Todd McLellan (3rd season)
51-20-11 (1st in Pacific); lost in conference finals to Blackhawks
G Antti Niemi, G Antero Niittymaki
D Rob Blake, G Evgeni Nabokov
THE BOOK on the Sharks never seems to change: strong and impressive in the regular season but a collapse waiting to happen in the postseason. There's a reason nobody makes them a Stanley Cup favorite anymore. After making a run to the conference finals last spring, San Jose meekly surrendered to the Blackhawks in four games. Looking back at the series, Sharks G.M. Doug Wilson feels his club was overwhelmed by Chicago's depth, its elite forwards and the stout play of goalie Antti Niemi.
That explains why Wilson signed the 27-year-old Finnish netminder last month. Wilson also landed Niemi's countryman Antero Niittymaki, who sports a butterfly style and fills the net with his 6'1", 190-pound frame. The pair will replace longtime Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov, whose last three postseasons had been pedestrian at best (.904 save percentage) and who signed with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL in July.
Wilson also hopes that some of the younger players on his roster (specifically forwards Ryane Clowe, Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski) are ready to provide the kind of depth it takes to win a championship; Pavelski, a breakout player in the postseason with 15 points in San Jose's first nine games, certainly seems capable. The trio gives the Sharks more options beyond their Jumbo Line of right wing Dany Heatley (39 goals in 2009--10), center Joe Thornton (69 assists) and left wing Patrick Marleau (44 goals). And while San Jose's blue line took a hit with the retirement of 40-year-old captain Rob Blake, the opening provides an opportunity for youngsters Marc-Edouard Vlasic, 23, and Jason Demers, 22, to make a greater impact.
How successful the Sharks are from October to April, though, matters little; the true measure of this team won't be taken until the spring. "We took a step last year, but it's still not good enough," says defenseman Dan Boyle of San Jose's first appearance in the conference finals in six years. "The expectations are higher than that."
Terry Murray (3rd season)
46-27-9 (3rd in Pacific); lost in first round to Canucks
D Willie Mitchell, LW Alexei Ponikarovsky
LW Alexander Frolov, D Randy Jones, D Sean O'Donnell
IT IS NOT uncommon to overpay in Los Angeles, but the price of one winger, Ilya Kovalchuk, proved too steep even by Hollywood standards. In walking away from the pricey Russian sniper, Kings G.M. Dean Lombardi chose to put even more faith in the team that brought the playoffs back to L.A. for the first time since 2002. Left unsaid was the fact that Lombardi was also putting his faith in first-line center Anze Kopitar (below), who led the Kings with a career-high 34 goals and 81 points last year.
The 6'3", 226-pound pivot now seems ready to emerge as one of the league's elite forwards. Skating with wingers Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams on one of the league's best lines early last season, the 23-year-old Kopitar ignited an offense that scored 231 goals, 29 more than the season before when the Kings' attack ranked 27th in the NHL. He also committed himself to working hard at both ends, finishing the season +6 (the first time he's finished in the black).
Of course, his success comes with a fresh set of challenges. "It's going to be harder," Kopitar says. "There will be more pressure because it's more expected for us now to win and perform. That's the challenge, and I think we have a group capable of [meeting it]."
Dave Tippett (2nd season)
50-25-7 (2nd in Pacific); lost in first round to Red Wings
C Eric Belanger, C Andrew Ebbett, LW Ray Whitney
C Matthew Lombardi, D Zbynek Michalek, C Daniel Winnik
STABILITY HASN'T always been a word closely associated with the Coyotes' franchise, but after a stunning turnaround last season that culminated in the team's first playoff appearance in eight years, Phoenix has achieved at least a semblance of consistency on the ice. The Coyotes have important offensive contributors in Wojtek Wolski and Lee Stempniak, who flourished in the desert—and keyed the team's resurgence—with 14 goals in 18 games after being picked up at the trade deadline last March. And the addition of veteran winger Ray Whitney should strengthen a dismal power play (the worst in the Western Conference), which led to the club's undoing in the first round of the postseason. "We were on the edge of a cliff all year long because of our lack of scoring," says general manager Don Maloney.
Not that the Coyotes are going to turn into an offensive powerhouse anytime soon. This team is built to play—and win—close games, and under coach Dave Tippett's tight checking system Phoenix is going to have to prevail in more than a few nail-biters once again. That's easier to take, of course, when the goalie is Ilya Bryzgalov, whose sparkling 2.29 GAA and .920 save percentage earned him Vezina consideration last year. The Coyotes, it seems, have finally put together something solid, something stable.
