The Good News: The Ducks’ first line is one of the top units in the NHL. C Ryan Getzlaf, RW Corey Perry and LW Bobby Ryan all offer a combination of size, skill and grit nearly unparalleled in the league. Trying to check that trio when they are clicking is like being a matador at The Running of the Hippopotamuses.
The Bad News: The forwards are very thin beyond the top line and the defense is very thin beyond perennially underrated #1 d-man Lubomir Visnovsky and free-agent acquisition Toni Lydman. The Ducks will need their two blue-chip defense prospects, Luca Sbisa and 2010 first rounder Cam Fowler, to step up and become major contributors if the unit is to prosper. Outside of the formidable top unit, can the Ducks’ somewhat suspect three other lines chip in offensively?
Fantasy Focus: In 145 games over his first two full seasons, Ryan has netted 66 goals. The young power forward is eligible at both LW and RW in most leagues, and is a good bet to pass the 40-goal plateau in 2010-11 while adding 70 to 90 penalty minutes. He is worth selecting far earlier than where many draft pundits have him going.
Fearless Forecast: Anaheim will likely be an apt reflection of the Los Angeles market they play in: top-heavy with glamorous names, but ultimately victimized by a lack of depth.
Pacific Division: 4th place.
Western Conference: 11th place.
The Good News: Productive veteran forwards Brad Richards, Brendan Morrow, and Mike Ribiero have been supplemented by talented young wingers James Neal, Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn. This team will score some goals, and adding Adam Burish to a mix including Steve Ott and Tom Wandell makes them a gritty group up front as well.
The Bad News: The blueline was atrocious last year, as the Stars ranked 23rd in the NHL in goals against. Stephane Robidas is a good #2 acting as a #1 d-man, and Nicklas Grossman is rock-solid in his own end, but beyond the two of them a young and erratic unit hangs like a sheet of Swiss cheese on skates. Budgetary concerns prevented GM Joe Nieuwendyk from supplementing the group with anything more than character guy Brad Lukowich.
Fantasy Focus: Nieuwendyk did a great job prying ex-uber-goalie-prospect Kari Lehtonen from the Atlanta Thrashers for a middling minor league defenseman at the deadline last year. Lehtonen has the size and talent to carry a team, but at 27 years old this might be his last chance to prove himself as an NHL starter. It is quite conceivable that he returns to the numbers of his finest season in 2006-07 when he played in 68 games and won 34 of them.
Fearless Forecast: Lehtonen will be victimized by the same porous blueline which led to Marty Turco’s departure. They will resemble stars offensively, but defensively will turn out to be just dust particles on the other end of the telescope.
Pacific Division: 5th place.
Western Conference: 12th place.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
The Good News: Drew Doughty is a Norris Trophy waiting to happen, and should be a top defenseman in the NHL for the next decade and a half. New addition Willie Mitchell joins Doughty, emerging star Jack Johnson, and defensive stalwarts Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene on this fantastic defensive unit. Anze Kopitar has emerged as one of the top two-way centers on the planet Earth. Dustin Brown and Wayne Simmonds are both cannonballs on skates, and they both can skate and score off the wing. Underrated stud goalie Jonathan Quick is backed up by Jonathan Bernier, who might be the finest goalie prospect around. This team is quite simply oozing with young, talented players with excellent character.
The Bad News: The Kings lost out on the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes, and Alexei Ponikarovsky is a small consolation prize. They are rumored to be trying to trade for C Jason Spezza, but if they can’t acquire a second-line center they will need rookie Brayden Schenn to step up and produce offensively if they want any kind of balanced scoring.
Fantasy Focus: Are you in a league with penalty minutes as a category? RW Wayne Simmonds averaged just over 14 minutes of ice time per game last year and had 116 PiM to go along with his 40 points and +22 rating. This year his ice time will go up, and he should be a second-line stalwart. We love this kid’s grit and hands and are predicting 50+ points and well over 100 PiM for this future folk hero.
