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State of the Pacific Division (First Edition)

Each week, talented bloggers with team-specific daily blogs will write a short synopsis on the state of the team that they follow.  Every week, one of the six NHL divisions will be featured on Illegal Curve, with the cycle continuing in order throughout the remainder of the season.

This week, we are focusing on the Pacific Division.  Teams are appearing in the same order as they currently sit in the standings.

1. San Jose Sharks–From Mike Chen of and Kukla’s Korner:

I forget who said it, but there was a quote floating around that San Jose is the only team where fan anxiety grows with every win. That’s the thing about this season. As good as the team has been — and really, from Patrick Marleau’s resurgence to the development of Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic to the picture-perfect fit of Dan Boyle, it’s almost been storybook — it all means nothing if the team doesn’t at least win the Western Conference.

However, I’ve preached before that for any team, the first half of the season is about habits and the second half is about positioning in the standings. In terms of habits, I like what I see from these Sharks. In the Ron Wilson days, a one-goal lead was the trigger to play a tail-between-the-legs defensive shell that always ended badly. In the Ron Wilson days, a one-goal deficit was often a huge hump to get over because the team was so locked into the system that they couldn’t rev it up a notch. And in the Ron Wilson days (at least without Brian Campbell), the power play was simply “Pass to Joe on the half-boards and keep your fingers crossed.”

This year’s Sharks are breaking all of those frustrating Ron Wilsonisms. The team can come out of nowhere to mount crazy amounts of offense through shooting, hitting, cycling, and speed. The team can
play a tight defensive game that protects a lead as much through a fast defense-to-offense transition as solid positioning and shot blocking. And this team has a creative power play with a strong breakout, good movement, and two capable units. It’s hard to give them anything but an A+ for how they’ve handled both big and small adversity this season, but even if they win every game for the rest of the season, the true test is still when the playoffs start.

Does that sound cynical? Yeah, but I’m still enjoying the hell out of every game. I just know Sharks fans see this all as a prologue to the real story.

2. Anaheim Ducks–From Earl Sleek of Battle of California:

Two months, more or less, into this 2008-09 season and a few things are becoming apparent about the Anaheim Ducks – (1) Unfortunately (for me), they are not the San Jose Sharks, tearing through the early part of the season like Sean Avery cuts through formalities.  (2) Fortunately for me, they are also not the Dallas Stars, whose miserable season start left many hockey fans scratching their heads.   Somewhere in the middle, along with 25 or so other teams, sit the Anaheim Ducks, and it’s tough to figure exactly where in that mix this version belongs.

I am perfectly willing to throw away the opening six games of Anaheim’s season, where the Ducks went 0-5-1, had a 1-for-24 power play, and the five scoring forwards Getzlaf-Perry-Kunitz-Morrison-Selanne combined for a measly 3 points.  In the 26 games since that horrid season opening (where the operative word was “Positivity!”) the Ducks have put together a 16-7-3 record utilizing an above-20% power play conversion and have Getzlaf in particular sitting among the league’s top scorers.  On paper the forwards look fantastic – I’m considering calling the Kunitz-Getzlaf-Perry line the “power play” just because they’re that dominant, and there’s signs that a Marchant-Morrison-Selanne line can offer some secondary scoring the Ducks lacked last season.  Moen-Pahlsson-Niedermayer of course plays the murderers minutes against the opposition’s best, and some combination of Ryan-May-Carter-Parros is around to offer some fourth-line punch. 

It’s the defense that has taken some rapid adjustment, and it’s all happened within the last few months.  Even after Schneider was traded during training camp, I expected that the Ducks’ blueline would be almost exactly the same as the cup year, but then BAM! O’Donnell gets traded and BOOM! Beauchemin gets hurt for the year, and all of a sudden half the blueline is turned over.  Fortunately, there’s still the two mainstays – Niedermayer and Pronger – and I’m of the belief that you can build a good blueline around those two guys plus four mannequins.  It turns out that’s not entirely true, but the players who have come in have more or less been finding their way.   Hedican, Huskins, and Montador are all seasoned players, and the Ducks brought up Brett Festerling to play alongside Scott Niedermayer, just like they did with Beauchemin three years ago.  There’s still plenty of issues to work out, but I think it’s coming together, and Montador in particular is a standout.  Goaltending is set, though – Giguere and Hiller have both been playing mostly excellent in net.

