Season Preview: Pacific Division
Home of two of the NHL’s powerhouse franchises, Pacific Division clubs also boast some of the finest prospects in the league and is bracing itself for the media tsunami Connor McDavid’ arrival is set to bring.
Whilst it may mean there are only two clubs with a serious chance of winning the Stanley Cup this season, the potential on display is tremendous and the Division may be about to get seriously interesting.
At some point an accusation of witch craft may be levelled at Ducks General Manager Bob Murray – until then the 67-year old will continue to strengthen the Anaheim line up whilst maintaining a remarkable amount of cap space.
The Ducks start the season nearly $8m before the cap ceiling, despite adding Kevin Bieksa, Anton Khudobin, Carl Hagelin (who was promptly signed to a 4-year, $16m extension), Mike Santorelli, Chris Stewart, tough guy Brian McGrattan and veteran Shawn Horcoff.
Low risk, high reward deals for Horcoff and Stewart helped Murray keep the clubs finances on track, whilst many of the other new recruits replace out going stars such as James Wisniewski and Francois Beauchemin.
Play-off hero Matt Beleskey also departed – joining Boston on a 5-year, $19 million deal – but Anaheim remain a team to be feared.
Winners of three straight Division titles, the Ducks have inched closer to the Cup final with each campaign and the development of Jakob Silfverberg (who signed a 4-year contract extension this summer), Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen ensure the club is less top heavy than it once was.
This isn’t to say the dynamic duo of Getzlaf and Perry will not be pivotal to the Ducks success, but with clubs depth chart is ever evolving, and improving.
Could this finally be the Ducks year?
Key Player – Frederik Andersen
Entering the final year of his current contract, the 26-year old Dane has been solid without ever truly convincing anyone of his #1 credentials.
With Khudobin arriving in Orange County with a point to prove and top prospect John Gibson waiting in the wings, Andersen needs to built on a respectable campaign to prove he has the chops to backstop a champion.
To add ‘insult to injury’, the Coyotes also missed out on the coveted 1st and 2nd overall picks and thus a chance at adding Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel to their roster.
This is not to say Dylan Strome is a poor addition though, and the 18-year old joins a burgeoning crop of young talent in the Coyotes system – albeit he’ll spend this season with Eerie.
With Max Domi, Anthony Duclair (acquired in the trade that sent Keith Yandle to the Rangers in March), Brendan Perlini and Strome, Arizona fans can afford to be hopeful moving forward.
Stud blue liner Oliver Ekman-Larsson is also only 24, and winger Mikkel Boedker has begun to flourish – despite missing almost half of the 2014/15 season through injury – while it seems unlikely Mike Smith will be as terrible this year, despite his advancing years and the loss of goaltending coach and friend Sean Burke.
The challenge with Boedker is the same as Arizona face across the board; people need convincing the Coyotes are on the right path.
The 25-year old is signed a 1-year extension this summer but will become an unrestricted free agent in July, and the Coyotes promising group of youngsters is mainly surrounded by useful veterans such as Shane Doan and returnees Antoine Vermette and Zbynek Michalek. It may be functional, but it doesn’t exactly scream ‘success’ or give potential free agent signings much to hang their hat on.
Part of the problem remains the somewhat awkward ownership history of the club, which may finally have settled, but none the less becomes a point of contention at the merest hint of financial difficulties.
Taking on Chris Pronger’s contract to keep the club clear of the cap floor is indicative of the tight constraints GM Don Maloney has to work with, and as a result converting that strong youth group in to a play-off team may not be easy.
Key Player – Mike Smith
Smith had just 14 wins from 61 starts last season, giving up more than 3 goals per game on average – comfortably his worst season since joining Arizona.
Now 33, the Kingston, Ontario native must work with new goaltending coach Jon Elkin to shore up the Coyotes crease if the clubs youth movement is to have any hope of taking off.
A remarkable start to the year set the Flames on a path to the post season for the first time in six years, despite losing influential Captain Mark Giordano for two separate stints – including the final 21 regular season games and the play-offs.
Buoyed by the play of young stars Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and TJ Brodie, Flames General Manager Brad Treliving signed winger Michael Frolik to a 5-year contract and landed prize catch Dougie Hamilton to reenforce the clubs blue line.
Many will still put Bob Hartley’s team on the bubble this year, which is understandable, but the Alberta franchise has shown they are not just also rans anymore – even if the turn around in fortunes did come a little quicker than expected.
Key Player – Jiri Hudler
Veteran centre Hudler led the Flames with 31 goals and 76 points last season, striking one of those rich veins of form that happens to make everyone around them better too.
Can the 31-year old repeat the performance? With Monahan and Gaudreau sure to receive extra attention this year, the former Detroit forward will be looked to as a game breaker again this term.
From 28th overall to possible play-off participants, Connor McDavid bolsters an already impressive offensive line up which many expect to finally find some consistency under new Head Coach Todd McLellan.
But defence remains key to Edmonton’s progress.
So porous has the Oilers’ blue line been in recent years, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Oilers had maybe iced five forwards on occasions; and the questions marks still hang over the club, despite some positive moves.
Attracting coveted free agent Andrej Sekera and former Devils D man Mark Fayne to Alberta should help patch things up somewhat, with Eric Gryba also signing after three seasons in Ottawa.
The trio reduce some of the pressure on Justin Schultz, who had previously struggled to carry the load expected of him, while Captain Andrew Ference can settle in to a more suitable depth role.
Griffin Reinhart, acquired from the Islanders during the off season, joins Darnell Nurse as one of the Oilers top defensive prospects, while 22-year old Oscar Klefbom somewhat surprisingly landed a 7-year contract extension this summer.
