What flaws does each Pacific Division team have and what moves can they make to fix these holes?
Plugging Holes: San Jose Sharks
The Hole: A new starting goalie
Starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov is an unrestricted free agent. The 35-year old has a hefty cap figure of $5.375 million. After yet another playoff disappointment, the team has to decide whether to stick with Nabokov or to cut ties with their long-time starter.
The Fix: Sign G Dan Ellis
Nabokov had a strong regular season in 2009-10, but his save percentage track record is only barely above league average and it is time for the Sharks to move on. Teams with cheap goalies and elite talent up front have done well in the salary cap era, and San Jose would be better off freeing up that cap space to try to resign unrestricted free agent Patrick Marleau.
Dan Ellis has the same career save percentage as Nabokov (.912), and will likely give a similar performance at much less cost. With Pekka Rinne having taken over the crease in Nashville, Ellis will be looking to take advantage of a chance at being the starter somewhere. It is unlikely that the Sharks would ask Ellis to take on the same heavy workload that Nabokov has over the past few seasons, but San Jose also has Thomas Greiss, a young goalie without much of a track record who had a fairly strong 2009-10 season (.912 save percentage). In addition to Greiss, the team has a number of other promising goalie prospects -- led by Alex Stalock, who is coming off a strong rookie season in the AHL -- which furthers confirms that committing big money and term to an aging goalie at the NHL level is not a good idea.
A concern with Ellis is that the Nashville rink has been suspected of overcounting shots, which may be inflating his save totals a bit. However, even with league average performance in net the Sharks would still be a top team, especially if the money saved also allows them to keep Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Marleau together.
For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the San Jose Sharks, click here.
Plugging Holes: Anaheim Ducks
The Hole: A shutdown defenseman
The Anaheim Ducks missed the playoffs, despite having elite scorers in Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry -- and getting quality goaltending from Jonas Hiller. The team's problems were mainly on the defensive side of the puck, where they ranked second-to-last in the league with a minus-23.6 team defensive GVT. Fixing that defensive unit should be their main priority this offseason.
The Fix: Sign Anton Volchenkov
At the moment, Anaheim only has two proven NHL defensemen under contact for 2010-11 in Lubomir Visnovsky and Steve Eminger. The Ducks will have to rebuild their defensive depth, and they need someone who is able to log tough minutes.
Volchenkov is well-known for his shot-blocking ability, having finished in the top 10 in the league in that category every year since the lockout. He is used to playing big minutes at even strength against the other team's top lines and would help improve Anaheim's 24th-ranked penalty kill. The downsides are problematic, though: he is a one-dimensional player, contributing far more defensively (4.2 defensive GVT in 2009-10) than offensively (0.5 offensive GVT); he likely won't come cheap.
The Ducks may also want to look at acquiring a defensive center to take some of the load off of Todd Marchant, who appears to have lost a step at the age of 35. Although he did take on a difficult defensive role, Marchant was a team-worst minus-16 and the Ducks were heavily outshot with him on the ice.
For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Anaheim Ducks, click here.
Plugging Holes: Dallas Stars
The Hole: A second-pairing defenseman
Dallas has a strong group of forwards, both in terms of established veterans (Brenden Morrow, Brad Richards) and young up-and-comers (James Neal, Jamie Benn). GM Joe Nieuwendyk has already made moves to address the team's goaltending situation by signing trade-pickup Kari Lehtonen to replace the outgoing Marty Turco. Adding some blueline depth to protect Lehtonen -- and cut down on goals against -- is the next step to putting together a Dallas team that can return to the playoffs in 2010-11.
The Fix: Sign D Toni Lydman
Lydman is a responsible defensive-minded defenseman that would improve the Stars' defensive talent. In past seasons Lydman took on a lot of defensive responsibility on the Buffalo Sabres, leading the team in even strength ice time in both 2007-08 and 2008-09. With the emergence of rookie Tyler Myers this past season, Lydman's role was scaled back. With the easier minutes Lydman had a strong season, posting a 5.3 GVT rating and was plus-10. When he was on the ice, Buffalo allowed just 1.83 goals against per 60 minutes of even-strength play, one of the better rates in the league among defensemen (yes, Ryan Miller deserves some of the credit there as well). Lydman is 32 years old, and should have a number of good years ahead of him.