So it remains to be seen where these Ducks really sit, but it’s early enough in the season that not all questions need immediate answers – so long as they’re somewhat comfortably among the top 8, there’s still plenty to like about this Anaheim squad.  They’ve got loads of experience, a hard-hitting style of play, and a loud-and-proud general manager.  Whoops!  Of course, that’s the side-story I’ve been neglecting to talk about  – Brian Burke is now off to the Maple Leafs Old Folks Home, and has left his replacement with a largely clean slate – next summer will see a significant roster explosion (a move I applaud Brian Burke a ton for, by the way).  To make things easier, here’s a list of who’s not becoming a free agent next summer: Giguere, Hiller, Pronger, Getzlaf, Perry, Kunitz, Selanne, Carter, and Ryan.  Everyone else becomes a free agent (nearly all of them unrestricted), and it should be interesting to see where Bob Murray spends the freed-up dollars.  Burke has certainly left the Ducks with several key players to build around, but there’s plenty of slots to fill and dollars to spend, too.  Once these decisions get made, then perhaps I’ll know what sort of guy this Bob Murray fellow is – should be exciting.

Go Ducks.

3. Phoenix Coyotes–From OdinMercer of Five For Howling:

The Coyotes are in year 2 of an actual, honest, rebuild and what has that gotten them so far? Well, as of today 7th in the West. They’ve ditched the old style of signing stop-gap veterans thinking that could stop the bleeding and just gone with the kids they’ve got. Has that meant that there have been some rough games? Absolutely. They got blasted by Chicago a few weeks ago and before that had a brutal 6 game losing streak. However, every time they’ve faced a downtime they’ve been able to bounce right back and start playing all over again. In large part thanks to the kids they keep leaning on.

While everyone was looking at 2007 1st round pick Kyle Turris at the beginning of the year, it’s been other 1st and 2nd year players that have come out of the gate flying. Mikkel Boedker has impressed most here in Phoenix by playing a supremely skilled game. Take a look at some of his goals on YouTube, his puck control and confidence make him look like he’s been playing in the NHL for years and he just turned 19 a couple of days ago. Enver Lisin isn’t technically a rookie anymore, but he’s lightning fast and because of it will draw penalties on opposing defenses constantly. Finally, sophomore Martin Hanzal has had a strong start both scoring and keeping the opposing teams top lines under pressure. After having offseason back surgery many thought it would take a while for him to get going but it hasn’t seemed to slow him at all.

The veterans have done their part too. Shane Doan avoided his usual slow start and leads the team with 14 goals. Offseason acquisition Olli Jokinen has done great for us too. He wasn’t scoring a ton of goals at the beginning, but even then he was racking up the assists. He was out for a few games with a shoulder injury but since coming back hasn’t seemed to be suffering any ill effects. Ilya Bryzgalov had a rough time for a while but has shaken whatever was going on with him and has made some great saves of late and has kept the ‘Yotes in games even if the offense hasn’t put goals in the net.

The team keeps getting better and better as the year has gone on and if they can keep it up, will be a dangerous team for anyone to face in the playoffs. Just ask the Sharks, Penguins and Red Wings…

4. Los Angeles Kings–From Rudy Kelly of Battle of California:

The Kings have had kind of a weird season so far.  They’ve been good, but that’s not the really surprising part; no, the surprising part is that they haven’t been better.  They lost their best defenseman in the 2nd game of the season (Get better soon, Jack!), their goaltending has been listless, Anze Kopitar hasn’t been his usual explosive self, and none of the older prospects that were expected to secure a role on the team did so… and yet, there they are, tied for 8th in the West.  The big story has been the improved defense, led by new coach Terry Murray and a defense comprised of castoffs and renegades.  The Kings are currently leading the league in shots allowed, compared to 29th last season.  They’re also in the top 15 in both power play and penalty kill percentage, a big improvement over last year.  Yep, the Kings are looking pretty good and should only get better once Jack Johnson comes back from his shoulder injury. 

(Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Kings have played largely at home during the 1st half of the season and will probably blow it on the road in the 2nd half.  Also, I’d be a tool if I used words like “remiss.”  What am I, British?)

Through the first few months of the season, there are 3 players that are worth mentioning:

1.  Drew Doughty.  Drew Doughty is awesome.  Drew Doughty is what Jesus would have been like if he had been born in Canada instead of Baltimore.  (Is that where he was born?  I suck at geography.)  Doughty has made a few mistakes this season but he has mostly amazing with a dash of omigod.  He’s 1st on the team in Time on Ice and quarterbacks the top power play.  Some might say that the only reason Doughty is getting so much playing time is because the Kings suck, to which I say: screw you, buddy, don’t be a jerk.

2.  Kyle Quincey.  Quincey was a waiver pick-up from Detroit who has blossomed into the Kings’ premier offensive defenseman.  He also played on the primary defensive unit with Matt Greene but recently moved up alongside Doughty to utilize Quincey’s offensive skill.  Quincey is only 23.  In case you’re wondering, here’s a list of Kings’ defensemen and prospects age 23 and under: Kyle Quincey, Jack Johnson, Drew Doughty, WJC Team Canada Captain Thomas Hickey, Colten Teubert, and Vjacheslav Voynov.  Whew.  I need a cigarette.

3.  Dustin Brown.  You know Dustin Brown already, but I don’t know if you realize how good he’s been playing.  He’s on pace right now to score 64 points this season, but you might not know that he’s also on pace to lead the league in penalties drawn.  Plus he’s a great checker and hardly ever takes a penalty through overaggressiveness.  He’s 23 too.

So yeah, the Kings are playing surprisingly well now.  I’m a fan of the team, so I’ve been around long enough to know that this won’t last and Drew Doughty will probably kill himself in a bizarre shaving accident, but so far I’ve been enjoying the ride.  Hey, at least we’re better than the Stars.

5. Dallas Stars–Mark Stepneski of Andrew’s Stars Page:

Heading into the season some lofty expectations had been placed on the Dallas Stars. After a trip to the Western Conference Finals, some thought the Stars were a team poised to take the next step, and win a Stanley Cup.

More than a third of the way into the season, though, the Stars found themselves close to the bottom of the Western Conference standings and of the league’s worst on both the power play and penalty kill. Stars coach Dave Tippett was asked after a recent practice if he could have imagined his team in this spot three months ago.

“No. Our expectations were higher,” he said. “Obviously we’ve had some issues with our club, we have some injury problems and we are where we are.”

The Stars have had a lot of issues, which have played a role in their dismal season to date. They lost several key players from last season’s team during the offseason. Versatile forward Stu Barnes and defensive defenseman Mattias Norstrom both retired. Forwards Niklas Hagman and Antti Miettinen both departed via free agency. Defenseman Sergei Zubov and forward Jere Lehtinen were injured and not available to start the season. That was one third of the team’s lineup gone from last season. A lot of new faces, including some rookies, meant struggles and when goalie Marty Turco got off to a rough start, it compounded things. More injuries set in, including key ones to Brenden Morrow (out for season with torn ACL), Joel Lundqvist and Steve Ott. The Stars had little room to maneuver as far as the roster because they were tight against the cap because of money they spent on forward Sean Avery in the summer.

And then there was the Avery situation, which reached a head when he was suspended after the “sloppy seconds” comments in Calgary. Avery’s play on the ice had been OK, but his off ice behavior had become a major distraction to the team. He simply didn’t fit in Dallas and didn’t appear to want to try to fit. When it became clear that the rather brief Avery era was done in Dallas, there seemed to be a breath of fresh air that swept through the team.

Along with that fresh air came some other positives. Turco seemed to be turning his game around. Some of the injured players started to return and others were getting close. The Stars roster, which had been filled with a lot of AHL players, started to look like an NHL roster again. Even with the depleted roster the Stars were starting to win more than they were losing and they were gaining ground on the last playoff spot in the standings.

There’s still along ways to go and they’ll have to do it without Morrow and now Zubov, who will undergo season-ending hip surgery in January.  But Tippett and his troops remain optimistic.

“We think there is a lot time to scratch and claw our way out of this, get ourselves into a playoff spot and anything can happen,” said Tippett.

Illegal Curve wants to thank the above bloggers for taking the time to write their pieces for our first State of the Division post.  If you haven’t already, take a look at their respective blogs.  All of them are extremely well done and informative.