With three teams from the Pacific Division making the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs and a fourth missing by just six points, there's not much that separates the five teams in the division.
The difference could be success at the 2012 NHL Draft; a raw product found in June could emerge as a polished star by October.
The Stanley Cup champion Kings showed just how important building through the draft was -- Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick, team captain Dustin Brown and top-line center Anze Kopitar all were drafted and developed by the Kings.
The Coyotes, who advanced to the Western Conference Finals, have used the draft to build a core of up-and-coming young defensemen, and the Ducks, Sharks and Stars are aiming to see their success at the draft lead to on-ice NHL victories.
They'll have their chance when the teams meet in Pittsburgh for the 2012 NHL Draft, June 22-23.
All five teams have first-round picks, but the Kings could lose theirs -- the Columbus Blue Jackets have the option of taking the Kings pick this year or next from the Jeff Carter trade. The Jackets don't have to inform the NHL of their decision until two picks prior to the Kings' selection.
Here's a look at the five Pacific Division teams as they prepare for the draft:
(No. 6 overall)
A rough season for the Ducks resulted in coach Randy Carlyle being fired, replaced by Bruce Boudreau. The team was 7-13-4 when Carlyle was let go. It finished strong under Boudreau (27-23-8) but still finished 13th in the Western Conference, 15 points out of a playoff spot.
However, the cupboard is far from bare, and with a full training camp to implement Boudreau's game plan, the Ducks could see rapid improvement. Adding a top-end talent with the sixth pick in the draft only could accelerate that turnaround.
Strengths: The Ducks' top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan is among the most talented in the League. Goaltender Jonas Hiller made a full recovery from the vertigo-like symptoms that short-circuited the second half of his 2010-11 season to start a League-high 73 games. Cam Fowler, a steal at No. 12 in the 2010 draft, continues to improve.
Weaknesses: There's a big drop-off in scoring after the first line; if Teemu Selanne retires, there will be that much less. They also need to find a backup for Hiller, either through organizational depth or free agency.
Biggest need: Secondary scoring is a must. Selanne, Saku Koivu and Jason Blake started the season on the second line, but all three are at least 37 years old. Selanne's return is questionable, and Blake definitely won't be back. The Ducks' biggest scorer outside the top line and Selanne was Andrew Cogliano's 13 goals. With their first pick, expect the Ducks to target one of the top-end forwards available with the hope he can step into a top-six role.
Possible targets: Filip Forsberg, C, Leksand (Sweden-2); Radek Faksa, C, Kitchener (OHL); Morgan Rielly, D, Moose Jaw (WHL).
(No. 13 overall)
In the first season under coach Glen Gulutzan, the Stars got off to a strong start and even led the division as late as March 29. But a five-game losing streak to end the season scuttled their playoff hopes.
There wasn't a lot of hope entering the season following the loss of top center Brad Richards, but additions like Michael Ryder and Sheldon Souray helped, as did a career season from goaltender Kari Lehtonen. With the teams so closely bunched together, the Stars easily could find their way back to the postseason.
Strengths: With Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson, the Stars have two of the better young power forwards in the League. Benn made his first All-Star team last season, and Eriksson has scored at least 25 goals in four straight seasons. A healthy Lehtonen was outstanding, and the defense in front of him was more than just solid.
Weaknesses: It's a question of consistency -- the Stars had three different five-game winless skids and four win streaks of at least four games. A better handle in Year 2 with Gulutzan could change that. They also need to add more skill to their bottom-six forward group.
Biggest need: The defense is solid, but lacks an offensive element. With the depth of this year's class of defensemen, they could find that player there. Free agency or trade also is an option.
Possible targets: Derrick Pouliot, D, Portland (WHL), Cody Ceci, D, Ottawa (OHL); Teuvo Teravainen, LW, Jokerit Jr. (Finland-Jr)
SAN JOSE SHARKS
(No. 17 overall)
WEAR WHAT THE DRAFTEES WEAR
The Sharks got off to a slow start but recovered to finish seventh in the Western Conference. But after back-to-back trips to the conference finals, their stay in the postseason was a short one.
