2014-15 NHL Preview: Pacific Division

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The old Pacific Division is much like the new Pacific division as the top teams from the West Coast remain the top teams in the Pacific. The California trio continue their dominance of the Pacific in a massive surge of California hockey. When the NHL decided to expand to the West Coast it was thought to be a terrible idea. The land of sunshine and beaches had no idea what hockey was and putting a pro team there was sure to fail. It did not look promising in the start with the Los Angeles Kings, established in 1967, struggling to become known in Hollywood. Then came Wayne Gretzky, who brought Hollywood to the rink and made the Kings one of the more popular teams in the NHL. More teams followed as the San Jose Sharks joined the league in 1991 while Disney bought a franchise in 1993 to give the state of California three teams. Even with the success of the Kings it seemed like there was little chance for the California teams but they proved everyone wrong and are now some of the more popular teams in the league. That has come in large part due to the success of all three of these teams who have become three of the most dominant teams in the league. Along with their success has been the success of the amateur sides of the sport. Amateur hockey has grown by leaps and bounds in the state and is quickly becoming a hotbed for the sport in one of the most unexpected places. It has everything to do with the three teams in the state who support minor hockey in their own leagues and continue to use their great play to create more fans. They have all had their ups and downs with struggles at moments and a few Stanley Cups sprinkled into the mix. In the last few years though it has seemed to be the three of these teams fighting it out in the Pacific Division. Only recently has the game begun to really show progress for the NHL as it has taken time for the sport to grow in the golden state but it is now at a point where the sports is a main attraction. That is not to say that these teams are steady quite yet as there has yet to be many losing season that drive fans away. When that happens the true impact of these three teams will be seen in full force. For now though the three teams are winning and continuing to be the teams to beat in the Pacific. When the re-organization brought in a number of teams into the division it was expected that a few of them could give the Californians a run for their money in the 2013-14 season. The biggest hope was the Vancouver Canucks who came from the Northwest Division as the powerhouse of the third group of teams. They had just come off of a Stanley Cup appearance a few years earlier and were consistently in the top of the division every year.  That did not happen in their new division though as they ended up sitting outside looking in with the Californians staying at the top of their division. They enter a new season looking to continue the dominance while everyone else tries to knock them off.

 

Anaheim Ducks

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The Ducks were the kings of the regular season in 2013-14 as they earned the best record in the very tough Western Conference. They seemed to put everything together last season and rarely saw a period of decline. It was their best season ever as a franchise and for the accomplishment they earned the top spot in the conference and an easier path in the playoffs. Then again no path in the West is easy and after they dispatched the Dallas Stars in a surprisingly tough series they fell to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings. The Ducks are not content with sitting by after their best season ever as they did not come away with the Cup and that is the ultimate goal. The Ducks went to work in the offseason to improve one of the best lineups in the league. They lost a number of players too replaced most with capable if not better players. The offence that is led by the Cory Perry-Ryan Getzlaf connection has been reinforced with the additions of Danny Heatley and Ryan Kesler. Heatley may not be the goal scorer he once was but the still provides a good third line goal scorer. Meanwhile Kesler is a consistent 20-goal scorer with size that is sure to have an impact on the offence for the Ducks. On defence the Ducks got more depth to an already good blue line group that is led by the pairing of Cam Fowler and Ben Lovejoy. In net there will be some change though as Jonas Hiller is gone leaving the Ducks without their brightest young star. In his place came Jason LaBarbera who will fight for a spot on the team with John Gibson and Frederik Andersen. It could end up being their biggest question marking heading into a new season as none of these three goalies has shown to be a starter and a platoon may be the answer if none can take full control of the starter role. The offence is better than ever while the defence remains strong for the Ducks as they have only one goal in mind this season. It is Stanley Cup or Bust for the Ducks and their offseason put the rest of the league on notice but it won’t happen if they can’t get great goaltending from one of the three potential starters.

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Arizona Coyotes

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Will a new name change the fortunes of one of the most debated franchises in the NHL? Only time will tell but fans can say goodbye to the Phoenix Coyotes and hello to the Arizona Coyotes who are hoping to find a new path with their new name. Last year the Coyotes were headed to the playoffs as one of the teams that could have upset the California trio. Then their meal-ticket by the name of Mike Smith got hurt and a seven-game slide saw them fall out of the playoff picture. It was clear that the Coyotes had put too much into one player no matter how solid he is as their backstop. This year they did not seem to learn from their issues though as they made little changes to the team to make them better. The loss of Radim Vrbata and Mike Ribeiro will hurt while the additions of Sam Gagner will soften the blow but he has yet to match either of the departures in their production. Adding B.J. Crombeen and Joe Vitale provides some extra grit that the Coyotes love while Shane Doan returns for another season and Martin Hanzal alongside Martin Erat provide some of the top line scoring. The defence has some potential but they have yet to prove that they have a shutdown pairing that they can put out with the best forwards in the game. That is where their biggest asset comes in as Mike Smith returns from his late season injury to lead the team from the net. He is one of the best young goaltenders in the game and can win games for his team. The only problem is that they depend on him too much. If he goes down again with injury it could mean trouble for the Coyotes with little in terms of other playmakers that can put the team on their back. The change in name might be the most interesting thing for the Coyotes this year as they made some additions but none will have a big enough impact to help Mike Smith. They still could have another good season if Mike Smith stays healthy and the put together enough wins to challenge for the playoffs but it isn’t likely that they make much noise this year.

