The new realignment sends the Dallas Stars to the Central Division and brings in three teams from north of the border: the rival Vancouver Canucks, the Edmonton Oilers, and the Calgary Flames. Winning the Pacific Division has not been difficult for the San Jose Sharks, but they have not succeeded in the last two seasons. What will it take for the Sharks to surpass the Los Angles Kings and Anaheim Ducks as the true predators in the Pacific?
New Faces, New Competition?
Well, not exactly. Winning the Pacific will likely involve the same three teams as it did last year. The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers are teams still searching for their real identities and will probably not figure into the playoff picture. The Vancouver Canucks have sat pretty in the Northwest for a long time. No real competition with the aforementioned Oilers and Flames in the past gave the Canucks Northwest Division titles 7 out of the last 9 seasons.
Do the Flames have any illusions of grandeur for this season? Is winning the Pacific a realistic goal for the team that gave away Jarome Iginla for scraps? Apparently not. The Flames have tons of talent, but that talent will not be NHL-ready for another two or three seasons at best. Add into the nightmare in Calgary that they will now play the Sharks, Canucks, and Kings five times each next season. Every win the Flames nab from the top of their division will dramatically shift the standings. They may play the spoiler role, but every team in the NHL is capable of winning games. The Sharks cannot let their guard down, even for a team in the middle of rebuilding.
Oilers Try to Strike it Rich in Pacific
Edmonton has the current longest streak in the league… of not making the playoffs. The loyal fans there have not seen hockey in May in seven seasons. They are in better shape than the Flames, that is for sure. With talented shooter, Taylor Hall leading the way; Edmonton can expect a middle of the pack finish. They will likely still fall short of the playoffs, though. Expected headlines do not include “Oilers Break the Streak!” They are more about possible changes to coaches. What makes the Oilers dangerous is their potential. They do have scorers and can steal games from more talented teams. If the Sharks hit a patch of offensive hardship, the Oilers may steal two points.
Luongo Outlasts Schneider and Vigneault
If you thought that embattled Roberto Luongo was going to be the last man standing in the soap opera in Vancouver, you could have won a lot of bar bets. The number on his jersey once again matches his spot on the depth chart. Corey Schneider and Alain Vigneault both took trips to the east coast this summer. John Tortorella is already implementing his tough love policies calling out the Sedin twins to do more. The Canucks have an already heated rivalry with the Sharks. The talent on both teams will definitely provide for some interesting matchups. The Sharks had their number last year, and it is a safe bet that Torts will bring the intensity level up. It comes down to goaltending, though. If Luongo benefits from the lack of drama with Schneider and his coach, he could return to star form. If his best seasons are behind him, the Sharks will win some scrappy games.
Winning the Pacific Against Old Foes
The main competition for the title will come from the usual suspects in the Pacific. The Canucks and their players have not recovered from their Game 7 loss to the Bruins a few years back, and while talented they will likely be in the hunt for a playoff spot as a seven or eight seed. The Kings and Ducks will be the tough teams contending at the top and the Coyotes still will not be pushovers.
Those Feisty Desert Dogs
Can anyone explain what makes the Coyotes still play in Phoenix? Anyone?? They have not been able to turn a profit in a season since they came to the desert in 1996! Despite consistent results and winning records, the desert just is not a place to grow a hockey fan base. The Yotes, though, have received strong performances from captain Shane Doan and goalie Mike Smith. If they can remain healthy, the Coyotes will definitely be in the hunt for a playoff spot. While they may not possess the total talent of their rivals, the Coyotes employ a solid system that keeps Mike Smith’s job relatively nice. Phoenix was in the middle of the pack for goals against last season. The Coyotes will likely play a major role in the playoff picture as the final game of the regular season for the Desert Dogs is a home game against the Sharks. The Pacific has been decided in the final days the last few seasons and this game will definitely factor into playoff seeding for more than one contender. The Sharks scoring lines will need to be alert and produce on the road this season, because the Coyotes will bring solid play every night.
Ducks Fly Above the Pacific
The Ducks are an enigma of the NHL. Sandwiched in between their last two division titles, the first of which led to a Stanley Cup, the Ducks have been up and down the standings. Winning the Pacific last season came as a surprise as the Ducks finished dead last the season before. Superstar goalies fall from grace and leave and then young studs come up and take their place. Bobby Ryan has been shipped to Ottawa. The top forward left a hole in the scoring lines. But leadership from Getzlaf and Perry will undoubtedly keep Anaheim strong through the change. The Ducks arguably have the best goalie tandem in the league, scoring on them will be a tough task for the offensively starved Sharks.
The Los Angeles Quicks… erm, Kings
There is no question as to who the most valuable member of the LA Kings is. Already named to the all-time team, Jonathan Quick launched the Kings to their first Cup in 2012 and drowned the Sharks last season. The Kings are no doubt a very good hockey team, but without Quick, they are not elite. With him, the Kings can roll with any team in the world. The Sharks may as well spend every free minute they have developing a gameplan against the Conn Smythe winner. They cannot believe they will come close to winning the Pacific Division if they do not beat Quick. He is the single player that will decide who wins the division. The Kings skaters are nothing to shrug off either. Anze Kopitar is a deadly shot, akin to that of Logan Couture with a few more years experience. The terrible D’s in Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, and Dwight King are young and are improving. They are also huge, each one of them over six feet and 200 pounds. The Kings are young and hungry, their average age is just under 27 (the youngest in the Pacific). Their coach is proven and brilliant. Sutter may always look like he smells something gross, but his methods bring results.
Getting Back to the Top of the Food Chain
By now, fans have got to be getting tired of hearing it. But it is an ugly truth that San Jose must face. The Sharks have a very pedestrian offense. It has been mentioned here, here, here, here, and here.
As shown above, in what Shark fans will have nightmares about, San Jose was ousted by an inability to score. Sure, Jonathan Quick did not make it any easier on them, but that is what he does best. The Kings’ netminder will not make it any easier this season. While Martin Havlat is a mere shadow of his former self, his injury still leaves the offense short of its full potential. Raffi Torres and Brent Burns up front will bring heavy pressure, but the scorers remain the same. Marleau is one year older, Thornton only has a knack for assists, and Pavelski and Couture will pick up the rest. This was the exact problem of last year’s squad. Three scorers are not enough. The blue liners outside of Dan Boyle are unlikely to crack double digit goal totals. The Sharks need someone to have a breakout year.
The reason Brent Burns became such a hit last season was his ability to score in five-on-five situations, something the Sharks struggled with. Winning the Pacific will not be the result of gifted power plays. The Sharks have to score when on even terms. The Canucks were undisciplined and gave San Jose plenty of opportunities on the power play in the first round last year.
The game that San Jose played last season was close to elite. Until the Canucks series, no-one even considered the Sharks as actual contenders. Then,
the Kings Jonathan Quick reminded everyone of their flaws. If San Jose can find a way to make their third line a legitimate scoring threat, they have the talent to bring home the Cup. Tomas Hertl is no doubt talented, but can he bring his talent to the NHL? It will be one of the headlines during the season.
The Sharks will make the playoffs, but they will not win the the top spot in the division. Winning the Pacific will take shooters that can beat elite goaltenders. Winning the Pacific will take Patrick Marleau have three more of those nine goal streaks. With that unlikely to happen, three forward lines and two blue line pairs will need to find a way to score much more often.