It’s Day 2 of my annual pre-season NHL predictions, and after kicking things off with the Atlantic division Wednesday – and you can read that here – I’m moving on to break down the Pacific division today.
As I noted in that Wednesday file, it’s understood before the season begins that some teams will live up to media/analyst/fan expectations, while others will underachieve, and others will overachieve. Don’t ever think a rational observer is biased against your team simply because of where they work/live and who they work for. This is as objective as you can be in a process that is largely subjective. And to reiterate a point from yesterday – the picks you’ll see from this writer aren’t THN’s official picks, which are available here.
Now, on to my picks for the Pacific – very likely the weakest of the NHL’s four divisions:
1. Vegas Golden Knights: The Golden Knights won a league-best 40 games in the 2021 campaign thanks to a fantastic balance of offense (191 goals-for) and defense (just 128 goals-against – also the best in the NHL). GM Kelly McCrimmon has all his most important players back, with the exception of Vezina Trophy-winner Marc-Andre Fleury, who was shipped off to Chicago to address Vegas’ salary cap issues. Veteran Robin Lehner, who performed admirably alongside Fleury in a backup/1A/1B approach last season, now gets the bulk of the work, with former Jets/Oilers goalie Laurent Brossoit serving as his understudy.
Just about every Vegas player from last season’s squad is returning for another crack at a long Stanley Cup playoff run, and the biggest change (besides Fleury) McCrimmon made was a three-way deal with Philadelphia and Nashville that sent the Golden Knights’ first ever draft pick, center Cody Glass, out of Vegas, and brought in 2017 second-overall pick Nolan Patrick to the Knights’ lineup. Patrick may wind up thriving in Vegas, given that head coach Peter DeBoer and team management won’t be looking to him to carry a big load.
Either way, Patrick won’t bump up Vegas’ win total, and he won’t be responsible if the team falters. This is a veteran squad that has shown it can bulldoze opponents with its heavy, high-impact approach, and little is going to change in that regard. And in a weak division like the Pacific, they should be dining out on relative Pacific lightweights such as San Jose, Anaheim, Calgary and Seattle. The Oilers may challenge them for the Pacific title, but ultimately, this is the most complete team in the division.
2. Edmonton Oilers: After finishing second in their division last season, the Oilers have raised expectations for this year. They also have the ugly spectacle of being swept by the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the 2021 playoffs lingering in the back of their minds. It was only natural, then, that Edmonton GM Ken Holland made big-time renovations to his roster this summer: to address the blueline, he traded for former Blackhawks cornerstone Duncan Keith and signed unrestricted free agent Cody Ceci. Up front, he signed UFA winger Zach Hyman and traded for former Carolina winger Warren Foegele to give the forward group a smarter, tougher feel.
In making those moves – and re-signing veteran goalie Mike Smith – Holland pushed the Oilers to the cap ceiling limit, but he’s put together a group that has the potential to do great things. We all know what superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can do, and we know Darnell Nurse is in his prime, so there’s much to like in Edmonton. But, as it goes with most young teams, the Oilers need to make their regular-season successes extend into the playoffs. But for the regular season, at least, they should be fine – and they should pose the biggest threat to Vegas for the division title.
3. Los Angeles Kings: I’ve been completely consistent about the Kings. I think they’re going to surprise a lot of people this year, and though they may wind up in fourth place, I do see them as a playoff team in the Pacific. GM Rob Blake has been patient in trying a rebuild with the Kings’ core of Cup-winning players still around, and after targeting and landing two forwards – former Predators winger Viktor Arvidsson and UFA center Phillip Danault to vastly improve L.A.’s second line.
Blake also added veteran know-how on his blueline, signing longtime Canucks D-man Alex Edler to a one-year deal. Edler is now 35 and clearly not still in his heyday, but he adds skill and vision to a young Kings defense corps. And Blake solidified his vision of L.A.’s goaltending future by signing 26-year-old Cal Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract extension. Petersen will work with 35-year-old Jonathan Quick, who is under contract for this season and the 2022-23 campaign. At a time when many NHL teams chose to shake up their goaltending picture, the Kings have doubled down with the ones that have been there through the lean years.
There’s no doubt the Kings will need above-average production from their veteran core, including center Anze Kopitar, defenseman Drew Doughty, and winger Dustin Brown if they’re going to be effective and climb the Pacific standings. But if they can get it, and their cachet of youngsters continue to progress, there’s a good chance L.A. will be a threat. Maybe not a deep-playoff-run-threat kind of threat, but hey, it’s a process.
4. Vancouver Canucks: Ah, the Canucks. They’re always maddeningly inconsistent, and ownership/management is constantly altering things in one shape or form. There never seems to be a lack of drama in Vancouver, which is both a tribute to their long-suffering fan base and a potential distraction for players. Right off the hop this season, the Canucks have been dealing with two star restricted free agents – blueliner Quinn Hughes and center Elias Pettersson – who still haven’t been able to come to terms on new contracts. Both players are central to Vancouver’s success this year, and the longer they remain on the sidelines in negotiation, the worse it will be for the Canucks in the standings.
