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Western Conference: Pacific



LAST SEASON51-26-5 (fifth in West); lost in second round to Detroit


KEY LOSSES LWMark Bell, D Scott Hannan, G Vesa Toskala

While the Sharkshave played in as many playoff series since 2004 as any other NHL team (seven),San Jose has kicked away at least two sterling chances to vie for the StanleyCup in the past three seasons. "We're not going to know if we've turned thecorner until we get back to the same spot and are faced with it again,"coach Ron Wilson says. "There's something there, a glass ceiling orwhatever, that we just need to break through."

Confronted with aswift, skilled and physical team that seemed to lose its way at the mostinopportune times, G.M. Doug Wilson stifled any impulse to blow it all up andinstead locked it all up. Wilson extended the deals of his one-two punch atcenter, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, as well as up-and-coming winger MilanMichalek, one year after granting extensions to goalie Evgeni Nabokov andwinger Jonathan Cheechoo. Says Ron Wilson, "I think we have the right mixof players, who in most cases are hitting the primes of their careers, andother young players who are trending up."

Indeed, Thorntonthinks the team's window of Cup opportunity extends at least through the2010-11 season for a team that boasts 15 regulars whom the Sharks drafted orwho made their NHL debuts with San Jose.

If these Sharkshave an underbelly, it is a backline corps that lacks, unlike division rivalAnaheim with Chris Pronger, a prototypical franchise defenseman. But thelate-season addition of Craig Rivet and the continued development of Matt Carleand Marc-Edouard Vlasic should prove to be a sufficient buffer for Nabokov, whomight not be the top five goalie his G.M. contends but who is certainlycapable.



LAST SEASON48-20-14 (second in West); won Stanley Cup

KEY ADDITIONS RWTodd Bertuzzi, D Shane Hnidy, D Mathieu Schneider

KEY LOSSES DScott Niedermayer, LW Dustin Penner, RW Teemu Selanne

Stanley Cups arewon in June, not October, which is the best news for the defending championDucks, who have had better off-seasons. After a summer spent waiting for theirGodots to decide on their futures--star defenseman Scott Niedermayer andscoring winger Teemu Selanne still had not appeared in camp, nor had theyannounced intentions to retire as of Sunday--the Ducks opened the season lastweekend in England against the Kings. The fallout from mega-time-zone travel isnot necessarily immediate but something more accurately judged in the ensuingweeks or even months, according to Kings G.M. Dean Lombardi, who was theSharks' G.M. when they went to Japan to open the 1998-99 season. "For ateam like Anaheim that's going to be in the playoffs anyway," saysLombardi, "they probably can handle it O.K." The Ducks' depth andsparkling young talents, such as second-line center Ryan Getzlaf, should alsoenable them to muddle through the early season absences of defenseman MathieuSchneider (ankle) and checking-line center Samuel Pahlsson (sports hernia).

Schneider wassigned as insurance in case Niedermayer retires. G.M. Brian Burke's move tofill Selanne's slot--signing free agent Todd Bertuzzi--was bolder and moreproblematic. When he ran the Canucks, Burke went to the wall for Bertuzzi afterthe power winger's on-ice assault on Steve Moore. If Bertuzzi is toxic in theAnaheim dressing room, he can destroy the chemistry that helped fuel achampionship. If he even approaches his robust play in Vancouver, however, hewill be an asset.



LAST SEASON50-25-7 (sixth in West); lost in first round to Vancouver

KEY ADDITIONS LWTodd Fedoruk, C Toby Petersen, LW Brad Winchester

KEY LOSSES D JonKlemm, C Eric Lindros, LW Ladislav Nagy, D Darryl Sydor

At their worstthe Stars have looked like a Picasso painting: interesting, sure, but not allthe parts seemed to match. Dallas's freewheeling ways--big trades and flashyfree agents--are history even if they did help bring the Stars their only Cup,in 1999. Like San Jose, and to a lesser extent Anaheim, Dallas will depend moreheavily on a homegrown group of solid if not high-impact youngsters such asgoalie Mike Smith, defenseman Trevor Daley and wingers Loui Eriksson, JussiJokinen and Antti Miettinen. Other than possibly Smith, a rangy goalie who willback up the still formidable Marty Turco, there is no future All-Star in thegroup.