Randy Carlyle (6th season)
39-32-11 (4th in Pacific)
D Toni Lydman, D Andy Sutton
D Steve Eminger, D Scott Niedermayer, D James Wisniewski
THE GOOD NEWS out of Anaheim this summer came late, when the Ducks finally signed restricted-free-agent winger Bobby Ryan (below) to a five-year, $25.5 million contract just four days before camp opened. With the 23-year-old U.S. Olympian and 35-goal scorer locked up, Anaheim now has one of the league's most potent scoring lines, with Ryan Getzlaf (19 goals, 50 assists last year) centering Corey Perry (27 goals) and Ryan.
But to score, the Ducks' forwards need time in the offensive zone. And with the loss of Hall of Fame--caliber defenseman Scott Niedermayer, who retired in June, clearing the puck out of its own end could be a problem for Anaheim's shaky corps of blueliners, who gave up the second-most shots on goal in the NHL last season. The additions of minutes-eater Toni Lydman, who is out indefinitely after an unexplained episode of double vision last month, and rugged Andy Sutton should help in that regard, but the Ducks may have to lean heavily on a middling group.
Marc Crawford (2nd season)
37-31-14 (5th in Pacific)
RW Adam Burish, D Brad Lukowich, G Andrew Raycroft
RW Jere Lehtinen, C Mike Modano, G Marty Turco
ON JUNE 29 the Stars' break with their past was finally complete. That was when they told 40-year-old center Mike Modano—whose 20 years with the franchise (going back to its seasons in Minnesota) included a Stanley Cup win in 1999—that they wouldn't be offering him a contract. For good measure the Stars also chose not to re-sign goaltender Marty Turco, who never had a losing record in nine seasons with the club.
The loss of two cornerstone players, says coach Marc Crawford, was a big step toward refashioning a team that has missed the playoffs two straight years. "With those big personalities in your locker room, it's so easy for other people to defer to them," he says. "I think [now] we're going to see a lot of growth from our younger group."
The Stars retain a core of seasoned veterans, with captain Brenden Morrow and leading point scorer Brad Richards (24 goals, 67 assists last season), but it's the group of 25-and-under forwards that Dallas will look to this year. Loui Eriksson, James Neal and Jamie Benn—in their fourth, second and first years, respectively, last season—combined for 78 goals. But a pedestrian defense and unproven goaltending (starter Kari Lehtonen played all of 12 games as Turco's backup a year ago) seems likely to hold the Stars back in the first year of their new era.
ON THE VERGE
• JASON DEMERS
The slightly undersized Sharks defenseman, who contributed four goals and 21 points in 51 games, should be even better in his first full season.
THE HOT SEAT
• MARC CRAWFORD
When he took over the Dallas job last year, the veteran coach promised change and progress, but the Stars languished in the middle of the pack before fading late. With the team's ownership situation in flux and attendance dropping, Crawford needs to keep the Stars in the hunt.
• KEITH YANDLE
On a defense-first team, the 24-year-old Coyotes blueliner stood out last season, tripling his goals from the year before and finishing a robust +16. "I honestly believe he's a top 10 defenseman," winger Shane Doan says. "He can break a game open just because he's so talented offensively."
PIERRE MCGUIRE'S IN THE CREASE
With the retirement of defenseman Rob Blake, and the return to Russia of goalie Evgeni Nabokov, the time is now for the Sharks' young defensemen to fulfill their potential, including 23-year-old Marc-Edouard Vlasic.... The Kings' Dustin Brown is the most physical forward in the league, especially on the forecheck.... The Coyotes' power play ranked 28th in the NHL last season. That should change with the addition of power-play specialist Ray Whitney from Carolina.... To have a chance of reaching the postseason, the Ducks need superlative goaltending from Jonas Hiller.... Brad Richards(right) is an unsung superstar, but the center won't be able to make up for the Stars' lack of depth at both ends of the ice.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (PAVELSKI)
JUMP, SHARK San Jose needs more consistency from Pavelski, who scored nine goals in his first eight playoff games last year.
ADAM DAVIS/ICON SMI (KOPITAR)
JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES (RYAN)
DAVID E. KLUTHO (DEMERS)
JEANINE LEECH/ICON SMI (RICHARDS)