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NHL 2011-12 Preview: Pacific Division Breakdown

The last few seasons have seen the emergence of the San Jose Sharks as one of the NHL’s dominant clubs. Having appeared in the Western Conference finals in back-to-back seasons, the Sharks have essentially left the other teams in their division in the dust.

In what was a pretty frenzied offseason around the league, it was the Pacific Division where we saw some of the league’s biggest names move. Whether they were coming (Martin Havlat, Mike Richards) or going (Ilya Bryzgalov, Brad Richards), there was a major shakeup for the division as a whole. But will it change the result?

Of course we start with the Sharks. Though they’ve reached the Western Conference finals the last two years, neither appearance yielded very satisfying results, as they were bounced by the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks, convincingly, in both of those appearances.

After a poor playoff showing by Evgeni Nabokov in 2009-10, many thought Antti Niemi, who killed the Sharks that year as a member of the Blackhawks, would be the answer. Though Niemi had a decent showing in the postseason, it was enough to show that more than just a solid goaltender was needed for the Sharks to get that playoff monkey off their back.

This summer, Doug Wilson made two of the most shocking moves that took place outside of Philadelphia. He first sent Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota to acquire a top notch defenseman in Brent Burns. Not long after, playoff dud Dany Heatley followed him to Minny, in exchange for Martin Havlat, who hasn’t appeared in a postseason since 2009-10, with Chicago.

Perhaps the team with the greatest chance to stop the Sharks are the Los Angeles Kings. Already with a strong core, with Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, and Drew Doughty, the Kings added an elite centerr in former Flyers captain Mike Richards, as well as veteran forward Simon Gagne.

With Richards, the Kings not only have a guy who gives the LA one of the top 1-2 punches at center, with Kopitar, but they also acquired an elite penalty killer in the 26-year-old. With those two in the middle, and guys like Brown and Gagne complimenting them on the wings, the Kings could skate one of the league’s best top six units.

A Kings team that is built from back to front, they also boast the division’s top goaltender in Jonathan Quick. Many figured he could have been a Vezina candidate early in the season, but some midseason struggles by the entire team took their toll on his numbers. With a strong defense in front of him, once Doughty is signed to a new contract, Quick has the potential to enter the ranks of the league’s elite.

Beyond the two bigger franchises in the division, both of which appear to have a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup, the Pacific features three middle-of-the-road types in the tight Western Conference.

Of the three, it would appear the Anaheim Ducks are the only team with a shot to make some noise in the postseason. With a triple threat of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Bobby Ryan, there’s no doubt that the top six of the Ducks can be among the league’s most electric units.

The question for them lies on the back end of things. Is Jonas Hiller going to be fully recovered from his battles with vertigo? Though they have a solid defense, it’s certainly a big question of whether or not they can ice an extremely competitive team with the likes of Dan Ellis between the pipes.

Two teams that appear to be fading in the West, at least compared to where they were last year, are the two remaining squads in the division, the Phoenix Coyotes & Dallas Stars. Both teams lost big stars this offseason, but the Coyotes’ one stings a little more.

Outside of Keith Yandle and Shane Doan, Ilya Bryzgalov provided the only source of starpower for the Desert Dogs. Initially, there was some hope that the trade of Bryz to the Flyers could free up some cash to make some moves elsewhere, but ownership issues have really taken their toll, preventing Phoenix from making any real improvements.

As it stands right now, it’s unlikely the Coyotes will be an extremely competitive team. They’re a team built on defense, but they lack scoring and now don’t have the presence in net that has carried them to the playoffs like Bryzgalov was. Can Mike Smith be that kind of guy for the Yotes? If not, it could be an even longer season than initially expected.

Then there’s the Stars. unlike the Coyotes, Dallas basically knew that their star player, Brad Richards, was going to be gone when the new season began. Richards signed with the New York Rangers, as most expected him too. However, there’s still some talent in the core of this roster, which includes Loui Eriksson, Jamie Benn, and Mike Ribeiro. They also added Cup champ Michael Ryder, and some grit with Eric Godard and Vernon Fiddler.

All things considered, Dallas could be a playoff team this year. They missed out on the last day of the regular season last year, and while they’re no shoe-in for the playoffs, the step back taken by the Coyotes and a solid campaign in 2011-12 could allow them to get back into the postseason.

Last season, it could have been said that the Pacific was the best division in hockey from top to bottom. While that likely isn’t the case anymore, they could still end up being represented in the playoffs by four of their teams throughout the Western Conference. The expectations for the Kings continue to grow, but few expect the Sharks to back off their dominance in the division. If both teams play up to their potential, it could be some exciting hockey to watch in the Pacific Division in 2011-2012.