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Here's how I see them shaking out, in predicted order of finish:
2008-09 RECORD: 53-18-11, 117 points, first in Pacific
FRESH FACES: Dany Heatley (Ottawa), Manny Malhotra (Columbus), Jed Ortmeyer (Nashville), Scott Nichol (Nashville), Benn Ferriero (Phoenix)
OTHER PLACES:Jonathan Cheechoo (Ottawa), Milan Michalek (Ottawa), Travis Moen (Montreal) Christian Ehrhoff (Vancouver), Brad Lukowich (Vancouver), Jeremy Roenick (retired), Mike Grier (Buffalo), Tomas Plihal (Finland), Marcel Goc (Nashville), Alexei Semenov (NY Rangers), Claude Lemieux (retired), Brian Boucher (Philadelphia)
STORYLINE: Not to belittle the process of the regular season, but it doesn't matter if the Sharks run the table on the way to an 82-0 mark or just squeak into the postseason with the eighth seed. The simple fact is that they won't play a meaningful contest until Game One, Round One. Between now and then, the Sharks are simply experimenting with line combos and trying to stay healthy until the games count.
MVP:Dany Heatley. The silent treatment finally paid off, earning the reluctant Senator a fresh start in Silicon Valley. He'll skate with one of the game's elite assist men in Joe Thornton, but also with the weight of a prima donna reputation that will make him a target of fans across the league. His ability to shrug off a season of what's certain to be unpleasant attention will be key to both his personal success and that of the team.
KID TO WATCH: Benn Ferriero. Like Boston's impressive Blake Wheeler, Ferriero (pronounced FAIRY-oh) is a collegian who the Phoenix Coyotes drafted but failed to sign. Given a chance by the Sharks just prior to the team's rookie camp, the Boston College grad earned a contract and a trip to the main camp, where he has three goals in four games while keeping Heatley's spot warm on Joe Thornton's line. A longshot even to make it this far, he's caught the attention of Todd MacLellan and could stick with the team. "He's been one of our top players," the coach said.
KEEP AN EYE ON:Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. The one clear conclusion from last spring's debacle is that the Sharks were suffering through a crisis of leadership. Despite their prodigious talents, neither Marleau nor Thornton possess the gravitas to rally the troops in times of crisis, and that led to the letters being stripped from their chests in the aftermath of yet another disappointing run. It'll be interesting to see how the removal of that responsibility impacts their play and if either responds to the challenge in a way that forces them back into the leadership picture.
BOTTOM LINE: It's Stanley Cup or bust for a team that has consistently failed to meet expectations and, after adding a proven sniper with Cup experience in Heatley, has run out of excuses.
2008-09 RECORD: 42-33-7, 91 points, second in Pacific
FRESH FACES: Saku Koivu (Montreal), Joffrey Lupul (Philadelphia), Evgeny Artyukhin (Tampa Bay), Luca Sbisa (Philadelphia), Nick Boynton (Florida), Justin Pogge (Toronto)
OTHER PLACES: Chris Pronger (Philadelphia), Francois Beauchemin (Toronto), Steve McCarthy (Atlanta), Rob Niedermayer (Devils), Brett Hedican (free agent), Drew Miller (Tampa Bay)
STORYLINE: Who are the Ducks? Fair question. Brian Burke resigned as GM less than a year ago and he'd probably need a program to recognize all the new faces acquired over that span by his successor, Bob Murray. Under the new boss, Anaheim is less truculent but better balanced. Lighter on the back end but deeper than ever up front. Such a rapid turnover can wreak havoc on chemistry. So can the loss of a towering presence like Pronger, who was as important in the room as he was nasty on the ice. Taken in context, it's a stunning re-imagining of Ducks hockey. Can this disparate group make it work?
MVP: Ryan Getzlaf. Wasn't long ago that he was considered one of the top young centers in the game. Now you can drop the young -- he's simply one of the best. With 25 goals and 91 points, Getzlaf was the second-leading scorer in the Western Conference in 2008-09 and, at 24, he's yet to show off his best hockey. He could get off to a slow start as he recovers from offseason hernia surgery, but he'll round into shape before long.
KID TO WATCH: Luca Sbisa. The prize return in the Pronger trade is a potential top-flight defender of a different sort. While he lacks Pronger's physical inclinations, Sbisa is a smooth skater who makes smart decisions with the puck. Confident and creative, he's bound to be a good one...but he's also just 19. The Ducks may decide live through a bumpy learning curve in order to take advantage of what could be Scott Niedermayer's swan song. A year under the captain's wing could be the best path for Sbisa's development.