Dallas' defensive unit is led by Stephane Robidas, who had an excellent 2009-10 season. Behind him, however, the roster of defensemen is fairly mediocre. Lydman would improve the second pairing and the penalty kill, and would take some of the burden off some of the Stars' younger defensemen.
For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Dallas Stars, click here.
Plugging Holes: Los Angeles Kings
The Hole: A penalty-killing forward
Is this the destination for Ilya Kovalchuk? Maybe, but with the KHL still calling his name it's tough to say with certainty if he'll even be available to NHL teams on July 1. So while the Kings are perceived as the favorites to land Kovalchuk's services if he stays stateside, here's another area the team can address.
The Kings were a solid team at even-strength in 2009-10, and their power play ranked seventh in the regular season before scoring at a ridiculous 38.5 percent clip in the playoffs against the Vancouver Canucks. The biggest area of weakness was the team's 20th-ranked penalty kill. With several key penalty killers on the squad facing unrestricted free agency (Sean O'Donnell, Jeff Halpern, Fredrik Modin and Alexander Frolov), the Kings need to shore up that unit for 2010-11.
The Fix: Sign LW Eric Nystrom
Nystrom has been a key member of the Calgary Flames' penalty kill unit for the last three seasons, and posted a solid 2.8 defensive GVT rating in 2009-10. Nystrom likely won't bring much offense, as his 11 goals and 19 points this year were both career highs. He would be a good fit on a deep team like the Kings where he could bring energy and defensive responsibility to the fourth line and take on additional responsibilities when the team is shorthanded.
Nystrom would be fairly cheap as a UFA signing, probably somewhere in the $1.5 million range -- which fits the bill for a Los Angeles team that needs available cash to keep their emerging young core together and has a long-term extension to star defenseman Drew Doughty looming on the horizon.
For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Los Angeles Kings, click here.
Plugging Holes: Phoenix Coyotes
The Hole: Wingers who can score
Phoenix had the 24th-ranked offense in the league in 2009-10. This is partly a result of coach Dave Tippett's emphasis on defense, but with only one 20-goal scorer (Radim Vrbata) and just two players over 50 points (Shane Doan, Matthew Lombardi), Phoenix was winning games on very tight margins. The Coyotes led the NHL in one-goal wins with 29 -- and with Ilya Bryzgalov likely to return to earth a bit after an outstanding Vezina-nominated season, the team needs to add some punch up front to avoid dropping in the standings.
The Fix: Sign LW Christopher Higgins
Phoenix is not likely to break the bank in free agency, with the team's ongoing ownership saga as well as a number of the team's own free agents that need new contracts. The Coyotes could use an elite goalscorer like Ilya Kovalchuk, but it is unlikely that the team has the cash, the inclination or the attractiveness to chase down a marquee free agent.
A team looking to buy low should consider Chris Higgins. Higgins had three straight 20-goal seasons from 2005-06 to 2007-08, but scored just 12 goals in an injury-shortened 2008-09 and dropped to just eight goals last year. Those numbers are not very impressive, but there is reason to believe they will improve in the future. Higgins took 165 shots this year, which is a very respectable number given his ice time. The problem was that he scored on just 4.8 percent of them, the lowest shooting percentage of any NHL forward with at least 120 shots. It is possible that Higgins has poor shooting talent, perhaps because his injuries have affected him, but with a career average of 10.6 percent, it seems reasonable to expect his scoring rate to rebound next season.
Another reason for Higgins' recent scoring drop is reduced time on the power play. In his first three full seasons in the NHL, Higgins scored 27 goals with the man advantage. In the last two seasons, he has just two. On a team like Phoenix, which lacks power play scorers, Higgins might have the opportunity to rediscover his scoring touch. Higgins also has the energy and two-way play that should fit in well with the Coyotes' style. This would be a risky signing, but if Higgins could chip in 15-20 goals at a reasonable salary he would turn out to be a great pickup for Phoenix.
For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Phoenix Coyotes, click here.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Philip Myrland is an author of Puck Prospectus and runs the statistical hockey website Brodeur Is A Fraud. You can contact him at BrodeurIsAFraud@Inbox.com.
Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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