KELLEY: Hard to find tougher division than Pacific

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Jim Kelley


Pacific Division

Pick a team in the Pacific Division, any team, and make a case for it not being good enough to be in the playoffs. What's that? Can't do it? Neither could we. Well, OK, we can make a pretty good case for the of Anaheim to miss, but we could also make a persuasive one that says they have a very good chance. The division is just that good. San Jose has improved its point totals in seven straight seasons, the longest streak in NHL history, and could do it again this season. Dallas retooled with a fresh infusion of cash that purchased several front line players including from Boston, from St. Louis, from Columbus and a new coach. The Los Angeles have one of the most balanced squads in the division, and appear to be stronger just by standing pat and letting players both heal and develop. The Phoenix made it to the postseason last spring and then went out and improved. They signed free agent from the , re-signed goalie , added in net and then added grit, size and leadership in the form of . Surely, someone, maybe two teams, are going to miss the playoffs. The West is just too tough a conference to bring five or even four teams from one division to the postseason, but that just shows you how good the Pacific Division really is. Lose two or three points to a division opponent and you're likely out of the playoffs, even if you do finish with 90 or more points. Competitive balance, it's what the NHL hoped for when the division format first came into play seemingly centuries ago. Teams are listed in order of their projected division finish. San Jose Last Season: 44-27-8-3, 99 points; first in Pacific, third in West, fifth overall.
GM: Dean Lombardi, seventh NHL season, first team
Coach: Darryl Sutter, ninth NHL season, second team New Faces: , D; , RW. Dearly Departed: , D; , LW; , LW. Strengths: had six 20-or-more goal scorers last season and they're all back. ¿ Club has stars like and and quality journeymen like and . ¿ Strong penalty killing, strong third and fourth lines, excellent young defensemen and strong goaltending. ¿ Sutter is a winning coach who has the respect of his players. ¿ The young players just now breaking in are quite well regarded and should make a seamless transition into more playing time. Weaknesses: Second-line center position could be weak if doesn't continue on a long-awaited upward curve. ¿ Power play seems bogged down by too many "give-me-the-puck" players up front and no true quarterback at the rear. Outlook: We'd like these guys for the Cup except for a couple of nagging little questions such as not being able to put away Colorado when they had the chance last spring and not having a true leader who brought a team to the top. Might even have a little problem at the start in that several star players, including goaltender and defenseman , have contract problems and Nolan, Ricci and have bothersome injuries. Los Angeles Last Season: 40-27-11-4, 95 points; third in Pacific, seventh in West; 12th overall.
GM: Dave Taylor, fourth NHL season, first team
Coach: Andy Murray, fourth NHL season, first team New Faces: , LW/RW; , LW; , RW; , C; , D. Dearly Departed: , D; , C; , RW; , RW. Strengths: Veteran, pressure-tested team though still young and enthusiastic. ¿ League's best power play and third-best penalty killing make a difference in tight games. ¿ Line of , and projects to be even better now that Allison has a full camp with his linemates. ¿ Team defense is excellent (fourth fewest shots allowed last season) and the defense is not as thin as critics would have you believe just because Boucher jumped to Dallas. ¿ Goaltending is better than team is ever given credit for as continues to shed his inconsistent reputation in places other than L.A. ... Coaching is first rate, even coach of the year level. Weaknesses: Defense might stumble early given that is still recovering from abdominal surgery. ¿ A trio of replacements is at hand, but they are young and still learning. ¿ Second line needs more production, especially a rebound season from who struggled with a variety of wingers last season. Outlook: are in a tough division and not making major moves in a situation like that is scary, but this is a good team with good young talent ready to replace those that were lost. Look for rookie to contribute from the second line and a variety of kid defensemen to rotate in Boucher's spot. Dallas Last Season: 36-28-13-5, 90 points; fourth in Pacific, tenth in West, 17th overall.