KEEP AN EYE ON: J-S Giguere. The grave illness and, ultimately, demise of his father made it impossible to maintain his focus and grip on the starting job during the early part of last season. To his credit, he remained a good soldier, staunchly supporting Jonas Hiller as the Ducks marched to within a goal of upsetting the Red Wings in the second round. This season, Giguere has every intention of regaining the No. 1 role. He's played better, though not spectacularly, during training camp and it's possible he'll suffer from the loss of goaltending coach Francois Allaire.
KEEP AN EYE ON 2: Corey Perry. With a chance to snare an Olympic berth on the line, look for the natural winger to get off to a fast start. But it won't just be his point totals that Canadian GM Steve Yzerman will be eyeballing. Perry needs to prove that he can play a disciplined game without eliminating the jam that makes him so effective down low.
BOTTOM LINE: There's an inclination to underrate the Ducks and, honestly, it's hard to defend. Though the reconstituted blueline will need to prove its worth, the forwards are deeper, faster and more skilled than last season when they wiped out the Sharks in the first round. If the defense gels, the Ducks can challenge San Jose for the Pacific title...and maybe even take a legitimate run at the Cup.
2008-09 RECORD: 36-35-11, 83 points, third in Pacific
FRESH FACES: GM Joe Nieuwendyk, coach Marc Crawford, Alex Auld (Ottawa), Karlis Skrastins (Florida), Jeff Woywitka (St. Louis), Warren Peters (Calgary)
OTHER PLACES: Sergei Zubov (Russia), Joel Lundqvist (Sweden), Chris Conner (Pittsburgh), Steve Begin (Boston), Darryl Sydor (St. Louis), Brendan Morrison (Washington), Mark Parrish (tryout, Vancouver)
STORYLINE: Coming off their Western Conference Final appearance in 2008, the Stars were viewed as a darkhorse Cup contender last season. Yeah, that didn't quite pan out, did it? Instead of building on that showing, they quickly fell out of the playoff picture, their dreams crushed by a perfect storm of unbridgeable injuries to Zubov, Brenden Morrow, and Jere Lehtinen plus career-worst seasons from Marty Turco, Brad Richards and Mike Modano.
Now hiding in the weeds, the Stars could surprise if everything falls into place. That means they need the old Turco, not the one with the concentration of a three-year-old. They need 20-25 starts -- and a few mop-up appearances -- from the usually reliable Auld. They need young forwards Loui Eriksson, James Neal and particularly Fabian Brunnstrom to improve on last season's efforts. And, most important, they need their young defense to adapt to the intricacies of Crawford's more aggressive approach without leaving the goaltenders out to dry. There are a lot of ifs, but there's also considerable talent. They won't stay in the weeds for long.
MVP: Brenden Morrow. If his value wasn't made abundantly clear in the 2008 playoffs, his absence last season brought things into focus. The captain is the heart and soul of the franchise, and this team simply could not ratchet up its intensity in critical moments without him. Now healthy physically, if not quite 100 percent mentally, Morrow will be motivated to return the Stars to relevance and earn a checking role with Team Canada.
KID TO WATCH: Jamie Benn. Brunnstrom's struggles in camp may open up a spot alongside Morrow and Mike Ribeiro on the top line. The leading contender is Benn, whose soft hands and hard shoulders have been evident in the preseason. The 20-year-old is comfortable on either wing and has been defensively responsible, suggesting that he may be ready to make the jump directly from juniors.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Trevor Daley. Long a source of frustration for Stars fans, the 26-year-old defender will be pressed to provide the bridge to the post-Zubov era. Promisingly, his speed and willingness to carry the puck seem like an ideal fit for Crawford's system. If his decision-making improves a tick, and if he can mix in a little more accuracy on his shots, this could be his long-awaited breakthrough season.
BOTTOM LINE: Count on Crawford's Stars to score more often than they did last season under Dave Tippett (20th overall). The question is: will they improve on their 25th-ranked defense? It all comes down to Turco's rejuvenation and the confidence of a blueline that knows it has to develop its own identity without Zubov. Expect them to settle in comfortably and lead the Stars back to the postseason.
2008-09 RECORD: 36-39-7, 79 points, fourth in Pacific
FRESH FACES: Ryan Smyth (Colorado), Rob Scuderi (Pittsburgh)
OTHER PLACES: Tom Preissing (Colorado), Kyle Quincey (Colorado), Brian Boyle (NY Rangers), Matt Moulson (NY Islanders)
STORYLINE: Youth will be served, but when? The young Kings have funneled a steady stream of high draft picks into their lineup and those choices are starting to pay dividends, especially on a talented and well-balanced blueline. But even after the acquisition of the gritty and sure-handed Smyth, there's a lack of forward depth that suggests they aren't much better than last season's 27th-ranked offense. There's a lot of pressure on this group to take a significant step toward the playoffs, but the talent just doesn't seem to be in place...yet.
