2017-18 NHL Preview: Pacific Division

pacificIt has been one of the most competitive divisions in the league over the past few years as the Pacific Division produces Stanley Cup favourites every year.

The surge of great teams has been led by a fairly unlikely group though as the state of California has been on fire as of late.

Since 2001 the Pacific has only seen two teams from outside of the state take home a division title with the Anaheim Ducks taking six titles including the last four.

Even on the few titles that a California team has missed out on they aren’t far behind taking a playoff spot despite finishing out of first place.

It has been one of the biggest issues and the biggest developments in the NHL as many are not happy that a non-traditional market is ruling.

For fans, California teams aren’t necessarily what they want to see as more traditional markets like Calgary and Edmonton are the preferred representatives.

For the league though this development is massive as it is proof that going to non-traditional markets can work out.

Hockey in California may never reach the popularity of basketball or football but the fact is that the sport has grown by leaps and bounds.

The success of the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and the Ducks has led to a development of a legitimate hockey market in a place that never sees snow.

More players are coming out of the state than ever before and the popularity of all three continues to grow.

For three teams that many would believe as being in the worst place for hockey, they all pull in good numbers with Los Angeles and San Jose ranking among the top 20 in average attendance last season and Anaheim coming in at 22.

Most would assume they should be near the bottom alongside Arizona as these non-traditional hockey markets have not done great throughout the history of the league.

California seems to be the exception and the product they are putting on the ice is a big reason for the success of the franchises.

Last year these California teams were given a tougher task as those two traditional markets with bigger followings began to find their way back to being competitive.

Edmonton and Calgary fought for the entire season both taking playoff spots and making this three-team division much tougher for everyone.

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Entering a new season the Alberta teams look to build on their success while San Jose and Anaheim hope to continue their time as top teams.

Both Vancouver and Los Angeles are just trying to be relevant again and hope that they can provide a challenge in one of the most competitive divisions in the league.

That is the situation that the NHL’s newest team finds themselves in as the Vegas Golden Knights are entering the league with plenty against them.

Things are always tough for expansion teams as they are starting from a deficit right from the get-go.

They are a brand new team with players that have never played together and never played under the system that they now have to play.

The players on the team are not necessarily the best in the league as the expansion draft gave them some stars but the other teams protected all of their best players.

It takes some time to build a contending team and franchises that have been around a lot longer have had a tough time building contenders for years.

Add all of those issues to the fact that the Knights are entering the most competitive division in the league and things are going to be rough for the first-year team.

Despite all of that all eyes will be on the Pacific Division as it will likely produce another Stanley Cup favourite while also holding the team that everyone is curious about.

The league is hoping that the state of Nevada can be like the state of California and develop into a real hockey market.

Going through some potentially rough few years might not help but everyone will be watching to see what the interest level is in the first year.

There is plenty to watch in this division as both the top and the bottom of the league could be held in the same division.

It is sure to be an interesting season on the left coast with dominant powers trying to stay on top, new young teams making a run and the NHL’s newest team trying to make an impact.

anaheim_ducks

The Ducks are the dominant team in the Pacific division and there are no questions after winning their fifth-straight division title in 2016-17. Yet every year they can’t seem to find their way back to the Stanley Cup with something always going wrong at the worst time. When they took home the Stanley Cup in 2007 things looked promising for the future with a young corps ready to take multiple titles. It hasn’t worked out that way as ana-statsthe Ducks have struggled to make progress despite being one of the top regular season teams in the league every year. As they enter a new season the expectations have not changed as the Ducks are supposed to win the division and take home a Stanley Cup. It is going to be a tough road this year though as the issues have already begun to creep up for the Ducks. The biggest one will be on defence where the Ducks lost promising young defenceman Shea Theodore to the expansion draft. Added to that loss is the fact that top defenceman, Sami Vatanen and another top defenceman in Hampus Lindholm are both out for at least the first month of the season. That puts a lot more pressure on Cam Fowler and a returning Francois Beauchemin while one of their top prospects in Brandon Montour is going to get a lot more time to prove himself. The offence is not immune from the issues either as their second-line centre and second-leading scorer, Ryan Kesler looks to be out for a long time with no timetable to return. The Ducks will still have the great combination of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf while Rickard Rakell looks to try to fill the hole left by Kesler as he moves to centre. The losses of these stars is certainly going to hurt the Ducks as they have never had the best depth on this team and although there is still top talent to fill the holes they are going to struggle when they get to the third lines. It was injuries that sunk them last year when John Gibson went down in the conference finals and left Jonathan Bernier as their only option. That will change this year as Gibson is back but with Ryan Miller as his backup the Ducks might have the best netminding team in the league. The Ducks are likely still good enough to win this division but they will need to get through the first few months without some of their best players. If they can manage to put together a good record midway through the season the division title will be theirs but it is not a guarantee.

