With the calendar being turned to August, we’ve as solid an idea of the kind of roster our favourite teams will be icing to start the 2014-15 season. Signings are few and far between, and even then lacking in general importance — the most recent splash to date was the signing of Michael Del Zotto by the Philadelphia Flyers. If there was ever a time for prognosticating and projecting, it is nigh upon us. With that in mind, I intend to do a division by division and team by team look at players who are on the cusp of greatness. If not greatness, recognition; all things being relative. Today’s preview is on the always exciting, often dominant Pacific Division.
The Pacific Division
Relative to other divisions, the Pacific is one of have and have not’s. There is an occupy movement sized disparity in the distribution of talent and this is resulting in a widening gap between the upper and lower echelon teams. The L.A. Kings are perennial powerhouses and look poised for another season as such; their infusion of youth and size throughout their forwards corps is the envy of the league. Chomping at the bit beneath them are the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks. Both show flashes of sheer and utter brilliance in the regular season, yet issues in roster construction have prevented them from capitalizing on it in the post-season. Where the rest of this division stands is up for considerable debate. Despite finishing with two of the top-six picks in last June’s draft, the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers are by no means rebuilding franchises; their rosters might indicate otherwise, but the edict from management is to compete now in both hockey crazed cities. The Arizona Coyotes and Calgary Flames, for all their tenacity, are as devoid of talent as ever. There is diversity abound in this Western division and dependent on who breaks out for which franchises, things could be as entertaining as always on the “Best” coast.
Anaheim Ducks, RW, Devante Smith-Pelly: Taken 42nd overall, in the second-round of the 2010 draft, Devante Smith-Pelly’s ascension to NHL regular has been somewhat of a roller coaster ride. It started in only his second year within the Ducks organization, a campaign that saw the lumbering winger play a career high 49-games. His development saw a steep decline thereafter, with injuries and regular stints in the AHL with the Norfolk Admirals being key contributors. While in Norfolk, however, Smith-Pelly flourished last season, posting 27-goals in 55-games. This caught the attention of the coaching staff and led to Smith-Pelly being recalled by the Ducks in time for the playoffs, where Smith-Pelly excelled. The rugged and fast style that Smith-Pelly plays with lends itself extremely well to hockey in spring, and the third year pro had no qualms with using his. In his 12 playoff appearances last season, Smith-Pelly scored five goals.
If the Ducks had any doubts about Smith-Pelly’s abilitiy to perform in the NHL on a regular basis, the strong post-season from him should be enough to quell them for now. And if nothing else, the Ducks off-season moves have indicated they intend to give Smith-Pelly his shot. Considerably more bodies left in free agency then arrived, and that’s always favourable for younger players. I’d be remiss of my duties if I didn’t point out that Smith-Pelly was an abominable possession player, posting only a 42% Corsi. But the physical tools are all present and younger players generally struggle with puck-possession.
San Jose Sharks, D, Mirco Mueller/Matt Tennyson: The Sharks transition from older, more plodding defensemen to the newer generation of more mobile and possession oriented has already seen Brad Stuart cast off. Next in line is Scott Hannan. This isn’t necessarily a knock on Scott Hannan, who provides great value and depth defensively. It’s instead a ringing endorsement of the embarrassment of riches the Sharks currently have in their defensive prospect pool.
Two such prospects, Mirco Mueller and Matt Tennyson, are poised to crack the Sharks blueline at any moment now. Conventional wisdom suggests that Mueller, who the Sharks invested a first-round pick in the 2013 draft on, will be the defenseman who steals Hannan’s roster spot. The Swiss defenseman hasn’t been overly productive in his junior career, and struggled in his short stay with the Sharks AHL affiliate in Worcester last season. His size and physicality however will surely endear himself Todd MacLellan, as will his defensive acumen. The better of the two, to this point, is Matt Tennyson from where I’m standing. Tennyson is the more experienced of the two and has more offensive capabilities than Mueller. It will be interesting to see which, if any, of the two find roster spots with San Jose this season.
Los Angeles Kings, D, Alec Martinez: It may seem odd to pick the player who clinched the Stanley Cup for last year’s champions, the LA Kings, as a breakout candidate, but hear me out on this one. Despite posting very respectable possession numbers and providing considerable offense from the Kings blue line, Martinez has spent much of the last four seasons in Darryl Sutter’s doghouse. Martinez even found himself healthy scratched at points throughout last season; one that saw Martinez post a career high in games played with 61.
