Five burning Pacific Division questions

The Sharks have come oh-so-close to playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. (Jim Wells/QMI Agency)

The Sharks have come oh-so-close to playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. (Jim Wells/QMI Agency)

JEFF FRANK, SPORTS NETWORK

, Last Updated: 11:54 AM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- San Jose continues to knock on the Stanley Cup Finals door without getting a sniff of what's inside. The Canucks dusted them in five games last year in the Western Conference Finals just one season after they were swept by the Blackhawks in the same round.

The obvious question for the Sharks is: Will this be the year?

If it is, they will need much-improved postseason play from Antti Niemi. The former Stanley Cup-winning goalie finished last season's playoffs with a 3.22 goals-against average and an .896 save percentage. He allowed two goals or less in just five of the 18 games.

Two major offseason trades have many in the Bay area excited about the upcoming season. However, the two players the Sharks picked up -- Brent Burns and Martin Havlat -- have had multiple injuries over their careers. In fact, Havlat is still recovering from shoulder surgery earlier in the year.

If both are healthy come playoff time, the Sharks will reach the Western Conference Finals for a third straight season. Will it be strike three -- your out? Or will San Jose reach its first Stanley Cup Finals?

Bold prediction: Joe Pavelski cracks the point-per-game mark for the first time in his career.

CAN JONAS HILLER START 60+ GAMES THIS YEAR FOR THE DUCKS?

Anaheim made the playoffs a season ago but its No. 1 goaltender was not able to dress for the series against Nashville due to vertigo-like issues. Jonas Hiller played just one game after Valentine's Day, but the Swiss native has looked solid in three preseason games.

The Ducks will need him for a return trip to the postseason, especially with a defence that has ranked in the bottom half of the league in goals allowed the last three years. It's doubtful Lubomir Visnovsky and Toni Lydman will combine for a +50 rating once again so there will be even more pressure placed on Hiller in 2011-12.

Bold prediction: Bobby Ryan breaks out with 45 goals and 85 points.

WILL NEW-FOUND TALENT LIFT THE KINGS TO GREATER HEIGHTS?

It has been over a decade since the Kings made it past the first round of the playoffs, and 19 years since they lost to Montreal in the Stanley Cup Finals. However, this could be the season they take their game to the next level with the additions of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne.

Richards gives Los Angeles a bonafide second-line centre behind Anze Kopitar, and Gagne showed he still can score after tallying 11 goals in his last 28 games with Tampa Bay (playoffs included).

The Kings are stacked at every position after re-signing Drew Doughty late last week. However, lack of depth on the wing could be a problem. Remember, both Gagne and Justin Williams have been known to miss chunks of games due to injuries and the team doesn't have much wiggle room in terms of cap space after bringing back Doughty.

Bold prediction: Jonathan Bernier wins just as many games as Jonathan Quick.

HOW EFFECTIVE WILL PHOENIX BE WITHOUT ILYA BRYZGALOV?

Just three teams in the West recorded more points than the Coyotes last season. Two years ago, the Sharks and Blackhawks were the only squads to accumulate more than Phoenix's 107 points.

Just how much of that success was attributed to goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov will be discovered this season as the former free agent signed a huge deal with Philadelphia. Mike Smith and Jason Labarbera will man the net for Phoenix in 2011-12 so it will be apparent very early what Bryzgalov meant to the Coyotes, especially since he finished in the top 10 the last two years in even-strength save percentage.

Outside of goal, the team hasn't changed much, but one has to expect even further emphasis placed on the defensive side of the ice which will negate whatever positives might come from the offensive side

Bold prediction: Keith Yandle drops from a +12 to a -12 in plus/minus.

WHO WILL REPLACE BRAD RICHARD'S OFFENCE IN DALLAS?

Brad Richards, the No. 1 free agent this past offseason, took his talents to Broadway so the Stars will need someone to pick up the slack. By the looks of things, it appears former second-line centre Mike Ribeiro has taken matters into his own hands with a dominating preseason.

Other players primed for breakout seasons are Jamie Benn and Steve Ott. The former tallied 33 points in his final 33 games a year ago while the latter has shown he can produce when given the opportunity.

Don't forget about the additions of Michael Ryder (who had two solid seasons playing alongside Ribeiro in Montreal) and Sheldon Souray. If the veteran defenceman can recapture his 2008-09 form, the power play, even without Richards, will not miss a beat.

Bold prediction: Dallas sneaks into the playoffs as the 8th seed.


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