Those of us in the media like to claim we know which NHL clubs will be strong and which will be weak for the upcoming season. The truth of the matter though is that hockey is completely unpredictable.
Raise your hand if you had both the Sharks and Kings missing the playoffs, and both the Flames and Canucks making it in 2015? Not a single one of you is raising your hand while on you computer or smartphone right now. Projecting team success is incredibly difficult. Most teams have at least one, if not multiple players with a wide variance in possible production. These players are what I refer to as X factors. Today’s column takes a look at the biggest X factors for each team in the Pacific division.
Los Angeles Kings- (LW) Tanner Pearson
During the Kings’ 2014 run to the Stanley Cup, Tanner Pearson was a big time contributor as a rookie. While the 30th overall pick in the 2012 draft didn’t shine in the regular season, he stepped up his game in the playoffs. While Pearson scored just seven points in 25 regular season games, he became part of the famous “That 70’s Line” with Tyler Toffoli and Jeff Carter. During the playoffs Pearson raised his production to 12 points in 24 games. Kings fans were expecting big things out of the 22-year-old Pearson in 2014-15. In one sense, Pearson did deliver big production in that he scored 12 goals in his first 46 games this season. Unfortunately the second year forward broke his leg on the play below and missed the rest of the season.
In some respects a broken leg can be a better injury than torn cartilage in the knee (just ask Raffi Torres) but a broken leg also seemed to derail Torrey Mitchell’s once promising career. We just don’t know how Pearson will bounce back. The young winger could be a 15 goal, 35-45 point guy next season, or he could be a 25 goal, 55-65 point player. Pearson’s production will be a big factor in the Kings attempt to bounce back next season.
San Jose Sharks- (C, LW) Tomas Hertl
Speaking of both 2012 first round picks and torn cartilage, Sharks forward Tomas Hertl had a sophomore slump in 2014-15. Taken 17th overall in 2012, the 21-year-old looked significantly less explosive on the ice in his second season. Hertl scored just 31 points in 82 games last year after sparkling as a rookie with 15 goals and 25 points in 37 games. Everyone remembers the slick between the legs goal Hertl scored against the New York Rangers, it was just one of a number of breakaway goals he scored as a rookie. Unfortunately, yet another “accidental” knee on knee collision involving Kings’ captain Dustin Brown cut Hertl’s rookie season short. Hertl tore his MCL and PCL in the incident below.
Hertl came back for his rookie year playoffs and played well but suffered a set back last offseason in the continued rehab. Last season he simply did not look the same despite managing a full 82 game season. Knee injuries can often take a long time to fully recover from and Sharks fans are hoping another offseason of recovery will be enough to get Hertl back to the dominant scorer he was as a rookie. If Hertl can be a 50-60 point player instead of a 30 point player, that will go a long way to the Sharks returning to the playoffs.
Anaheim Ducks- (G) John Gibson
The Anaheim Ducks finally got back to the Western Conference final this year for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup back in 2006-07. Backstopping the Ducks between the pipes was the older but only slightly more experienced (in terms of NHL games) Frederik Andersen. The Denmark native was strong early in the playoffs but fell apart late in the series against Chicago. An extremely old draft pick in 2012 at age 22, Anderson was drafted in the third round a year after John Gibson was taken in the second round at age 17 going on 18.
While Anderson played well enough to get the nod in these playoffs, Gibson is the younger, more highly thought of prospect. In NHL action the two netminders have nearly an identical save percentage, .919 for Gibson and .918 for Anderson. The latter has played 82 games to just 24 for Gibson. The younger Gibson, now 21, likely takes over as the main man next season since he is the more highly touted goaltender. After playing 23 games this year, Gibson should be ready to sink or swim for the Ducks. If he can live up to expectations, the Ducks ought to once again make a deep playoff push next year. If he doesn’t, goaltending will continue to be a big question mark for Anaheim.
