Last in our burning questions installment covers the most confusing division in hockey.
When your division includes an expansion team that leads the pack, a squad with a “loaded” defence who missed by a longshot, and a team who can’t stop spinning their tires despite having the world’s best player, confusion is bound to overwhelm. Results in the Pacific Division last year were bewildering, and predicting what might happen this year is no different.
There is really just one consensus team that should miss the playoffs this year from this division. Even though that’s a safe bet, this division has proven to be one of the wackiest. With a lack of safe bets comes a barrage of questions, and here’s what I’m pondering about these teams.
Can Ducks defence and goaltending mask lack of scoring depth?
Last year was another run-of-the-mill season for the Anaheim Ducks. They finished with more than 100 points and made the playoffs, even though they didn’t earn another division crown. However, you can start to see the cracks in the armour for this perennial contender.
Ryan Getzlaf was still playing at a high level last season, but the same couldn’t be said for the Ducks other big guns. Ryan Kesler battled injuries all year and played at a fourth-line level when in the lineup. Corey Perry has suffered from the “Kesler curse,” and will miss most of the regular season after knee surgery. Rickard Rakell and Ondrej Kase have been revelations for the Ducks, but depth up front is still a concern.
The strength of their team is evidently their defence and goaltending. When healthy, John Gibson is one of the game’s best netminders, and Ryan Miller is arguably the league’s best backups. They also have a formidable top-four on defence, with Josh Manson and Hampus Lindholm forming one of the league’s best duo’s on defence. Cam Fowler and Brandon Montour round out a stellar top-four, but their bottom pairing of Andrej Sustr and Luke Schenn could also be a weak spot. This team will be relying heavily on about six players to carry them this season.
Are the Coyotes ready to compete for the playoffs?
Are you drinking the Arizona Coyotes kool-aid?
On paper, the Coyotes have pieces in place to make the postseason for the first time since 2012. That might sound weird to say after their brutal start to last season, but there are few holes throughout their lineup.
Scoring was an issue last year, but Clayton Keller looks like a star in the making. Derek Stepan was productive and the offence also added Alex Galchenyuk. Dylan Strome should also contribute after finishing strong in the AHL last season. The Coyotes will also look for further improvement from their young secondary scorers like Christian Fischer, Christian Dvorak and Brendan Perlini.
Similarly to Anaheim, their strength might be on defence. While their group isn’t as talented as Anaheim’s, they have a good mix of veterans, stay-at-home defenders and blueliners who can score. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is easily their best player, and he’s insulated by Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers, Kevin Connauton and, when healthy, Jacob Chychrun.
One of the most underrated goalies in the league last season was Antti Raanta, who completely flew under the radar for most fans. His absence in the beginning of the season did the Coyotoes in, but when healthy he was statistically one of the best goalies in the league. If he can replicate that success for 60 games in Arizona, this team should challenge for the playoffs.
Did they do enough to improve their depth?
The Calgary Flames were considered a good bet to make the playoffs in 2017-18, but their season was slowly derailed in the latter half. After overplaying Mike Smith, the 35-year-old suffered from injuries and the backups couldn’t perform adequately.
In front of the goaltending, the team performed reasonably well, somewhat. By that, I mean about seven key skaters played well consistently throughout the season.
Behind Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Mikael Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk and Micheal Ferland, the offence was non-existent. Michael Frolik and Sam Bennett had down years, getting 25 and 16 points respectively. Mark Jankowski was promising, but overall their forward corps lacked punch throughout the lineup.
Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton performed at a high level, but T.J. Brodie had a down year. Big-name acquisition Travis Hamonic didn’t have a great first year in Calgary either, and their third-pairing was sheltered and largely ineffective.
To improve their depth, the Flames have added, well, a bunch of Carolina Hurricanes. They also signed James Neal in free agency. Since Neal has now gone to two straight Stanley Cup Finals, the Flames are a Conference champion lock, right?
Will their special teams sink them again?
After coming within a goal of the Conference Finals in 2016-17, the Edmonton Oilers were the odds-on favourite to make it to the Stanley Cup Final out of the Western Conference.
I’m sure a few people would like their money back on that one.
Their depth on defence and up front hurt them, along with Cam Talbot’s mediocre goaltending. However, one of the most confounding mysteries of the Edmonton Oilers season was their complete ineptitude on special teams.
