October is finally here, which means the NHL’s regular season is just a few days away, and that also means it’s time to start things off by previewing the Pacific Division. We’ll be breaking things down division-by-division and take a look at each team and which serious burning question comes to mind for each of them. Some teams might have more than one question lingering heading into this season, but for the sake of this write-up, we’ll mainly focus on just one major question.
I’ll go in reverse order of how I think the Pacific is going to shake out. In a couple of days, we’ll wrap things up with a preview of each of the other three divisions, but in the meantime, let’s see how things will go out west.
7. Vancouver Canucks
Last season: 31-38-13, 75 points, missed playoffs, 6th in Pacific, 13th in the West
Burning Question: Is this the year the Canucks finally realize a full-scale rebuild is needed?
Based on their offseason moves, the answer is a resounding “no”, despite the fact that this team needs to tear it all down and start over. Over the summer, they went out and signed free agent forward Loui Eriksson to a big six-year extension, and traded away young prospect Jared McCann to Florida for defenseman Erik Gudbranson, a player who has merely been ok in his career. These are the kind of moves you make if you’re an up-and-coming team that’s a couple of players away from contending, not one that needs to rebuild. Eriksson should fit in nicely with the Sedin twins on their top line, but while the Sedins are still productive, they’ll be 36 when the season begins. How much more do they have left? Beyond that top line, there’s really not that much to be excited about with their forward group with the exception of maybe Bo Horvat. On the blue line, they’re also pretty thin beyond Alex Edler and Chris Tanev. As for the goaltending, Ryan Miller is past his prime, and Jakob Markstrom has yet to show he’s really capable of taking on the role of full-time starter in the NHL. This might be a team that makes one last gasp push for the playoffs, but don’t be surprised if they also finish dead last and end up picking first overall for the first time in franchise history.
6. Arizona Coyotes
Last season: 35-39-8, 78 points, missed the playoffs, 4th in the Pacific, 10th in the West
Burning Question: Can Mike Smith regain his past form between the pipes and accelerate the Coyotes’ rebuild?
I could easily see the Coyotes improving their point total this season, but finishing in a lower spot in the division due to what should be improved teams around them in Calgary and Edmonton, as well as the three California teams continuing to maintain their stranglehold on the top three spots in the Pacific. This team’s forward group is built around youngsters who made big impacts as rookies last season (Max Domi and Anthony Duclair), as well as hotshot prospects who should make the roster this year (Dylan Strome, Christian Dvorak, and Lawson Crouse). Jamie McGinn was signed as a free agent from Anaheim, and the team also brought back Radim Vrbata. Long-time captain Shane Doan is also back, while Arizona also brought in Alex Goligoski from Dallas to bolster their blue line and give the talented Oliver Ekman-Larsson some help on the back end. However, the biggest, most burning question is whether or not Smith can still be a number-one netminder in the NHL. He missed more than three months last season with a core muscle injury, and when he returned, he posted two shutouts in 10 games. If he can regain the form that made him one of the top goalies in the league when Arizona went to the Western Conference Finals in 2012, the Coyotes have a good shot at getting back to the postseason. That might be asking a lot though, as Smith has seen his numbers dip below league-average in the years since then. The rebuild continues to go in the right direction, and Smith has a better year than some expect, but Arizona misses out on the playoffs.
5. Edmonton Oilers
Last season: 31-43-8, 70 points, missed the playoffs, last in the Pacific, last in the West
Burning Question: How big of a step towards superstar status does Connor McDavid make after being named the youngest captain in NHL history?
A very, very large step. Maybe multiple large steps. At the tender age of 19 years and 266 days, McDavid will wear the C on his jersey, and to be honest, it’s not a surprising move. Despite missing 37 games last year due to injury, he looked every bit like the franchise cornerstone the Oilers drafted him to be in the summer of 2015, so McDavid being named captain was probably inevitable. What has also been inevitable over the last decade has been the Oilers missing the playoffs. They tied the NHL record last season by missing out on the postseason for the 10th consecutive year. Edmonton shook things up with their roster by trading star winger Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils straight up for defenseman Adam Larsson. The deal technically fills a need on the blue line, but it was largely panned by everyone because Larsson hasn’t proven to be the caliber of defenseman that you’d trade Hall for in a one-for-one deal. The Oilers also signed power forward Milan Lucic to bring a nasty, physical, power forward element to a roster loaded with speed and skill. This team will go as far as McDavid takes them, and if he continues to grow into the player many project him to be, he could be a guy that challenges for the Art Ross Trophy. I think Edmonton improves, but they still fall short of the postseason in their first season in the brand new Rogers Place.
4. Calgary Flames
Last season: 35-40-7, 77 points, missed the playoffs, 5th in the Pacific, 12th in the West
Burning Question: Will Brian Elliott solve the Flames’ goaltending woes?
On paper, the additions of Elliott as the starter via trade and Chad Johnson as the backup via free agency are a massive upgrade over the group of Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller, Joni Ortio, and Niklas Backstrom, whose combined save percentage of .892 was unacceptable by AHL standards, much less those of average NHL goalies. Although Elliott did benefit from being able to play behind Ken Hitchcock’s defensive system in St. Louis, he was no slouch between the pipes, as he has been one of the league’s most unheralded goalies over the last few years and was a big reason why the Blues made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season. After splitting duties in St. Louis with Jake Allen, the job in Calgary is Elliott’s to lose. The Flames missed the playoffs last season after making a remarkable run to the second round the season before, a decline many saw coming due to Calgary’s poor possession stats. New head coach Glen Gulutzan takes over for the fired Bob Hartley, and inherits some excellent young forwards up front in Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett, and Johnny Gaudreau, with Gaudreau still unsigned as a restricted free agent as of this writing. The Flames also added Troy Brouwer to their forward group as a free agent from St. Louis, while the team’s blue line is led by Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, and T.J. Brodie. Although there is a rather steep drop off between the team’s top-6 and bottom-6 forwards as well as between their top three defensemen and the rest of their blue-liners, the addition of Elliott will help them win some games they would’ve lost a year ago. The Flames will just barely miss the playoffs, but it will be a big step in the right direction after last season’s huge step back.
