Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2008 [Print without images]

Wednesday, September 24, 2008
NHL PREVIEW

By E.J. Hradek

DALLAS STARS Last Season: 45–30–7 Coach: Dave Tippett "I THINK PHOENIX IS GOING TO BE A MAJOR STORY THIS YEAR. WITH THE MOVES THEY MADE TO GET TOUGHER, I REALLY THINK THEY'RE A PLAYOFF TEAM."

The Stars have something a lot of teams would kill for: balance. They can score (ranked ninth) and defend (sixth). They have a mix of future HOFers (C Mike Modano, 57 points, and D Sergei Zubov, 25:42 mpg, who's out with hip woes), kids (talented D's Matt Niskanen, plus-22, and Nicklas Grossman, plus-10), prime-timers (C's Brenden Morrow, 32 goals, and Mike Ribeiro, 83 points), Cup winners (Brad Richards, Modano and Zubov) and a top-stopper in Marty Turco (2.31 GAA, .909 SP). Don't be surprised to see the Stars in the conference finals again next May. And don't be shocked if they win.

KEY PROSPECT: Fabian Brunnstrom, 23, C The late-blooming Swede turned down several other free agent offers—even Detroit's—to sign with Dallas. His size (6'2'', 203) and skill scream top-six forward.

SAN JOSE SHARKS Last Season: 49–23–10 Coach: Todd McLellan

After another June watching other teams play, GM Doug Wilson opted for a championship fix. Enter new coach McLellan (former Red Wings assistant), puck-moving D Dan Boyle (a key cog for the Bolts' 2004 title team) and former Norris-winning D Rob Blake (a cornerstone for the 2001 Avs Cup). Will an infusion of winning blood help? You bet. With the new-look D, workhorse G Evgeni Nabokov (77 games, .910 SP) should make room for a Vezina. But top C's Joe Thornton (96 points) and Patrick Marleau (48 points) must be better in crunch time; the same goes for RW Jonathan Cheechoo (23 goals). If they're not, much bigger changes will come.

KEY PROSPECT: Nick Petrecki, 19, D The rugged (6'3'', 210) defender has a nasty streak—what San Jose has lacked. He was a key part of BC's title team.

ANAHEIM DUCKS Last Season: 47–27–8 Coach: Randy Carlyle

With the league's second-best D—backstopped by J.S. Giguere (.922 SP) and reinforced by Scott Niedermayer's decision to return—the Ducks remain a contender to regain the Cup they won in 2007. But that won't happen unless the team fixes its 28th-ranked offense. Young stars Ryan Getzlaf (82 points) and Corey Perry (29 goals) need help. Free agent C Brendan Morrison brings needed steadiness and two-way play, but LW Chris Kunitz (21 goals) must contribute more, and venerable Teemu Selanne has to be a factor from day one. If those Ducks are in a row, Anaheim could reach the Finals again.

KEY PROSPECT: Bobby Ryan, 21, RW Last year, Ryan played in only 23 NHL games. He'll get a better shot in 2008-09. What the 6'1'', 218-pounder lacks in wheels, he makes up in scoring touch.

PHOENIX COYOTES Last Season: 38–37–7 Coach: Wayne Gretzky

The Coyotes exceeded expectations last season, making a 16-point jump in the division, nearly making the playoffs. So Team Gretzky made a bet at the draft. Hoping to improve a 21st-ranked attack, the team swapped D depth for top C Olli Jokinen (34 goals). He'll skate alongside Shane Doan (28 goals) and take pressure off talented and young (20) F Peter Mueller (22 goals). Better play on faceoffs (26th) should help with puck possession. But a thinner D adds pressure on G Ilya Bryzgalov (.920 SP), who was a game-changer after arriving from Anaheim. He just may not be enough to change their postseason routine.

KEY PROSPECT: Kyle Turris, 19, C In a season-end audition, the speedy Turris impressed. "Great instincts, makes linemates better," says GM Don Maloney. He'll get a shot on the second line behind Jokinen.

LOS ANGELES KINGS Last Season: 32–43–7 Coach: Terry Murray

Expect a long year for the kiddy Kings—and another long off-season. A D that surrendered 266 goals (third-most in the league) will be even younger this year. Jack Johnson is their blue-line ace, but he's 21 and still learning. Add unproven G's Jason LaBarbera (and his season-ending sports hernia surgery) and Erik Ersberg (6–5 W–L) to a young D, and you get the league's worst PK unit. At least C Anze Kopitar (32 goals), RW Dustin Brown (33 goals), LW Alex Frolov (23 goals) and pivot Patrick O'Sullivan can flat-out light it up. There's success down the road for the Kings, but it's a long road.

KEY PROSPECT: Drew Doughty, 18, D Selected second overall in June, Doughty is projected as a franchise D who combines poise with offensive mojo. He could be the next Chris Pronger—but at that age, it may take some time.