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Stars shine above Pacific

Once again, the Pacific will be a dogfight among its three best teams -- the Stars, Sharks and Ducks -- but it's quite likely that one of its young and usually downtrodden members will finally claw its way into the fray: the Coyotes. As for the Kings and their impressive array of potential, well, they're still a playoff contender under construction. Give 'em some more time.

I've already addressed the big questions in the division, but here's a closer look at each team, in predicted order of finish:

2007-08 RECORD: 45-30-7 -- 97points; third in Pacific; lost to Detroit in conference finals

KEY ADDS:Sean Avery (Rangers), Fabian Brunnstrom (Sweden)

KEY LOSSES:Niklas Hagman (Maple Leafs), Antti Miettinen (Wild), Stu Barnes (retirement)

STRENGTHS: Team defense, coaching

Once No. 1 defender Sergei Zubov returns to the lineup -- he's lost for the first month due to hip surgery -- the Stars will ice a deep blueline that's built to excel in the modern game. If Matt Niskanen, Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric can build upon their impressive rookie campaigns, it's a group that should define the 2008-09 Stars. But as impressive as that unit may be, the key to the team's success lies in coach Dave Tippett's ability to extract a consistent defensive commitment from all four forward lines. He and his long-tenured staff (now bolstered by the addition of the freshly retired Barnes) excel not only at instilling discipline, but adapting to changing conditions. Despite a generally low profile, this bench crew ranks among the league's best.

WEAKNESSES: Netminding depth

As long as Marty Turco is on his game, the Stars benefit from playing in front of one of the league's best goaltenders. But this veteran has a way of losing his focus for three or four games at times, and he benefits from more rest than he'd like to take. That means rookie Tobias Stephan will be on the hot seat for something like 15-20 starts. After two years spent percolating in the AHL, the Swiss-born first-rounder looks ready for that task, but he'd be hard pressed to succeed if an injury to Turco forces him into a larger role. And with the Stars up against the cap, bringing in a veteran reinforcement is unlikely.

MVP:Brenden Morrow

It cost former GM Doug Armstrong his job, but in the end it proved that he knew what he was doing when he ripped the C off Mike Modano and slapped it on Morrow's sweater. The left winger led the Stars with 32 goals, including a team-leading 12 power play markers and seven game-winners, and is the defensive conscience of the forward corps. But it was with his heroic play in the postseason that he fully established himself as the Dallas' most important player. There are just a handful of forwards that can carry a team. Morrow is one of them.

ROOKIE TO WATCH:Fabian Brunnstrom

The Stars won an intense free-agent bidding war for the late-blooming Swede last May. Now it's time to see whether those scouting comparisons to Daniel Alfredsson were hyperbolic or on the mark. Brunnstrom has been solid in the preseason, earning a look on the top line with Mike Ribeiro and Morrow. But he has to play at a level that earns that kind of ice time. Brunnstrom's cap hit --he could earn $2.25 million this season -- ensures him a spot on the team, whether he belongs or not.

BIGGEST SURPRISE:Sean Avery

Avoiding suspensions and long-term injuries for the first time in his career, Avery will play all 82 games and hit the 20-goal mark.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Putting it all together at precisely the right time, the Stars surprised everyone -- including their own fans -- with their three-round run last spring. With the improvements up front, the expectations are that they'll re-assert themselves as one of the league's best teams. Anything less than a Pacific title and a return to the conference finals would be a disappointment, but they'll need a few breaks in order to advance past the superior Red Wings.

2007-08 RECORD: 49-23-10 -- 108 points; first in Pacific; lost to Dallas in second round

KEY ADDS: coach Todd McLellan (Detroit), Rob Blake (Los Angeles), Dan Boyle (Tampa Bay), Brad Lukowich (Tampa Bay)

KEY LOSSES:Brian Campbell (Chicago), Craig Rivet (Buffalo), Patrick Rissmiller (NY Rangers), Matt Carle (Tampa Bay), Curtis Brown (Switzerland)

STRENGTHS: The rebuilt blueline

When the frontline includes Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek, and the Vezina runner-up (Evgeni Nabokov) is in net, it'd be safe to list the forwards and the goaltending as key assets for the Sharks. But this team will live and die with its reconstructed blueline. It'san older, savvier group thanks to the additions of Blake, Boyle and Lukowich, and one that should have an easier time executing McLellan's puck possession style. The presence of Blake and Boyle ensures that the Sharks will generate chances more effectively from the backend, something they failed to do consistently last season. Expect to see them finish in the top-five in the power play rankings as a result.

