45-30-7, 5th in West; lost in conference finals to Red Wings
LW Sean Avery, LW Fabian Brunnstrom
C Stu Barnes, LW Niklas Hagman, D Mattias Norstrom
THE STARS used to take their lead from former captain Mike Modano: fluid and skilled. Now they more closely resemble present captain Brenden Morrow: grinding and determined. That's how coach Dave Tippett likes it. "By making other teams fight for space," Tippett says, "we want to be uncomfortable to play against."
Ninth in the NHL with 237 goals last season, Dallas can still outgun teams. The top three centers—Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards and Modano—each scored at least 20 goals, and Morrow led the team with 32, though few of those were fit for a highlight tape. The winger, whose 260 hits was third in the league, does his best work in scrums.
For all the grit on their forward lines—and the presence of superpest Sean Avery makes the Stars an even more insufferable opponent—the team's Stanley Cup hopes rest on the unheralded defense in front of solid goaltender Marty Turco. At 38, puck-moving backliner Sergei Zubov is coming off an injury-plagued season in which he played fewer than 70 games (only 46) for the first time in 11 seasons. That leaves a core of defensemen who are only slightly less green than the star on the Dallas sweater: Matt Niskanen, 21; Mark Fistric, 22; Nicklas Grossman, 23; and Trevor Daley, 24, will all see significant minutes.
"Confidence is earned," Tippett says. "They're young players, but [after last season's success] they have got to feel better about where they are."
The club, one of the league's stingiest on the penalty kill, is as skilled as the one that fell two wins shy of the finals last spring. And it's a team that will already have a playoff snarl in October.
49-23-10, 2nd in West; lost in second round to Stars
D Rob Blake, D Dan Boyle, D Brad Lukowich, Coach Todd McLellan
D Matt Carle, LW Patrick Rissmiller, D Craig Rivet, Coach Ron Wilson
THIS TALENTED team has a maddening habit of failing to fulfill its promise. After seeing the Sharks flounder in the second round of the playoffs for the third straight season, G.M. Doug Wilson set out to change the mojo, bringing in coach Todd McLellan and adding Cup winners to the blue line. Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich played on Tampa Bay's 2004 champion; 38-year-old Rob Blake won a title in '01 with Colorado.
San Jose needs a rejuvenated Blake, who often seemed uninterested while skating for also-ran L.A. last season; a young forward, such as winger Milan Michalek, to emerge as a consistent scorer; and tighter play at both ends to take pressure off superb goalie Evgeni Nabokov. The Sharks are led by center Joe Thornton (above), whose 96 points were 41 more than any teammate's but who scored only twice in 13 playoff games. That was the latest disappointing postseason for Big Joe, who has become an apt symbol for a team that keeps exiting before its time.
47-27-8, 4th in West; lost in first round to Stars
D Steve Montador, C Brendan Morrison
LW Todd Bertuzzi, C Doug Weight
COMING OFF an opening-round playoff loss, which happened one year after they won the Stanley Cup, the Ducks face a rebound-or-rebuild season. Only nine players are signed beyond 2008--09, among them just one defenseman, captain Chris Pronger (above). The challenge for G.M. Brian Burke—who's rumored to be jumping ship himself, to Toronto, after this year—has been to construct a second line to follow the top threesome of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Chris Kunitz. With that in mind, Burke gave a one-year contract to free-agent center Brendan Morrison, although Morrison, typically a 20-goal guy, slipped to nine last year while missing 43 games with knee and wrist injuries in Vancouver.
Anaheim is scrappy (an NHL-high 1,481 penalty minutes), resilient (an 11-14-2 record when trailing after the first period was the league's best) and able to clamp down. (Its 53 third-period goals allowed tied Detroit for fewest in the NHL.) But a lack of offense could keep the Ducks from flying to the top in their last run together.
