Burning Pacific Division questions

JEFF FRANK, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 12:24 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- San Jose reached the Western Conference finals last season for just the second time in team history, but once again the Sharks failed to play for Lord Stanley's Cup. Evgeni Nabokov has now been replaced by the combination of Antti Niemi and Antero Nittymaki, but goaltending is not the Sharks' biggest question mark heading into the new season.

CAN SAN JOSE'S DEFENCE REMAIN STRONG WITHOUT ROB BLAKE?

That is the number one issue for the Sharks heading into the 2010-11 campaign. Not only was Rob Blake the defensive stalwart in his two-year tenure with San Jose, he also assisted in the development of Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who teamed with the future Hall of Famer on the back line. It remains to be seen if Vlasic will continue to flourish alongside second-year defenceman Jason Demers.

Look for the Sharks to allow a lot more goals this season, especially on the penalty kill since Blake and Vlasic were the team's top shorthanded defensive pairing. With the improvements made by both Detroit and Vancouver, it is doubtful San Jose will be the top-seed in the West after two straight seasons at the top.

CAN PHOENIX BUILD ON ITS INCREDIBLE SEASON?

When we last saw the Coyotes, they were on the short end of an opening-round, seven-game series with Detroit. It was the franchise's 11th straight first- round defeat going back to late 1980s. Still, it was a marvelous season for the underdog Coyotes, particularly over the final two months.

Once they acquired Lee Stempniak and Wojtek Wolski, the Yotes took off on a 13-3-2 run with the three losses coming on the road to Chicago, Vancouver and Calgary. Head coach Dave Tippett tightened the screws defensively as Phoenix cut down its goals-against from 252 to a Western Conference-best 202.

If the Coyotes improve their power play (28th in the league last year), they have a great shot at finishing first in the Pacific Division.

WHEN WILL JONATHAN BERNIER BECOME LA'S NUMBER-ONE GOALIE?

The Kings moved up from next-to-last in the West to the sixth-seed in just one year with a season-ending 21-8-6 explosion. Nevertheless, goalie Jonathan Quick saw his save percentage drop from .914 in 2008-09 to .907 due to a much heavier workload. The American-born netminder was then overmatched in the postseason with a 3.50 goals-against average and a disappointing .884 save percentage.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Bernier was dominating the AHL, leading all goalies with a .936 save percentage while finishing second with a 2.03 GAA. The 22-year-old also ranked first in those two categories in the Calder Cup playoffs. Not only that, he picked up the win in all three of his NHL starts, giving up only four goals in 185 minutes of action.

The 11th pick in the 2006 entry draft has been the Kings' goalie of the future for a couple of years and the future should be now. Los Angeles's fate this season will depend on when the organization makes the change from Quick to Bernier.

CAN ANAHEIM DEFEAT ITS DIVISION FOES?

The Ducks have reached the playoffs four times over the last six years and the only two failed campaigns came when the team was below .500 in divisional play. Back in 2003-04, Anaheim finished 8-10-4-2 against Pacific Division teams, and last season, they came six points short primarily due to a dismal 7-13-4 record.

The Ducks won just five of their 24 intra-divisional games in regulation, with none of them coming by more than two goals. They were also outscored 81-55, averaging just 2.3 goals-per-game compared to 3.2 outside the division. In addition, they allowed 3.4 goals-per-game while giving up fewer than 3.0 against the other 25 teams.

The only positive is how they finished the year, going 4-1-2 in the final seven against the Pacific Division. If that momentum can be carried into the new season, the Ducks might have a shot to improve and return to postseason play.

WILL THE INTERNAL BUDGET AFFECT THE STARS' ABILITY TO WIN?

Dallas is one of eight clubs with a payroll lower than $50 million and the only one with two key unsigned restricted free agents: forward James Neal and defenceman Matt Niskanen. Both remain in the background due to lack of funds since it doesn't appear owner Tom Hicks will sell the team prior to the opening of training camp.

To that end, general manager Joe Nieuwendyk's hands have been tied in his attempts to sign a puck-moving defenceman, a major priority given that only one backliner, Stephane Robidas, recorded more than 16 assists last season. A remarkable number, since the Stars finished ahead of 21 teams with 237 goals.

Dallas has not made the playoffs since reaching the Western Conference finals back in 2008. The longer the current situation goes unresolved, the more likely the Stars will be sitting in front of their television sets in mid-April.


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