WEAKNESSES: The month of April

The Sharks have been one of the league's most fearsome predators over the past four seasons, averaging 104 points during the buildup to the playoffs. But once the games start to count, this team loses its bite. Expectations ran high last spring, and yet another failure to advance past the second round led to the sacking of former coach Ron Wilson and the decision to revamp the defense corps. Both moves should ensure that the Sharks maintain a level of regular season excellence, but it won't be until April that their success can be measured. If there's another early ouster, a significant roster shakeup seems inevitable.

MVP: Evgeni Nabokov

It plays off a cliché, but it's true: If Nabokov dressed for an Eastern conference team, odds are that he, not Martin Brodeur, would be staring at last season's Vezina on his mantle. But you can't get bogged down in hypotheticals. The real question is, can Nabokov top -- or even match -- a season in which he played 77 games and won 46 of them with a 2.14 GAA? It says here that he'll stay in that statistical neighborhood and remain the team's most important player, though he'll likely lose some starts to new backup Brian Boucher, which will keep him fresher for the playoffs.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: None

The Sharks expect to enter the season with a veteran lineup, although rookie Mike Moore could get an early call-up if they decide there's a need for a physical presence on the blueline.

BIGGEST SURPRISE:Patrick Marleau will be a Shark at the end of the season

Let's face it: no one faces more pressure in San Jose this season than the captain. Marleau was brutal last season, and his struggles (compounded by the weight of a hefty contract) posed a significant stumbling block for the team. There won't be a repeat. McLellan's approach, expected to mirror the one he helped craft in Detroit, should take full advantage of Marleau's speed and guile. Look for a big bounce-back year for the veteran.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: The Sharks have all the pieces in place for another year among the league's top teams. Look for them to finish second in the Pacific, fourth in the conference...and then flame out once again in the second round.

2007-08 RECORD: 47-27-8 --102 points; second in Pacific; lost to Dallas in first round

KEY ADDS:Brendan Morrison (Vancouver), Steve Montador (Florida), Joakim Lindstrom (Columbus), Ken Klee (Atlanta)

KEY LOSSES:Mathieu Schneider (Atlanta), Todd Bertuzzi (Calgary)

STRENGTHS: Goaltending

There are plenty of stars on a club that is just more than a year removed from a Stanley Cup, but no unit is more sound than the netminding duo of J-S Giguere and Jonas Hiller. At 31, Giguere quietly ranks among the game's top-five starters. His 2007-08 numbers (2.12 GAA and .922 save percentage) were the best of his career, building on a trend of improvement that began during the Cup season. Hiller's numbers were even better (2.07 GAA, .927 save pct. in 23 appearances), establishing the rookie as one of the league's most reliable backups. This pair can be counted on to cover most of the team's blemishes.

WEAKNESSES: Defensive depth

Any blueline that boasts Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer has to be given some respect, but the depth that once earned it a reputation as the league's saltiest has been whittled away. Schneider was sacrificed at the cap altar and Francois Beauchemin may be next. Even if the latter survives the next round of cap cuts, there are concerns that his sub-par 2007-08 is a more accurate indication of what to expect than his impressive 2006-07 campaign. And any unit that relies on more than 10 or 12 minutes a night from Klee, Montador and Kent Huskins may be asking for trouble.

MVP: Ryan Getzlaf

Great things seem possible after his breakout campaign (82 points, plus-32 rating), and Getzlaf is ready to build on that success. He's the engine that drives Anaheim's offense, both figuratively and literally. The 6-3, 221-pound center is virtually unstoppable when controlling the puck or fighting for position out front. His ability to pick holes through tight coverage and pinpoint his teammates will make Corey Perry an All-Star this January.