With Willie Mitchell having departed in free agency to the Florida Panthers, it would appear as though Martinez has a place in the Kings roster as a regular next season. The alternative is Jeff Schultz, so yeah, it’s a pretty safe bet that Martinez will get his fair share of ice-time. The main concern with Martinez is his absurdly high shooting percentage last season, which was well above 13; his on-ice SH% hovers around 9%. The sustainability of Martinez’s level of production from last year might not be probable based on that, but I feel the increase in opportunity should more than mitigate any regression to the norm from Martinez.
Arizona Coyotes, D, Brandon Gormley: The Coyotes have been incredibly patient in developing former QMJHL stud defenseman, Brandon Gormley. The former 13th-overall selection from the 2010 draft has been marinating in the Coyotes’ farm system since then, but appears poised to break out at the age of 22. The towering 6’2 defenseman sniffed NHL action last season, appearing in five games for the Coyotes and posting zeros across the board in his boxcar stats, with the most notable of them being his +4… for whatever that is worth.
As I’ve already mentioned, this is Gormley’s year to crack the big leagues. There is a sizable hole on the Coyotes’ blue line that was once occupied by Derek Morris, and the fact that the Coyotes have made no effort to re-sign him speaks volumes to how they intend to address it. The memo reads: from within. Gormely’s size and defensive ability will lend itself well to Dave Tippet’s system, as will his abilities as a puck-moving defenseman. Time is running out for Gormley to prove himself, having already turned 22 and only played in four NHL games. I expect this to be the year that Gormley makes his mark.
Vancouver Canucks, RW, Nicklas Jensen: Last season, on the whole, was a trying one for Jensen. The Canucks former first-round selection, 29th overall, spent most of the season with the Utica Comets of the AHL, but was given a chance late in the season with the big club. While a shoulder injury and downright awful teammates made it difficult for Jensen to prove his worth in the AHL, he eventually found his game as the season progressed. This caught the eyes of Canucks management, who called on the young Dane as injuries ravished the Canucks roster late in the season.
Playing mostly with the Sedins, Jensen proved a valuable addition to the top-six forwards group. The possession numbers for Jensen were especially good, at nearly 57%. Were his sample size any larger than 17-games, this would be reason to be excited. Jensen has size, but is best served when he uses his speed and shot to create plays. Averaging nearly 6.5 shots/60mins, Jensen did just that for large chunks of his stay in the NHL last season. It will be hard for Jensen to crack the Canucks lineup this year, but if he does, watch out.
Calgary Flames, LW, Johnny Gaudreau: Try and try as you may, there is no avoiding the Johnny Football-mania taking place in the world of sports media. To the North, however, Johnny Hockey is just getting ready to make his splash. Fresh off an 80-point campaign with Boston College of the NCAA, Gaudreau appears poised as ever to break into the NHL on a full-time basis. In the Flames final game of last season, Gaudreau actually got his first sniff of action and potted his first-goal in the process. Something about his shooting percentage of 100 seems unsustainable, but I digress.
Gaudreau was passed up, until the fourth-round, of the 2011 draft. His size probably played a large part in that, as the undersized winger stands at just 5’9 and is listed on TSN at a paltry 150 lbs. But that hasn’t stopped this pocket-sized sniper to this point; and I don’t think it will next season. The Flames will be desperate to replace Mike Cammaleri’s offense, which headed Eastward in free agency for the New Jersey Devils. Gaudreau looks primed to replace Cammaleri as the Flames top left-winger. Could be a big year for Gaudreau.
Edmonton Oilers, C, Mark Arcobello: Picking a breakout candidate for the Edmonton Oilers proved itself to be a difficult venture. As young a team as the Oilers are, most of their prospects have already graduated beyond “breakout” campaigns and the influx of talent both on offense and defense means there is limited room for others to do the same. One such spot for a youngster – or relative newcomer – to make his mark is in the second-line center role that Sam Gagner filled out last season. Gagner was sent packing to Tampa Bay for Teddy Purcell; and then sent just as quickly to the Coyotes for draft picks.
Entering training camp, the Oilers have yet to address the vacancy left by Ganger externally. That leaves room for Arcobello to establish himself as an NHL regular, in a cushy scoring role. Banking on a player whose first real sniff of NHL action came at the age of 25 seems foolhardy, but there are reasons for optimism nonetheless. Chief among them is the fact that Arcobello was Edmonton’s best raw-Corsi player last season. Secondly, his 18 points in 41 games isn’t necessarily all that far behind what teams can expect from the average second-line center. His size remains a bit of an issue and there are durability issues, to be sure. All in all though, Arcobello has a great chance to establish himself as a serviceable second-line center and should he take advantage of this opportunity 50 points shouldn’t be out of the question.