Tha Sports Junkies 101

Pacific Division Preview: New blood turns division upside down

Pacific Division Preview: New blood turns division upside down Gary Denham via Flickr


‘Out with the old, in with the new’ the motto for Pacific, but an old guard team will still reign supreme

Two seasons ago, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames were searching for answers. Edmonton had missed the playoffs for the tenth season in a row, and their star rookie missed 37 games because of a broken collarbone. Calgary qualified playoffs the previous season, but instead of taking a step forward, they seemed to take a large step back.

Last season, both teams pushed the clouds away. The Oilers made the playoffs and made a nice run, providing light to the seemingly never-ending tunnel of failure. The Flames once again were burning, despite being eliminated in the first round.

The Alberta franchises made moves over the summer to make their teams better. Edmonton locked up their two biggest stars to long term contracts. Calgary brought in Mike Smith and acquired Travis Hamonic to form potentially the best back end in all of hockey.

Fortunes are turning for NHL hockey in the Western Canada province, but these teams may have to wait a year or two before they can claim the top spot in the Pacific.

The team that eliminated both the Flames and Oilers, the Anaheim Ducks, are still a dominant force. Anaheim will be shooting for a sixth straight division title this season, and currently hold the longest such streak since the inception of the Pacific Division in the 1993-94 season.

Ducks still top of hill

The five straight division titles have been a success, but the Ducks are looking for more. The Ducks have failed to make it to the Stanley Cup finals in each of the past five seasons, and they have been frustrated and stymied by their playoff performances. Anaheim has all the talent they need to succeed. The regular season is a matter of survival for them.

Defensemen Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen each suffered a torn labrum during the playoffs. The Ducks announced in May Lindholm would need 4-5 months to recover. Vatanen is expected to have a longer recovery time, despite having the same injury. The Ducks and General Manager Bob Murray are not expecting to have their top two defenseman when the season starts.

Lindholm and Vatanen are not the only two who may miss the start of the season. Center Ryan Kesler had hip surgery during the summer. He told in June the surgery could take 4-5 months to recover from. The original timetable was 12 weeks, and he told the league website that he will instead be re-evaluated at 12 weeks.

If the Ducks can get to the midway point of the season and stay in the Pacific Division hunt, they will become the division’s best team when they return those three players. The signing of Francios Beauchemin helps the Ducks on the back end, and Kesler’s impact is more defensive than offensive. The Ducks should maintain a top-three spot before they get back to full force.

Older cores holding on

The San Jose Sharks made their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance two years ago, making the past season a disappointing one. The Oilers eliminated San Jose in the first round after taking over the second seed in the division toward the end of the season.

The Sharks did not make any moves to improve. They lost Patrick Marleau to free agency and did not make a major move to add a top forward. Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski will be dangerous, but secondary scoring will be tough to come by. San Jose needs production out of Mikkel Boedker and Tomas Hertl. They are paying the duo a total of $7 million, and will need more than the combined 48 points chipped in last season.

The Los Angeles Kings are a tricky case. It is clear it is not the same team that won two Stanley Cups in three years. The aging of stars will not make the Kings weak though. Jeff Carter, Tyler Tofolli, and Tanner Pearson will be the main source of the Kings offense. LA is hoping Anze Kopitar’s performance last season is an outlier rather than the trend. Marion Gaborik has lost a step, but he will be key in the team’s secondary scoring.

A back end led by Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick is stingy. Unfortunately, they cannot do all the heavy lifting defensively. Jake Muzzin must return to 2015-16 form, and Alec Martinez will play important minutes in the team’s top 4.

The Youngster

The Arizona Coyotes and Las Vegas Golden Knights are the true enigmas of the division. The Coyotes improved themselves by adding Niklas Hjalmarsson, Derek Stepan, and Antti Raanta via trade. The organization wanted to add some top veteran talent to go along with their younger players. Max Domi continues to get better, and a full season as a more developed player could go a long way for Arizona. The team is also hoping Anthony Duclair can regain the form he had two season ago. He plays well together with Domi, but he needs to be able to play well on other lines.

Clayton Keller is a favorite to win the Calder, and the Coyotes are hoping Dylan Strome plays himself into the conversation. Strome was drafted third overall in the 2015 NHL Draft, and is the only player in the top five of that draft to not stay at the NHL level for an entire season. A full season of action will truly tell if Strome is a bust or a late bloomer.

The injury to Jakob Chychrun is not ideal for the Coyotes back end, but it does not cripple them. It could’ve been a big year for the second-year defenseman, and he will have to wait over half the season before he can get into game action. The Coyotes are confident he play this season.

In the meantime, Kevin Connauton and Adam Clendening will be thrust into more responsibility. They do not need them to light up the scoreboard, rather to play responsible defensively to turn the tide on one of the worst defensive groups in the past couple seasons.

The Upstart

The Vegas Golden Knights are an interesting case as well. The best expansion team maybe ever on paper will get their chance to prove their merit when the puck drops October 6.

Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal are names that jump off the page, but Vegas drafted players who can play now and still have room to grow. William Karlsson, Shea Theodore, and Griffin Reinhart head the players the franchise hopes will develop into top end guys in a couple of seasons. The team brought in a good mix of players that are NHL level players, but have not aged out, like Erik Haula and Cody Eakin.

Fleury is the clear starter, but Calvin Pickard is the goaltender of the future. Pickard showed flashes of brilliance during the Colorado Avalanche’s dreadful season. The 25-year-old will back up the three-time Cup champion, hopefully learning for at least the next two seasons in order to take over the starting role.

The first season of NHL hockey in Vegas will be fun. They are a team who will be in most games, but do not expect them to find their way into the playoffs. It may be a couple of years until they are true competitors, but they will not be the worst team in the Pacific Division in their first season.

The Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks are in a bad situation. The Ryan Miller experience was not as enjoyable as expected. Their offense did not improve dramatically this offseason. Once again, they will be relying on the aging Sedins for their main scoring source.

The Sedins are restricted free agents at the end of the season. Jake Virtanen is not working out as well as hoped. Bo Horvat is the hope for the future, so it will take the Canucks a few seasons before they draft their way back to relevancy.

It is hard to see how this team will be competitive. They paid Sam Gagner  $3.1 million over three years based on his 50 point output last season. Vancouver also signed Alexander Burmistrov, making it seem they are building around top picks that have not reached the potential they were thought to have.

Jacob Markstrom should get his chance to be the full time starting goaltender. Anders Nilsson is right behind him, and Thatcher Demko may get a few looks as well. The Canucks net will be crowded as the team searches for the goalie of the near future.

Final predicitons

  1. Anaheim Ducks
  2. Edmonton Oilers
  3. Calgary Flames
  4. San Jose Sharks
  5. Los Angeles Kings
  6. Arizona Coyotes
  7. Vegas Golden Knights
  8. Vancouver Canucks

* denotes Wild Card winner