ROOKIE TO WATCH:Bobby Ryan

With the Ducks in cap purgatory, they're forced to hope for a significant contribution from their consolation prize in the Sidney Crosby draft derby. Ryan had his moments during last season's 23-game tryout, notching five goals and 10 points, but critics questioned his skating and fitness. He's tried to answer those charges by losing 10 pounds over the summer and spending hours on his foot speed. The results showed early in preseason and led to talk of 20 goals from the young winger.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Secondary scoring

The team's biggest failing last season may turn out to be a strength. Teemu Selanne -- re-signed for two years -- and Ryan give the Ducks a decent pair of second-line wingers. The key will be Morrison, whose departure from Vancouver saddened few of the Canucks faithful. This may be a case of simply needing a change of scenery. Playing behind Getzlaf means Mprrison won't face top checkers anymore, and the hard-nosed approach of coach Randy Carlyle should extract an honest effort. If this unit clicks, the Ducks can hang tight with the Stars and Sharks.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: The Ducks remain a solid team and a virtual lock to return to the playoffs, but they lack the depth to match the elite squads in the West. Look for them to fail to advance past the first round.

2007-08 RECORD: 38-37-7 -- 83 points; fourth in Pacific, 12th in conference; missed playoffs

KEY ADDS:Olli Jokinen (Florida), Kurt Sauer (Colorado), Todd Fedoruk (Minnesota), Brian McGrattan (Ottawa), David Hale (Calgary)

KEY LOSSES:Keith Ballard (Florida), Nick Boynton (Florida), Radim Vrbata (Florida), Matthias Tjarnqvist (Sweden), Niko Kapanen (Russia)

STRENGTHS: Center depth

Wayne Gretzky knows as well as anyone the importance of strength down the middle. Now he finally has the chance to coach a compelling clutch of centers. Jokinen is the key, pivoting Shane Doan and Peter Mueller in what stands to be one of the most effective lines in the conference. Explosive rookie Kyle Turris gives Gretzky the basis for an exciting second line. Martin Hanzal channels the spirit of Joel Otto on the third unit, with either Steven Reinprecht or Mike Zigomanis anchoring the fourth line. It's a nice mix of talents that gives Gretzky reliable play as well as options if he wants to mix things up.

WEAKNESSES: Inexperience

Once you get past the first line, the Coyotes are long on potential but short on time served. Gretzky's coaching abilities will be tested as he attempts not only to acclimate his youngsters to the rigors of the NHL, but to one another. The addition of enforcers McGrattan and Fedoruk should buy the kids a little more room to operate, but it could be a rough start for Phoenix as they try to work in so many new parts.

MVP: Olli Jokinen

The Coyotes were legitimate contenders for the services of Steven Stamkos before GM Don Maloney swiped Ilya Bryzgalov off the waiver wire, and the importance of the netminder's continued strong play to the team's success can't be underestimated. But if Phoenix is to take the next step, it'll be due to the presence of the game-breaking Jokinen. It's a rare instance when a team can acquire a true No. 1 center, but the Panthers gift-wrapped their disgruntled captain for the Coyotes. Out of that nasty situation, and without the burden of the captaincy, look for the four-time All-Star to be a highly motivated presence in the room and on the ice. Expect him to capitalize on some instant chemistry with Doan and sophomore Mueller and top his previous best of 91 points.

ROOKIE TO WATCH:Kyle Turris

He surprised observers by leaving college after his freshman season, but no one was shocked to see how comfortably the third overall pick of 2007 fit in with the Coyotes during their final three games. With Mueller full time on the first line's wing, Turris steps in as the No. 2 center behind Jokinen. A player who can be effective in all three zones, but is especially dynamic on the attack, Mueller will be in the running for the Calder.

