Pacific Preview: Battle of Alberta back to life but California teams haven’t faded yet

Cam Lewis
October 03 2017 11:24AM

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PHOTO CREDIT: © SERGEI BELSKI-USA TODAY SPORTS

The Pacific Division may not be as deep as the Central Division, but it’s top heavy, and winning it isn’t going to be easy. The Oilers and Flames have brought the Alberta back to life for the first time in years, while the California teams are still kicking around. A sportsbook like Pinnacle Sports suggests any of those four teams could come out on top, making the Pacific difficult to predict.

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8th: Vegas Golden Knights

The Vegas Golden Knights are set to become the NHL’s first new franchise since the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets joined the league together at the turn of the century. And if we can learn anything from that crop of expansion teams in the 90s we all vaguely remember, it’s that things aren’t going to be pretty for a few years.

The one thing Vegas had on Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus, and Minnesota is significantly more favourable expansion draft protection regulations on the other 30 teams. The Golden Knights were actually able to stock up on some pretty decent players rather than exclusively journeymen, but George McPhee opted to largely make decisions for the future of the roster. He spun deals to not take certain players in exchange for draft picks, and many of the players Vegas did select in the expansion draft are soon-to-be free agents who can be shipped off for more picks come the trade deadline.

The recipe for long-term success for an expansion team is to be bad off the hop. Obviously you want the team to be worthwhile to watch so you can capture the interest of your new fanbase, but striving to be a middling team right out of the gate isn’t prudent. The Golden Knights will be looking to pick at the top of the draft over the next couple of years to give them homegrown star-calibre talent that can lead the franchise sooner rather than later.

They’re already a pretty ugly roster with no chemistry whatsoever and they’ll be even worse down the stretch when solid veterans with ending contracts like James Neal, David Perron, and Brayden McNabb are dealt for draft picks. 

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7th: Vancouver Canucks

Last year’s record: 30-43-9 (69 points)

Last year’s stats: 47.9 CF% (26th), 44.7 GF% (27th), 7.0 SH% (22nd), 92.4 SV% (15th)

Notable additions: Anders Nilsson, Michael Del Zotto, Sam Gagner, Alex Burmistrov, Patrick Wiercioch.

Notable subtractions: Ryan Miller, Luca Sbisa, Nikita Tryamkin, Philip Larsen.

The Vancouver Canucks, who finished 29th in the NHL last season, got a little bit better this summer. They didn’t get good enough to make the playoffs, but they got good enough to not finish in the league’s basement.

The Canucks made some nice additions this season, signing Sam Gagner and Michael Del Zotto to multi-year deals and a couple of wild cards in Alex Burmistrov and Patrick Wiercioch to one-year deals. But like I said, it still won’t make the Canucks a playoff team. The Sedins are 37 years old and aren’t capable of carrying a first line in the NHL anymore. Unfortunately, they’re still Vancouver’s best forwards and will be played as such. The team’s blueline is solid, but lacks a true top pairing, and goaltending is a bit of question mark.

But after missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the late-90s, the Canucks front office has finally admitted the team is going into a rebuild. Obviously this is something that really should have started a few years ago because the team’s decline was obvious, but you can somewhat empathize with why the Canucks avoided selling the present for the future. It’s difficult to pack in and blow it up when you have Henrik and Daniel Sedin, a couple of franchise legends, still under contract and it’s hard to sell a tank and rebuild effort to a fanbase that can see the shell of a competitive team.

The Canucks aren’t going into a full scale burn it to the ground and pick first overall until it works kind of thing, but we’ll be seeing more deals with the future in mind. Last year, Jim Benning pulled off a couple of excellent trades, sending Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen away at the deadline for good prospects. We’ll also see an increased emphasis on opportunities for young players, though Vancouver’s aggressive approach in free agency will ensure prospects aren’t thrown into the deep end without a lifejacket

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6th: Arizona Coyotes

Last year’s record: 30-42-10 (70 points)

Last year’s stats: 45.0 CF% (30th), 44.2 GF% (28th), 7.3 SH% (21st), 92.5 SV% (13th)

Notable additions: Jason Demers, Nicklas Hjalmarsson, Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, Adam Clendening, Emerson Etem.