phoenix_coyotes

The Arizona Coyotes have been a basement dwelling team for years with some slight blips of promise thanks to a few great performances from players. Over the last few years, this team has had a reputation of being a team that didn’t have the most NHL level talent but could always launch a surprise run at any moment. The amount of young talent throughout the roster and the fact that they had a goaltender that could take over ari-statsgames made many believe that they could always make the jump. It just never seemed to work out for the team and they remained at the bottom of the league through last season where they finished second last in the division. Despite a number of big changes, the Coyotes are still that team that has the potential on the roster to make some noise but nobody quite knows when that potential will show up. They will need to fill some big holes both on and off of the ice as the teams one and only captain, Shane Doan retired leaving a big gap in leadership and the departure of Mike Smith removes the best player on the team. Those holes will need to be filled and neither will be easy but changes happen and teams need to move on. For leadership, the captaincy will likely go to Oliver Ekman-Larsson who is the top player on the team and has been for a number of years. He will get some help on the blue line this year with the signing of Niklas Hjalmarsson who should form a pretty good top pairing, although beyond them there isn’t much else in terms of stand-out players. The leadership role will also get some help with the signing of Derek Stepan who is an NHL veteran that can put up points. He will likely centre the top line where he hopes to help in the development of two of the top young stars on the team in Max Domi and Anthony Duclair. The youth movement continues on offence where the Coyotes look to Dylan Strome who has a lot of promise but needs to make the jump after disappointing in seven games last year before he was sent back to the OHL. In net, the biggest on-ice hole will be filled by Antti Raanta who will get his first true starting role in the NHL after spending four years as a backup. If Stepan and Ekman-Larsson can provide the leadership and bring the best out of the young talent on this team the Coyotes might be fun to watch but the unknown about those players is enough to question their ability to make the playoffs.

calgary_flames

The Calgary Flames have become one of the most exciting teams in the league with their young talent beginning to make a real impact throughout the league. It was a battle last year with some of their young guns struggling but they still found the playoffs only to be swept in the first round ended any hope of a magical run through the playoffs for a long-suffering fanbase. That great season is still providing some buzz though as the young cgy-statsplayers are getting better and they head into a new season with a lot of promise in terms of what could be possible for this team. The biggest issue a year ago for the Flames was their goaltending as they had plenty of talent throughout the roster but in net, they struggled. So the team went all out in attempting to fix the issue signing Mike Smith from the Coyotes who carried Arizona on his back the last few seasons. He won’t have to carry the workload as much on this team and that should help his numbers this season. Smith can be a top-tier goaltender and with one of the league’s best defensive groups in front of him, he might have a few great seasons left in him. Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie form a good group and the addition of Travis Hamonic only makes them better. It is a good group in front of a goalie that has generally been more reliable with less around him making their entire defensive group a solid one this year. The offence could be a bit of a question though as their young talent has been good but just not good enough to really make a massive difference. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan can certainly put up points but do so in bursts not able to control the play as well as some other top offensive players. Meanwhile, Sam Bennett suffered from the sophomore slump last year only managing 26 points reducing his output by ten points. They need him to step up along with Mikael Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk and Troy Brouwer to get some secondary scoring for the defence. The Flames are heavily relying on the defensive side of the ice to get them wins and that might hold them back when it comes to the big games. If their young talent on the offensive side can meet their potential things might change for this team. The playoffs are a good possibility for this team but how they get there will all be determined by the play of their young offensive talent. If they can step up and meet their potential competing near the top of the division is not out of the question.

