LAST SEASON43-27-12, sixth in West; lost in conference finals to Edmonton
KEY ADDITIONS DChris Pronger
KEY LOSSES RWJoffrey Lupul, D Ruslan Salei, D Vitaly Vishnevski
Life in the O.C.got even sunnier in July when superstar defenseman Chris Pronger was acquiredin a trade with Edmonton that unites him with another Norris Trophy winner,Scott Niedermayer. (Pronger won it in 2000, Niedermayer in '04.) The Ducks, whoplay an aggressive, high-tempo game, will have at least one of those eliteblueliners on the ice virtually all the time--and that immediately makes them aStanley Cup favorite.
"Scottie'slike a thoroughbred; Chris is like a Clydesdale," says G.M. Brian Burke."In terms of skating the puck out of trouble, Scottie has a clearadvantage. [And] he's such a smooth passer. Chris is more physical and uses hisstick more to beat people with a pass. They'll complement each otherwell."
In exchange forthe 6'6", 215-pound Pronger, who is in the second year of a five-year, $31million deal, Anaheim gave up promising forward Joffrey Lupul, defensemanLadislav Smid, a 2007 first-round pick, a 2008 second-round pick and aconditional first-round pick. But the Ducks, who have top scorers Teemu Selanne(40 goals) and Andy McDonald (34) coming back, have the depth to overcome thoselosses. More important, after watching the Pronger-led Oilers dominate hisDucks in the conference finals, Burke was convinced Pronger was the missingpiece on his team.
"I waswishing I had Chris when I saw him warming up for the first game [of theseries]," Burke says. "I've been coveting this player ever since Idrafted him [for the Hartford Whalers] in 1993."
By adding Prongerto his current team, Burke now has everything in place for the Ducks to win theCup.
LAST SEASON44-27-11, fifth in West; lost in second round to Edmonton
KEY ADDITIONS LWMark Bell, C Curtis Brown, RW Mike Grier
KEY LOSSES C AlynMcCauley, LW Scott Thornton
After toiling inobscurity for four seasons in Chicago, newly acquired left wing Mark Bell isfinally getting attention--just not the kind of attention he wanted. Ten daysbefore training camp began last month Bell, 26, allegedly rear-ended a pickuptruck, left the scene and walked for about a quarter mile before San Josepolice caught up to him. No one was seriously injured, but Bell, who is stillexpected to play alongside Hart Trophy winner Joe Thornton (box, page 97) andright wing Jonathan Cheechoo on what could be the NHL's best line, was arrestedon suspicion of drunk driving and felony hit-and-run. His arraignment waspostponed until October.
The Sharks' othernewcomers have kept a lower profile. After a disheartening loss to the Oilersin last season's playoffs (the Sharks once led the series two games to none),San Jose brought in free-agent center Curtis Brown and winger Mike Grier, adefensive specialist, to take critical face-offs and to help kill penalties.They join a club that has great depth on defense--and very high expectations.Says coach Ron Wilson, "This team is competing for the Stanley Cup.Anything short of that is a disappointment."
LAST SEASON53-23-6, second in West; lost in first round to Colorado
KEY ADDITIONS CEric Lindros, C Patrik Stefan, D Darryl Sydor
KEY LOSSES CJason Arnott, C Niko Kapanen, D Willie Mitchell
Goalie MartyTurco's disappointing performance in the playoffs--the heavily favored Starswere knocked out by the Avalanche in the first round in each of the last twoseasons--has exhausted the patience of coach Dave Tippett. "I put trust ina lot of [veterans], and the results haven't been there," says Tippett."When that happens, you tend to trust less. You make sure things get donewithout relying on those players."
The 31-year-oldTurco's career postseason record is 8--14, yet Dallas gave him a four-year,$22.8 million contract extension based on his 137-62-26 record and 2.08goals-against average over the past five years. (That's also a reflection ofthe dearth of experienced goaltending in the league.) This fall, however, theStars are giving three netminders whom they drafted in 2000, '01 and '02--DanEllis, Mike Smith and Tobias Stephan, respectively--a shot at winning a job inthe NHL, whether it's as Turco's backup, as his replacement or as the go-togoalie in the playoffs. "Last year the NHL finals proved a young guy canmake an impact," says Tippett, referring to Carolina rookie Cam Ward, whoappeared in 28 regular-season games then backstopped the Hurricanes to the Cup."We want one of these guys to push Marty."