It looks like GM Doug Wilson will keep his core intact, including coach Todd McLellan. The talent at forward, while aging, remains at a high level. Not having Martin Havlat for half the season hurt; better health from a few key players could see them improve greatly next season.
Strengths: Their top two lines may be getting a bit older, but led by Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, they still can get it done. Joe Pavelski has emerged from his "Little Joe" status to be a prime-time player. Ryane Clowe, when healthy, can be a top power forward. Their top two defensive pairings are a solid mix of puck-moving skill and defensive grit. Brent Burns especially should be better with a full season in San Jose under his belt.
Weaknesses: After the top line, there's not much in the way of scoring options. They also need to improve a penalty-kill unit that finished 29th in the NHL in 2011-12. With key players Thornton, Marleau, Havlat and Dan Boyle all 31 or older, they need to get younger at the skill positions.
Biggest need: After trading top prospect Charlie Coyle last year and having just one first-round pick since 2008, they just need to add more talent to the organizational prospect pool.
Possible targets: Stefan Matteau, LW, USA U-18 (USHL); Zemgus Girgensons, C, Dubuque (USHL); Thomas Wilson, RW, Plymouth (OHL)
(No. 27 overall)
The Coyotes emerged at the top of the tough Pacific Division thanks to their outstanding defense and goalie Mike Smith. With coach Dave Tippett leading the way, the Coyotes again were greater than the sum of their parts.
Re-signing team captain Shane Doan is priority No. 1 for GM Don Maloney. He also hopes one of the team's young crop of blue-line prospects can step forward to add depth and youth at the position.
Strengths: Smith emerged as the team's most important player and backstopped a team that was fifth in the regular season in goals-against average while finishing 28th in shots-allowed per game. Mikkel Boedker, a 2008 first-round pick, emerged as a breakout star in the playoffs, and should be able to carry that into next season. Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson also had a tremendous postseason.
2012 NHL DRAFT
The best-ever draft picks, from 1 to 30
By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist
Who was the best-ever No. 1 draft pick? What about the best fourth pick? Or the 18th? NHL.com weighs in with our opinion of the best ever, No. 1 to No. 30. READ MORE ›
Weaknesses: More skill up front seems to be an annual need. The team is stocked with defensive-minded players, but desperately needs a young forward to emerge as a point-producer.
Biggest need: Young skill players up front, but with the 27th pick it's unlikely they'll find that player in the draft, so the trade route could be their best choice.
Possible targets: Tanner Pearson, LW, Barrie (OHL); Scott Laughton, C, Oshawa (OHL); Martin Frk, RW, Halifax (QMJHL)
LOS ANGELES KINGS
(No. 30 overall)
After an up-and-down regular season, the Kings flipped the switch in the playoffs and won the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
However, there's little time to rest, with the draft and free agency just around the corner. Whether they have their first-round pick or not, the Kings have done well at the draft in the past and that won't change this year.
Strengths: The Stanley Cup champs are loaded with big, strong, skilled forwards, a solid defense and a brick wall for a goaltender. After a slow start, defenseman Drew Doughty was the best defenseman in the postseason. Dustin Brown showcased his leadership skills in the late-season push for a playoff spot and it carried all the through the postseason. With a full training camp for coach Darryl Sutter, the Kings should at least have a more consistent regular season in 2012-13.
Weaknesses: The Kings were 29th in the League in scoring in the regular season, and while the acquisition of Jeff Carter helped that, a more consistent scoring effort from the team's forwards is needed. Carryover exhaustion from the longest season most of these players ever have endured also could be a problem.
Biggest need: More top-end skill. Dustin Penner had a solid playoff but a subpar regular season, and is an unrestricted free agent. If he doesn't return, the Kings will have to look at closely in free agency or the trade market for another top-six forward.
Possible targets: Lukas Sutter, C, Saskatoon (WHL); Pontus Aberg, LW, Djurgarden (Sweden); Michael Matheson, D, Dubuque (USHL)
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK