NHL: Pacific Division Preview

There is not another division in hockey where there is such a discrepancy between the top and the bottom. The top few teams are all Stanley Cup contenders while the bottom few teams are all potential lottery teams.

Storylines To Watch

Can Los Angeles Repeat?

Arguably, the class of the Pacific is the Los Angeles Kings, the team with two of the last three Stanley Cups in their trophy case. There weren’t too many alterations made to the lineup so if the team struggles for any reason this year (they shouldn’t), it’ll be on the players underperforming and not because of management.

Will San Jose Break Away From Their Playoff Woes?

Pat Pickens of XNSports and the New York Times thinks it will finally be San Jose finally lifting the Stanley Cup this year. This is probably one of the most underachieving franchises of all time, having earned a playoff berth in 15 of the last 16 seasons yet failing to even reach the Cup Final once.

The Sharks stripped Joe Thornton of his captaincy, signed some face-punchers, and still have Antti Niemi as the starter. It hasn’t been the best of summers for this team, but there’s still enough talent here to consider San Jose among the elite in the West.

Will any of the three Canadian teams reach the playoffs?

The Edmonton Oilers haven’t been to the playoffs since getting to the Cup Final in 2006 while the Calgary Flames have missed the playoffs for five consecutive years. Also, Vancouver missed the playoffs last year and have an aging core. It’s a pretty fair question to wonder whether any of the three Western Canadian teams will get to the playoffs this year.

It seems pretty safe to say that Calgary and Edmonton could be in the lottery mix again this year. Vancouver, though, is a wild card. There’s no telling if Radim Vrbata will mesh with the Sedins, how big the impact of trading Ryan Kesler will be, and if Ryan Miller can find more success in Vancouver than he did in St. Louis. It’s possible Western Canada goes 0-for-3 in the playoffs this year.

Will Anaheim out-skate the regression monster?

I’m a person that believes in the validity and utility of the “advanced” statistics. Anaheim was mid-pack in puck possession last year while they led the NHL in PDO – the sum of on-ice save and shooting percentages – by quite a fair margin. This would seem to indicate there’s a pretty sizeable regression coming for Anaheim.

Anaheim does have a pile of skill among their forwards, good, young defensemen, and a potentially solid duo in net with John Gibson and Frederik Andersen. It’s very possible the regression won’t be as severe as the numbers would indicate, which makes Anaheim one of the more interesting teams in the NHL this year.

What Will Arizona End Up Being?

The newly-named Arizona Coyotes seem to be in a bit of a transition as a franchise. There’s not really a whole bunch of skill up front, and they’re still waiting for Mike Smith to rebound to his form from 2011-2012. This team’s strength comes from the blue line, with Ekman-Larsson, Yandle, Michalek, Stone, and others contributing to a solid top-to-bottom blue line.

Who will score the goals, though, is a different story. The team brought in Sam Gagner, but that won’t be a cure-all. Arizona will be a fun team to watch (well, maybe from a distance), because there’s a reasonable argument for them to finish anywhere between third and last in the division.

Rookies To Watch

Leon Draisaitl – Edmonton Oilers

The rookie center looks like he’ll be on the team out of the gate, not necessarily because he’s blown the doors off in camp, but because the Oilers have almost nothing at center past Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He may get a shot to start as the second line center, making that top-six must-watch hockey again this year.

Sam Bennett – Calgary Flames

Bennett was very highly rated as a prospect and fell to fourth in the draft where the Flames took him. Coach Bob Hartley showed that rookies will have a chance at the team by keeping Sean Monahan last year, which opens the door of possibility for Bennett to do the same.

Max Domi – Arizona Coyotes

The son of former pugilist Tie Domi, young Max has infinitely more skill than his father did. In fact, I was personally surprised he wasn’t on the team last year, considering their lack of scoring. Despite standing just 5-foot-10, Domi has hands and vision that is already at an elite level. If he gets a real shot at the NHL roster, he’s a dark horse for the Rookie of the Year.

John Gibson – Anaheim Ducks

The biggest reason the team was able to let goalie Jonas Hiller walk in free agency is that John Gibson is one of the more highly-touted goalies that is still not a regular in the NHL. He will get his chance to prove himself this year.

Predicted Final Standings

  1. San Jose Sharks*
  2. Los Angeles Kings*
  3. Anaheim Ducks*
  4. Vancouver Canucks**
  5. Calgary Flames
  6. Arizona Coyotes
  7. Edmonton Oilers
    *Playoff Spot **Wild Card

I don’t think the first three teams should be a surprise, it’s pretty clear they’re the class of the division. Vancouver does have a team that could sneak in the wild card, but that would require a bounce-back from the Sedin twins.

Amazingly, Edmonton has been able to do absolutely nothing will all the high draft picks over the years, and that won’t help their chances this year. They still have one of the worst blue lines in the NHL, and that will be enough to keep them a lottery team. Calgary, though, will be better than expected as long as Hiller doesn’t crater.

Thoughts and opinions on the Pacific? Let us know in the comments!

*As always, thanks to Hockey Analysis, Hockey Reference, and NHL.com for their resources

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