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Pressing questions in the Pacific

As training camp arrives, every NHL team is facing a pressing question. We've looked at the Central,Northeast, Atlantic, Southeast and Northwest. This time, let's lightly turn our thoughts to the Pacific.

Can Joe Thornton become all that he should be?

Has Jumbo Joe gotten the message this summer? All the changes on the blueline, the new man behind the bench, the addition of so much Cup experience. Things are going to be different in San Jose. And with those differences comes the elimination of excuses -- for the Sharks in general and Thornton in particular.

He is a superior talent, and one of the game's most dangerous offensive players. But as the Sharks try to break their streak of two-and-done seasons, it's up to him to recognize that all the pieces are in place...save for one. It's no longer enough for him to be a top-five scorer, an elite passer who can create chances from the periphery. For the Sharks to get past the second round and live up to their paper, Thornton has to combine his natural gifts with consistent desire to become the game's most dominant physical force. Simple as that.

We all know Thornton can be that player. We've seen it in fits and spurts over the years. But in the past he's been content to rely simply on his tools, to be just good enough. That's fine during the regular season, but when the stakes rise, his predictability makes him too easy to defend.

New coach Todd MacLellan had a hand in turning Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk into two of the hardest working, and as a result, best players in the game during his time with Detroit. All three men are wearing rings because of that commitment. So the blueprint is laid out for Thornton. For the Sharks to succeed, he has to stop pushing the easy button. The heartbreak for San Jose fans is that the question has to be asked: Does he want to be the best?

What to do about Teemu?

So here's the good news: Unrestricted free agent Teemu Selanne has immersed himself in a training regimen that suggests the 38-year-old winger is prepping for yet another NHL season rather than the start of a life of leisure in Finland. Every indication points to his return to the Ducks, a blessing for a team that failed to generate much in the way of secondary scoring last season, and that desperately needs the former 50-goal man to anchor a unit with free agent acquisition Brendan Morrison and top prospect Bobby Ryan. A full-season commitment would also do wonders for the Ducks' sagging special teams, both of which struggled mightily last season absent the services of Selanne and Scott Niedermayer.

But like the fabled monkey paw, Selanne's return is a gift with a price. The Ducks already are over the cap, and they need to move salary without his addition. The very useful Mathieu Schneider is the most likely to be kicked to the curb -- likely for nothing more than a mid-round pick. His loss would hurt the blueline both five-on-five and with the extra man. But even that may not be enough, meaning Todd Marchant may be another casualty. Though not a major offensive contributor, Marchant has a strong locker room presence that enhances his value far beyond what you see on the ice.

The fact that Selanne has waited this long to make his decision -- at least publicly -- has benefited the Ducks in their efforts to deal with cap pressures. But to bring him back, GM Brian Burke will have to make painful cuts. Robbing Peter to pay Paul didn't work as well as hoped last season. The team's short-term window for contention may slam shut if it fails this time around.

Cup contenders or kidding themselves?

Heading into last season, the obvious question was, "Can this team compete for a playoff spot?" At the time, it was touch and go. The core was graying and burdened by a legacy of recent postseason failures that suggested their best days were a decade behind them.

And now?

After a creative, and at times daring, makeover by co-GMs Les Jackson and Brett Hull, these Stars are a younger, faster, grittier club that seems built not just to compete, but to contend in the Western Conference.

The surprising team that eliminated both the Ducks and Sharks in the playoffs last spring was far more representative of the club that will take to the ice this fall than the one that staggered down the stretch to a fifth-place finish in the West. There's a different atmosphere around this team, a sense that with a better run of health (top blueliners Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher combined to miss 80 games), a full season out of deadline acquisition Brad Richards and the passionate hockey stylings of Sean Avery, the Stars can take their chances against the best of 'em.

But there's also the recognition that the window of opportunity is closing on several key contributors. Mike Modano, now primarily a defensive specialist, is 38. So is Zubov. Jere Lehtinen is 35. Marty Turco is 33. While there's plenty of young talent (led by Richards, Brenden Morrow, Fabian Brunnstrom and Matt Niskanen), they'll have to make a run this season or another makeover will be necessary.

Can this defense handle the job?

The Yotes made the most significant move on draft day -- and, arguably, the entire summer -- when they acquired Olli Jokinen. The former Florida captain is exactly the quantity that Phoenix needed: a big-bodied, youngish veteran who can handle everything that comes with the No. 1 center job.

Of course, you have to give to get, and the Coyotes had to sacrifice a pair of blueliners. Nick Boynton's physical play is replaceable, but Keith Ballard's smart, two-way game will be missed. The 25-year-old was the bulwark of the penalty kill, and he chipped in on the second power play unit as well, so his minutes won't easily be replaced.

That said, GM Don Maloney has given coach Wayne Gretzky some options in free agent Kurt Sauer and prospect Keith Yandle, whose puck skills brought some offensive punch last season. But Yandle struggled with his defensive reads and was largely unreliable. At 22, this is the opportunity he's been waiting for. A job is open. It's up to him to seize it.

Sauer proved to be a solid, stay-at-home type with Colorado. He can play on the third pairing and bring some security when down a man. He has no sizzle to his game, but then again, the same thing can be said about the entire Phoenix blueline corps. It looks to be a reasonably sound group and, backed by a full season with Ilya Bryzgalov in net, should be stout enough to help the Coyotes reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Cap floor or bust?

In exchange for accepting that cap on salaries -- what a brutally repressive device that's been, eh? -- the NHL Players' Association extracted a stipulation that each team spend a minimum amount. This year, that means a bare bones payroll of $40.7 million is required for teams to avoid a series of sanctions and penalties.

That the re-building Kings have sat somewhere around $33 million all summer has led to wild speculation about the lengths they'll need to travel in order to get to that minimum, including dealing away core youngsters Anze Kopitar and Patrick O'Sullivan for overpriced and aging vets like Nikolai Khabibulin.

Put down your fleecing shears. It's not gonna happen.

The Kings currently have 17 players under contract, with free agents O'Sullivan, Jarret Stoll and Brad Richardson yet to ink new deals. Once GM Dean Lombardi gets that trio signed, the Kings should be fine. And even if a veteran defenseman -- say, Schneider -- isn't brought in to round out a young blueline, the issue will be addressed painlessly with another addition before the season starts.

Which is about the same time that their playoff hopes will be pronounced DOA.

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