2015-16 NHL Preview: Pacific Division

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The Pacific Division is one of the most interesting in the NHL ever since it was put together two years ago.

The division is only going to get more interesting this year with some big additions to the group that includes the biggest name in hockey since Crosby.

More than just the one player that was added this year the division is the one division with more teams that shouldn’t work than anywhere else.

They are a division where some of the worst markets for hockey actually hold on and love their hockey teams.

Many of these teams simply shouldn’t work where they are located but more often than not they do work and are only beginning to grow.

There is a host of Canadian teams that are generally never to be worried about but in this instance there are some concerns.

In Vancouver the worry is almost none as they are one of the most valuable teams in the league in one of the biggest cities in the country.

The same can’t be said for the Alberta teams where Calgary and Edmonton have both had concerns over their teams.

That concern has mainly been due to the lack of new facilities in the cities but recently those issues have been resolved.

Rogers Place, in Edmonton, is currently under construction and should be ready for 2016 while Calgary just announced plans for a new multi-sport complex that, if approved, will replace the Saddledome.hockey-sidebar

They are teams with plenty of future ahead of them and teams that have always worked in the NHL.

The stranger part of the division is in California where there are three teams located in a place that should never work.

Hockey in a place known for sunny and hot weather just doesn’t seem like it is a smart idea.

Yet the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, and Los Angeles Kings are making it work and helping to grow the sport throughout the state.

It was a decision that many thought was never going to work when the league put three teams in the same state.

Now California is becoming a place to look for great hockey players and all three teams have deep and loyal followings.

The Pacific division is full of these teams that never should have worked but somehow did and then there is the Arizona Coyotes.

The team that has stuck in the sides of the NHL and NHL fans as one of few teams that simply doesn’t work.

The NHL is hoping that at some point they can count Arizona as another success story like the multiple California teams.

With more places looking into bringing hockey to their city and a demand for teams that make sense the Coyotes may very well be leaving soon.

As of right now though they remain the one team that has proven every critic right about NHL expansion in the desert.

The Pacific looks to continue their run of popularity in unconventional markets and tries to get back to their dominant ways.

Last year a once consistently dominant division missed the wild card putting only three teams into the playoffs against a strong Central Division.

This year some major changes could shift the division, or at least the fan bases hope so.

anaheim_ducks

The Anaheim Ducks have long been the team to beat in the Pacific and last year was no different as they competed for the President’s Trophy all year. The Ducks have made their way with the pairing of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf who have never played on different teams. Starting in the 2005-06 season both players joined the Ducks and although they didn’t initially play on the same line they led the resurgence of a team that was struggling. Now, as they play on the same line they are leading the Ducks to consistent playoff appearances and becoming favourites year after year. The problem for the Ducks is that both Perry and Getzlaf are now 30 and although they have plenty of game left in them that window is about to close. 30 years old is not what it used to be in the NHL but it does still mark a point where some players at least start to lose a step. They hope to prove that wrong this year and as of right now there is nothing to say that they won’t continue to be a dynamic duo. With those two leading the way the Ducks added Carl Hagelin and Chris Stewart who are sure to take some of the pressure off of the top line on the offence. The defence will be without the leader of the group and the steadiness of Francois Beauchemin which will be a big loss for the blue line. Hampus Lindholm will take over as the leader while Cam Fowler looks to take his place in the top pair. Meanwhile Simon Despres and Sami Vatanen have shown plenty of promise. It is a good group but they will be without one of the more consistent players in the league which could cause some issues. In net the Ducks are still a mystery as Frederik Andersen seemed like he had finally nailed down a role that has been unsure since JS Giguere left the west coast. That was until he faced the Blackhawks and they lit him up causing the ducks to bring in Anton Khudobin who showed promise in Carolina. Andersen seems like the guy for now but a few bad games could bring a goalie battle. The Ducks are still a strong team and will be in the fight for the division as they try to continue their progression towards the Stanley Cup. Every year in the last two years the Ducks have been closer to the Cup and they have a chance to make it this year and might have to before the window of opportunity closes.

