NHL Preview: Pacific Division
1. The Los Angeles Kings
Despite the Kings’ sluggish start to the season, I have no doubt that they will find a way to bounce back and reclaim the division. There is too much talent and consistency in LA. Suffering virtually no losses from last year’s Stanley Cup team, the Kings are in great shape to keep doing what they have been doing. A late start to the season allowed goaltender Jonathan Quick to recover from his injury, and although alternate captain Anze Kopitar hurt himself playing overseas, he has rejoined the team in the first week. In order to be successful again, look for production from the Kings’ depth at center: Kopitar (who scored 76 points last season), Mike Richards (44), Jaret Stoll (21), and hybrid center/right winger Jeff Carter (34). In addition, look for captain Dustin Brown to build on his 54 points from last season.
2. The Anaheim Ducks
Put simply, I just expect too much to come out of the “big three” of the Ducks – assuming none are dealt mid season. First, 27-year-old Ryan Geltzlaf is coming off of a career low in goals (11) and points (57). Bobby Ryan, who surprisingly survived last season in Anaheim and was not traded, put up solid numbers, with 31 goals and 26 assists. Finally, winger Corey Perry had a letdown season after he scored 50 goals and tallied 98 points two years ago, but still put together a respectable 60 points last season. Not only do the Ducks boast these three scorers, though. Anchoring the back unit is young, 21-year-old defenseman Cam Fowler. I may be placing unrealistic expectations on Fowler this year, but in what will be his third season in the bigs, I expect Fowler to lead the Ducks to the playoffs this year.
3. The San Jose Sharks
Trending with the success of Bay Area teams in the last calendar year, I believe the Sharks will exceed expectations this year and finish above the Phoenix Coyotes and Dallas Stars. Although the team hasn’t made any glaring improvements, I’m expecting Antti Niemi to improve on his first two years in San Jose. Niemi’s GAA has hovered around 2.40 and his SV% around .918 over his first two years with the Sharks. Although those numbers were enough to give the Sharks second in the division last year, he is going to need to do better to have the Sharks make the playoffs in 2013. Expect normal production from veterans Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle. One player I am intrigued by, however, is center Logan Couture. The 23-year-old’s point totals have grown since his first season in the league in 2009, and I expect this trend to continue. He has the possibility to play with great playmakers, and if Couture can step up, the Sharks can go places.
4. The Phoenix Coyotes
Although Phoenix finished atop the Pacific Division with 97 points last season, I cannot see them reproducing their magical year in 2013. Hindered by the off-ice distractions of management and ownership, the Coyotes franchise was in limbo. Factor in the Shane Doan chronicles, and the offseason drama put Phoenix in the spotlight. In my mind, the star and the most important part of the Coyotes’ team is the play of Mike Smith. However, he injured his lower body in a game against the Blue Jackets. If he is not able to return to top form soon, the Coyotes are in big trouble. One player I like this year is Oliver Ekman-Larsson. After scoring 13 goals as a defenseman last year, I think if he can build on his totals, he is bound for stardom. At only 21 years of age, he is a great up-and-coming new face of the Coyotes franchise. For the Coyotes to make a push in the division, the team needs to stay healthy. Only then will they be able to make a run at the teams on top of them.
5. The Dallas Stars
I just have a gut feeling that I don’t like the Stars this year. There is really no justification for that, except maybe a lack of star power. Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson are solid players, but I just don’t see any standout offensive star. Eriksson did put up 71 points last year and Benn did score 63, but gone is Mike Ribiero. Alex Goligoski and Stephane Robidas make up a decent top defensive pair, but I don’t think it can control or match the other teams in this division. The brightest spot of this team is goaltender Kari Lehtonen. After posting a 2.33 GAA last year, I like Lehtonen’s play a lot. I wish there was more I could say about the Stars team, but all they really have done is bring in Jaromir Jagr, who I strongly dislike, just like the rest of the league does. The Stars are decent, but aren’t good enough to challenge the top of this division.