edmonton_oilers

Edmonton is nicknamed the “City of Champions” largely due to the dominance that their professional teams showed in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. The CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos took home five straight titles from 1978 until 1982. Then the Edmonton Oilers began dominating in the NHL winning five Cups from 1984 until 1990. The city’s nickname shows what expectations are like but over the past few decades, edm-statschampionships have been few and far between. The Oilers have had the worst run of them all without a championship since that 1990 Stanley Cup win. In fact, for the majority of that time, aside from a brief magical year in 2006, they have sat at the bottom of the league. Despite the mass amount of talent, they were able to accumulate through those bad finishes they still remained one of the worst teams in the league. Things began to change in the year they won the draft lottery and had the chance to take Connor McDavid who was largely considered the next generational player in the NHL. So far that lottery has paid off with the Oilers taking McDavid and the young star leading the team back to the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Now is the real test for this group though as they are not about to surprise anyone and they are going to get the best from every team as they try to make a home in the playoffs. It is going to be tougher this year but with a player like McDavid, anything is possible as he has truly proven to be a generational player after winning his first Hart Trophy in only his second year and only his first full year in the league after an injury shortened his rookie season. His presence gives others freedom to do what they do best as Patrick Maroon and Leon Draisaitl had great years last season. New additions Ryan Strome and Jussi Jokinen hope to experience the same effect while Jesse Puljujarrvi has time to develop with McDavid taking the spotlight. Their biggest issues have always come at the blue line but Darnell Nurse is beginning to look like the top defenceman they wanted when they drafted him while Andrej Sekera benefitted from playing on the first line. In net, there are no questions as Cam Talbot has proven time and time again to be one of the best in the league and will continue that pattern this year. The Oilers are a better team but concerns over the entire defensive team might hold them back a little this year. They will still make the playoffs for a second year but a deep run might not be for them right now.

los_angeles_kings

A few years ago the Kings were in the debate regarding the best franchise in the league for that era as they were competing with Chicago to see who would win the Cup every year. They were being considered as one of the dynasties in an era where two teams seemed to trade off titles every year. It all went south in 2016-17 though as the Kings were a shell of themselves following a pattern over the last few years. In two of the last lak-statsthree years the team that was supposed to be a major dynasty didn’t make the playoffs and in between, they were eliminated in the first round. Things have not looked great for the Kings but they hope to turn things around despite not really seeing much change on the team. Part of the issue has been that many of their star players have begun to drop off in what looks like the window closing for them to be competitive. It seems a little too soon for that so there is still potential but their stars need to be the stars that led them to the Stanley Cup only a few years ago. Anze Kopitar is great by most standards but he dropped to a career low last year after his shot totals continued to drop and he tried to be more of a playmaker. He needs to be their top goal scorer and get above 60 points this year if they want to return to being competitive. Dustin Brown is another player that was supposed to be a leader for a long time but his point totals have been inconsistent. Without these two leading the offence the Kings struggle despite the strong output from Tanner Pearson and Jeff Carter. One star that continues to step up is Drew Doughty who has remained among the best defenceman in the league especially with his ability to play both ways. Along with Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin, they form a pretty solid group on the blue line despite their lack of depth on defence. In net Jonathan Quick was widely considered one of the best but lately, he hasn’t been as steady as he used to be. Whether it is just him being exposed for being a good but not great goalie or just a sign that is time might be coming to an end is still up for debate. The Kings are still a talented team with a good top defensive group and a lot of scoring potential up front. The problem has been the lack of performance from some of their top players and that will be the difference again as the Pacific has too many good teams for them to make it with underperforming players.

san_jose_sharks

The knock on the Sharks for the longest time was the fact that they were always one of the best teams in the league but could never get anywhere in the playoffs. They were the leaders of the playoff nerves as they seemed to put everything together year after year but never found their way to the Stanley Cup despite their talent. The curse seemed to come to an end in 2016 when the Sharks made the Finals to take on the Pittsburgh sjs-statsPenguins. They dropped that series but there was a little hope that they might actually have gotten over the hump and a Cup was soon to come. The next season saw great play again although they were not necessarily competing for the President’s Trophy. Then the curse came back as they lost to the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the playoffs and having their fans seeing much of the same as they had in so many years past. The new season brings new hope with some just banking on a Stanley Cup hangover as their issue last year with a Cup still in their future. If they want to get there they will need the youth movement that they started years ago to begin to take over the team. Joe Thornton is still an effective player but is not the same player he was a few years ago and Patrick Marleau is now in Toronto, likely until the end of his career. That leaves room for younger players like Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier to take over and truly start to lead this team. The movement already started on the blue line where the man widely considered to be the best defenceman in the league, Brent Burns is still only 32 and alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic form a good top pairing that still has some very good years left in them. The rest of the defensive group is just as good with the potential of new signee Radek Simek being high if he can adjust to North American hockey. In net, the Sharks have always struggled and they hoped that the signing of Martin Jones was the solution for them. He has been good but has never really been that goalie that can make a massive difference in the playoffs. The Sharks are a very talented team and making the playoffs seems like a good bet for them just like every year. They may struggle to get to the top of the division with a number of tough teams playing but the question will come in the playoffs. That’s where they will fail to make it back to the Finals and the direction of this team will be questioned.