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phoenix_coyotes

The Arizona Coyotes are hoping, once again, to get away from the off-season issues and just start playing hockey. After an off-season where their home was in jeopardy after the City of Glendale cancelled the lease for Gila River Arena. With the lease re-organized the Coyotes are staying in Glendale, for the time being, and they are hoping to start winning games in order to bring some fans out before they are relocated to a better market. There is some promise for that as they have some very good young talent ready to make an impact this year. The two players that could have the biggest impact are Max Domi and Anthony Duclair who showed that they can be great in last year’s World Juniors. Along with these two the Coyotes picked up Ryan Strome in the draft as the Coyotes are building a young group although Strome may not be seen this year. As for right now this is still Shane Doan’s team as he will once again lead the offence as he approaches 40. To help him the Coyotes brought back Antoine Vermette who returns after a brief stint with the Blackhawks last year that gave him a Stanley Cup ring. He returns to the desert as the likely top scoring forward without Gagner in the mix and without any proven scoring leaders. Much of their offence came from the blue line last year as Oliver Ekman-Larsson was the leading scorer on the team and has solidified himself as the building block for the future. Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle made up two of the top three scorers on the team and without Yandle, who was traded midseason, OEL is the man. The rest of the blue liners lack in experience in a group that could see some growing pains. The net has been a strength for the Coyotes but last year Mike Smith struggled while facing the fourth most shots in the league. It was a career low for the Canadian who went to play in the World Championship and was back to his old form behind the Canadian defence. He has the ability to steal games but with inexperience in front of him he could be in for another rough year. The Coyotes are building a promising young corps but unlike many teams they don’t seem to be willing to hand that young group the reigns yet. As good as the young guns are they may see limited time and unless one of them gets a chance and breaks out there is not enough offence and too little experience on defence for them to compete.

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calgary_flames

The Calgary Flames were one of the best stories of the 2014-15 season as a young group of players came alive at the end of the season and throughout the playoffs. They drove the Flames to the Conference Semi-Finals and had many thinking they could be a Cinderella story of the playoffs. Eventually they ran into a tougher, more veteran team but the league was put on notice as the young guns in Calgary are ready to compete with the best of them. Based on wins they look like they can become a consistent competitor but if you ask analytics people they are poised for a letdown. They ranked third last in Corsi, shot differential, in the league showing that their possession numbers are not good. That will be the theme of the season for the Flames as they clearly have a team full of great quick strike players but can they prevent shots on goal enough to get past the best teams in the league. Leading the youth revolution in Calgary is Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau who both put up 60+ points last year. Monahan is entering his third year and Gaudreau only his second full year and they are breathing new life into this offence. That is evident with Jiri Hudler having one of his best seasons ever playing for the Flames putting up more than 70 points last year. This year these three will be leaned on again while Sam Bennett is expected to take on a bigger role as another young goal scorer. On defence the Flames are a very good group that got better by adding another young piece to the team. Dougie Hamilton was depended on in Boston to take on the best in the league and still put up 40+ points last year. He won’t take on that responsibility this year giving him more freedom to take risks on offence as Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie sit as the top pairing. The improvement gives the Flames a very good group in front of Jonas Hiller who isn’t a great goalie that will steal games but doesn’t need to be as he faces less shots than most. The Flames are a young group and depending on how you look at things they could be just beginning a good streak in the division. They do need to improve their possession and avoid the slumps that some young players seem to enter in their second or third year but they clearly have the talent to compete. In most outcomes the Flames are a playoff team but how far they go depends on some of the main questions about their possession and young players.

