Like the Atlantic Division in the East, the Pacific Division filled up both conference final spots during last year's playoffs.
In the end, the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings not only ousted Phoenix in five games for the Western Conference title but also lifted the franchise's first Stanley Cup by defeating the New Jersey Devils in the final stage.
The Pacific is a well-balanced division that has qualified seven of a possible 10 teams to the playoffs over the last two seasons. The Kings, Coyotes and San Jose Sharks all expect to return to the playoffs this season while the Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks could be good enough to challenge for one of the final postseason berths out West.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
2011-12 - (3rd, 95 pts); Projected Finish - 1st
REVIEW: Considering GM Dean Lombardi had been loading up on talent during a long rebuilding process in LA, it shouldn't have been that big of a surprise when the eighth-seeded Kings finally put it all together last spring. While Lombardi made key moves for former Philadelphia Flyers teammates Mike Richards and Jeff Carter over the last year and a half, the emergence of Jonathan Quick as one of the best goaltenders in the world in 2011-12 was the real missing piece.
KEY ADDITION: Considering how L.A. came on late last season to overcome a slow start, it makes sense that Lombardi opted to bring back every player from their Stanley Cup-winning roster. In lieu of adding a big free agent, having head coach Darryl Sutter back for his first full season behind the Kings' bench could be a big boost for L.A. Sutter was given the job in late December and the Kings went 23-13-11 under him before going on an amazing 16-4 run during the playoffs.
X-FACTOR: Even with Sutter changing the culture in the locker room last season, the Kings wouldn't have made the postseason if Quick hadn't kept the low-scoring club afloat for most of the season. Now at 26 years of age, Quick will need to turn in a repeat performance of 2011-12 if the Kings are expecting to win back-to-back titles, something that hasn't been done since Detroit won it all in 1997 and '98. Last spring's Conn Smythe winner has the added pressure that came with signing a 10-year, $58 million extension with the Kings over the summer and he's also coming off surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back, an injury that didn't slow Quick down at all during his amazing playoff run. There's little doubt Quick is going to be a good goalie for a long time, but that doesn't mean turning in an encore performance this season won't be a tall order.
PROGNOSIS: The Kings came of age last season but as the old saying goes, "heavy is the head that wears the crown." A division title could be in the cards for the franchise this season, but more than likely L.A. will discover why repeating as Cup champions is so rare these days.
2011-12 - (1st place, 97 points); Projected Finish: 2nd place
REVIEW: It was another case of no owner, no problem last season for the Coyotes, who despite being the property of the NHL since late 2009 have qualified for the last three postseasons. Rightfully so, head coach Dave Tippett has been given the large share of the credit for keeping a franchise that is a financial mess from falling into disrepair on the ice. Tippett's magic worked better than ever last spring, as the Coyotes won their first two playoff series since moving to Phoenix before bowing out to the Kings in the West finals.
KEY ADDITION: With forward Ray Whitney departing to sign with Dallas in the offseason, the Coyotes will try to replace his 24 goals with the addition of another veteran winger, Steve Sullivan. Last year in Pittsburgh, the 38-year- old Sullivan, who is two years Whitney's junior, posted 17 goals and 48 points over 79 games. The re-signing of longtime captain Shane Doan to a four-year, $21.2 million also could count as an addition since he spent months testing the free agent markets in other cities before agreeing to return to the Coyotes a day before the lockout began.
X-FACTOR: As good as Mike Smith was in net last season it's almost unfair to ask if he can do it again. However, considering he'd never approached that level of success at any point in his previous six NHL seasons, it's OK to broach the subject. Smith started in 67 games during the regular season and went 38-18-10 with a 2.21 GAA, .930 save percentage and eight shutouts in his first season with the Coyotes. He added nine wins and three shutouts in the playoffs to further silence the doubters, but as is often the case with NHL goaltenders, he'll have to show he can do it all over again this season.
PROGNOSIS: Tippett's defense-first style has turned Phoenix into one of the toughest teams in the league to play against. Barring Smith reverting to the struggles he faced during his pre-Phoenix days, the Coyotes will once again find themselves in the playoffs.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
2011-12 - (2nd, 96 pts); Projected Finish - 3rd
REVIEW: San Jose qualified for the postseason for the eighth straight time last spring, but a five-game loss to St. Louis in the opening round was disappointing after qualifying for the conference finals in each of the previous two seasons. GM Doug Wilson and head coach Todd McLellan are back, but they could both be on the hot seat if the Sharks are one and done again this season.
KEY ADDITION: Wilson made a flurry of moves prior to the 2011-12 campaign but was more reserved during the most recent offseason. He did manage to lure veteran defenseman Brad Stuart away from Detroit with a three-year, $10.8 million contract and the veteran should help shore up a team that already ranked eighth in goals allowed per game last season. With Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic making up a solid top-four, Stuart's presence can only help add further depth.