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Calgary Flames

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The Calgary Flames have been stuck over the last few years as they let their team get to the point where they are too old to win a Stanley Cup. Yet still they were too good to rebuild with top picks making them a limbo team. During the 2012-13 season the Flames allowed longtime captain Jarome Iginla to seek a cup by trading him to Pittsburgh. Last offseason longtime goaltender Miika Kiprusoff retired. The changes made the Flames one of the worst teams in the league as they quickly fell to the bottom of the division. This year they let the last member of a former era go as Mike Cammalleri was allowed to leave in free agency after his second tour in Calgary. Now the Flames are a team for the young with the old guard gone and the young talent taking the reins. Despite their bad season the Flames saw some positives including Sean Monahan, the 2013 1st round draft pick. His rookie season was outstanding and now he looks to make it two in a row as the Flames look to him to help lead the offence. Along with Monahan will be Mikael Backlund and Joe Colborne to lead the youth movement for the Flames. They will not be without veteran presence though as Curtis Glencross, Jiri Hudler and new addition Mason Raymond and Devin Setoguchi provide offensive power but also a sense of leadership in the locker room. The defence is relatively unchanged and not necessarily the best in the league. Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie lead the underwhelming group but they are also not the worst part of the team. The In net the Flames may be looking to new addition Jonas Hiller who will try to take over as the true #1 starter in Calgary. His potential is high and if he can reach that as a starter the Flames may have found their next goalie for the next few years. The Flames are looking to a young team to lead them which is not promising as they need them to develop in order for the Flames to compete and they may not be there yet as the young talent they have is good but might not be good enough yet.

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Edmonton Oilers

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The Edmonton Oilers have made a habit of finishing last in the division and earning top picks in the draft but not getting anything in return. It seems like no matter how many top picks the Oilers get it seems like they can never get out of the bottom. The collection of top picks from the draft is the envy of many teams with names like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, and Jordan Eberle. Yet they remain one of the worst teams in the league as the building phase continues on. Last year the Oilers attempted to change directions when they hired Dallas Eakins as their new head coach. The man known for working best with young players still could not get anything going in his first time as an NHL head coach. Now he enters his second year as the head coach with plenty of offensive talent to work with. The list of names of top picks will be Leon Draisaitl giving the Oilers almost two full lines of young talented forwards. The potential is there for all of them to make a great offence but they can never seem to put it together. All will have to avoid the slump that Yakupov went through last year if they hope to produce on offence. Meanwhile the defence still remains a work in progress but this offseason Craig MacTavish took the first real steps in improving the group that has been their Achilles heel for years. Signing Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin are moves in the right direction but this blue line group is still questionable. In net the Oilers will attempt to find some consistency after using a number of goalies last year. Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth could both split time in net but that will be more consistent than the six goalies they used last year. The Oilers are a strange teams as the roster looks good enough to make the playoffs and yet they underperform every year. This year the storyline remains the same for the Oilers as their talent could easily push them to the playoffs but they could also underperform again and finish last in the division preparing for a top pick in the draft, it is all up to the players meeting their potential.

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Los Angeles Kings

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The Los Angeles Kings are part of the power couple in the NHL along with the Chicago Blackhawks. They are one of only three teams to win a Stanley Cup in the last five years including two championships in the last three years. They have been one of the best teams in the NHL for the last three years. They have done this by building a team that is meant for the playoffs with grinders throughout and a touch of scoring. A year after the winning the Stnaley Cup the Kings will not suffer the usual departures that come with winning a championship. In fact the Kings were one of the quietest teams throughout the offseason. The Kings only lost centre Colin Fraser and defenceman Willie Mitchell but that was it for the entire offseason. Meanwhile their only addition was right wing Adam Cracknell who may not even make the starting lineup for the team. That bodes well for the Kings as their Stanley Cup winning team stays the same from top to bottom. Up front they will looked to the least talked about sniper in the game, Anze Kopitar. Kopitar and Gaborik form the goal-scoring punch for the Kings on a team surrounded by grinder power forwards. Still it is enough to help the team put up points and having Gaborik for a full season should only foster the relationship between the two playmakers. The defence remains as solid as ever with Drew Doughty leading the charge from the blue line and Jake Muzzin, Slava Voynov, and Robyn Regehr holding down the fort on the blue line. Meanwhile Jonathan Quick remains the sure thing in net and one of the most dependable goaltenders in the league. He is not flashy goalie and sometimes is a forgotten name when talking about the best goalies in the game. Yet he has backstopped the Kings to two Stanley Cup championships in the last three years. The Kings are again one of the best teams in the NHL and will once again make a run at another title but will have to avoid the hangover to get there.

