Can Sharks exorcise playoff demons?
The San Jose Sharks have always been rife with talent, but that hasn't translated into postseason success. With a new goalie and a crop of youngsters, can the team stay atop the Pacific Division?
San Jose Sharks
In some quarters, getting to the Western Conference finals last spring was seen as a step forward for the hard-luck Sharks, although the sweep by Chicago -- for us anyway -- took a bit of the luster off the Sharks' postseason accomplishments. Still, the postseason play of Joe Pavelski, who led the Sharks with 17 points in 15 games, Devin Setoguchi, veteran defenseman Dan Boyle and center Patrick Marleau, who re-upped this offseason, suggests the Sharks will be back at the top of the heap in the West this season. Yes, Evgeni Nabokov has been replaced in goal by Antero Niittymaki, who has little playoff experience, but we don't see it as much of a drop-off given the Sharks' habit of piling up regular-season wins. Watch for youngsters Jason Demers and Logan Couture to take steps forward this season.
Can defending coach-of-the-year winner Dave Tippett continue to work his magic with a Coyotes lineup that will continue to struggle to score? Why not? GM Don Maloney continues to work with limited funds as the sale of the team to the Ice Edge Group plods through the summer. Maloney added veteran winger Ray Whitney, who is a point-a-game guy and should be a nice mentor to youngsters Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Viktor Tikhonov and Mikkel Boedker, all of whom are expected to challenge for roster spots after playing in the minors or overseas last season. Vezina Trophy nominee Ilya Bryzgalov will have to continue his strong play if the Yotes are going to approach last season's surprising franchise-best 107 points.
The emerging Kings gave the Vancouver Canucks all they could handle in the first round of the playoffs, although the play of netminder Jonathan Quick, both in the playoffs and down the stretch, has opened the door to an interesting competition with top goaltending prospect Jonathan Bernier. For much of the summer, the Kings were embroiled in the hunt for Ilya Kovalchuk. In the absence of Kovalchuk, though, GM Dean Lombardi did add a big forward who has 25-goal potential in Alexei Ponikarovsky. The former Toronto Maple Leaf bombed in his short stay in Pittsburgh (he was acquired at the trade deadline) but should be a good fit in L.A. Lombardi would like to add a piece to the blue line as again the expectations will be high in Hollywood -- even without Kovalchuk.
The Stars were the epitome of mediocrity last season, never once managing to win three games in a row, which goes a long way to explaining how they missed the playoffs for the second straight season. Veteran netminder Marty Turco is gone as is former captain Mike Modano, and the ownership remains in a state of flux with Tom Hicks trying to unload the franchise. GM Joe Nieuwendyk has taken a significant gamble that former top draft pick Kari Lehtonen can get the job done in goal even though he has a history of back problems and failing to stay in shape. Still, the Stars have a nice collection of emerging young forwards like Loui Eriksson, Jamie Benn and James Neal, which should keep them in the hunt. Adam Burish comes over from Chicago to add some grit, and it will be interesting to see what becomes of Fabian Brunnstrom -- the much-heralded Swedish free agent of a couple years back who has never quite hit his stride at the NHL level. Although the blue line remains a work in progress, the Stars have enough pieces to challenge for a playoff spot, at least they better if coach Marc Crawford wants to hang on to his job.
Another offseason of uncertainty for the evolving Ducks. Veteran defenseman Scott Niedermayer called it quits in late June, but GM Bob Murray was waiting on word from veteran forward Teemu Selanne as July turned to August about whether the Finnish great would return for one more season. We're guessing Selanne, who was limited to 54 games last season, will be back, if for no other reason than to play alongside longtime pal Saku Koivu, who re-signed with the Ducks for two more years. Murray was also still trying to get top winger Bobby Ryan under contract as the summer days ticked away. Ryan, a restricted free agent, led the Ducks with 35 goals last season and his presence in the lineup from the get-go will be important if the Ducks aren't going to dig themselves the kind of hole they did a year ago. Murray added veteran defenseman Toni Lydman from Buffalo and will also be hoping Lubomir Visnovsky, acquired from Edmonton last year, recovers from a fractured right hand that required surgery to repair near the end of the season as the Ducks continue to remake their blue line with the departure of Chris Pronger last offseason and Niedermayer this summer.