Calgary Flames- (C) Sam Bennett
Super rookies Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan carried the Calgary Flames to a surprise playoff appearance in 2014-15. Come next season they might have another touted rookie come in to provide significant help offensively. Flames 2014 first round pick Sam Bennett (fourth overall), played just one regular season game this past season. Despite that, the Flames thought enough of him to dress him in all 11 playoff games and burn a year of his entry level deal.
Bennett chipped in a solid three goals and four points in the playoffs despite being as raw of a rookie as there ever was. Bennett also only played 11 games in junior this past season but he scored 11 goals and 24 points. He looks like he is fully ready for the big time as a 19-year-old next season. Like any rookie though, without a track record predicting his production will be tough. He could be a 30 point guy or could sparkle with over 50. We just don’t know yet. What we do know is if the Flames are to make the playoffs for the second year in a row, Bennett will likely have to be a huge part of that (Calgary won’t be able to sneak up on anyone anymore). If he struggles, Calgary could very easily fall back out of the top eight in the tough Western Conference.
Vancouver Canucks- (C) Bo Horvat
Another highly touted young player is Vancouver’s Bo Horvat. The ninth overall selection from the 2013 draft scored 25 points in 68 games as a rookie this past season and added four points in six playoff games. Like the Flames, the Canucks surprised most of us this past season by making the playoffs. And also like the Flames they will need big performances from young players to remain a playoff team in 2015-16.
Horvat has the ability to take over as a second line center behind Henrik Sedin if he can build on his rookie year but as is the case with all these X factors, we just don’t know. Will he be a 30-40 point guy or can he break out into the 50 or more range? Behind the Sedins and Radim Vrbata, the Canucks need a second tier of forwards to produce. The 20-year-old Horvat is the biggest name of the bunch who can step up and fill that void with Ryan Kesler now in Anaheim.
Arizona Coyotes (C) – Max Domi
Twenty-year-old Max Domi has been a big name prospect for awhile now. Son of infamous NHL alumni enforcer Tie Domi, Max was drafted 12th overall by the Coyotes back in the 2013 draft. While he has yet to make his NHL Debut, Domi was one of the final cuts each of his first two training camps and is expected to be a big contributor for the Coyotes this year. Domi has scored 74 goals and 180 points over the past two seasons in junior with the London Knights and while he is only listed at 5’10” he is built at 198 pounds. Domi possesses much more skill than his father ever did, just check out this saucer pass below to none other than Bo Horvat. Between the legs saucer pass? Are you freaking kidding me? (Some of you will also enjoy the shot the broadcaster takes at the often maligned main stream media personality Damien Cox)
Domi possesses the type of skill that few others in hockey can boast but he has yet to play in the league. Will he shine as a rookie? Or will he stumble? Arizona probably has a tough year either way but they will be much more competitive if Domi can come in and shine right off the bat. A strong rookie showing from Domi along with Mikkel Boedker coming back strong from his injury, and the Coyotes could easily end up being better than people think they will be.
Edmonton Oilers- (C) Connor McDavid
Labeled as the next Sidney Crosby, consensus No. 1 overall pick Connor McDavid is considered by many as a lock to be a top-10 player in the NHL. Those are lofty expectations placed on an 18-year-old kid to shine right away for an Oilers franchise that has been down in the dumps for a number of years. The question remains though just what kind of first year will McDavid have?
Sidney Crosby was fantastic as a rookie with 102 points. However, those 102 points were scored in the inflated 2005-06 goal scoring year. Joe Thornton won the Hart Trophy as MVP that season with 125 points, 23 more points than Crosby. So to put Crosby’s rookie production into perspective, he was more like a 70-80 point guy in today’s tighter checking league than an 102 point performer. Where will McDavid finish points wise as a rookie? I would say 50-55 is being realistic, but maybe he simply goes off, and finishes with 80-90 points as a rookie despite the tighter checking. The Oilers still need major pieces on their blue-line and better goaltending, but if McDavid goes off, he could carry them into playoff contention. It is clear to many that McDavid sees the game on a different level.