vancouver_canucks

A few seasons ago the Vancouver Canucks were a team to watch but they have lost that title after the last few seasons saw them falling off in a big way. They used to be a team that had Stanley Cup aspirations every year but they quickly became the picture of what happens when a window closes. After getting near the top of the league and almost taking home a Stanley Cup, they are now a team caught in between a full-blown rebuild van-statsand veteran team on the decline. This usually doesn’t work out well for the team as many other teams have tried to solve the same problem and have failed every time. The decision needs to be made by the Canucks as they have to eventually give up on their older leaders and fully commit to the young generation if they want to compete again. They head into a new season with some interesting changes on the team and a lot of people wondering if that will be enough. It all starts up front for the Canucks as this team is still relying on the Sedin twins to get them ahead. It was a good strategy but age has turned them from great players to just good veterans. Both can still put up points but they can’t be the main weapons on offence if the Canucks want to win. They will hope that Bo Horvat can help take over as he is coming off of his best season yet and joins Sven Baertschi and Brock Boeser as the future of this team. If their line can step up they may be headed in the right direction but none have really broken out as a true difference maker yet. On defence, the Canucks have gone a lot younger over the last few years and continue to follow the same route. The addition of Michael Del Zotto provides a good player that has experience but isn’t on his way out. Chris Tanev and Ben Hutton lead the youth on the blue line and both are good but might not be top pairing material on other teams. The net had been the one place with no questions for years but with Ryan Miller leaving the Canucks are depending on Jacob Markstrom to lead the team. Much like the rest of the team, he is good but he might not be the guy that can take over a game and put the team on his back like Miller once was and like Roberto Luongo was when he played in Vancouver. The Canucks are a good team with talent but they lack those players that can push them into the playoffs which isn’t going to work in the Pacific Divison.

vegas-goldenknights

The Vegas Golden Knights are the newest NHL team and like any brand new team, the only thing to talk about are all of the questions that surround the team. Almost every question surrounds the idea that the NHL is heading into a new market that is far from traditional for hockey. They have already struggled in other places like Arizona and some parts of Florida. Is it really going to be the best idea to bring another team into a non-vgk-statstraditional market where there are so many questions? Only time will tell and there isn’t a lot that the Knights can do to help but one thing they can do is put together a competitive team. Nobody expects them to make the playoffs or even compete for the playoffs in the first year and some are giving them little to no chance to even be competitive. What is interesting though is that this team still looks good enough to surprise people and get some big wins. It might all start from the back for the Knights as their biggest signing came from their expansion draft. That is where they were able to take Marc-Andre Fleury to solidify the net. Although he might not be one of the top goalies in the league he is far better than many other expansion teams have had in the past. There is no doubt that Fleury has talent when on the ice and getting that piece has taken other teams years to figure out. Fleury it the clear starter but Calvin Pickard is a promising young goalie that could already be the future for this team. Those two form a pretty good duo that should help the Knights at least not be a pushover. In front of their goaltenders, they are decidedly young albeit very promising with Shea Theodore, Colin Miller and Nate Schmidt all marking players with big potential. Jason Garrison adds a bit of veteran presence that could help with the fact that not many of these defencemen have taken big minutes in the NHL. Up front, the Knights are pretty good considering they got all of their players out of the expansion draft and in free agency. James Neal has been a consistent scorer while Vadim Shipachyov could be big if he can bring some of those KHL numbers to the NHL. Jonathan Marchessault and Dave Perron can provide some good secondary scoring alongside Cody Eakin and Oscar Lindberg. Overall the Knights are set up for relative success in their first year as they won’t be competing for the playoffs but taking them as a pushover might be a mistake for teams.

Prediction:
The Pacific Division is going to be one of the more interesting divisions this season with great teams and one new team. Everyone will be watching to see if the team from the Pacific can finally take home the Cup after plenty of great seasons have led to a bit of a drought. They will also be watching to see just how well the Vegas Golden Knights will do in their first season. A lot of eyes will be on the Pacific all year and whether or not a team can come out and perform to their level will only be seen throughout the season. The Knights and the Canucks seem like the two teams that are not in the running due to the lack of game-changing talent on the team. Neither might be a pushover but neither will make a run when it comes to the playoff race. In Arizona could join both of them near the bottom but they have more potential and could make a run if everything works out. Meanwhile, in Alberta and California, the battles could be good. The Kings can be a part of the race but likely will fall off while San Jose and Anaheim could easily fight for the division title this year. Calgary and Edmonton will be right there with them and all four will make the playoffs.

pacific-pred

 

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