BIGGEST SURPRISE:Enver Lisin

Still in the midst of a youth movement that saw them work in four rookies last year, the Coyotes roster could be littered with pups to start the season. Mikkel Boedker and Viktor Tikhonov, both 2008 picks, will get long looks up front as will left winger Kevin Porter, the winner of the 2008 Hobey Baker award. Jonas Ahnelov, a 6-3, 205 defender, could earn a depth role on the blueline. The dark horse is Lisin, a second-round choice (50th overall) in 2004 who has spent the past two seasons bouncing around the AHL and Russian league. He's also had a couple of brief stints with the Coyotes. With the KHL calling, this could be the last chance for the speedy winger to make his mark in the NHL. Look for him to net 20 goals and establish himself as a reliable, two-way forward.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Last season's Coyotes posted a 16-point improvement over the previous campagin. This season, Phoneix will take another large step -- something in the 8-10 point range -- to challenge for the playoff spot that's eluded them throughout Gretzky's three-year coaching career. The Coyotes should be just good enough to sneak into the postseason.

2007-08 RECORD: 32-43-7 -- 71 points; fifth in Pacific, last in conference; missed playoffs

KEY ADDS:Terry Murray (coach), Jarret Stoll (Edmonton), Matt Greene (Edmonton), Denis Gauthier (Philadephia Phantoms)

KEY LOSSES:Mike Cammalleri (Calgary), Rob Blake (San Jose), Lubomir Visnovsky (Edmonton), Scott Thornton (retired), Brian Willsie (Colorado)

STRENGTHS: The Department of Youth

They may not be old enough to remember when Gretzky wore the black and silver crown, but this new generation of Kings is slowly building towards a return to the glories of the Great One's era. Led by Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov and Patrick O'Sullivan (when he's finally signed), it's an exciting group blessed with speed and physical ability. There's bound to be growing pains as the Kings work in a gaggle of fresh faces while trying to find the right mix, but this young team promises to be a more intense, focused and productive group than last season.

WEAKNESSES: Team defense

The Kings ranked 28th in both shots (32) and goals-allowed per game (3.21) last season. It could get worse this time around. Although he's finally attacked his weight problem, Jason LaBarbera and likely partner Erik Ersberg are a good bet to be the worst goaltending tandem in the conference. Neither is anything more than a decent No. 2. Unfortunately, they're liable to face a barrage of rubber as the team works in a number of younger bodies up front and relies on a blueline led by Tom Preissing, Peter Harrold and Matt Greene.

MVP: Dustin Brown

Talk of the most exciting young American players in the game routinely centers around Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and Erik Johnson. Brown, who led the Kings in goals (33) and the NHL in hits (311), has proved that he belongs in the conversation and is poised to assert himself on the national level. Maturing alongside center Kopitar, the 23-year-old Brown could top 40 goals and 80 points this season as the Kings rely heavily on their forwards. Coach Murray intends to wait until the exhibition season is over to name the team's new captain. Don't be surprised to see him hand the C to Brown, the West's best young power forward.

ROOKIE TO WATCH:Drew Doughty

The rebuilding Kings will ice a slew of freshmen this season, but none look to have the immediate impact of the second-overall pick from last June's entry draft. The 6-0, 219-pound blueliner has impressed in camp with his quick, accurate reads and sharp passing skills. He'll be a solid 20-minute performer, and could provide a jolt to L.A.'s 17th-ranked power play.

When a team finishes last in its conference, there are going to be jobs up for grabs, so the Kings are counting on contributions from forwards Brian Boyle, Teddy Purcell and possibly Oscar Moller. Defenseman Thomas Hickey, the fourth overall pick in 2007, impressed with his skating and offensive reads early in camp, and could battle for a spot on the blueline. Keep an eye on Andrei Loktionov, the Russian winger who has dazzled in camp. He was originally ticketed for assignment to Windsor of the OHL, but a rights dispute with Yaroslavl of the KHL may see him stick around LA.

BIGGEST SURPRISE:Teddy Purcell

After racking up 83 points in just 67 games as a rookie with AHL Manchester last season, the 23-year-old right wing will make the jump to the Kings and score in the vicinity of 15 goals and 50 points as a freshman.

BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: The Kings will take obvious steps under Murray's tutelage, improving on special teams and becoming a more difficult foe to play. That said, they're still the worst team in the division, and could challenge for the first overall pick next summer. It's all part of the painful process that, if executed properly, could see the Kings contending for a playoff spot as soon as 2009-10. In the meantime, bring on John Tavares!

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