Oilers Will Have Success in Realigned Pacific Division

The Edmonton Oilers may have lucked out in being in the NHL’s weakest division once again, much like last season in the North Division. Offence ran wild in the 2020-21 season, but with games spread out outside the divisions this season, it might level out. Old rivalries should be rekindled, and some tight competition to make the playoffs.

The bottom three teams from last year’s West Division find themselves in the Pacific Division for the 2021-22 season — those teams being the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose Sharks. Of them, only the Kings have visibly improved from last season, and should compete for a spot in the top-3 in the division. The Vegas Golden Knights, who finished second in the league a year ago, are the other team that comes back from the West Division. They were a force last year, and should be again this season.

Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl
Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl take part in training camp. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

The Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks remain in the same division as the Oilers, and we shall see their competitive games continue through to this season. Both teams had a rough year and missed the playoffs last season, but have made some moves in hopes of returning to the postseason. The final team that will make up the Pacific division is the Seattle Kraken, and they are a wild card. We saw what the Golden Knights did in their inaugural year, but also what general managers and teams have done differently as a result of Vegas’ success. The Kraken drafted and signed some good players, while also making some questionable picks. They should be pretty competitive, but don’t expect a run like the Golden Misfits in 2017.

Competition in Net

There is some steep competition in net this season in the Pacific. The starters are: John Gibson from the Ducks, Jacob Markstrom for the Flames, Cal Petersen from the Kings, Philipp Grubauer for the Kraken, Adin Hill in net for the Sharks, Thatcher Demko from the Canucks, and Robin Lehner for the Golden Knights.

Vegas Golden Knights

The way the field is set, the Golden Knights are the top of the league when it comes to keeping the puck out of their net. Keep in mind they don’t have both of the reigning William M. Jennings Trophy winners on their team anymore. The Golden Knights traded away Marc-Andre Fleury this off-season, the first Vezina Trophy winner to be traded the following off-season since Dominik Hasek was shipped to Detroit following the 2000-01 season. The remaining Goalie in Lehner only played in 19 games last season due to injury, and sharing the net with Fleury. This doesn’t mean that the defence group in front of him has changed, as they will still match up nicely against any forward line thrown at them.

Robin Lehner Vegas Golden Knights
Robin Lehner, Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Lehner is still a very good goalie in his own right, and will do well if he’s able to stay healthy for the season. He hasn’t posted a sub .913 save percentage (SV%) in any of his past four seasons which would give any team a shot at winning games. He has been a part of two goalie tandems in his career who have won the William M. Jennings Trophy, last season as mentioned above, and in 2018-19 with the New York Islanders.

Calgary Flames

Jacob Markstrom had a down season in 2020-21 in regards to his performances in the previous five seasons. He posted a .904 SV% last season after he averaged a .913 SV% over the past half a decade. The Flames underperformed in front of him, but in a weak North Division the opportunity was there to have another good season. Unfortunately, they missed out.

The loss of Mark Giordano in the expansion draft created a significant hole to fill in front of Markstrom, who should be pushing to start over 60 games this coming year. Since it was his first season with his new team, it’s hard to tell yet if it was a one-off, or if the performance will repeat with the Flames.

Los Angeles Kings

The Kings may be the most improved team in the division, and didn’t lose anyone in the expansion draft that would negatively impact their starting lineup. They have a goaltending tandem of Petersen and Jonathan Quick this season. Lehner even put Petersen at the top of his list, and goaltenders pay attention to more details than the average fan watching the game. Quick is high up on the list of all-time talent in net, though past his prime, is still able to provide good goaltending in a reduced role.

Seattle Kraken

The Kraken are backstopped by two very good goaltenders, or at least that’s what last season showed us. Over the past three seasons since joining the Colorado Avalanche, Grubauer has put up some very good numbers. He’s recorded a .916 SV% or better in each season, and was a Vezina Trophy nominee in 2020-21. The trouble is he’s run into some injury trouble in his career. Having Chris Driedger as the projected backup will provide a nice cushion if injuries become a problem again this season.

San Jose Sharks

It may be a tough one for the back-end this year for the Sharks. In net they have a goalie projected to start who’s played 49 games as part of four seasons while up and down between the NHL and the American Hockey League (AHL). He is assumed to be forced into a starting role or splitting time with James Reimer, and though Hill recorded above average numbers last season, it will be hard to transfer that success onto a team that has been known to struggle defensively in recent years. He posted those numbers on a very defensive-minded team in the Arizona Coyotes.