Fearless Forecast: The Kings are knocking on the Sharks’ door for Pacific Division dominance, but they are still a second-line stud away and some of the kids need to develop. Loaded with prospects and young talent, we’ll say the Kings’ time will come in 2011-12. If they can flip Bernier for a stud forward at the deadline, a long playoff run is quite possible.
Pacific Division: 2nd place.
Western Conference: 5th place.
The Good News: Behind the stellar goaltending of Vezina-finalist Ilya Bryzgalov and smoke-and-mirrors coaching of Jack Adams Award-winner Dave Tippett, the Coyotes thrilled their few dozen fans by finishing fourth in the conference with 107 points in 2009-10. Commissioner Gary Bettman, when not trying to chase star players like Ilya Kovalchuk to Russia or sticking pins in his Lou Lamoriello voodoo doll, spends most of his time trying to make the concept of an ice hockey team in a desert viable where nobody knows they exist.
The Bad News: The Phoenix Coyotes ranked at or near the top of the NHL in their records in overtime games and in one-goal games. Their talent-level is not high enough to sustain this for two consecutive years, despite Bryzgalov’s meteoric rise into the NHL goaltending elite. The defense core lost shot-blocking machine Zbynek Michalek to Pittsburgh in free agency and Ed Jovanovski, Derek Morris, and Adrian Aucoin are all aging and injury-prone. Will young blueliner Keith Yandle and blue-chipper Oliver Ekman-Larsson be ready to put up big seasons on both ends of the ice?
Fantasy Focus: Wojtek Wolski is moving from the wing to pivot the first line, likely centering RW Shane Doan and new LW acquisition Ray Whitney. After his deadline trade from Colorado, the immensely-talented kid from Poland potted 18 points in as many games. It is not an unfair expectation for Wolski to keep up his point-a-game production over the entire 2010-11 campaign. I recently stole him in the 12th round of a draft, but if we’re right about him he’s worth grabbing far earlier.
Fearless Forecast: Cinderella, the clock will strike midnight and your bejeweled carriage will turn into a pumpkin patch. The Coyotes will miss the playoffs, and team cheerleader Gary Bettman will cry and cry until he comes up with the delicious idea to move the Calgary Flames to Mexico City.
Pacific Division: 3rd place
Western Conference: 10th place.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
The Good News: Beyond their star-studded top line of C Joe Thornton, LW Patrick Marleau and RW Dany Heatley, the Sharks are more talented than you think. C Joe Pavelski used the Olympics as his springboard into stardom and cemented his clutch reputation with an outstanding playoffs. LW Ryane Clowe is one of the grittiest wingers in the league and can be counted on for nearly 60 points. D Dan Boyle is a top-5 NHL d-man offensively and one of the top outlet passers in the circuit.
The Bad News: The Sharks have notoriously been unable to convert their regular-season success into a Stanley Cup-Final appearance, and this will undoubtedly weigh on them again come the spring. Beyond Boyle and defensive stalwarts Mark-Edourard Vlasic and Douglas Murray, the blueline is paper-thin. Despite a galaxy of talent, Thornton seems to have a microbe of big-game ability, and with departed goalie Evgeni Nabokov no longer around to shoulder the blame of early playoff exits, it will all be on Jumbo Joe if they don’t find themselves playing for Lord Stanley’s hardware.
Fantasy Focus: Newly acquired netminders Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki will likely share the goaltending duties early on in the season. If one of the two emerges as a bona fide starter, on the perennially 100+ point Sharks they will be a steal in the late rounds of your draft. We are betting on the uber-cool Stanley Cup champion Niemi to get the lion’s share of the starts.
Fearless Forecast: The Sharks will once again rank among the NHL-elite during the regular season and raise their fans’ hopes for a Stanley Cup. But come playoff time, when the going gets tough, Joe Thornton gets going. Which is to say, he goes from a point-scoring machine to an invisible spectator as his team loses another heartbreaking series, then he goes to the golf course.
Pacific Division: 1st place.
Western Conference: 3rd place.
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