MVP: Jon Quick. It's always about goaltending with the Kings, isn't it? For years, it's been the black hole that sucked the life out of their playoff aspirations. No surprise then that the arrival of Quick last December finally allowed them to speak in earnest about the postseason. The 23-year-old at first was viewed as a stopgap until the arrival of top prospect Jonathan Bernier, but showed enough in his half-season of work to not only seal the No. 1 job this year, but earn an invite to Team USA's summer camp. He needs to build on that early success not only to keep the Kings in contention, but to hold off the fast-rising Bernier.
KIDS TO WATCH: Thomas Hickey. He hasn't made the team yet, but the offensive-minded Hickey seems like the ideal counterbalance to stay-at-home Matt Greene on the third pairing. The fourth overall pick in 2007 has impressed with his poise and passing skills. The play of Brayden Schenn might have earned the 2009 first-rounder a nine-game introduction to the league, but with Brandon hosting the Memorial Cup next spring, he'll be returned to junior sooner rather than later.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Drew Doughty. At 19, last year's training camp surprise is this year's No. 1 defenseman. It's both an honor and a heavy load for the teenager, but he bears it with the poise and confidence of a 10-year vet. Look for him to double last season's 27-point output and keep himself in the running for a taxi squad spot with Team Canada.
BOTTOM LINE: The young Kings are getting closer, but a rebuild this intensive is a patience-testing process. They're not a playoff team yet, but they'll make plenty of noise before this season's through.
2008-09 RECORD: 34-37-11, 79 points, fifth in Pacific
FRESH FACES: Coach Dave Tippett, Jason LaBarbera (Vancouver), Radim Vrbata (Tampa Bay), Vernon Fiddler (Nashville), Adrian Aucoin (Calgary), Lauri Korpikoski (NY Rangers), Jim Vandermeer (Calgary), Taylor Pyatt (Vancouver), Robert Lang (Canadiens)
OTHER PLACES: Wayne Gretzky (resigned), Enver Lisin (NY Rangers), David Hale (Tampa Bay), Todd Fedoruk (Tampa Bay), Nigel Dawes (Calgary), Brian McGrattan (Calgary), Brandon Prust (Calgary), Steven Reinprecht (Florida)
STORYLINE: It's impossible to ignore the courtroom drama, the AWOL head coach and his eventual replacement or the likelihood of crowds small enough to instigate the relocation of a junior team...but let's try, shall we? Because the group of players wearing the sweater into battle, well, they might not be half bad.
It's easy to forget that last year's club was in the thick of the playoff race well past the halfway mark before the wheels came off. GM Don Maloney recognized the peril of over-reliance on the team's impressive group of prospects and set out to bring in some veteran reinforcements. The additions of Vrbata, Fiddler and Pyatt allowed Maloney to shield key youngsters Kyle Turris and Viktor Tikhonov in the minors, while providing support for players like Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal who still are finding their way around the league. If the resourceful Tippett can coax those two to the next level, the 'Yotes could become a handful.
MVP: Shane Doan. Playing for a largely anonymous team has done a great disservice to the reputation of Doan, who deserves to be recognized as one of the game's great leaders. More than just the club's leading scorer each of the past five seasons, Doan is exactly the sort of figure around whom the beleaguered Coyotes can rally. Watch him soak up the pressure from the off-ice insanity and respond on-ice with another 30-goal, 70-point campaign.
KID TO WATCH: Brett MacLean. Lost in the blinding glare of linemate John Tavares in Oshawa, MacLean quietly led the OHL with 61 goals in 2007-08. After a year spent in San Antonio getting acclimated to the pro game (where he netted a respectable 21 goals), he's making a serious push for a roster spot in Phoenix. MacLean has looked confident in the preseason skating on the top line alongside Doan and Matthew Lombardi, displaying his improved skating and power play savvy. He could start the season back in San Antonio, but won't be there for long.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Ilya Bryzgalov. The player who made Gretzky look like a halfway decent coach in 2007-08 was considerably less effective last season. He earned 10 more decisions -- all losses -- gave up an extra half-goal per game and saw his save percentage drop from .921 to .906. Scouts say the adjustments he needs to make are mental more than technical, which suggests that new goalie coach Sean Burke is the ideal tutor. Burke understands the strains created by a constant barrage of rubber, so his teachings could set Bryzgalov up for a rebound season -- no pun intended.
BOTTOM LINE: Best-case scenario: the 'Yotes circle the wagons, develop an us-against-the-world mentality and battle to the finish for the final playoff spot. More likely scenario: overwhelmed by the distractions, they battle the Avs for the Western cellar.
Northwest | Central | Atlantic | Northeast | Southeast