Thursday, August 21, 2008
Pacific Division Challenge
This IS Sharks Territory.
In the past ten years (since the league went to the three divisions per conference format), only once has someone other than the Sharks or Stars won the Pacific Division Title. That was in 2006-7 when the Ducks won en route to their Stanley Cup title.
(Gosh, it still hurts to say that--I have to make a quick run to the bathroom!)
(Any of you college partiers know how one gets that taste out of their mouth after the repercussions of over-imbibing besides having another beer?)
Anyhow, looking to this season, I expect more of the same. While the division is deep, the race for the top is between San Jose (the front-runner), Dallas (the very worthy challenger), and Anaheim (the Darkhorse).
But I will examine everyone in this division in the order I expect them to finish. When I am done, I will issue a challenge to fans of he other teams.
San Jose Sharks: after upgrades to the blue line, this is the only team in the league to have all three units (forwards, defence, and goaltending) in the top 20 percent of the league. They are also a very successful team every regular season, and there is no reason to expect that to change.
In the playoffs, only once has this franchise made the conference finals. However, I believe this team finally has added the experience and blue line depth to win the Western Conference, even though I doubt they will be the top seed (Detroit will have a softer schedule).
The Sharks biggest downfalls in the playoffs the last two years have been a lack of focus, lack of leadership, and a sputtering power play. Rob Blake and Dan Boyle have both won the Cup and are good leaders of their team as well as among the best at leading the power play. Brad Lukowich has won two Cups, increasing the San Jose roster's 'Cup total from zero to four. And the drastic move of getting rid of a coaching staff should shake the team into better focus.
Dallas Stars: Marty Turco finally got the monkey off his back, and it was as undeserved as Steve Young's. Turco only played badly in one playoff series, and this time carried his team to two upset wins over division rivals. I don't care for his cheap shots to keep players from in front of him, but he is the best puck-mover in the game and as competitive a player as you will find.
Meanwhile, Brenden Morrow became my favourite player while beating my team last year. He leveled a hit on Milan Michalek that was as brutal a clean hit (are you reading this, Corey Sarich?) as I have ever seen, and forcing the Sharks to be one player down in a four-overtime game probably was the difference. He is the player I would choose first if I could have anyone in the league because of his combination of physicality, scoring, playmaking, and especially leadership.
The Stars also have Brad Richards and an aging but dangerous Mike Modano. They boast Sergei Zubov, who also is on the decline but still a great puck-moving defenceman.
So why did I spend this much space talking about the team I did not even pick? Well, outside of the people mentioned, Dallas has a lot of role players. They simply do not have the depth of impact players no matter how well the top two guys play.
Had Anaheim not been so undisciplined and San Jose not been so unfocused at the beginning of the second round series, Dave Tippett loses his job and Marty Turco still has the label of "Can't-Win-the-Big-One."
The Stars will push the Sharks in the division, be one of the four best teams in the West and make it to the second or maybe even third round. But they will not beat the Sharks.
Anaheim Ducks: I have read a lot of chatter about this team not being so Mighty anymore. As we would say back in my hood, "All y'all be crazy!" J.S. Giguere is just 14 months removed from being the most unbeatable goalie in the playoffs, has won the Conn Smythe, and is only in his early 30s. What about that suggests washed up?
Last season, the Ducks dirty play caught up with them: imagine their surprise when the very cheap shots they rode to the title drew whistles? It is hard for a goalie to look good when facing a potent power play like the one the Stars have.
Anaheim could lose Matthieu Schneider because of salary cap considerations and still have the best blueline in the game. However, Anaheim lacks scoring even if Teemu Selanne comes back.
You need balance to win in this league, and by finishing third in the division, the Ducks will likely be either a five seed and have to face Dallas or a six seed. If they fall to six, they may be able to beat Calgary (who I am picking to win the Northwest) and probably would beat anyone else that takes that division. Thus, the chances of getting the favourable match-up and coming out on top are too slim for me to predict it.
Phoenix Coyotes: in any other division in hockey outside of the Atlantic, Wayne Gretzky views a familiar event from the bench for the first time. I have the 'Yotes finishing ninth in the West because they will have to play three teams in the division who are all legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Perhaps with the more balanced schedule they will be able to creep in. There is no dearth of talent on this roster. Shane Doan is an elite forward, and while the team has no other elite skaters, they are chalk full of role-players.
This team also has a tremendous and underrated blueline--not a lot of offencive potential, but they are as good in their own end as almost anyone in the league. And anchoring this young team (youth being something that likely keeps them from the playoffs) is one of the league's top ten goalies. Just not quite enough.
Los Angeles Kings: make no mistake--this is a competitive team. But let's face it, until they get a goalie, they are not going to be able to score enough goals on enough nights to put enough games in the win column in this division.
Losing a couple good defencemen that could protect their young goalies does not help matters. Having to overcome all those obstacles, it is more likely they will finish last in the conference than not finish last in the division.
Now for the challenge: the first fan of any division rival who wants to come out with another prediction can take me up on it. If you think your team will finish ahead of San Jose or play deeper into the playoffs, it's on. Whoever is wrong has to write a 1000-word essay expounding on the superiority of the winner’s team.
To make things easier for the Kings and Coyotes fans that are at a clear disadvantage, all the Kings must do is make the playoffs; all the Coyotes must do is make the second round. In that event, they automatically are considered to have had a better season than the Sharks.
So if you are willing to challenge the best team in the league, bring it!