38-37-7, 12th in West
LW Todd Fedoruk, C Olli Jokinen, D Kurt Sauer
D Keith Ballard, D Nick Boynton, RW Radim Vrbata
SINCE JOINING the NHL as the Winnipeg Jets in 1979, the franchise has won precisely two postseason series, neither since moving to Phoenix in '96. (You might say that the club went from being cold to running dry.) Coached by Wayne Gretzky, who is entering his fourth season behind the Phoenix bench, the Coyotes are decidedly un-Gretzkyian around the net. After winger Shane Doan's 78 points, no Phoenix player even reached the 60s last season.
The hope is that winger Peter Mueller (above) and center Martin Hanzal, both of whom finished among the NHL's top 10 rookie scorers in 2007--08, will progress and that the offense will get a jump from 29-year-old center Olli Jokinen, who scored more than 30 goals four times in the past five seasons with Florida. With 723 games played for the Kings, Islanders and Panthers, Jokinen is fast approaching Guy Charron's alltime NHL mark for most career games (734) without reaching the playoffs. With two years left on his contract, Jokinen has a chance to put that record out of reach.
32-43-7, 15th in West
D Matt Greene, Coach Terry Murray, C Jarret Stoll
F Mike Cammalleri, Coach Marc Crawford, D Lubomir Visnovsky
A YOUTH movement is one thing, but many of the Kings' building blocks have barely outgrown their Lego sets. Unable or unwilling to sign free agents to join a team that finished with a conference-low 71 points in 2007--08, L.A. expects to give prime minutes on defense to a pair of first-round draft picks who are still teenagers: Thomas Hickey, the smooth No. 4 pick in the '07 draft; and the rugged backliner that G.M. Dean Lombardi selected with the second overall pick this summer, 6'1", 219-pound Drew Doughty. Sophomore defenseman Jack Johnson, 21, may find himself as the unit's leader; goaltenders Jason LaBarbera and Erik Ersberg may find themselves taking cover. "It's not the ideal way I'd like to break kids in," admits Lombardi, who has little choice.
Thanks to 21-year-old center Anze Kopitar (above), who scored 77 points last season, and left wing Alexander Frolov (67 points), the Kings have some pop up front, but growing pains are as inevitable as a last-place finish.
"You never like to lose at all. It's weighed on me, and it motivates."
—BRENDEN MORROW, Dallas captain
An ethereal skater with great vision, the Ducks defenseman and 2007 Conn Smythe winner dominates at even strength and on the power play. Last season Anaheim was 15-15-4 before Niedermayer, now 35, came out of retirement; with him the club was 32-12-4.
On the Spot
Dallas got the dynamic center from Tampa at last February's trade deadline when he was en route to a subpar season of 20 goals and a --27 rating. Then he had just three goals in 18 playoff games. The Stars' highest-paid player ($7.8 million) is expected to do better.
On the Verge
Chosen No. 2 behind Sidney Crosby in the 2005 draft, the now 21-year-old Ducks winger has matured physically (to 6'2", 218) and has the offensive skills (a point-per-game player in the AHL) to command generous ice time. Ryan will vie for the Calder Trophy.
PIERRE McGUIRE'S IN THE CREASE
The Stars have no holes.... The challenge for Sharks coach Todd McLellan is to cultivate captain Patrick Marleau and help turn around his career. Marleau, a --19 last season, didn't jibe with former coach Ron Wilson.... Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf is about to become one of the game's most explosive big-body players.... For the Coyotes to even challenge for the playoffs, goalie Ilya Bryzgalov must steal many games.... Kings forward Dustin Brown is a phenomenal hitter (NHL-high 311 last season) and can score (33 goals). He could become the Kings' version of Brenden Morrow.
MIKE STONE/REUTERS (MORROW)
INSTANT GRIT Morrow, in his third season as the Stars' captain, gives the team a hard edge.
CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES (THORNTON)
JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES (PRONGER)
CHRISTOPHER PASATIERI/US PRESSWIRE (MUELLER)
NOAH GRAHAM/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (KOPITAR)
JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES (NIEDERMAYER)
RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES (RICHARDS)
PHIL MCCARTEN/AP (RYAN)