A lot has changed in the Pacific, but maybe not as much as people think.
The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers swapped problems both up front (Neal-for-Lucic) and in net (free agent signings for Mike Smith and Cam Talbot). Vegas traded out a lot of mid-level talent but will get a full season of Mark Stone to potentially make up the difference. San Jose lost its long-time captain but kept everything else.
Vancouver and Arizona bulked up, without question, but it might not be enough to get them back into the playoffs. Meanwhile, the two teams in the greater Los Angeles area remain well outside the playoffs with little hope of finishing this season in the black.
So what does all that mean?
Let’s have a look:
The Vegas Golden Knights.
Again, there are a lot of what-ifs in this division but the team that looks the best on paper right now is the newest entrant to the league. The third-year Golden Knights have (at least) seven top-six forwards on the roster, and that probably makes up for only having two legit top-four defenders.
In net, you get the feeling Marc-Andre Fleury — now just two months away from being 35 — could go either way, and maybe you don’t have much faith in the future if that future is Malcolm Subban.
But if everything clicks for them, the fact that they have the Marchessault-Karlsson- Smith group to go with the Pacioretty-Stastny-Stone line is going to make them tough to beat on any given night. The rest of the lineup, including Alex Tuch and maybe a couple other decent depth options, doesn’t even have to be that good if those top two groups click — they just have to not get run over.
We can reasonably expect them to do a little more than that, so there’s plenty of reason to believe this team will be the class of the Pacific Division this year.
The Los Angeles Kings.
You have to say that just about everything went wrong for the Kings last season. Doughty and Kopitar were both well, well, well, below their standard, Jonathan Quick was even worse, and no one else had the talent level to begin helping the terrible coaching tandem of John Stevens and Willie Desjardins.
Do you know how hard it is for a team to finish 11 games under .500 in this league, even if you thought the previous season’s playoff appearance was a fluke? They were trying to win for a good chunk of last season and finished with 31 wins. Then they made no improvements at all.
Every core guy is old and getting older. All the young guys aren’t good enough to be difference-makers.
Even if you like the coach, how much can Todd McLellan get out of this group? Even if Kopitar, Kovalchuk, Carter, Doughty, and Quick all revert back to their usual selves, does that feel like it pushes a team with Alec Martinez as its clear No. 2 defenseman into being vaguely competitive?
This is a mess and it’s likely to be a long season. If those guys who were around for the glory days don’t round back into form, it’s going to feel even longer.
San Jose’s Martin Jones.
The Sharks made the playoffs comfortably last season, despite league-worst goaltending from Jones and backup Aaron Dell. With all due respect to Joe Pavelski, losing him to Dallas isn’t going to be what makes or breaks this team, even if that inevitably becomes the narrative.
Instead, this team’s success turns on the ability of Jones — long a slightly above-average goaltender who’s coming off one exceedingly bad year — to turn back into even an average goalie. If he’s even just okay last year, they clear 110 points with ease. And that was with Erik Karlsson starting out slow, playing hurt, missing almost 20 games, etc.
Getting a full season of Karlsson (if such a thing is possible) should be enough to get them where they need to go. When he was even running at 80 percent and he and Burns were splitting time, the Sharks were borderline unbeatable. And again, that was with the worst goaltending in the league.
Not that losing Pavelski doesn’t hurt, but the effect his loss has is surpassed, and then some, just by Jones being merely okay. It’s that big of a swing. This should be a really fun team to watch.
Most Important Newcomer
Arizona’s Phil Kessel.
The Coyotes’ new owner really hopes this team can get into the playoffs, and they made the big move this summer to trade for Phil Kessel at a relatively low price. If his new-old coach and long-time cheerleader Rick Tocchet puts him in a position to succeed — which he should know how to do — and Kessel can forge an offensive connection with the likes of Derek Stepan or Christian Dvorak next season, this team might suddenly have enough firepower up front to actually give other teams problems.
The defense is fine, and the goaltending has some potential if Antti Raanta can stay healthy (which…) but you bring in Phil Kessel to score goals and if you only end up in the low 200s again, well, that’s a major disappointment.
They still don’t look good enough on paper to make the playoffs, but there’s at least an argument for it now. And that’s not nothing.
The Anaheim Ducks.
The problem for the Ducks is the same one it had last year: They’re too bad to be reasonably competitive but too good to get a great pick barring a lucky lottery win.
There are some forwards you have to really like — Getzlaf, Rakell, Kase (for now) — and just about everyone missed a good chunk of time last season. There are some clear standouts on defense. They have probably the best goaltender in the league, who is the only reason they weren’t even worse last year.
There are some really interesting young stars in the making who will see their roles elevated as well.