Whether the changes are enough to provide an adequate defence to support the clubs stacked offence remains to be seen – with much now resting on the shoulders of the unproven tandem of Cam Talbot and Anders Nilsson, after Ben Scrivens was waived.
Former Maple Leaf Scrivens received little support from his blue line last season, painting the affable netminder (and partner Viktor Fasth) in an unfair light all too often. Few would have thrived in Edmonton during recent seasons and continue ‘on the cheap’ decisions between the pipes did the club few favours.
In Talbot they have a goaltender whose stock is high, following great run with the Rangers when Henrik Lundqvist was sidelined, but whose real ability to be a #1 is still largely unknown. The Oilers defence is not in the same class as the Rangers, the West is a heck of a lot more competitive and an 82 game season is much different to playing a few weeks in relief of the starter.
The 28-year old may come good, but is simply too much of an unknown at this point to truly be labelled the clubs #1, let alone their goaltending saviour.
As much as Edmonton have improved, there are still questions to answer
Key Player – Todd McLellan
Not for the first time, we’re going to cheat a little here – but the former Sharks coach has just walked in to one of the toughest jobs in the league, but might be one of the few who can make it work.
A smart tactician, expectations are high in Alberta following the raft of changes made this summer and McLellan’s first job is to re-organise the team in to something that can compete at both ends of the ice night-in, night-out.
Los Angeles Kings
Complacency seemed to grip the Kings last year. With two Cups and a Conference Final appearance in the previous three seasons, LA were lackadaisical for much of the campaign and ultimately missed the play-offs for the first time since 2009.
With a difficult lesson learnt, Los Angeles roster changes were small in number but significant in stature.
Slava Voynov’s departure will be mourned by no one, but the termination of Mike Richards contract will linger while Jarrett Stoll’s run in with the law did little to boost the clubs battered public image – regardless of the veteran forwards free agent status.
The additional loss of fan favourite Justin Williams did little to help during a painful few months but the acquisition of Milan Lucic went some way to rebuilding fans faith, while Christian Ehrhoff is a useful free agent addition along the blue line.
The end result is a team that must still be considered Cup contenders, but one with a few questions to answer. Another slack regular season campaign won’t cut it in a Division and Conference which is only going to get stronger this year.
Key Player – Dustin Brown
Following two seasons worth of declining production, the Kings Captain needs to be the poster boy for the clubs resurrection this season – leading from the front and boosting an offence which has at times been far too slack.
San Jose Sharks
The eternal soap opera of the San Jose Sharks saw number one netminder Antti Niemi and Head Coach Todd McLellan depart this summer. It now falls to Pete DeBoer to convert a talented roster in to a contender again. Maybe.
Veterans Joel Ward and Paul Martin add quality at both ends of the ice; but at 34, their arrival continues to confuse what direction the Sharks are actually trying to steer the ship in.
Is this a club still trying to capitalise on a window of opportunity? Making senior stalwarts like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski (who is 31 now!) key to the clubs chances this season.
Or should a disappointing 2014/15 campaign signal the need for serious change after years of ‘close but no cigar’?
If it is the latter, adding Ward and Martin makes little sense and Thornton and Marleau might be better used as bait with which to add to a decent group of young Sharks, led by Tomas Hertl, Mirco Mueller and new signing Martin Jones.
Having missed the cut by 8 points last year, and with Divisional rivals making strides in recent months, it certainly seems like San Jose need a serious shake up – one more significant than just replacing the coach and shuffling some deck chairs.
McLellan and Niemi’s departure leaves San Jose short of scapegoats heading in to the new campaign. Anything short of a post season berth will leave General Manager Doug Wilson squarely in the firing line – if he isn’t already.
Key Player – Alex Stalock and Martin Jones
Antti Niemi was largely dependable for the Sharks, sometimes hitting purple patches that elevated him from good to very good. The Finn was also the target of criticism on a disproportionate number of occasions.
A poor outing during the 2014 play-offs more or less sealed his fate, and San Jose’s absence from the 2015 post season put the proverbial final nail in place.
Now the Sharks turn to Alex Stalock, who was middling at best last season, and former Los Angeles backup Martin Jones.
The pair could, potentially, be very good. But this is based as much on speculation as it is concrete proof either is a legitimate NHL #1 – or even a serviceable 1A/1B tandem.
The Sedin twins remain strong performers, leading the club in scoring again last season, while veteran winger Radim Vrbata formed a solid partnership with the pair to give the Canucks top line some punch.
Depth is an issue however, despite the arrival of Brandon Sutter – whose reputation had grown considerably in Pittsburgh. Alexandre Burrows injury-initiated decline seems to have robbed the organisation of an effective secondary scorer, while some consider Bo Horvat’s progress to be somewhat sluggish.
Even with Hunter Shinkaruk and Jake Virtanen in the system, the prevailing feeling is it is a team in decline right now, still heavily reliant on their famous twins – an idea reinforced by the lack of a single 20 goal scorer outside of Vrbata and Daniel Sedin.
The situation is exacerbated by the clubs lack of cap space however, making significant changes potentially difficult.
Key Player – The Sedin Twins
Outside of maybe Ryan Miller, the Canucks hopes of a successful season start and end with Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
While there is some quality along the blue line, a lack of offensive clout is a serious concern for the franchise, and any decline from the 35-year olds could be catastrophic.
Posted on October 4, 2015, in Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Hockey, Los Angeles Kings, NHL, San Jose Sharks, Season Previews 2015, Vancouver Canucks and tagged Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Hockey, Los Angeles Kings, NHL, Pacific Division, San Jose Sharks, Season Preview, Vancouver Canucks. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.