The Pacific Division will be fun to watch throughout the 2015-16 NHL season, even for East Coast hockey fans who will need to stay awake past midnight to watch most of these games finish.
The battle of Alberta should be alive and well for the first time in more than 10 years, the three California teams all believe they can make a Stanley Cup run, the Vancouver Canucks will try to make another playoff push with the Sedin twins, and the Arizona Coyotes are building a nice foundation that should make them watchable even as they sink to the bottom of the standings.
Let’s look at what to expect from the Pacific Division, in predicted order of finish.
1) Anaheim Ducks
2014-15 Record (Playoff Result): 51-24-7 (lost conference finals)
Notable Additions/Departures: Francois Beauchemin (departure, free agent), Carl Hagelin (add, trade), Mike Santorelli (add, free agent), Kevin Bieksa (add, trade), Chris Stewart (add, free agent), Shawn Horcoff (add, free agent)
Outlook: The Ducks should win this division, barring major injuries to key players. They have a deep, talented forward group capable of playing a physical or fast game, depending on the opponent. The blue line is offensively skilled, great in transition and still improving with young players who haven’t reached their primes.
The goaltending is the only real weakness of this squad. Starting goalie Frederik Andersen posted a .914 save percentage last season, which is pretty poor considering that’s below the league average and he played on a good defensive team. He also hasn’t risen to the occasion in the playoffs — remember the last two games of the 2015 Western Conference finals?
The Ducks’ success will be measured in the playoffs, not the regular season, but this is the easiest division winner for experts to predict.
2) Los Angeles Kings
2014-15 Record (Playoff Result): 40-27-15 (missed playoffs)
Notable Additions/Departures: Milan Lucic (add, trade), Justin Williams (departure, free agent), Christian Ehrhoff (add, free agent), Jarret Stoll (departure, free agent), Andrej Sekera (departure, free agent)
Outlook: The Kings battled injuries and other issues last season, resulting in them missing the playoffs after winning the Stanley Cup. Better health, an improved roster with additions such as power forward Milan Lucic and top-four defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, as well as the continued development of potential stars including Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, should propel L.A. back to the postseason.
3) San Jose Sharks
2014-15 Record (Playoff Result): 40-33-9 (missed playoffs)
Notable Additions/Departures: Joe Ward (add, free agent), Paul Martin (add, free agent)
Outlook: Joe Thornton still is a legit No. 1 center, Patrick Marleau remains a 25- to 30-goal scorer, and Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture continue to be in the primes of their careers. There’s plenty of talent in San Jose, and this roster will be aided by an injection of young talent with the likes of Tomas Hertl and Mirco Mueller. The defense improved with the free-agent signing of Paul Martin, and the goaltending should be better and more consistent with newly acquired Martin Jones taking over the No. 1 job.
San Jose isn’t a real championship contender, but it should score enough goals and receive good enough goaltending to contend for a top-three spot in the division.
4) Calgary Flames
2014-15 Record (Playoff Result): 45-30-7 (lost in conference semifinals)
Notable Additions/Departures: Dougie Hamilton (add, trade), Michael Frolik (add, free agent)
Outlook: The Flames had poor possession numbers, the most third-period goals of any team and had a PDO (save percentage plus shooting percentage) well above 100 throughout the 2014-15 campaign.
That kind of success isn’t sustainable, and that’s why it’s likely Calgary will regress a bit this season. However, the Flames can combat this regression with the addition of a top-pairing defenseman in Dougie Hamilton, the signing of excellent bottom-six forward Michael Frolik and the continued development of potential stars in Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett.
Nobody will take Calgary lightly this season, and it will be interesting to see how this young team responds to the pressure of heightened expectations.
5) Edmonton Oilers
2014-15 Record (Playoff Result): 24-44-14 (missed playoffs)
Notable Additions/Departures: Connor McDavid (add, draft), Andrej Sekera (add, free agent), Cam Talbot (add, trade), Griffin Reinhart (add, trade)
Outlook: The Oilers likely will be in the mix for a playoff spot this season, which would be tremendous experience for a team full of young players who have been playing meaningless games in March and April their entire careers.
Scoring shouldn’t be a problem for Edmonton. Let’s face it, any team with Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and 2015 No. 1 draft pick Connor McDavid is going to fill the net. The concerns are with the blue line and goaltending.
Andrej Sekera is a top-pairing defenseman, but after him, the talent level on the blue line drops significantly. Cam Talbot was the best backup goalie in the NHL last season, but will he be as effective without the Rangers’ excellent collection of defensemen and strong puck possession? It’s doubtful.
Edmonton is inching closer toward being a playoff team, but that goal won’t be reached in 2016.
6) Vancouver Canucks
2014-15 Record (Playoff Result): 48-29-5 (missed playoffs)
Notable Additions/Departures: Shawn Matthias (departure, free agent), Nick Bonino (departure, trade), Eddie Lack (departure, trade), Brandon Sutter (add, trade), Matt Bartkowski (add, free agent)
Outlook: The Canucks had a strange offseason. They traded their best goaltender in Eddie Lack, traded a quality top-six center in Nick Bonino for an overrated third-line center in Brandon Sutter, gave underwhelming defenseman Luca Sbisa a raise and signed third-pairing-at-best defenseman Matt Bartkowski in free agency. Top-four defenseman Kevin Bieksa also was traded to the Ducks.
The Sedin twins still are really good offensive players, Radim Vrbata will quietly have another good season on the first line, and talented young players such as Bo Horvat will take another step in their development. But the Canucks don’t have enough defensive quality or goaltending to earn a playoff spot from a much-improved division.
7) Arizona Coyotes
2014-15 Record (Playoff Result): 24-50-8 (missed playoffs)
Notable Additions/Departures: Dylan Strome (add, draft), Antoine Vermette (add, free agent), Zbynek Michalek (add, free agent), John Scott (add, free agent)
Outlook: The Coyotes once again will be in the mix for the No. 1 pick, which should be Arizona native and top center prospect Austin Matthews. Arizona does have a foundational defenseman in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and a few young forwards with enormous potential in Max Domi, Dylan Strome and Anthony Duclair, but it would be a huge surprise if this team finished out of the basement. The rebuild is ongoing.
Thumbnail photo via Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports Images