Vancouver GM Jim Benning replaced defenseman Alex Edler with former Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the off-season; he secured a solid No. 2 goalie in the well-traveled Jaroslav Halak; and at forward, he gave his second line a big boost when he traded for former Coyotes winger Conor Garland. The Canucks certainly have more experience in the room, but without Pettersson and Hughes, they’re an incomplete group. If they return quickly, Vancouver can be a playoff team – although probably not a deep-Cup-run playoff team – but if they continue to allow two of their best young players to marinate on the sidelines, all bets are off.
5. Calgary Flames: To give you an indication of how far off the rails the Flames’ 2021 season went, understand that they finished fifth in the makeshift North division, but won only three more games than the sixth-place Ottawa Senators. The Sens were going through a rebuild. The Flames – well, they’re looking like more changes are ahead.
Calgary GM Brad Treliving saw his roster take a couple powerful hits lately. The first was trading forward Sam Bennett to the Panthers, then watching him thrive there. The second was losing former captain Mark Giordano to the expansion Seattle Kraken. Together, the losses of Bennett and Giordano haven’t been adequately answered by Treliving, and so the Flames will rely heavily on head coach Darryl Sutter’s defense-minded game plan, and hope that star forwards Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau will carry most of the load on offense.
If any of those three stars struggle to put up points, the results will not be to Calgary’s satisfaction. And if their goaltending duo of starter Jacob Markstrom and new acquisition Daniel Vladar (who posted a .886 save percentage in five games with Boston last season) springs leaks, it may not matter how many goals the Flames score. There is a path to the playoffs for them, but many dead-end possibilities as well. If the Kings leapfrog over them in the final standings this season, that may be an indication this core of talent has had time run out on them, and the time will come for at least some key cogs to be moved.
6. Seattle Kraken: On first glance, the Kraken aren’t an especially sexy team. They don’t have great depth at center, or at forward, for that matter. They’re not physically big up front. And there are no current Norris Trophy contenders on their defense corps. But they do have talent: Jordan Eberle and Jaden Schwartz are perfectly capable wingers; their defense has bona fide experience in the form of Adam Larsson, Jamie Oleksiak, Mark Giordano and Vince Dunn; and their goaltending duo of Chris Driedger and Philipp Grubauer may be one of the strongest in the division.
That said, I don’t see the Kraken following in the Golden Knights’ footsteps and be a consistent winner this season. Head coach Dave Hakstol just doesn’t have enough proven NHL talent to make a dent in the standings. And GM Ron Francis has more than $8.3 million in cap space to tweak and add to Seattle’s roster as the season unfolds. They may take on a cumbersome contract if it means deepening their prospect pool, but that won’t help matters for the short term. Slowly-but-surely seems to be the idea here. Now it’s on Francis to lay the foundation over the long haul.
7. San Jose Sharks: The Sharks have been struggling to find their way for a couple years now, and there’s no sign their woes soon will be at an end. Last season, they weren’t elite on offense (151 goals-for), and their defense was abysmal (199 goals-against, which was as bad as Buffalo and second-worst only to Philadelphia’s 201 goals-against). To make matters worse, there were reports of strife between winger Evander Kane and some of his teammates. Worse still, Kane’s personal life became public news when his estranged wife told the world he was an obsessive gambler and abuser. Neither of those allegations have been proven to be true, but in the hockey world, they’re enough to affect the team, make any potential trade destination for Kane dry up, and leave Sharks GM Doug Wilson with some stark and bleak choices to make on Kane’s future.
After the Sharks’ goaltending – including longtime starter Martin Jones, whose contract was bought out by the team this summer – completely fell apart last year, Wilson has turned to two new faces for San Jose’s netminding in 2021-22: former Hurricanes and Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer, who is actually back for his second tour of duty with the Sharks after playing eight games for them in 2015-16; and former Coyotes goalie Adin Hill, who played 19 games for Arizona last season and posted a 2.74 goals-against average and .913 SP. That plan has a downside, and despite the fact San Jose still has name value on the blueline, there’s not enough depth throughout the lineup to justify believing this team is a playoff team.
8. Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks are another former Cup champion who are in the throes of a rebuild. GM Bob Murray has $12 million in cap space to go after a true No. 1 center like Jack Eichel, and he’s also got enough prospects in the pipeline to eventually be the winner in the bid to acquire disgruntled Sabres star. But when the question is “will this team be in the post-season or anywhere near it?”, the answer is pretty firmly, “no”.
Murray has a current NHL lineup that is going to put far too much emphasis on their youngsters, and it isn’t likely all of them will respond to the increased pressure with career years. Goalie John Gibson is still terrifically talented, but the defense group in front of him isn’t elite, and Anaheim’s forwards as a whole don’t have the size or depth of experience that can put them in the win column more often than not. Head coach Dallas Eakins will be a miracle worker if he can steer the Ducks to the playoffs. More likely is another season of struggles as they learn who they can lean on for the long term. Sourcehttps://chinaicehockey.net