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Pacific Division: California love

Sam McCaig
Yahoo Sports
Pacific Division: California love
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The Sharks hope stud defenseman Brent Burns is the missing piece

The Pacific Division is all about California with a top contender in the San Jose Sharks, a top up-and-comer in the Los Angeles Kings and a top underdog in the Anaheim Ducks. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see any one of these West Coast clubs go on an extended playoff run, like the Sharks have done with back-to-back appearances in the West final. The expectations remain high in San Jose, while Los Angeles appears ready to take the next step after adding Mike Richards(notes) to an already talented core. And Anaheim, the 2007 Stanley Cup champs, can’t be dismissed due to their high-octane No. 1 line and overall toughness. The Dallas Stars lost Brad Richards(notes), which sets the stage for more losses in 2011-12, while the league-owned Coyotes – stop us if you’ve heard this one before – might be entering their final season in Phoenix. As high as the expectations are in California, they’re correspondingly low in Dallas and Phoenix.

Predicted order of finish:

1. San Jose Sharks*

2. Los Angeles Kings*

3. Anaheim Ducks*

4. Dallas Stars

5. Phoenix Coyotes

(Asterisk denotes playoff team.)

1. SAN JOSE SHARKS

Five Most Important Players

1. Joe Thornton(notes), C: Big Sharks center matches up with any pivot in the league and he’s finally showing his playoff teeth.

2. Patrick Marleau(notes), LW: Put him down for 35 goals and 75 points.

3. Antti Niemi(notes), G: Clutch goalie has quickly made them forget all about Evgeni Nabokov(notes) in San Jose.

4. Brent Burns(notes), D: As ever-competitive Dan Boyle(notes) eases into his late 30s, new arrival Burns can take over as the team’s top-flight No. 1 defenseman.

5. Ryane Clowe(notes), LW: Very few players in today’s game rack up 60 points and 100-plus penalty minutes, but this old-school power forward is in that exclusive group.

Best-Case Scenario: San Jose erases years of playoff frustration by winning the Cup.

Reality Check: The Sharks are on the cusp as always, but do they have the killer instinct to win it all?

2. LOS ANGELES KINGS

Five Most Important Players

1. Drew Doughty(notes), D: The Next Big Thing on the blue line, Doughty does it all.

2. Mike Richards, C: Look for a big season from the motivated ex-Flyer, who brings his scoring and leadership to the coast.

3. Jonathan Quick(notes), G: As the Kings ascend to the league’s elite, Quick has to prove he’s truly an elite goalie. So far, so good.

4. Anze Kopitar(notes), C: The arrival of Richards should result in a career season for King Kopitar.

5. Dustin Penner(notes), LW: Los Angeles has several other impact players, but it would be a huge boost if Penner can find his power forward game and deliver on his top-line potential.

Best-Case Scenario: Youthful, star-stocked team evolves into a force to contend with in the playoffs.

Reality Check: Is Quick the goalie who’ll lead L.A. to the next level? If not, is Jonathan Bernier(notes) ready?

3. ANAHEIM DUCKS

Five Most Important Players

1. Corey Perry(notes), RW: The league’s reigning MVP is a 50-goal scorer and thoroughly hated by opponents. What more could you ask for?

2. Ryan Getzlaf(notes), C: A big, surly and talented No. 1 center. What more could you ask for?

3. Jonas Hiller(notes), G: A top-flight goalie, assuming he has recovered from the bouts of vertigo that caused him to miss the second half of the season.

4. Lubomir Visnovsky(notes), D: Quality veteran is coming off his best season in which he led all defensemen in scoring. Very mobile and a great power-play quarterback.

5. Andrew Cogliano(notes), C: The Ducks might have the best line in hockey, but they need secondary scoring and that’s where Cogliano enters the equation.

Best-Case Scenario: Hiller feels fine, and the Ducks’ top line leads them deep into the playoffs just like in 2007.

Reality Check: If the Getzlaf unit doesn’t score, Anaheim’s offense is hurting. And if Hiller’s dizziness returns, the Ducks are in trouble.

4. DALLAS STARS

Five Most Important Players

1. Brenden Morrow(notes), LW: Banging goal-scorer leads the way in Texas.

2. Kari Lehtonen(notes), G: Can oft-injured netminder follow up last year’s career season with a healthy sequel?

3. Mike Ribeiro(notes), C: With the exit of Brad Richards, the pressure is on Ribeiro to produce as the team’s top pivot.

4. Loui Eriksson(notes), RW: One of the best two-way wingers in the game, Eriksson needs to approach 30 goals while shutting down opposing stars.

5. Alex Goligoski(notes), D: The Stars are going to need power-play goals and plenty of them, which is why they traded for Goligoski last season.

Best-Case Scenario: Dallas returns to the postseason for the first time since 2008 thanks to team defense and timely scoring.

Reality Check: Michael Ryder(notes) is no Richards. The undermanned Stars could be in for a long season.

5. PHOENIX COYOTES

Five Most Important Players

1. Keith Yandle(notes), D: If he played anywhere else, his skating and passing skills would be the talk of the league.

2. Shane Doan(notes), RW: The heart of the franchise has been a rock during the Coyotes’ rocky tenure in Arizona.

3. Mike Smith(notes), G: He couldn’t cut it as Tampa’s starter last season, but gets a second chance. Consistency is the question.

4. Radim Vrbata(notes), RW: One of Phoenix’s few proven scorers, Vrbata needs to be an offensive factor every night.

5. Martin Hanzal(notes), C: Big pivot has to take the next step in his development, along with fellow youngsters Mikkel Boedker(notes) and Kyle Turris(notes).

Best-Case Scenario: Dave Tippett has coached the Coyotes to two consecutive playoff berths, so a third straight postseason is within grasp for hardworking team.

Reality Check: Replacing Ilya Bryzgalov(notes) with Smith is a drop-off in goal, and Phoenix doesn’t have the offense to make up for it.