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San Jose Sharks

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What can be said about the San Jose Sharks that hasn’t been said year after year in their constant quest for ta Stanley Cup. They are possibly one of the best and most consistent teams in the regular season and at the same time one of the worst and most inconsistent teams in the playoffs. Last year proved the theory as the Sharks once again rose to the top of the division finishing in second place and looking like one foo the best teams heading into the playoffs. Then they pressed the Kings the furthest they had ever been pushed when they won the first three games of their opening series. Then it came apart as the Sharks lost the next four games and once again fell too early in the playoffs. They enter a new season with much of the same team and the entire hockey world looking at them as the same team that they have been in the last few years. The Sharks did lose some of their old stalwarts including the biggest loss on the blue line in Dan Boyle. The loss of Boyle is sure to leave a hole for the Sharks but they are a much deeper team than one player. Marc-Eduard Vlasic and Brent Burns now fill the top pairing and are more than capable of keeping this team running. Behind the blue line will be another goaltender that doesn’t need to stand on his head but is solid in Antii Niemi. Up front the Sharks are perfecting the transition that many teams have a hard time with. The old guard is slowly giving up control while the new stars are taking the reins. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were the stars of this team and are still big parts but Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski are beginning to take on much bigger roles. The Sharks will once again be a good regular season team and will likely make the playoffs. That is not the concern for the Sharks though as the question will be how they can fix the issue of falling short in the playoffs and whether or not they did what they needed to fix those issues but from the outside it looks like they did not do enough.

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Vancouver Canucks

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The Vancouver Canucks came into the 2013-14 season as a potential challenger to the rule of the California teams but instead the season went south quickly. With a new head coach in John Tortorella the Canucks were hoping to get over the hump after years of falling just short of winning the Stanley Cup. The new coaching style turned out to be a bad idea as the players clearly did not want to play under the fiery Tortorella. Missing the playoffs and falling to fifth in the division cost Tortorella his job after only one season at the helm of the Canucks. Then again that season cost a lot of people their jobs as the Canucks decided to reorganize their team from top to bottom. It started with the hiring of Trevor Linden as the President of Hockey Operations and hired Jim Benning as the general manager. The coaching position was later filled by Willie Desjardins who had just won the Calder Cup in the AHL with the Houston Aeros, Dallas’ affiliate. The new management got to work quickly as they were not going to be the only new faces in town. The Canucks would go out and sign Nick Bonino, one of Anaheim’s leading scorers, and Radim Vrbata, leading scorer for Arizona. These two goal scorers will join the Sedin brothers to provide most of the offence while the Canucks are deep enough with players that can provide secondary scoring. The defence did not lose a lot of their top guys with only Jason Garrison leaving which will give young blue liner Chris Tanev more ice time in the top pairing alongside Dan Hamhuis. The defence remains a stalwart of the team while there are big changes in the net after a strange year. Before the season started the Canucks traded away back up Cory Schneider and then midseason traded Roberto Luongo leaving them an unprepared Eddie Lack to carry the load. This year they will look to Ryan Miller as the starter and he hopes to continue his solid performances over the last few years to help the Canucks get back to the playoffs. The Canucks are an improved team and a team with new commitment form the top down so it is going to be hard to keep them out of the playoffs although making the top three is not going to be easy.

 

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Prediction:
The Pacific division has been ruled by the West Coast for years and that does not seem to be changing much in the new season. The California teams have been on the top for a long time and they will look to stay there once again. Anaheim, San Jose, and Los Angeles will fight it out for top spot where the Ducks will take first place with the Kings and the Sharks filling in behind them respectively. Another West Coast team will join these three in the playoffs this year as the Vancouver Canucks will improve to challenge for a top three spot. They won’t get it but a wild card is not out of the question for a remodeled team. The Arizona Coyotes will be changed in name only as they will fall back behind the Canucks and out of the playoffs. Meanwhile Alberta continues to suffer as Edmonton and Calgary both find themselves at the bottom of the division for another year.

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