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edmonton_oilers

The Edmonton Oilers are a team that can’t seem to figure it out no matter what they do to try to fix the team. They have had more than enough top draft picks to load the team with what should be the best young group in the NHL. Year after year they added great young players and yet they remained on the bottom of the league and were once again in a position to pick the best player available. There is something different about this year though as the Oilers are very much a changed team. The man who built the Boston Bruins into the only real dominant team in the East is now with the Oilers as Peter Chiarelli takes over as GM. The man who helped the Sharks to be one of the best teams in the league year after year in Todd McLellan is now behind the bench. The hiring of Chiarelli and McLellan have been far overlooked due to the fact that the Oilers won another draft lottery and possibly picked the best player since Sidney Crosby. By all accounts he is the type of player that can change a franchise, just like Sidney Crosby did for Pittsburgh. He is expected to be the offensive leader alongside the young group that includes Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov. If McDavid comes as advertised the Oilers just became ten times better on offence. It’s a different story for the rest of the team as they continue to search for a defence. The addition of Andrej Sekera is a big one for a team that has been looking for defence for years. That is essentially all they did as the addition of Griffin Reinhart likely won’t have an effect yet. The rest of the defence is the same as they look to Justin Schultz to take a step forward along with Oscar Kelfbom while Andrew Ference tries to return to form. In goal the Oilers are a complete unknown as one of the most desirable trade options in the league was brought to Edmonton. Cam Talbot could be the #1 goaltender the Oilers have been looking for after a promising year in New York. Now he takes on the main role though and doesn’t have Henrik Lundqvist in front of him as the spotlight is squarely on the young goalie. The Oilers are a team that has made massive steps towards actually competing but they still have some big questions. The offence and goaltending could be better but the defence is still not good enough as they will miss the playoffs again.

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los_angeles_kings

In the last few years the western conference has ruled over the eastern conference in the Stanley Cup. Even in the western conference though there has been a pattern of dominance as two teams have rules the conference over the past few years. The Los Angeles Kings have been one of the two teams as they continued to fight it out with Chicago for the best dynasty in the league. Last year was a detour from that path though as the Kings missed the playoffs after a disastrous season. That disaster continued in the off-season when Slava Voynov pleaded guilty to domestic abuse and was granted voluntary deportation back to Russia while Mike Richards was arrested for drug trafficking. They are entering a new season where the off-ice issues are being dealt with thanks to a new team code of conduct and an attitude that last year was just an abnormality. They have lost a number of players whether it was due to off-ice issues or free agency but they still remain deep. The offence is still led by the most underrated player in the game in Anze Kopitar who will have some extra grit along with him as the Kings added Milan Lucic. Along with them Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, and the consistently developing Tyler Toffoli form a deep group that won’t light up the scoreboard but can score enough goals. The loss of Voynov on the blue line is going to hurt but his off-ice issues may have hurt the Kings more. The group is still solid with Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin leading the way. New arrival Christian Ehrhoff provides some depth to a group that might not be the best but is good enough to be successful. In net the Kings are solid with Jonathan Quick carrying the load especially this year without Martin Jones behind him. Jhonas Enroth is a good goalie but Jones was a better back-up and so the Kings may be wary to give Enroth as many games. The Kings are still a solid group despite losing some key players but they’re problems remain the same. They still can’t score goals at the same rate as many other teams putting plenty of pressure on the defence and goalie. Last year showed those weaknesses in a big way and for some it showed the beginning of the end for this group of Kings. The new season is hear now and they will try to prove everyone wrong as they still seem to have a strong team with great puck possession stats that could see them back in the playoffs this year.

