducks loaded for bear come October.
San Jose should come in second, but in my mind they have more questions than answers at this point. They fired Ron Wilson and brought in Todd McLellan. Will that help or hurt? Brian Campbell is gone and Dan Boyle and Rob Blake are in his stead. Boyle is no Campbell and Blake is past his prime. How much does Blake have left in the tank? Patrick Marleau is talented but is questionable as a captain in my book. (I haven't forgotten about him jumping out of the way of a scoring puck in the playoffs.) Maybe if he decides to start blocking a few shots, this team can move on in the playoffs? I can't help but feel that as long as he is wearing the "C", it's close but no cigar for this bunch.
Dallas has a very good team and was able to build up some momentum in the playoffs last year. Will they be able to capitalize? Brad Richards is huge for these guys as is Brendan Morrow. But Mike Modano keeps getting older. The addition of Sean Avery is interesting, but he isn't going to win any championships by sucker punching opponents and baiting goalies. Dallas comes in third.
Phoenix looks like they will be fun to watch this year and could be a sleeper team. They are loaded with young talent and have a big Russian body in goal, 6'3 Ilya Bryzgalov who can steal some games all by himself. Derek Morris and Eddie "Jovocop" Jovanovski are among the blueliners and Olli Jokinen is a talented player who can score goals. I look for Kyle Turris and Peter Mueller to have huge years. Will they be good enough to carry the Coyotes to the playoffs? I wouldn't bet on it.
What can you say about Los Angeles other than huh?? They confused the heck out of me at the draft. For a team that already had a young superstar defenseman in Jack Johnson, they kept right on drafting more defensemen, one right after another. After choosing the best blueliner in the draft, Drew Doughty, they picked another bluechipper with their next pick Colton Teubert. And with their third pick, what did they do? You guessed it, they selected yet another defenseman, Viatcheslav Voynov. How many young defensemen does one team need? Then they traded their best defenseman, Lubomir Visnovski to Edmonton for two role players, Matt Greene and Jarret Stoll. I guess it's no secret what they are doing, they're getting into position for the Johnny Tavares sweepstakes. Someone should tell them that Tavares is not a defenseman.
While I concur that Dallas has a very good team, I just can't see them being good enough to get over the hump. You have Mike Modano listed as a key player, but I think that he could very easily take a big step back this year. He had a great post-season, but sometimes it can be tough for an older player to bounce back after going hard in the playoffs. The back-up goaltending is questionable, (as it is for several teams). They will be good, but not good enough in my book.
You mention that ex-Sharks coach, Ron Wilson pinned San Jose's failure in the 2006-07 playoffs on Patrick Marleau, even as Marlaeu was playing with a shoulder injury. That is true, but whose fault was it last year and what kind of injury did the team captain have when he jumped out of the way of a shot that ended up going in the net? Maybe Wilson had a valid point, shoulder injury or not? Marleau is a huge talent, no doubt, but I can't see that team making it big with him being counted on to lead the way. The coach is unproven and overall leadership could be a problem. Regardless, the Sharks will certainly be in the mix.
I also agree that the Ducks will be pressing harder this year and that gives me another reason to think that they will come out on top in the Division. This season will probably be the last for Brian Burke in California. Another division championship would likely put a few more million in his next contract, (with the Leafs).
I think that we are in almost total agreement regarding the Coyotes, although I do believe they have a semi-legitimate shot to surprise people and make the playoffs. They have some experience to blend with the youth, but it all depends upon team chemistry. Perhaps I'll give them a slightly higher chance to make the post-season than you do.
You make a good point about Khabibulin and the Kings. The team still has salary cap money to spend because they are under the minimum cap. If a trade makes sense, I could see them acquiring the "Bulin Wall", but I agree that won't be enough to leverage them out of the Pacific cellar.
I'll let you have the last word.....
As for San Jose, I would pin all of Marleau's performance last year on Ron Wilson. I think he sucked the joy of the game right out of Captain Pat, which may have led to the obvious lackluster effort on the play you describe. Should a team's captain be derailed by something like a coach's criticism? Probably not, but even if Marleau isn't a great leader, it will be nice for them if they get back a 70- or 80-point Marleau instead of the 48-point guy from last year. I fully expect that to happen. All that being said, there's reason we both have them second instead of first: there's something missing in San Jose. Jeremy Roenick from 10 years ago would maybe get them over the hump, but he's just a role player now and can't be expected to lead the team in game-winning goals again (his 10 were second only to Alex Ovechkin's 11 last year). Maybe Rob Blake can find the an extra gear playing for a good team, but — like Roenick — it might be too late.
In Anaheim, I was on board with the "Brian Burke is a genius" school of thought for a season or two, but he's dried up the team's farm system (though they did have a pile of picks this past draft) and spent more time arguing with Kevin Lowe than trying to give his team a chance to remain on top. He let Selanne and Niedermayer hold him hostage all last year, and the Finnish Flash could cast his shadow of doubt again this season. Take Selanne, mix in Burke's uncertain future, and add an owner in trouble and I think there are too many off-ice distractions for the Ducks to overcome. This time next year everyone will probably be talking about how he's mapped out a rebuilding plan for the Leafs, but the more and more I look, the more and more I wonder: Was Kevin Lowe right? Does this guy build a short-term contender, then set sail for another team, leaving a shipwreck in his wake?