Chaos in the NHL’s Pacific Division

We’re a month into the season and NHL’s Pacific Division is full of surprises.

Bottom of the Pacific Division

We’ll start at the bottom. Three teams are averaging under a point per game; those three teams were all in the playoffs last season. The Los Angeles Kings, the league’s lowest scoring team, dwell in the division basement. One step above the Kings are last season’s division champs and Stanley Cup finalists, the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas is the league’s second-lowest scoring team. Next are the Anaheim Ducks, sitting in sixth in the division. Last season, they were the Pacific Division’s second place team.

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
The Kings’ Anze Kopitar (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Each team has an excuse. Vegas is missing Nate Schmidt, plus injuries to newcomers Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty have hurt. The Ducks have had plenty of their own health issues: Ryan Kesler is playing but not healthy while Corey Perry is out for several months and Ryan Getzlaf has missed a few games. The good news is the return of Patrick Eaves (he’s played in three games) following a lengthy absence while he battled an auto-immune disease.

The Kings saw Jonathan Quick play ineffectively before going down with an injury. Dustin Brown missed the Kings’ first 10 games but is back in the lineup. Still, things got desperate enough quickly enough for the Kings to make the NHL’s first in-season coaching change. All three teams could change their trajectory at this early stage in the season but it is still eye-opening that they’re bringing up the rear.

It’s helpful to look at regulation records. Overtime games can distort the standings relative to the quality of the team. But in the case of the teams at the bottom of the division, regulation records tell the same story: these teams are struggling.

Ducks record: 6-7-3; regulation record (W-L-tied): 4-7-5

Golden Knights record: 6-8-1; regulation record: 4-8-3

Kings record: 5-8-1; regulation record: 5-8-1

Top of the Pacific Division

If last season’s top teams are at the division bottom, other teams are rising.

Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames are at the top, though it has a ‘smoke and mirrors’ quality to it. Starting goalie Mike Smith is 5-4-1 despite a horrid .871 save percentage. Backup netminder David Rittich, with a 4-1-0 record and a .927 save percentage, has pulled the Flames to the top.

They have 50 goals against (3.33 per game), which ranks them in the league’s bottom quarter. Their offense has been stellar but it’s narrow. Five players (four forwards and a defenseman) are averaging at least one point per game. The team’s 52 goals is tied for the league lead. It is tough to imagine this is sustainable but it’s working for now.

Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames, NHL
Johnny Gaudreau leads Calgary’s offense. (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

Flames record: 9-5-1; regulation record: 7-5-3

Vancouver Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks, a team many picked to be eliminated from the playoffs by Thanksgiving (Canadian by the pessimists, American by the optimists), is also hanging out near the top of the division. Prior to the season, one sports site ranked the Canucks forwards, defensive group and goaltenders as 31st, 28th and 30th respectively in the league. Yet, they have a 9-6-1 record.

The Canucks are led by rookie phenom Elias Pettersson who has earned 16 points (10 goals) in 10 games. In those ten games, Vancouver is 6-3-1. The team hasn’t been fully healthy, either. Pettersson has missed six games, top defender Alexander Edler has missed six and remains on injured reserve (IR) along with backup goalie Anders Nilsson. The Canucks’ best player last season, Brock Boeser, has missed three games. The Canucks are winning despite injuries which is a good sign.

Elias Pettersson
Elias Pettersson holds the puck from his first NHL goal. He’s scored a lot more in the month since.  (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

While it is tempting to think what might happen if the Canucks are ever fully healthy, it’s also worth noting their success might be overrated. In 16 games, they’ve been outscored in regulation by seven goals (52-45) but a strong 4-1 overtime/shootout record has lifted them in the standings. The ‘per game’ regulation goal differential (minus about half a goal per game) isn’t much different from last season when the Canucks finished over 20 points out of a playoff spot. Indeed, their regulation record is more consistent with a middle of the pack team.

Canucks record: 9-6-1; regulation record: 5-6-5

Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers, great two seasons ago and a disaster last season, seem to have a more solid footing. Starting their season in Sweden didn’t help, they lost their overseas opener and their first game back in North America, but they’ve been very good since compiling an 8-4-1 record beginning in game 3.

On the scoring front, Connor McDavid has been involved in just over half of the team’s goals (scoring or assisting) and four players have scored 70% of the team’s goals. In the last 13 games, the Oilers have given up 35 regulation goals. For a team with major defensive issues, a respectable defense will make a big difference going forward. Still, the regulation record says this is also a middle of the pack team.

Oilers record: 8-6-1; regulation record: 5-6-4

San Jose Sharks

The fourth team in the mix is the San Jose Sharks. It’s not a surprise, given their recent history though this is a team still trying to figure itself out. Coach Peter DeBoer has blended lines and defensive pairings frequently and perhaps this will pay off down the road. In 15 games, the Sharks have played past regulation six times and the wealth of three-point games has proven beneficial. The Sharks won half of them and nearly half of their 19 points have come in these six games.

Brent Burns - Sharks
Brent Burns’ scoring surge is helping the Sharks. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Sharks record: 8-4-3; regulation record: 5-4-6

Arizona Coyotes

Many expected the Arizona Coyotes to be in the playoff hunt so their improvement is not a surprise. They are, indeed, in the hunt. Life could be kinder to the desert dogs, they have the best goal differential in the division and the 29 goals they’ve allowed is lowest in the league. They have even outscored opponents while on the penalty kill.

The Coyotes are the best in the league in goals allowed and goals scored on the penalty kill. Antti Raanta is off to another strong start, his recent gem included 48 saves in a 4-3 overtime win against the Carolina Hurricanes. Don’t be surprised if his name comes up in the Vezina Trophy conversation as the season progresses.

Coyotes record 7-6-0; regulation record: 5-6-2

Antti Raanta Arizona Coyotes
Antti Raanta is, once again, playing like an elite goaltender (Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports)

Divisional Chaos

The chaotic start to the season has jumbled the standings compared to expectations. Slow starts for Vegas and Anaheim are attributable to key players missing games. Vancouver is overachieving and their 4-1 record in overtime/shootouts has given them a standings boost. The Sharks hold a respectable regulation record but with 40% of their games being worth three points, they’ve found their way towards the top of the division standings.

Among Pacific teams, only Calgary and San Jose sport a winning record in regulation and not by much. Perhaps this explains the division’s best. Top to bottom, it has simply not been as good as the NHL’s other divisions. It shouldn’t be surprising things like three-point games and the absence of some important players have played an outsized role in the standings. This is a division ripe for a team to assert itself but until this happens, expect chaos to continue its reign in the Pacific.