Notable subtractions: Shane Doan, Mike Smith, Teemu Pulkkinen, Anthony DeAngelo, Connor Murphy, Chad Johnson, Josh Jooris, Radim Vrbata, Peter Holland, Alex Burmistrov, Jamie McGinn.

I can’t think of a time in my life that the Arizona Coyotes have been this interesting.  This summer, John Chayka put forward a massive effort to push the team in a forward direction, acquiring strong veteran players in Derek Stepan, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Jason Demers who all became casualties of teams who needed to shed salary. These three will help insulate a roster that boasts an insane amount of young talent.

Dylan Strome and Clayton Keller are the two biggest prospects joining the Coyotes this season, but Christian Dvorak, Brendan Perlini, and Lawson Crouse also have interesting upside. Beyond them, Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, the veterans of this group, are only 22 years old. Hjalmarsson and Demers will help turn a disaster of a blueline into a solid one, giving Arizona options in their top-four next to Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Alex Goligoski. They also upgraded in net, sending Mike Smith to the Flames and replacing him with Antti Raanta, who was trapped behind Henrik Lundqvist in New York.

There’s been a lot of change over the past year and a bit since Chayka took over. The team has moved on from long-time head coach Dave Tippett and franchise veterans like Shane Doan and Mike Smith. But there’s actually hope for this team now. Not only do the Coyotes have exciting young talent, they also have good veterans to insulate them as they adjust to the NHL game. It probably isn’t going to come together this year, but it won’t be long before the Coyotes are pushing for a playoff spot.

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5th: Los Angeles Kings

Last year’s record: 39-35-8 (86 points)

Last year’s stats: 54.9 CF% (1st), 48.9 GF% (20th), 6.3 SH% (30th), 92.0 SV% (21st)

Notable additions: Mike Cammalleri, Darcy Kuemper.

Notable subtractions: Ben Bishop, Matt Greene, Brayden McNabb, Devin Setoguchi, Teddy Purcell, Rob Scuderi, Jarome Iginla.

The Los Angeles Kings dynasty crashed just as quickly as it rose. Between 2012 and 2014, this team was a juggernaut. They were big, strong, deep, produced dominant underlying numbers, could score, and were impossible to score on. Even if they were an eighth seed, you expected the Kings to make trouble in the playoffs. And they did, winning two Stanley Cups in three seasons.

But then they got old. Dean Lombardi showed loyalty to his guys, giving virtually everyone on the roster a long-term contract, pushing the team into a cap hell that made it impossible for them to augment and change their roster with the rest of the league. In 2015, the Kings missed the playoffs, but their underlying numbers suggested it wad bad luck. In 2016, they returned to the dance, but got destroyed by the Sharks, looking nothing like the juggernaut from previous years. Then, in 2017, they came up short again, spending all year looking like a shell of their former selves.

As a result, the Kings fired Lombardi and head coach Darryl Sutter, but they’re still stuck in the same spot. They’ll roll into 2017-18 with a similar roster to the one that’s disappointed the past three seasons. The only major addition they made was Mike Cammalleri, who was bought out by the Devils.

Otherwise? It’s the same old, expensive Kings. Assume Anze Kopitar’s 2016-17 season wasn’t an indication of a steep decline, the Kings have a solid forward group with him, Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli, and Tanner Pearson. But there isn’t much depth beyond that. They also have a strong top-half of a blueline led by Drew Doughty, but again, there isn’t much depth. Having Jonathan Quick back should help things out in net, but he won’t be enough to compensate for the roster’s ills.

The Kings will likely be in a similar place this year a they were last. They’ll outshoot their opponents, but struggle to score. That said, the Kings are working under a new coach in John Stevens this season, and a new voice or system could give them some life. Still, based on this old, worn down, top-heavy roster, I can’t imagine the Kings are going to be anything more than a team that competes for a wild card spot. 