There are some good breakdowns out there on why the power play was so bad, but chances are they will bounce-back this year after a 31st-place finish. The coaches have to make adjustments, but it’s hard to see this power play being so porous again when you had Connor McDavid at the helm.
On the penalty kill, they weren’t much better at 25th overall. They were in the bottom half for scoring chances-against per 60 at four-on-five, but their goaltender’s combined saver percentage was second-worst in the NHL. The penalty kill and the Oilers goaltending also improved in the second half, and they need to keep that up heading into this season.
Los Angeles Kings
Is this roster an aging pretender or sleeping giant?
You could tell me that the Los Angeles Kings are going to bottom out this year. You could also tell me that they will battle their way to a Conference Finals. Neither outcome would surprise me.
The consensus seems to be that the Kings are old and washed up. They were one of the oldest teams in the NHL last season, but it didn’t seem to affect them on the ice. With a healthy Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty doing their thing, the Kings allowed a league-low 203 goals during the regular season. That was enough to get them a Wild Card berth in the West.
Where the Kings are lacking in with their team speed. Los Angeles was out-skated, out-chanced and outplayed by the Vegas Golden Knights in Round One. They didn’t do much to improve their team speed during the offseason, opting to add a 35-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk instead. What Kovalchuk will do is help them improve on their 20th-ranked even-strength offence. Depending on how the opening night lineup looks, the Kings could have three dangerous scoring lines.
San Jose Sharks
Will Erik Karlsson’s presence end playoff futility in San Jose?
Since the beginning of the 21st century, the only team to play in more playoff games than the San Jose Sharks has been the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens have three Cups to show for it, while the Sharks have a whole lot of nothing for all their playoff endeavours.
Even though they’ve made the playoffs for 16 of the last 18 seasons, the 2018-19 incarnation of the Sharks is probably their best to date. When you can roll out Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson on two separate pairings, you are going to create matchup nightmares for opponents.
The addition of Karlsson should mean better production from the forward group. They already have some well-known dangerous veterans up front, and other guys like Timo Meier, Melker Karlsson and Joonas Donskoi can make an impact as well. The Sharks have goaltending, depth, and one of the best defences in hockey. Is it enough to bring a Stanley Cup to San Jose?
How good will Elias Pettersson be?
From the division favourites to the bottom of the barrel, expectations couldn’t be much lower in Vancouver. They finished strong last season when the games didn’t matter, but they lost the Sedin twins to retirement and brought back a blueline that was dreadful last season.
While there’s some good young players in the organization, the prized jewel of them all will make his debut in Vancouver this season. After Elias Pettersson shattered every record imaginable for a rookie in the SHL, there’s no telling how good he could be for the Canucks this season.
He’s already been the best Canuck during preseason. That might not be surprising considering that vets often coast until the games matter, but Pettersson has already deked his way into the hearts of Canucks fans. He’s already a wizard on the power play and the regular season hasn’t started.
There won’t be many reasons to watch the Canucks this season, but one will be Elias Pettersson. Nicklas Backstrom registered 69 points in 82 games during his rookie NHL season. Consider that an optimistic, yet realistic goal for Pettersson in year one if he stays healthy.
Vegas Golden Knights
After improving on paper, could Vegas possibly be even better?
Vegas offered up the craziest Cinderella story for an expansion franchise in pro sports. Could they possibly follow that performance up in year two?
On paper, Vegas did nothing but improve. They replaced James Neal, David Perron and Tomas Tatar with Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty in their top-six. Considering that Tatar had next to zero impact, swapping Neal and Perron for Stastny and Pacioretty was an easy win for the organization.
Teams won’t be taking Vegas lightly this season, but at home they’re a dangerous opponent until proven otherwise. Whether it’s the Vegas vibe throwing players off, or the noise of the arena confounding them, Vegas finished with the third-best home record last season.
We’ve seen teams crater the year after losing in the Cup Finals before, but all signs point to Vegas being a contender. Chapter One of their story was incredible, and we all can’t wait to see what they do for an encore.
KPU Journalism Graduate. Trevor has been writing for The Hockey Writers since October 2014. He has contributed articles related to the Ottawa Senators, Vancouver Canucks, and other issues/stories regarding the game of hockey. Trevor currently lives in White Rock, B.C.