Plus they have a smart coach now, instead of the guy who couldn’t figure out how a toaster works and a guy who had never stood behind a bench before. So they should improve as long as everyone stays healthy but, again, to what end?
These are the long, dark seasons of the soul. The 82-game slogs to missing both the playoffs and the really good draft lottery spots by 10 or 15 points each, buoyed by elite talent you almost wish you didn’t have. Don’t know how you sell that. Maybe you can’t.
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The Calgary Flames.
Say this for the Flames: They seem really committed to playing a lot of 5-4 games.
The league-average goaltending they got last season was powered by David Rittich starting insanely hot and cooling after the new year, while Mike Smith plugged away below .900 basically all season. Well, Smith ain’t around anymore, but has been replaced by Cam Talbot, who spent last year… that’s right, below .900.
If Rittich doesn’t keep pace as an average goaltender and Talbot once again stinks, it’s going to be on the Flames’ top two lines of Gaudreau-Monahan-Lindholm and Tkachuk-Backlund-Frolik(?) to shoot the lights out. And the thing is: They might be able to.
Worth noting, though, that Tkachuk is an under-discussed star RFA who remains unsigned as of this writing.
The less you look at the Flames’ bottom two lines, the better, but they should be serviceable enough, especially if new acquisition Milan Lucic is fired into the sun or the Saddledome press box, whichever is closest. But overall, the offense should be there as long as Mark Giordano doesn’t suddenly realize he’s 36. TJ Brodie? Fine. Travis Hamonic? Fine. Rasmus Andersson? Fine. Noah Hanifin? Fine if you use him right. And that’s all well and good.
Should you count on these guys to have the best record in the conference again? Probably not. But should they do well despite some obvious concerns? Yeah.
Team With Most Pressure
The Edmonton Oilers.
Not much more needs to be said about these guys than the fact that it looks like Connor McDavid’s right wing to start the year is going to be Zack f’n Kassian. Not that he’s a terrible player or anything but it’s like, come on at this point. The Oilers’ inability to fully surround the best player alive with anything resembling top-six talent is bordering on parody, and yet here we are.
Even if it’s the ghost of James Neal’s career instead of Kassian. Even if it’s whoever the local media thinks the next Ty Rattie is. You can just go down a list of possible right wings in the organization. Nope, nope, nope. It would be cool to see McDavid go psycho-mode, put up 140 points like it’s nothing, and miss the playoffs by 10 points again. What happens then? You gotta ask the question.
The pressure, then, is to make sure they don’t waste yet another season of a generational talent’s prime years. Whether they will meet the minimal challenge to not be a total disaster when McDavid is off the ice is very much in doubt.
But hey, at least even if they didn’t address their paucity of NHL wingers, they went out and gave Mikko Koskinen a veteran backup in Mike Smith, right? ... Right? Connor, where are you going? Come back, Connor!
The Pressing Question
David asks: "Biggest swing between most likely outcome for a team and worst-case scenario?"
It might just be the Vancouver Canucks. They weren't very good last year and definitively improved, adding JT Miller (via a risky trade) and Micheal Ferland up front, and Tyler Myers at the back. They'll have a full season of Quinn Hughes on the blue line as well, which should help an otherwise poor defense.
Does that alone, plus the maturation of their young, surefire stars like Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson catapult them from near the bottom of the Pacific to the playoff contention they've wanted so long? Well, it's tough to say. Miller is a player and so, to a lesser extent, is Ferland. Myers might have value if you use him right, though with that deal it doesn't seem likely they will.
The most likely outcome here seems like being on the cusp of the playoffs but ultimately falling short. In a worst-case scenario, this team could be quite bad if some of the older players on the roster have the bottom drop out.
Or if Pettersson and Boeser miss good chunks of the season again. Or if the Jacob Markstrom/Thatcher Demko tandem isn't up to snuff. Or if Hughes doesn't excel as many expect (not uncommon among rookie defenders). Or if the defense as a whole —anchored by 58-year-old Alex Edler, Myers, an apparently used-up Chris Tanev, and a just-okay Troy Stecher in addition time Hughes — just can't cut it in this top-heavy, star-focused division.
They won't be "last year" bad if some stuff goes sideways, but there's so little cushion between what could make them good and fun to watch all season long, and what could put them in a spiral.
1) Vegas Golden Knights – 103 points
2) San Jose Sharks – 102 points
3) Calgary Flames – 99 points
4) Vancouver Canucks – 90 points
5) Edmonton Oilers – 87 points
6) Arizona Coyotes – 86 points
7) Anaheim Ducks – 81 points
8) Los Angeles Kings – 79 points
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