X-FACTOR: Martin Havlat was acquired in a blockbuster trade with Minnesota before last season, as Wilson opted to ship Dany Heatley out of town to shake things up. While Heatley underachieved somewhat with the Wild last season, Havlat was a flat-out bust for the Sharks. Playing in only 39 games during the regular season, Havlat posted seven goals and 20 assists and added two goals and an assist in the team's playoff series against St. Louis. Havlat can be a dynamic offensive talent when healthy and the Sharks certainly are counting on him to a have bounce-back year this season.
PROGNOSIS: The Sharks are still built around play-making centerman Joe Thornton, but young sniper Logan Couture, who has gone over 30 goals in his two full NHL seasons, is quickly becoming the team's most important player. Add other talented forwards like Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski to the solid D-corps and a serviceable No. 1 netminder in Antti Niemi and the Sharks are likely poised for a ninth straight season in the playoffs.
2011-12 - (4th, 89 pts); Projected Finish - 4th
REVIEW: The 2011-12 campaign was the third season since Joe Nieuwendyk took over as the Dallas GM and it also marked the Stars' fourth straight year outside of the playoffs. Nieuwendyk took an active approach in the most recent offseason, signing a pair of 40-year-old offensive weapons in Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney, while also dealing forwards Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott to shore up the team's depth down the middle. Ribeiro was traded to Washington for centerman Cody Eakin and a second-round draft pick, while Ott was dealt along with defenseman Adam Pardy to Buffalo for another pivot in Derek Roy. None of the moves gave Dallas instant credibility, but with the playoff drought ongoing standing pat wasn't an option either.
KEY ADDITION: The combination of Jagr, Whitney and Roy are certain to improve the Stars' power play this season, but that shouldn't be too hard considering Dallas finished 30th out of 30 teams in that category in 2011-12. Although Whitney had 24 goals and 77 points last season in Phoenix compared to Jagr's 19-goal, 54-season in Philadelphia, the latter player is expected to join talented Dallas centerman Jamie Benn on the club's top line. Jagr returned to the North American game last season after a three-year detour in the KHL and the future Hall of Famer's presence alone should make the Stars a more exciting team to watch this year.
X-FACTOR: With Ribeiro gone, Roy will likely slide behind Benn to become the team's second-line center. The diminutive 29-year-old once scored 81 points for Buffalo in the 2007-08 season, but he's devolved since then and only managed 17 goals and 44 points in 80 games for Buffalo last season. If Roy can regain the form he displayed several years ago in western New York it would go a long way towards ending the Stars' playoff drought.
PROGNOSIS: With a young and improving defense in front of steady goaltender Kari Lehtonen the Stars were correct to save their tweaks for the sagging offense. However, while additions on offense will likely make the Stars a more fun team to watch it'd be a surprise to see those new faces lead Dallas back to the postseason.
2011-12 - (5th, 80 pts);Projected Finish - 5th
REVIEW: It'd be fair to say last season was a disaster for the Ducks. The club fired Randy Carlyle in November and replaced him with Bruce Boudreau, but in the end Anaheim's 80 points was its lowest total since a 76-point campaign in 2003-04. Boudreau is back behind the bench this season as he tries to keep the Ducks from missing the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since a three-season drought from 2000-2002.
KEY ADDITION: In what's become an annual rite of summer in Anaheim, Ducks fans once again waited for ageless forward Teemu Selanne to decide whether he'd be coming back for another season. The "Finnish Flash" made his return official by signing a one-year deal in July to remain in his adopted hometown of Anaheim. The 42-year-old Selanne, who broke into the league with the original Winnipeg Jets way back in 1992, led the Ducks last season with 66 points in 82 games and was third on the club with 26 goals. While it's amazing to see Selanne still near the top of his sport, the Ducks would be better served if one of their younger forwards like Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan or Ryan Getzlaf led the team in points this season.
X-FACTOR: It was only a few seasons ago when Getzlaf was considered one of the brightest young centermen in the league, but since posting a career-best 91 points in 2008-09, the 27-year-old has seen his production dip considerably. Anaheim hopes rock bottom was last season when Getzlaf managed only 11 goals and 57 points while playing in all 82 games. The goal total was the worst of his career while his 57 points only bettered the 39 points he had in 57 games as a rookie back in 2005-06. Getzlaf is in dire need of a bounce-back season and a return to his previously formidable play would help Anaheim in a big way.
PROGNOSIS: The Ducks are attempting to rebuild on the fly which is always a difficult task and it's even harder to do when playing in a division as strong as the Pacific. Finishing last in the Pacific is nothing to be ashamed of but that'll be little consolation for Anaheim if things go as poorly for the club as they did last year.