<
>

Screen Shots: A look at the Pacific

We're into the home stretch with my division-by-division previews of how each group of teams will finish at the end of the regular season. The Southeast will be done next week.

Pacific Division (in predicted order of finish)

Anaheim Ducks: Why No. 1? Because, whether or not Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne stop playing hard-to-get and either return or retire, the Ducks still have one of the game's most well-rounded rosters and won't soon fade from championship contention.

And for as cohesive and focused as they are on the ice, the same holds true when it comes to perhaps the league's most astute management team. GM Brian Burke never has been afraid to take a chance. And with some $8 million in salary cap space to work with (not counting Selanne and Niedermayer) and a backup goalie (Ilya Bryzgalov) who could be one of the first netminders dealt this season, you just know he's not done making Anaheim better.

Ultimately, I believe the Ducks won't repeat as Stanley Cup winners. As well, the acquisition of Todd Bertuzzi is questionable and could have negative repercussions as the season goes on. But a post-Cup hangover that sees them miss the playoffs, a la the 2006-07 Carolina Hurricanes? Aw hells, no.

San Jose Sharks: Why No. 2? After a second consecutive deeply disappointing postseason, the pressure is now squarely on San Jose -– and that's just the way GM Doug Wilson wants it. Wilson is all about expectations and expects his young stars to rise to and exceed them.

Some have questioned the relative lack of change made to the Sharks' roster and nearly everybody questioned the late-summer addition of Jeremy Roenick. But nobody can question the fact the Sharks continue to possess the same combination of speed and size the Ducks used to win it all last year.

And don't believe for a second the Sharks you see on paper now will be the Sharks who are fighting for home-ice advantage in April. They've still got more than $12 million in unused cap room and, as Boston Bruins fans are painfully aware, the GM has shown a propensity to pick pockets of his colleagues in the past.

Anything less than a conference finals appearance this postseason will likely cost coach Ron Wilson his job. The good news for him is, while San Jose may not be the odds-on Cup favorite at this stage, if their mix of youthful vigor and veteran hunger gets augmented a little as the season goes on, they'll be in a position to do major damage come spring.

Los Angeles Kings: Why No. 3? Because GM Dean Lombardi's many offseason moves figure to pay significant, if not playoff-guaranteed, dividends for the Kings this season. Michal Handzus and Ladislav Nagy can give L.A. a genuinely dangerous second line up front, while Tom Preissing and Brad Stuart will provide a young, smart second pairing to a defense corps that is quickly shaping up to be one of the league's deepest units.

Everybody and their brother knows a postseason berth for the Kings rides on the uncertainty of their questionable goaltending. Lombardi doesn't have a wealth of money to improve that position right now, but as the goalie market is a buyer's paradise of late, he'll have every opportunity to pick up someone during the season.

Regardless, with Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov and Jack Johnson (among others) in tow, it's clear this team has the best collection of young talent outside of Pittsburgh. Even if the Kings fall short of the playoffs this time around, there'll be no such disappointment for them in 2008-09.

Dallas Stars: Why No. 4? Because when you're a team that gets outscored by the Vancouver Canucks in the playoffs and then brings in only an Oilers castoff (Brad Winchester) and Todd "Stretch(er)" Fedoruk in the offseason, you shouldn't expect prognosticators to give you the benefit of what is turning into a considerable amount of doubt.

The Stars' strongest suit is their stellar group of defensemen, which might be complemented by Niklas Grossman and Matt Niskanen, two of the organization's top prospects. Their forwards, on the other hand, leave much to be desired in the production of offense. And the fact four of their best players (Mike Modano, Sergei Zubov, Jere Lehtinen and Marty Turco) average 35 years on the planet can't be calming to those worried the injury bug that bit Dallas so deeply in 2006-07 is again sharpening its fangs.

Unless they unload some of their defensive depth in a trade for a scoring winger, the Stars are in danger of slipping to the fringes of playoff competition. Once they're there, they may find out how thin the line is between those fringes and the outside looking in.

Phoenix Coyotes: Why No. 5? Because the NHL hasn't engaged in another round of expansion (yet) and there isn't any sixth place.

Don't get me wrong -- I think the Coyotes are, finally, committing to a necessary long-term build. They've already got a talented blue-line corps (although you wouldn't have known it by their 28th-overall defensive efforts last season) and they've also built up a formidable group of elite prospects, including Kyle Turris, Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal and Keith Yandle.

But, as is the case with most long-term plans, a fair amount of short-term agony is almost certainly in the cards for Phoenix. In particular, their special teams are "special" in the cruel sense of the word; their goaltending is a dog's breakfast if there ever was one; and their forwards, well, the less said about that motley crew, the better.

Although coach Wayne Gretzky likely thought last season was about as enjoyable as a cactus enema, he may be in for an even more unpleasant surprise this go-around. At least he'll have a crying partner in Shane Doan.

Adam Proteau's Screen Shots appears every Thursday only on thehockeynews.com. Want to take a shot at Adam Proteau? You can reach him at aproteau@thehockeynews.com or through out Ask Adam feature. And be sure to check out Proteau's Blog for daily insight on the world of hockey.

Can't get enough Adam? Subscribe to The Hockey News at http://www.thehockeynews.com to get the column Proteau Type delivered to you every issue.