GM: Doug Armstrong, second NHL season, first team
Coach: Dave Tippett, first NHL season, first team. New Faces: , RW; , RW; , LW; , G; , D. Dearly Departed: , G; , C; , RW; , RW: , RW; , D. Strengths: Acquisition of and should beef up the offense on both the first and second lines, giving finishers to centers (Guerin) and (Young). ¿ Boucher is a playmaker on the blueline so power play should get a lift. ¿ Dahlen is a question mark; he could be a boost or the next Valeri Kaminsky. We'll go with the former. Weaknesses: The offense will sell tickets and maybe even the team (it's on the market), but defense and goaltending is what wins championships and the have been failing in this regard for two seasons. ¿ Tugnutt takes some of the load off starter , but Turco needs more help in front of him than behind. ¿ gave up 213 goals last season, worst total of any team in the Pacific and Boucher won't be the player who gets that number down. Outlook: Too many people are dazzled by the off-season pickups, but Tippett shouldn't be one of them. He's got the reputation of an offensive wizard and that will help, but he'll need to install a solid defensive system that has some physicality to it and that is harder than even owner Tom Hicks might be willing to admit. The lost a lot at home last season and it wasn't all 's fault, it was also because of their poor team defensive play. Their penalty killing also was awful and that needs to be addressed. Phoenix Last Season: 40-27-9-6, 95 points, second in Pacific, sixth in West, 11th overall.
GM: Mike Barnett, second NHL season, first team
Coach: Bobby Francis, fourth NHL season, first team New Faces: , RW; , D; , C; , D; Jeff Taffe, C. Dearly Departed: , G; , C; , C; , C; , C. Strengths: Amonte brings more scoring to a team that struggled for goals last season. ¿ Center lineup of , and Buchberger is competent in all aspects of the game. ¿ Defense is young, fast, aggressive at moving the puck and competent in its own end. ¿ is at the top of his game and with Boucher in the fold can expect some relief from having to be "the man" every night out. ¿ Bobby Francis is an excellent coach who gets the most out of every player. Weaknesses: Second and third lines are physical, but struggle for points. ¿ Defense is decent, but can be pushed around a bit in its own zone which puts added pressure on Burke. ¿ Penalty killing is weak. Outlook: The were an improved team last season and they are better this time out, but then so is the competition and the race to repeat in the playoffs will be a difficult one to win. of Anaheim Last Season: 29-42-8-3, 69 points; fifth in Pacific, 13th in West, 24th overall
GM: Bryan Murray, 12th NHL year; third team
Coach: Mike Babcock, first NHL season, first team New Faces: , C; , D; , RW; , D. Dearly Departed: , D; , LW; , G. Strengths: Addition of Oates and Sykora gives Ducks a formidable scoring unit with star forward on the wing. ¿ Power play should be upgraded as well, especially with Tverdovsky at the blueline. ¿ is a rising star in goal. Weaknesses: This is not a big team nor is it overly tough, factors that new coach Babcock will have to deal with. ¿ The Ducks lack heart and lose a lot, even at home. ¿ In close games it's safe to bet against this team. Not all the new faces will change that. Outlook: The Ducks are in a rebuilding mode and are attempting to accelerate the process, while still giving time and consideration to a growing stable of young players who will at some point be the core of the team. It's not easy in today's NHL and management knows that. There will be patience and a push for the playoffs, but don't expect both. Even if they improve by 20 points, an almost unfathomable accomplishment in this division, that will still leave them with 89 points and that surely won't be enough to get into the playoffs in the West. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Sabres, Red Wings, Kings, Stars, Canadiens, Devils, Flyers, Sharks, Maple Leafs, Coyotes, Ducks, Panthers, Predators, Blue Jackets, Bill Guerin, Tony Amonte, Philippe Boucher, Aaron Miller, Adam Mair, Mike Modano, Brad Lukowich, Marty Turco, Ed Belfour, Pierre Turgeon, Petr Sykora, Brian Boucher, Mike Ricci, Scott Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Brad Stuart, Daniel Briere, Michal Handzus, Robert Esche, Sean Burke, Paul Kariya, Jeff Friesen, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Mike Commodore, Joe Corvo, Alexander Frolov

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