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4th: San Jose Sharks

Last year’s record: 46-29-7 (99 points)

Last year’s stats: 51.1 CF% (8th), 52.8 GF% (10th), 7.9 SH% (14th), 92.5 SV% (12th)

Notable additions: Brandon Bollig, Antoine Bibeau.

Notable subtractions: Patrick Marleau, David Schlemko.

This is where the Pacific Division starts to get really tight. The San Jose Sharks have been a very good team for a very long time, but they’re also old and in decline coming into the season with an average age just a shade under 30.

The Sharks didn’t do anything to get better this off-season, making only minor additions that clearly don’t offset the loss of franchise staple Patrick Marleau, who left the team in free agency. They also lost David Schlemko in the expansion draft, but the boast a deep enough blueline that it won’t be a difficult issue to overcome. Otherwise, it’ll be the same old Sharks that we’ve come to know heading into 2017-18.

The keys to an improved season for the Sharks will be internal progression. Mikkel Boedker rebounding from his terrible debut season or a breakout performance from former top pick Timo Meier would be huge for the team as it looks to replace Marleau’s offence on the wings. Also, fully healthy and productive seasons from Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture are important for San Jose’s forward depth. 

After going to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016, the Sharks looks burnt out in 2016-17. They didn’t have a bad season by any stretch, finishing third in the Pacific Division, but come playoff team, they got ran over by a big, fast, and energetic Oilers squad. This year, after having a much longer summer to rest, the Sharks could enjoy a bounce-back showing not unlike the 2015-16 season after they missed the playoffs.

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3rd: Calgary Flames

Last year’s record: 45-33-4 (94 points)

Last year’s stats: 50.5 CF% (10th), 49.3 GF% (15th), 7.6 SH% (16th), 92.0 SV% (22nd)

Notable additions: Travis Hamonic, Mike Smith, Eddie Lack, Spencer Foo.

Notable subtractions: Lance Bouma, Deryk Engelland, Brian Elliott, Chad Johnson, Brandon Bollig, Alex Chiasson.

After a strong second half of the 2016-17 season and a busy off-season, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the Calgary Flames. But there’s also reason to be skeptical. The Flames had one glaring issue last season: goaltending. More than likely, it seems that could be an issue again in 2017-18.

The Flames acquired Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson to solidify their goaltending last summer, but neither were successful. They were good enough to get the Flames into the playoffs, but the team got bombed out by the Anaheim Ducks in four games. Elliott and Johnson each posted a .910 save percentage in all situations, ranking the Flames in the bottom third of the league.

This summer, they tried to address the need again, acquiring veteran Mike Smith from the Coyotes and Eddie Lack from the Hurricanes. Lack was solid in Vancouver once upon a time, but has been terrible the past couple years in Carolina. That isn’t a very good safety net for Smith, who’s 35 years old, hasn’t had a save percentage above .916 since 2011-12, and has played in just 87 games the past two seasons. I mean, to be fair to Smith, he’s played on horrid Coyotes teams the past few seasons which will effect his numbers, but the Smith/Lack tandem doesn’t seem like the solution to a problem.

The other major move the Flames made this summer was acquiring Travis Hamonic from the Islanders, which really solidifies their top-four defencemen. Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton are one of the league’s best pairs, but TJ Brodie was trapped playing with mediocre partners and his game was dragged down because of it. Adding Hamonic gives Calgary one of the better bluelines in the NHL, which could help compensate for their likely-to-be-bad goaltending.

Up front, it’s the same group as last year, as Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan will produce most of the offensive production while the 3M line continues to be thoroughly solid at driving play. The wild card that can turn this forward group from a solid one into a very good one is Sam Bennett, the fourth overall pick from the 2014 NHL draft who’s still figuring things out. Bennett had a disappointing 26-point season in 2016-17, but could enjoy a breakout if given better wingers.

The Flames made it work last year with poor goaltending, so if Smith and Lack don’t work out they’ll likely still be good enough to make the playoffs again. But being able to keep the puck out of the net is what’s stopping this team from being a true contender.

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2nd: Anaheim Ducks

Last year’s record: 46-23-13 (105 points)

Last year’s stats: 49.7 CF% (19th), 53.1 GF% (8th), 7.8 SH% (15th), 93.0 SV% (5th)

Notable additions: Ryan Miller, Dennis Rasmussen, Derek Grant.

