The Atlantic and Central divisions each sent four teams to the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring, but it was hard to find a tighter race from top to bottom in the NHL than the one that came down to the wire in the Pacific Division.
The top three teams (Phoenix, San Jose, Los Angeles) were separated by two points, with all three cracking the top eight in the Western Conference. Fourth-place Dallas was in the hunt for a playoff berth and the division title until the final weeks of the season.
For an indication how close the Pacific is, look no further than the third-place Kings, who missed out on the division title but made amends by becoming the first eighth seed in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup -- doing so with one of the most dominant postseason runs in recent memory. In addition, the team that finished in last place, Anaheim, overcame an uncharacteristically poor first half to make an impressive push after the All-Star break.
Add the division champion Coyotes and the always-competitive Sharks, and the Pacific has no weak link, meaning personnel moves both minor and major that all five make this summer will have a significant impact on how tight the race will be -- and who will be in the best position to win it -- next season.
Here is a roster-building cheat sheet for the Pacific Division teams. The salary cap figures come from Capgeek.com and are based on the $70.2 million salary cap that teams will be operating under come July 1:
(97 points, 1st in Pacific Division, 3rd in Western Conference)
Wants: Offensive depth, a goal scorer, a third-pair defenseman
Means: $32,266,667 in cap space with 17 players already signed
After the best season of his career, 40-year-old Ray Whitney could be in for a big pay day as a free agent this summer. (Getty Images)
Targets: After the most successful season in franchise history, Phoenix might be in the second-best shape of any team in the Pacific after Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles, which defeated the Coyotes in the Western Conference Finals. The Coyotes have more than $31 million to spend, but unlike Dallas and Anaheim, which have to make significant additions just to reach a full roster, the Coyotes appear to be set in a number of respects. Goalie Mike Smith is going to be back, and Phoenix's defense, which was bolstered by its draft-weekend acquisition of Zbynek Michalek, has the look of one of the most well-rounded and versatile groups in the League. Michalek and Keith Yandle are under contract for the long haul, and Rostislav Klesla and Derek Morris also will be back.
It certainly wouldn't hurt the Coyotes to bring in an experienced defenseman who can give them solid minutes (like a Filip Kuba or Hal Gill), but they also need to keep the future in mind. Veterans Shane Doan and Ray Whitney are free agents, and though Doan figures to return (as does Whitney if he opts not to retire), that will eat up some spending money. Perhaps more noteworthy is that Lauri Korpikoski, Mikkel Boedker and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are set to be RFAs next summer, with Ekman-Larsson in particular likely to get a big raise. Something else to keep in mind is Smith, who was arguably the best player in the League through the first rounds of the playoffs, is going to be unrestricted in 2013. Keeping him could end up being a significant financial commitment, particularly considering the bar set by Ondrej Pavelec's new contract in Winnipeg (five years, $19.5 million).
All of those concerns could rein in general manager Don Maloney's ability to spend, but the Coyotes could still use some offense, and perhaps some championship experience to help lift them to the next level. Adding a player with a knack for scoring big goals in big moments -- such as Ruslan Fedotenko or Jason Arnott -- to a short-term deal could be a nice addition that won't require breaking the bank.
SAN JOSE SHARKS (96 points, 2nd in Pacific Division, 7th in Western Conference)
2012 FREE AGENCY
Free agency previews (by division)
With free agency opening Sunday at noon ET, NHL.com takes a look at the needs of all 30 teams -- division by division -- as well as the Top 10 free agents in each division:
Needs: A seventh defenseman, championship experience
Wants: Veteran leadership, a checking forward
Means: $8,370,833 in cap space with 18 players already signed
Targets: Unlike the other four teams in the Pacific, San Jose is almost certainly going to feel the squeeze of the salary cap. With 18 players under contract and just over $8.3 million in expected cap space, GM Doug Wilson will have to get creative to fill holes -- but the good news is there aren't very many to fill. The defense corps already has its big-ticket items under long-term deals (Dan Boyle and Brent Burns), and any lingering issues with the blueliners seem to have been addressed when the Sharks acquired Brad Stuart's negotiating rights from Detroit this month, and then signed him to a three-year contract. That would seem to mean Jim Vandermeer and Colin White aren't likely to come back, so San Jose will need to add a seventh D-man on the cheap, which may have been taken care of Tuesday when the team re-signed Justin Braun, who showed this past season he can handle a large workload, playing in 66 games.
Up front it's the same old story with an offensively potent group that hasn't managed to carry San Jose to the promised land come April and May. Arguments that the Sharks have been unsuccessful might be misguided -- after all, they reached the Western Conference Finals in two of the past three seasons. But it would be a good idea for San Jose to add someone who can contribute to the offense at a less-intrusive salary while also bringing the intangibles of championship experience. Jamie Langenbrunner could provide the Sharks with what they're missing; he's been a team captain for several seasons, won two Stanley Cups, and brought guidance and leadership to a young team in St. Louis this past season. Langenbrunner also could give the Sharks help in shutting down other teams' top lines as someone who consistently plays on the penalty kill. Steve Sullivan or Mike Knuble also could add veteran experience and two-way versatility to the Sharks lineup.
