How are the divisions going to shake out this season? Here’s a look at some pressing questions — and some not so much — facing the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific.
Strength in numbers probably won’t apply to the Pacific Division.
Having matched the Metropolitan and Atlantic Divisions with an eighth entry for the 2017-18 season in the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, the Pacific has to be considered the most inferior of the four groups (though the Atlantic might not be too far behind.)
However that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Pacific will automatically be reduced to the minimum three qualifiers when the Stanley Cup Playoffs roll around again next spring. In fact, teams prepared to challenge for the division crown and wild card seeding in the Western Conference hold an advantage in that there’s an opportunity to collect points from the division’s bottom feeders while the other half of the conference is forced to share them in the hotly-contested Central Division.
If there is in fact a clear divide in the Pacific Division like some expect, each team could wind up in a potentially favourable position — either in the playoffs or in the lottery — when the season is through.
Here are the questions facing the Pacific:
Which team can shake up the division?
The L.A. Kings have to be considered the division’s wild card. This is a team that can tilt the ice and skate downhill on any team on any night, but have failed over the last several seasons to use a routine shot-possession advantage to, you know, win the games.
The reason: incredibly poor offensive output. Los Angeles was one of seven teams that failed to reach the 200-goal mark last season, possessing essentially no scoring beyond bellcow Jeff Carter.
But this season, with new tactics under John Stevens, a bargain-bin addition in six-time 25-goal man Mike Cammalleri and star center Anze Kopitar destined for reversion after an 11-goal campaign, the Kings could see a considerable offensive uptick and therefore challenge for a top-three seed. It will of course will still hinge on Stevens maintaining L.A.’s characteristically dominant puck possession.
The division’s X-factor?
Five goaltenders have logged meaningful minutes for the Calgary Flames over the last two seasons, with not a single one able to provide even the league-average numbers that the club needed to at least support a solid group of young forwards and one of the more talented blue lines in the NHL. For that reason, no player has more pressure to perform in the Pacific Division than Mike Smith, the latest netminder tasked with fortifying the Flames’ crease.
Problem is, it felt like just another stop on the goaltending carousel when Smith was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes. The Flames were previously linked to Ben Bishop and Marc-Andre Fleury, two goaltenders that have outperformed Smith in recent seasons.
Is that a product of circumstance? Or are Smith’s days as a quality NHL goaltender behind him?
Team most likely to finish behind the Golden Knights?
Two of the stronger candidates to finish with a worse record than the NHL’s 31st team were found inside the division in the Arizona Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks. But the prospects of either franchise being lapped in Vegas’s inaugral season took a substantial hit when the Golden Knights left talent on the table in the expansion draft and when both the Coyotes and Canucks brought in legitimate NHL talent over the summer.
Between the two, the Coyotes made the more meaningful additions with Derek Stepan, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers, and they were already further along in the restoration process that the Canucks now seem prepared to initiate. For that reason it’s Vancouver with the best odds to challenge Vegas for the NHL’s worst team.
The team with bust potential?
Of the two teams pegged with the best odds to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final, the Anaheim Ducks are the least likely to go belly up. Part of this is due to an experienced core, but the steadying benefit a talented and deep blue line is really the primary reason the Ducks have established fixed position atop the Pacific.
This leaves the Edmonton Oilers, who, though deserving of being conference favourites, lack similar depth. What does this team look like with an injury to Connor McDavid, Cam Talbot, Adam Larsson or Oscar Klefbom?
Tough luck could see it slip off the rails in Edmonton.
Which team falls furthest?
San Jose sticks out as the most likely candidate to fall in the Pacific.
The Sharks slipped to third in the division last season, and did nothing (that is aside from losing 37-year-old Patrick Marleau) to prevent continuing on a downward trajectory indicative of an aging core.
Which team is irrelevant?
This seems a little backwards, as the Golden Knights literally just attained relevancy, but what happens in a league context this season lacks great importance for the expansion club. Throwaway seasons happen all the time in the NHL with all teams travelling on different progressions — and invariably at the outset for expansion clubs.
This isn’t a team that’s going to contend right away and few major decisions loom, save for maybe trading a James Neal or Jason Garrison at the deadline. For now it’s solely about embedding hockey in Las Vegas and setting up for long-term success. It’ll be quiet off the strip.
Which team is must-see TV?
It’s difficult to vote against the Oilers, who are able to send the league’s most dynamic player over the boards every third shift, but lets give an honourable mention to the Arizona Coyotes.
With Hjalmarsson and Demers, the Coyotes boast a suddenly-formidable top four defensive corps and a group capable of pushing the puck up the ice and into the hands of a truly exciting group of young forwards likely to be bolstered this season by Clayton Keller and Dylan Strome. Arizona is the Pacific Division’s swing team, and a runner-up to the Kings in terms of the capability to shake up the division.
The team that entertains least?
Finally, who takes it?
Anaheim, for a sixth straight time.
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