The Edmonton Oilers aren’t off to an ideal start, but they will need to get on track soon if they want to compete in a very tough division (from “Another Oilers loss isn’t ideal, but it shows why they have little to be worried about”, The Athletic, Oct. 19, 2022). The consensus has been that the Pacific Division is the worst in the NHL. That may have been true last season when the third-place Los Angeles Kings wouldn’t have been in the top eight in the Eastern Conference, and the top three teams in the Pacific didn’t match up to the other three divisions. But this season could be a different story.
In 2021-22, the Oilers finished second in the Pacific with 104 points, while the Calgary Flames finished first with 111. Both teams are among the favourites to win the Cup this season. The Vegas Golden Knights are a different and better team from last season, while the Kings remain a dark horse. Add in the wild-card Vancouver Canucks and Seattle Kraken, and the Oilers have their work cut out for them. Here’s a look.
The Flames are the Oilers’ biggest rivals and last season ended with a second-round Battle of Alberta playoff series that was a high-scoring throwback to the 1980s. Edmonton came out victorious, but the games were competitive, especially with three of the four highest-scoring players in the league between them.
Calgary lost some big players this offseason, but the drive to win and the talent on the team haven’t diminished. If anything, the Flames are better with the addition of last season’s Stanley Cup winner Nazem Kadri, elite playmaker Jonathan Huberdeau, and MacKenzie Weegar.
Related: Flames vs Oilers: 2 Different Ways to Successfully Build a Team
The team also still has Jacob Markstrom, one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, behind maybe the best defensive unit in the NHL. Combine that with Darryl Sutter’s coaching style, which emphasizes defence, and the team is now a force to be reckoned with.
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The Oilers lost the first of three games against the Flames this season after a comeback effort fell short, and Calgary has already knocked off three fierce competitors in the Western Conference for a 3-0-0 start. We could easily see another Battle of Alberta in the 2023 NHL Playoffs, but this time, maybe with a different result.
Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights were tough to gauge heading into the season. They were thrown for a loop after finding out that starting goaltender Robin Lehner would miss the entire 2022-23 season with an injury. His responsibilities fell to the inexperienced Logan Thompson, who has handled it well thus far. The team also acquired Adin Hill, while Laurent Brossoit will become an option when healthy as well.
The Golden Knights have the defence, two-way forwards, and coaching influence to handle the game in their own end, but Thompson had just 17 career starts before he was thrown into the starters’ role. However, there are only positives coming from the Golden Knights’ crease, as Thompson has a 2-1-0 record with a .938 save percentage. But will he be able to keep it up for the entire season?
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Jack Eichel will finally get a chance to play a full season with the Golden Knights, and the team is healthy in general. The defence is one of the best in the league, and new head coach Bruce Cassidy should have a positive impact after coaching the Boston Bruins for so long. They are a very deep team and have only missed the playoffs in one season since they entered the league. They don’t handle failure well and should be headed back to the playoffs this season.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings were a dark horse last season, making the playoffs and taking the Oilers to Game 7 of the first round. This season they are even better, if still underrated. They have arguably the best farm system in the NHL, with many good prospects pushing for a roster spot.
The Kings are healthy this season, which means their defence is going to be stronger. Sean Walker missed all but two games last season, while Drew Doughty missed nearly half of the season. Between the young defencemen that emerged in their absence and the return of the veterans, there’s competition and lots of talent on the back end.
Adrian Kempe took a big step forward last season, while Gabriel Vilardi already appears to be having a breakout campaign. Combine that with the acquisition of Kevin Fiala during the offseason, and the forward unit is as deep and talented as ever. The goaltending remains an issue, but both Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen can have their moments and help the team win games.
If we can get past the fact that the Canucks have broken records a team doesn’t want to break to start the season, they have a strong team. Thatcher Demko is one of the best goaltenders in the league, but he is already in a slump, and head coach Bruce Boudreau called the team “mentally weak,” after losing four straight despite having multi-goal leads in every one of those games.
However, one positive is that the Canucks are starting on time and are able to manage an early lead. The same can’t be said about the Oilers. It’s better to be up and forced to protect a lead rather than falling behind early with an uphill battle every game.
The Canucks’ forward group is very deep, so much so that Conor Garland was a healthy scratch for the fourth game of the season. This is also due to poor play, but they wouldn’t have made that decision if there weren’t players able to come into the lineup to give the team a fighting chance as Garland has. The team is 0-4-0, but they started 8-15-2 under Travis Green before Boudreau took over and led the Canucks on an amazing 32-15-10 run. There’s lots of time to turn things around, and the Canucks have enough room to make a run at the playoffs this season.
The Kraken may not be a playoff team just yet, but they also won’t be walked all over like last season. Goaltending can only improve from the disaster that was their inaugural season, while the team added some very solid pieces in Andre Burakovsky, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Matty Beniers, and Shane Wright.
A division isn’t just strong because it has good teams, it’s the competition. The Kraken are pushing to become that pesky team that can stay in every game, similar to what the Ottawa Senators were last season. The Kraken are young, deep, and have many players fighting for ice time, and that type of internal competition translates well to games. Last season’s expectation was that the team would be strong defensively. They still have the pieces to be that and will give the Oilers good battles this season.
I don’t have much hope for the other two teams in the Pacific Division this season – the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks – but the division will battle the Central for the wild-card spots this season and should also produce a few of the top teams in the NHL. This is a very different and stronger group of teams than last season and shouldn’t be taken lightly by the Oilers if they want to compete for the Cup.