San Jose Sharks
Dany Heatley's addition gives the Sharks a pure sniper to accompany Joe Thornton, one of the best playmakers in the game. If chemistry develops between the two, they could light it up. Patrick Marleau, a 38-goal man last season, drops to the second line, providing added scoring balance. The defence, weakened slightly by Christian Ehrhoff's departure, blends skill (Dan Boyle, Marc-Édouard Vlasic) with experience (Rob Blake) and edginess (Douglas Murray). Nobody ever questions the Sharks from October to April; the true test comes in the playoffs.
Almost a Montreal Canadiens-like retrofit since April of 2008 (nine of the top 15 scorers have left since then) and yet, the Ducks remain a serious contender, thanks to the emergence of a dominating young scoring line (Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan). Scott Niedermayer's continued excellence on defence and two good choices in goal (Jonas Hiller, Jean-Sébastien Giguère). Saku Koivu's addition adds balance to the second line. The downside is some of their toughness left with defenceman Chris Pronger. Through financial necessity, the Ducks sacrificed grit but added skill.
A new managerial team (general manager Joe Nieuwendyk, coach Marc Crawford) will try to stop the organization's slide toward mediocrity. Nothing the Stars did in the off-season will help as much as Brenden Morrow's return after missing the final 64 games of last season following knee surgery. A healthy Brad Richards is a plus, too. Sergei Zubov, long their linchpin on defence, left to play in Russia, leaving Stéphane Robidas as the de facto No. 1 rearguard. Marty Turco's goals-against average was up half-a-goal year over year; a return to form there and the Stars might contend for a playoff spot.
Where to start? Once you discount the considerable off-ice drama, the Coyotes do possess some quality building blocks, two of whom (Kyle Turris and Viktor Tikhonov) were assigned to the minors early in the preseason, presumably so they can develop in a more stable environment. Shane Doan does an exceptional job of holding the team together with his leadership, and two players who struggled as sophomores (Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal) will be counted on for greater production. Still, it might be a year or more before the Coyotes make headlines for what they accomplish on the ice.
Los Angeles Kings
Goaltending, long a franchise weakness, appeared to be stabilized last year with the emergence of rookie Jonathan Quick and second-year man Erik Ersberg. Defensively, the Kings added Rob Scuderi's veteran presence to a group that includes young gems Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson. The test will be to see if Justin Williams and Ryan Smyth can add scoring to a team that had just five players in double digits in goals last season. Los Angeles has been rebuilding a long time. One of these years, this patient approach will translate into a surge up the standings. Maybe even this year.