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Reimer, despite playing on the Carolina Hurricanes last season, only posted a .906 SV% over 22 games. He is a backup at most at this point in his career, and the numbers may start to get worse the more he is forced to play. The Oilers shouldn’t have a hard time getting pucks past this tandem, especially since they are able to put up big numbers against just about anyone.

Anaheim Ducks

Gibson is a very good goalie, he just got the short end of the stick by being on a rebuilding Ducks team for the past few seasons. Before the last two seasons, the lowest SV% that he had posted in a season was .914, and he reached the .920 mark four of six times. With a blend of a very young group of players and some veterans past their primes, in recent years it has been tough to put up good numbers. But as the young players grow at the NHL level, the numbers for Gibson should revert back to his career norm. If the play still hasn’t improved from the last couple of seasons, the Oilers’ highly skilled forward group should fill the net each time these teams play.

Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks’ goaltending situation looks improved from last season, as they replaced Braden Holtby with Jaroslav Halak. With a .916 career SV% and performing as a solid backup for the Boston Bruins the past three seasons, he will be a great addition behind Demko. As for Demko, he is only getting better. He posted a .915 SV% behind a team, and especially defence, that struggled in front of him. Despite that, he stood on his head and had a great season. If the Canucks can turn it around and play tighter defensively, his numbers should skyrocket into the .920s in SV%.

It will help that the Canucks don’t have the offensive firepower of the Toronto Maple Leafs or Edmonton Oilers shooting on them for 19 games of the season. But with a defensive group that has been shuffled and debatably not improved in their own end, the Oilers will most likely be able to find those cracks and create high scoring games against this team.

Star Power

Fell Short

I would leave a couple teams off of the list that provide star power in the division in 2021-22. Those teams being The Ducks, Sharks, and Kraken. There can be arguments for players on each of them, but they don’t fall in the elite category of players just yet. The Kraken have above average players, and nobody that really stands out. Who knows what the future holds, but they have a lot of top-6 players filling their lineup right now.

Trevor Zegras Anaheim Ducks
Trevor Zegras, Anaheim Ducks (Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

The only player that could be considered when it comes to star power is Trevor Zegras, but it is way too early after he’s only played in 24 NHL games to date. Give it a couple seasons and then we’ll be able to make a proper judgement as to whether Zegras is an elite player at the NHL level. The Sharks are right there with top level talent that can finish. They are on the cusp of having some players worth considering in Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, and Evander Kane.

Middle Tier

Not quite on the same level as the teams with no elite talent, the Kings and Flames have fringe stars that can do some damage. Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk are who would classify as elite when they’re performing. After reaching 99 points in 2018-19, Gaudreau has had a couple seasons where he’s struggled from his standards. Just like Gaudreau, Tkachuk’s career year was in 2018-19 too, recording 77 points in 80 games. This, mixed with his physical play, makes him an elite player, and one that could bounce back this season. The way Elias Lindholm has been playing as of late, he’s starting to insert himself into the conversation on the Flames at the very least.

The Kings have a couple players in Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty who have been at the top of the league in regards to talent in their primes. Though they are on the back half of their careers, they are still able to put up great numbers and compete with the best every night. Four seasons removed from his 92 point campaign, Kopitar continues to push his stats to finish just under a point per game each year since. He also is consistently in the Selke Trophy conversation. Doughty, on the other hand, is still on the ice against the opponent’s top lines and playing in all situations, despite falling a bit out of the Norris Trophy competition with a team that has struggled.

Stocked Up

The other two teams in the division are the Canucks and Golden Knights, who rank in the top of the division when it comes to star power in their lineup. The Golden Knights have Mark Stone, Shea Theodore, and Alex Pietrangelo as players who I would list as the star power in the lineup. Stone, one of the best defensive forwards in the game, shuts down opposing players and puts up points. When your captain can lead by example in both of these regards, it’s someone worth following into battle every night. On defence is Theodore who finished 6th in Norris voting in 2020-21 after his second consecutive 40-point season. The other defender, veteran Pietrengelo, has been in the Norris Trophy conversation year in and year out.

William Karlsson Shea Theodore Vegas Golden Knights
William Karlsson and Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Canucks have some young elite talent in Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and Brock Boeser. Demko hasn’t played enough to be considered a star yet, but another season where he shines will definitely get him there. If Pettersson and Boeser can stay healthy and drive each other to be better, they should continue to push their ceilings going forward. Hughes had a great rookie season, and should bounce back in a weaker Pacific Division.