LAST SEASON42-35-5, 10th in West
KEY ADDITIONSG.M. Dean Lombardi, coach Marc Crawford, D Rob Blake, G Dan Cloutier
KEY LOSSES G.M.Dave Taylor, D Joseph Corvo, C Pavol Demitra, C Jeremy Roenick
When he took overas G.M. of the Sharks before the 1996--97 season, Dean Lombardi needed justthree years to turn them into a playoff threat, but he'll be lucky to get thatmuch time to transform the long-suffering Kings. L.A.'s pattern of starting theseason strong before falling out of playoff contention, plus the emergence ofSoCal rival Anaheim as a Stanley Cup front-runner, has created a sense ofurgency. That's why Lombardi made wholesale changes, bringing in formerCup-winning coach Marc Crawford; Dan Cloutier, who will be the Kings' No. 1goalie; and former Norris Trophy winner Rob Blake.
"We'reprobably not going to score a ton of goals, but if we can limit theopposition's chances, that will be a key," says center Craig Conroy."We don't have the superstars on offense that other teams have." That'swhy some hockey fans hop onto the Santa Ana Freeway and head south.
LAST SEASON38-39-5, 12th in West
KEY ADDITIONS DNick Boynton, D Ed Jovanovski, RW Georges Laraque, C Jeremy Roenick
KEY LOSSES D PaulMara, LW Geoff Sanderson
To survive in theWestern Conference, says Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky, "You can't standstill." Hoping to avoid Phoenix's third straight last-place finish, Gretzkyand G.M. Mike Barnett set out to improve the defense and to add a physicalpresence up front. For the blue line, they signed All-Star Ed Jovanovski andtraded for versatile Nick Boynton; they gained muscle in 6'3", 243-poundGeorges Laraque. "Some nights we just couldn't match up against the biggerteams," says Gretzky. Laraque may help solve that problem, but the Coyoteshave too many others--a shortage of scorers, a poor power play--to finishanywhere near the top of the Pacific.
After acquiring Thornton from the Bruins last Nov. 30,the Sharks, then 8-12-4 and 13th in the conference, went 36-15-7 the rest ofthe way to storm into the playoffs. Thornton, 27, led the league with acareer-high 126 points and helped linemate Jonathan Cheechoo become the NHL'stop scorer (56 goals).
The 118th pick of the 2000 draft, the 5'10",188-pound Slovakian used his mobility to have a breakout season in '05--06,leading L.A. with 67 points (17 goals). His total was better than those ofheralded defensemen such as Scott Niedermayer, Mathieu Schneider, SergeiGonchar and Chris Pronger.
On the Spot
The 2003 Conn Smythe winner was replaced in lastyear's playoffs by backup Ilya Bryzgalov, who then sparked controversy in Julywhen a Russian newspaper quoted him as saying Anaheim wanted to trade Gigu√®rebut "no one wanted him." The two will battle for the No. 1 job.
PIERRE MCGUIRE'S IN THE CREASE
THIS IS the toughest division in hockey: Anaheim, SanJose and Dallas are all Cup contenders.... The Ducks have young, speedy skillplayers all over their roster, including Ryan Shannon, a center who tore up theAHL last season.... The Sharks are a scoring machine; they move the puck aswell as any team in the league.... The Stars, well-coached by Dave Tippett,have balance at all positions, and their players really grasp their roles. Thekey for Dallas is to improve its power play (20th in the NHL last year), whichis why the Stars signed 33-year-old Eric Lindros.... The Coyotes and the Kingshave many new players, but look for Wayne Gretzky, who learned a lot aboutgauging a team's chemistry last year, to be more comfortable and effective inhis second season behind the Phoenix bench. Los Angeles coach Marc Crawfordwill challenge his team to play a hard-edged, physical style; he'll squeeze alot out of his roster.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
DURABLE DUCK The mobile Niedermayer averages more than 25 minutes a game.
DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/AP (TURCO)
POST TRAUMA Turco's playoff failures have the Stars looking for an alternative in goal.
DAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES (THORNTON)
BRAD WHITE/WIREIMAGE.COM (VISNOVSKY)
DAVID E. KLUTHO (GIGU√àRE)