The Stars'problems are a lack of scorers and a distinct generation gap. Dallas has notproduced a high-end scorer since center Mike Modano, while the chasm betweenthe youth movement and the surfeit of veterans can't be bridged by BrendenMorrow, the 28-year-old captain, alone. The Stars' core is thick withthirtysomething players: Modano, Turco, forwards Stu Barnes, Jeff Halpern andJere Lehtinen, and defensemen Philippe Boucher and Sergei Zubov. "I'm notworried about the 30- and 32-year-olds," says coach Dave Tippett, "I'mworried about the 36- and 37-year-olds."



LAST SEASON27-41-14 (14th in West)

KEY ADDITIONS LWKyle Calder, C Michal Handzus, D Jon Klemm, LW Ladislav Nagy, D Tom Preissing,D Brad Stuart

KEY LOSSES GMathieu Garon, D Aaron Miller

In the 40 yearsof their undistinguished history, the Kings have never developed a franchisegoaltender. They are on the cusp of it now. Jonathan Bernier, a 19-year-old whomade 26 saves last Saturday in L.A.'s 4-1 season-opening win over the Ducks inLondon, might get the chance--a risky but legitimate option after the Kings letMathieu Garon go in free agency and demoted Dan Cloutier, leaving onlyjourneymen Jean-Sébastien Aubin and Jason LaBarbera as alternatives. "Whenteams have shot against us, we've gotten nervous," says G.M. Dean Lombardi."It's been like a Pavlovian response. That's got to change."

Once the Kingsmaster their bedeviling goaltending situation, watch out. Left wing AlexanderFrolov and center Michael Cammalleri combined for 69 goals last season, butthey weren't even the most impressive Los Angeles forwards. Anze Kopitar, whohad 20 goals and 61 points in 72 games as a rookie, soon will be among thedominant centers in the Western Conference. When Lombardi finally turns aroundthis slumbering franchise, the updraft will be sudden and spectacular. Say, in2009-10.



LAST SEASON31-46-5 (15th in West)

KEY ADDITIONS GDavid Aebischer, G Radim Vrbata, G Mike York

KEY LOSSES GCurtis Joseph, RW Owen Nolan, C Jeremy Roenick

The Coyotes are amirror image of the Kings, except that mirror is slightly cracked. Like LosAngeles, Phoenix's goaltending is unimpressive, and its group of young forwardsis not nearly as far along as the Kings'. If a team is lousy enough for longenough, of course, it can stockpile high-end draft talent that makes aneventual revival all but inevitable.

In the Coyotes'case, first-rounders such as rookies Peter Mueller--a probable Calder Trophycandidate whom coach Wayne Gretzky used on the point of the power play duringexhibition games--and Martin Hanzal will eventually become bona fidetop six forwards. "I really like how they compete, how unselfish theyare and how they play with urgency," Gretzky says. They could give thefeckless Phoenix attack--captain Shane Doan was the lone 20-goal scorer lastseason--a modicum of respectability.



D, Ducks

Aside from Joe Thornton, no player has a greaterripple effect throughout his team's lineup. But unlike Thornton, capably backedby No. 2 center Patrick Marleau, Pronger might have to carry the Cupchamps' defense by himself.

On the Spot


COACH, Coyotes

If the NHL's leading figure--that's still true, eveneight years after he retired--can't make Phoenix more presentable while itsyouth movement lurches forward, he might find himself with another job in theorganization.

On the Verge


RW, Sharks

The speedy forward recorded the majority of his 26goals and 66 points before he was moved to Joe Thornton's line late in theseason. If the 22-year-old Michalek flanks Thornton all season, watch out.


The Ducks will have no Stanley Cup hangover; G.M.Brian Burke and coach Randy Carlyle will not allow it. . . . It will becritical early on for center Patrick Marleau and Sharks coach Ron Wilson to geton the same page in terms of what Marleau's role on the team is. . . . TheStars play close games that force their goaltending to be nearly letter perfecteach time out. . . . Rookie defenseman Jack Johnson and free-agent forwardMichal Handzus will bring a better defensive presence to the Kings, who gave upfar too many goals last season.



SHOT ABSORBERIn Nabokov the Sharks have a goalie capable of winning the Cup.