Considering the Sharks already have Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture on the roster, offense shouldn't be a problem, especially if Martin Havlat can stay healthy. The team will have little wiggle room financially unless it chooses to trade a major piece to shake up the roster, such as Marleau, who earns $6.9 million per season and whose rumored position on the trading block is an annual rite of summer. All of that seems to point to low-cost veteran additions up front as the Sharks look to finally break through and reach the Stanley Cup Final.
LOS ANGELES KINGS (95 points, 3rd in Pacific Division, 8th in Western Conference, Stanley Cup champions)
Wants: A proven goal-scorer
Means: $11,879,773 in cap space with 22 players already signed
Targets: It's hard to say that a Stanley Cup champion needs any major additions, let alone a boost in offense after averaging 2.85 goals per game during its title run, but the Kings offense was inconsistent during the regular season. L.A. scored the second-fewest goals in the League (194; Minnesota, 177) and survived largely on the strength of a great regular season by goalie Jonathan Quick.
Right Wing - PHI
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 8
SOG: 26 | +/-: -5
Given how strong the Kings defense was throughout the postseason, and the fact all of their blueliners will be back in 2012-13, L.A. doesn't figure to be looking at free agent D-men. With Quick's contract still having a year left, bringing more scoring into the fold is where GM Dean Lombardi is likely to direct his efforts. It's possible the Kings could go after New Jersey wing Zach Parise when he hits the market, but Parise is expected to seek a long-term deal and would likely eat up a significant portion of the cap space L.A. has. Though Parise would provide what the Kings need to position themselves for a repeat, do not overlook the fact Quick will be due a steep raise from his $1.8 million salary when he becomes a UFA next summer, with captain Dustin Brown a UFA in 2014. In addition, 22 players are under contract for 2012-13, but only 11 are locked up for 2013-14.
The Kings also have to manage seven different players who will be restricted free agents over the next 13 months, including Dwight King, Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez. With raises due several players, a long-term commitment to a top-tier free agent seems unlikely. If L.A. wants a scoring boost, it would do well to search for players who likely won't command top dollar -- gritty forward Brad Boyes -- or a player who isn't seeking a lengthy commitment such as Jaromir Jagr, who may hit the open market if he and the Flyers can't agree on a new deal.
DALLAS STARS (89 points, 4th in Pacific Division, 10th in Western Conference)
Needs: Offensive depth, defensive reinforcements
Wants: A scorer and playmaker, a stay-at-home defenseman
Means: $30,592,222 in cap space with 16 players already signed
Targets: It was easy to overlook what might have been one of the most significant draft-day trades in years when Dallas shipped Mike Ribeiro to Washington for Cody Eakin and a second-round pick. With 18 goals and 45 assists in 2011-12 -- and an average of 74 points for every 82 games he played with Dallas -- Ribeiro was a major cog in the Stars offense. That void could become larger if negotiations with Jamie Benn, a restricted free agent, do not work out. In addition to locking up Benn long term, Dallas will want to add some potency to its offense, considering it has an estimated $31 million to spend. Some of that will get eaten up by RFAs Tom Wandell, Mark Fistric, Philip Larsen and Jordie Benn, but the Stars would be wise to take a run at Alexander Semin or Olli Jokinen.
Defensively, Dallas could have one of the most dynamic two-way top pairs in the League with Alex Goligoski and Stephane Robidas. The Stars have to consider whether they want to bring back Sheldon Souray, who was solid with 21 points and a plus-11 rating, but given his age -- he'll be 36 next season -- Dallas may be less-inclined to re-sign him, particularly if he is looking for similar money to what he earned in his previous contract, which carried a $5.4 million annual cap hit.
Instead, the Stars may look for a stay-at-home defenseman who brings a physical edge -- Chris Campoli could be a fit, as could Bryce Salvador, but his age (36) and likely contract demands following his impressive postseason in New Jersey would present the same issues as bringing back Souray.
ANAHEIM DUCKS (80 points, 5th in Pacific Division, 13th in Western Conference)
Means: $30,940,000 in cap space with 14 players already signed
Targets: The Ducks are one of three teams in this division with cap space to burn -- and then some -- and that's good news for Anaheim, which needs reinforcements. Looking simply at the basics of making a roster, with 14 players under contract for 2012-13 (seven forwards), the Ducks will need to spend money. Should Teemu Selanne decide to return for another season -- and some reports coming out of his native Finland have said he will -- his contract will take some of the Ducks' available cap space. Selanne, who turns 42 two days after free agency opens, made $4 million last season, so that's unlikely to affect Anaheim's plans significantly.
The Ducks' offseason plans will be significantly impacted by whether or not Teemu Selanne decides to return for another season. (Getty Images)
The Ducks have Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Saku Koivu under contract for next season, but there is little depth beyond that -- and even less if Ryan is traded. Selanne will help, but he does not give the Ducks a third and fourth line on his own, meaning they'll need to spend on multiple forwards. The cap space is there for a splash, but it would seem more likely the Ducks would go after players who are productive, but less expensive, to provide the depth they need. PA Parenteau could do so, as could Washington forward Alexander Semin if Anaheim feels like spending a little more on its forwards.
The team also could bulk up its defense. Though Cam Fowler looks like he will be a superb offensive defenseman once he matures, only two of its blueliners had positive plus/minus ratings. Only one team that made the Western Conference playoffs gave up more goals than Anaheim's 231 (Chicago, 238). Money could be spent on Salvador, though a run at the big defenseman free agent prize, Nashville's Ryan Suter, should not be ruled out given Anaheim's ample cap space.