The NHL’s Pacific Division is two years into the reign of the San Jose Sharks. From where I sit, this has no chance of changing in the 2010-2011 season. While the Division on the whole will be more competitive than in years passed—perhaps even generating four of eight playoff spots in the West—San Jose will have little competition for its top spot.
The big question for San Jose this year will be leadership. The “C” remains unassigned for the Sharks. I suspect that Joe Thornton will resume the post he once held in Boston. But then, given Jumbo Joe’s tendency to disappear come the post-season, my suggestion that the team will lack leadership is given that much more weight. The Sharks are as talented a group as they come, and they upgraded their goaltending in the offseason by bringing in Antti Niemi. But the best they seem capable of is baby steps during their perennial visits to the playoffs. True to this template, maybe I’ll give them a 7-game loss in the West Finals this season.
Finishing second for the 2010-2011 season, we will have the no-longer-surprising Phoenix Coyotes. The Desert Dogs have the netminding to carry a sub-par offensive team to a run at the preseason, as Ilya Bryzgalov did with Phoenix’s 2.57 goals scored per game last year. The Coyotes’ addition of scoring winger Ray Whitney for this year should help the offensive effort, though. Outside of San Jose, the Pacific Division simply does not boast enough offensive firepower to knock Phoenix from its newfound success.
On the strength of goaltending, I’m going to take the Anaheim Ducks to move up to third place in the Pacific after missing the playoffs last year. Jonas Hiller had a solid 2008-2009 season in his first shot at significant NHL playing time, and had an even more impressive run in the post-season that year. With last year came the Olympics, and Hiller’s mind would likely have been a bit scattered as he represented his native Switzerland in international play (and we all know what slaves them goaltenders are to habit and routine). Look for Hiller to have a strong year in 2010-2011, with the help of newly signed Andy “Big & Filthy” Sutton and Paul Mara playing in front of him on the blue line.
Because Dallas is looking more and more like a candidate for the NHL’s upcoming European expansion, we have the Los Angeles Kings placing fourth in the Pacific for 2010-2011. I’m not sold on Jonathan Quick as a “bull by the horns” type of netminder. And neither does Anze Kopitar seem like he is every going to emerge as a truly reliable scoring threat. The Kings may well compete for a playoff spot again this year, but I think it is just as likely that they sink back into relative hockey obscurity by the end of the coming season.
Which leaves only Dallas to round out the Pacific. The Stars bring nothing to the table offensively, and they are chock full of backup goaltenders to start the season. I’m thinking sub-500 for Dallas in 2010-2011.