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san_jose_sharks

The San Jose Sharks have been a team that many people see as one that is in desperate need of a rebuild. Not team wants to go through the process of giving up a few years to be successful down the road but sometimes it is necessary. The Sharks have been in that situation for a while now as they have relied on veterans far too much for the past few years. The likes of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are good players but there comes a time when a team needs to hand over the reins to the younger generation if they hope to stay at the top. Last year the Sharks saw the results of ignoring that fact finishing out of the playoffs after years of being Stanley Cup favourites. This year the Sharks have still been unwilling to begin the rebuild as the old guard remain and the young generation remains in the background. Thornton and Marleau are both over 35 and are not getting any better while new captain, Joe Pavelski is on the other side of 30. Meanwhile Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl sit in the background both playing good enough to lead the team but not getting the chance. It is the constant frustration of the Sharks and this year they will remain the same as both veterans get closer to a decline. Bringing in Joel Ward is a good move to provide secondary scoring but this team still needs to get young not older by signing a 34-year old second line winger. The offence is still a potent one with plenty of depth as they can score plenty of goals. On defence Brent Burns provides plenty of offence himself alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic to form a good top pairing. Beyond that it was tough last year but the addition of Paul Martin should provide more depth to the group. In net the Sharks have failed to find a true top starter but Anti Niemi was pretty close. He is now gone and in his place is Martin Jones who filled in behind Jonathan Quick and did a good job. The question is if Jones is truly a number 1 goalie as he remains unproven. The Sharks are a team still in need of a rebuild and if they don’t start this season they are sure to continue their decline from contender to perennial losers. The Sharks will once again miss the playoffs this year as they are not an improved team from a year ago and won’t be good enough to make it this year.

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vancouver_canucks

The Vancouver Canucks are a team that is getting close to the situation that the Sharks are currently sitting in. A rebuild needs to seriously be considered but they are not as far in with some time still left before it is that time. Last year they still made the playoffs with a veteran group but fell out in the second round. It is a far fall from making the Stanley Cup Finals and looking like the team to beat. They are no longer that team and the group that brought them there is beginning to show signs of wear. As the enter a new season the biggest question facing the team is whether or not it is time for the rebuild to start. There are plenty of players looking to prove that it isn’t that time year. Leading the charge once again is the Sedin brothers who have consistently led this team. Henrik and Daniel are the offensive leaders of this group but this year the depth took a hit. Trading away Nick Bonino for Brandon Sutter was considered a loss for the Canucks although Sutter can still provide the secondary scoring they need. Meanwhile Bo Horvat will be watched closely to see if he suffers a sophomore slump as he is the future of this offence. One defence the Canucks have already started a rebuild of sorts as Kevin Bieksa is gone giving Chris Tanev a chance to prove if he can be the future leader of this group. The group is a young one as Dan Hamhuis is the only player entering the season over 30 years old. In net the Canucks are without their young back-up in Eddie Lack but Ryan Miller continues the tradition of solid goaltending. Still Miller is not getting young and most expect him to start declining. He luckily has a good group in front of him to ensure that he doesn’t face too many shots. The Canucks are in a strange place this year as some believe they need to start rebuilding and clean house of the old guard while others believe they still have a chance. The Sedins are still the best players on the team but they are not as good as they used to be and don’t put up as many points as they used to. Still they will lead this offence while the defence could be good for a while. They are a mix of veterans and young talent and although they may not win the Stanley Cup they are still a good shot for the playoffs.

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Prediction:
The Pacific Division is a little bit of a difficult division to nail down as there are so many questions with so many questions. It is a division that is sure to be a good battle but the main one might be between two teams. The Ducks are still a strong team while the Flames are trying to challenge them for the title. Both will fight throughout the year to take the division title with the more experienced Ducks coming out on top. There will be another battle for third place will be a tough one as they will need to get third place to make the playoffs. The Central is once again strong and will likely take two wild cards giving the Pacific three divisions. The Canucks will come out on top against the Kings in that battle but it will not be an easy one. The bottom three will remain much the same this year as the Coyotes remain at the bottom of the division after not improving their team enough to compete. The Oilers will take a step forward and move up but still will remain in the bottom while the Sharks will hopefully see that they need a rebuild after missing the playoffs for another year. It is going to be a tough fight and there are sure to be surprises but big changes aren’t in the mix quite yet for the Pacific.

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