The Oilers’ stars match up nicely when compared to the rest of the division with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Darnell Nurse on their side. Nobody in this division is at the level that McDavid and Draisaitl are at, so the Oilers pace the Pacific with star power.

Projections

Standings

With not too many impactful subtractions from the team, the Golden Knights are set to take the Pacific Division title for the second time. They last won it in their first season, and they have yet to miss the playoffs in their short four-year history. After tying the Avalanche with 82 points last season, just losing out on the President’s Trophy, they are coming into this season with only improvements, other than the subtraction of the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. With the same top-6, they improved their depth, specifically the third line by adding Nolan Patrick and Evgenii Dadonov to ice with Mattias Janmark.

The Oilers should finish behind Vegas in the standings in 2021-22. With an improved forward group, a defensive core that was shuffled, and the exact same goaltenders, they will look to build on consecutive playoff appearances. This time, they hope to be more competitive and force themselves deeper into the postseason. If they manage to finish in the top two in the division, it’s not likely they will have to get through the Golden Knights in the first round.

There should be a little bit of a gap between the top two teams in this division at the end of the regular season and the next tier of fringe teams. The Flames, Kings, Kraken, and Canucks slot into this group. Other than the first year Kraken, the other three teams had down years in 2020-21, so it’s up in the air as to how each will perform in what we expect to be the first normal season in 3 years. All of these teams will need their stars to be stars and their goalies to perform like they have all been known to. There should be some very tough competition for the third and final divisional spot, with some ever harder competition to make the wildcard while having to compete with the Central Division.

Head to Head

Last season, the Oilers were only able to compete with two of the other seven teams that will be in the Pacific Division in 2021-22. They played 10 games against both the Flames and Canucks, finishing with a combined record of 12-8-0.

The Oilers seemed to put a beating on both of these opponents. The offence really seemed to be firing on all cylinders, as they had 3.40 goals for per game (GF/G) against the Flames, while allowing 2.80 goals against per game (GA/G). Though it wasn’t as physical as previous years, that may change if both teams are in the race and possibly facing off in the first round of the playoffs.

The Oilers also had a record of 6-4 against the Canucks, but with a little less of a gap in goals for and goals against. The season series in 2020-21 ended in the Oilers’ favour with 3.30 GF/G and 2.90 GA/G.

J.T. Miller, Mike Smith
Vancouver Canucks J.T. Miller is stopped by Edmonton Oilers goalie Mike Smith (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

Looking at the opponents coming back into the division, we’ll have to analyze the performances between the teams from before last season. Coming in significantly lower in goals for was the Oilers when matching up against the Golden Knights, only scoring 2.00 GF/G. They dropped the three game season series in 2019-20 to the Golden Knights, going 1-1-1.

When battling all of the California teams, it was very high scoring like the series with the Flames and Canucks. The Oilers record was 5-3-1 versus the Ducks, Kings, and Sharks 2 seasons ago. They put up 4.50, 3.25, and 3.67 GF/G, respectively, against these teams while allowing 3.00, 3.25, and 4.67 GA/G. The series between the Oilers and each of these teams are set to be high scoring again. As for the Kraken, new rivalries are set to be made, and we shall see how they do against the offensively driven Oilers.

The formerly dreaded California road trip is nothing compared to how it used to be. Instead of hoping to get even one win in three games against each of the Ducks, Kings, and Sharks, now the hope and realistic goal is to sweep the road trip. The Sharks are caught in the middle of rebuilding and having multiple bad contracts that they can’t move. If anything, they will remain the same or regress even more as the veterans get older. The Oilers will have to take advantage of the inexperience or aging group and take control of these games.

This new Kings team has injected a lot more youth into their lineup, and like with the Sharks and Ducks, the Oilers will have to take advantage of the inexperience throughout the lineup. It is especially needed with the Kings, as the top two lines will be centred by two of the top defensive forwards in the game, Kopitar and Phillip Danault.

If all goes well, the Oilers will be well above the group of teams in the division that is projected to all be fighting for one or two spots. Rather, they will finish alongside the Golden Knights and both don’t have to face off against them in round one of the playoffs, as well as have an easier opponent with less team playoff experience. The time is now to take advantage of the weak Pacific Division, and stars in their primes, on the Oilers’ roster.


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