Notable subtractions: Clayton Stoner, Shea Theodore, Simon Despres, Jonathan Bernier, Nate Thompson, Emerson Etem.

When fully healthy, the Anaheim Ducks are a damn good team. They have top level talent at each position, led by an elite offensive duo in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, one of the game’s best two-way forwards in Ryan Kesler, a stacked blueline that can move the puck and play hard in the defensive zone, and a very good goalie. But they aren’t fully healthy.

The Ducks head into the 2017-18 season with a lot of wear and tear after a gritty playoff performance. They’ll be without Kesler until Christmas, which is a massive blow because it puts Antoine Vermette into a key shutdown role. They’ll also be without Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm to start the season, which thrusts old man Francois Beauchemin and rookie Brandon Montour into the top four.

I don’t think these injuries are going to derail Anaheim’s season, but in a division with four good teams battling neck-to-neck for the top seed, the Ducks are being put at a disadvantage.

This summer, the Ducks didn’t make any game-changing additions, save for the acquisition of a very good, veteran backup goalie in Ryan Miller. They navigated through the expansion draft without losing an established young player like Vatanen or Rickard Rakell like many expected they would at this time last year by giving Vegas stud prospect Shea Theodore in exchange for taking Clayton Stoner’s contract. Losing Theodore is unfortunate, but it isn’t the end of the world when you have as much young talent on the blueline as Anaheim does.

Like I said, there are injury issues here that’ll likely slow the Ducks down enough to prevent them from winning the division again, but there’s enough talent and depth on this roster that making the playoffs for a sixth-straight season seems certain.

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1st: Edmonton Oilers

Last year’s record: 47-26-9 (103 points)

Last year’s stats: 49.9 CF% (18th), 54.3 GF% (7th), 8.3 SH% (9th), 92.7 SV% (7th)

Notable additions: Jussi Jokinen, Ryan Strome, Yohann Auvitu, Kailer Yamamoto.

Notable subtractions: Jordan Eberle, Benoit Pouliot, Tyler Pitlick, David Desharnais, Matt Hendricks, Andrew Ference, Jonas Gustavsson.

The Edmonton Oilers enjoyed a breakout season last year. They put up 103 points, their best total since the 80s, and made the playoffs for the first time since their magical run in 2006. The Decade of Darkness is over and now the Oilers are looking to take the next step. Last year, making the playoffs was the goal and everything else was gravy. Now, anything short of a Stanley Cup Final appearance will be a disappointment.

Over the summer, the Oilers dealt Jordan Eberle, who fell out of favour after going completely invisible during the playoffs, to the New York Islanders, for the younger, cheaper, more versatile Ryan Strome. They also bought out Benoit Pouliot and replaced him with Jussi Jokinen, who was bought out by the Florida Panthers. Based on the moves they made, you can’t really say the Oilers have a stronger roster this season than they did last. In order for this team to take a step forward, they’ll have to rely on internal progression, which is certainly a realistic thing considering the young talent on the team. 

The Oilers have a strong forward core anchored, of course, by the league’s best player. So long as Connor McDavid is healthy, the Oilers will have a chance to win any game. That’s the reality of a game-changing talent. Leon Draisaitl anchoring his own line will also give Ryan Nugent-Hopkins a chance to increase his production in a more sheltered offensive role. The blueline is a little bit of a question mark, especially with steady Andrej Sekera set to miss a couple months of action. The key for this group is for Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson to step up as a true number one pairing. In net, the Oilers are set with Cam Talbot, but they can’t ask him to play 73 games again.

This is a team that has the upside to come out of the Western Conference. But in a tough West loaded with good teams, nothing is a given. The team boasts solid depth and a lot of size and skill, but the Oilers need Connor McDavid and Cam Talbot to be as good as they were last season in order to become the class of the West.

Previously in this series…

Central Division Preview

Metropolitan Division Preview 

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Nation Network utility infielder. Twitter: @cooom, Email: cameron@oilersnation.com