3. Anaheim Ducks
Last season: 46-25-11, 103 points, Pacific Division Champions, lost in the first round to Nashville
Burning Question: Did the Ducks make the right move by bringing back Randy Carlyle for a second stint as head coach?
That’s probably not a question that will be answered until much later in the season. After they were knocked out of the playoffs in a Game 7 at home for the fourth season in a row, Ducks GM Bob Murray canned head coach Bruce Boudreau and brought back Carlyle. Carlyle, who led Anaheim to their only Stanley Cup title in 2007 before being let go in 2011, was most recently the head coach in Toronto. That was a stint that didn’t end well for all parties involved. But Murray seems to believe that this coaching change is what his team needed after another playoff disappointment. Carlyle’s familiarity with Ducks forwards Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf will help, as they were both part of that ’07 Cup team, but let’s not forget that Carlyle also had a pair of Hall of Fame defensemen on that squad named Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. Last spring’s playoff defeat seemed to sting more than the previous Game 7 losses, as the Ducks got off to a slow start in the regular season before they finally found their footing after Christmas. They went on a tear in the second half that saw them win their division, only to get upset by the Predators. Besides Perry and Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler also makes up the core Anaheim’s forwards, and while all three are still productive, they’re starting to get up there in age. Meanwhile, up-and-comer Rickard Rakell is an RFA that is still unsigned, while on the back end, rising star Hampus Lindhold is another RFA that hasn’t reached a deal yet. Anaheim is loaded on the blue line, but they also made a big deal by trading goalie Frederik Andersen, clearing the way for 23-year-old John Gibson to claim the top spot in net for himself. While I still expect the Ducks to get to the playoffs, another early exit seems likely, especially if they have to play somebody like the Sharks or the Kings in the opening round.
2. San Jose Sharks
Last season: 46-30-6, 98 points, 3rd in the Pacific, lost to Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final
Burning Question: Do the Sharks have one last run at the Stanley Cup in them with their current group?
Why not? This is a team that didn’t lose anyone of importance while adding speedy forward Mikkel Boedker to an already fast and talented group of forwards. In addition, they’re coming off a loss in their first-ever trip to the Stanley Cup Final that many still see as major progress for this franchise, especially when you consider some of the postseason heartbreak they’ve endured over the years. Head coach Peter DeBoer pushed all the right buttons, Martin Jones emerged as a legitimate number-one goalie, while Joe Thornton (and his beard), Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture, were their usual dominant selves. Brent Burns (and his beard) had a career-best season on the blue line while also finishing as a finalist for the Norris Trophy. Joonas Donskoi was a breakout player for this team, while 36-year-old Patrick Marleau continued to be a productive force. The team’s blue line is also deep, with Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic leading the way and Paul Martin being as reliable as ever. Free agent pickup David Schlemko is an upgrade over the departed Roman Polak. This is a team that is similar to the Lightning; a roster stacked with talent, but with the feeling that this could be the last run this particular group makes before changes have to be made in the offseason. Marleau and Thornton (who is also 36) will both be UFA’s after the season. So will Burns, who is expected to command a large, well-deserved raise, especially if he continues his stellar play from last season. The Sharks have what it takes to make another deep run in the playoffs, although they won’t be flying under the radar like they did a year ago.
1. Los Angeles Kings
Last season: 48-28-6, 102 points, 2nd in the Pacific, lost to San Jose in the first round
Burning Question: Can the Kings make a run in the postseason after only winning one playoff game in the last two years?
They’re certainly capable of making a deep playoff run, but it’s tough to say whether or not they actually will. When goaltender Jonathan Quick is on his game, there are few better in the NHL, and he received a Vezina Trophy nomination despite having a goals-against average of 2.22 and a save percentage of .918. Those are pretty good numbers, but not Vezina Trophy-level numbers. While he has been clutch in the postseason when the Kings won the Cup in 2012 and 2014, he was anything but good against the Sharks in last season’s playoffs. But in his defense, the entire Kings roster was dominated in that five-game series, as San Jose quickly dispatched their bitter in-state rivals. This will also be the first full year of Anze Kopitar’s eight-year extension worth $10 million per year. Kopitar was given the captaincy after it was stripped away from Dustin Brown, and has been one of the NHL’s top two-way centers for several years. Is he worth $10 million a year? Probably not, but Los Angeles couldn’t risk him getting away in free agency. Speaking of the 32-year-old Brown, his production has fallen off a cliff over the last couple of seasons, but L.A. will find it difficult to move his contract, worth $5.875 million a year through 2022. They’ll have to if they want to re-sign Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson to raises after the season. Toffoli could see a big bump in pay if he continues his pace from last season, when he finished with 31 goals. On the blue line, Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty should continue to excel, as he is arguably the best all-around, two-way defenseman in the game today. The Kings are a team that has always played well in head coach Darryl Sutter’s system, particularly on the defensive side when it comes to suppressing the opposition’s shots and scoring chances. This helps them greatly, as they are a team that is very top-heavy both in their forward group and in their defensive corps. L.A. is a team capable of winning the Pacific Division, and they’re a Cup contender, but I don’t see them getting beyond the second round of the playoffs.
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