While piecing together the Pacific Division breakdown, its become clear that there’s a changing of the guard on the west coast.
Gone are the days when the three California teams ran the show for a few years. For a time, everyone else was trying to play catch-up. The Anaheim Ducks look to extend their streak of division titles to six. Los Angeles is fighting their way through a transitional phase. Further north, San Jose appears to be a team whose window is closing fast.
Meanwhile in Alberta, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are both looking to take the next step from playoff teams to legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. On the other end of the spectrum, the Arizona Coyotes look to finally see their youngsters take the next step while the Vancouver Canucks face what appears to be a long rebuild. In addition, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights take the ice for the first time as the first team in the four major North American sports to call Las Vegas home.
We’ll provide a breakdown of the Pacific Division in reverse order of how we believe the teams will finish in the division, ending with who we think wins the division title. All salary cap information courtesy of capfriendly.com.
Vegas Golden Knights
2016-17 Record: N/A
2016-17 Finish: N/A
Key Acquisitions: Marc-Andre Fleury, G; Calvin Pickard, G; James Neal, RW; Reilly Smith, RW; Jonathan Marchessault, RW; Vadim Shipachyov, C; Cody Eakin, C; Erik Haula, C; William Karlsson, C; David Perron, LW; Nate Schmidt, D; Jason Garrison, D; Shea Theodore, D; Colin Miller, D
Key Departures: ; Marcus Kruger, C; Marc Methot, D; Alexei Emelin, D; David Schlemko, D; Trevor van Riemsdyk, D
Salary Cap Hit and Space: $69.38 million and $5.28 million
What to Like
The NHL is the first of the four major pro sports leagues in North America to place a team in Las Vegas. Seriously, how cool is that? While victories will be hard to come by in their inaugural season, the Golden Knights have more buzz surrounding them than any other expansion team in the league over the last 30 years. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is a star in net, and he’ll have to be incredible every night for Vegas to have any chance at being competitive.
What Not to Like
History suggests that Vegas will struggle to score goals. The previous nine expansion franchises since 1991 all finished in the bottom five in the league in scoring in their inaugural seasons. Four of those teams finished dead last in goals scored. While there’s players like Neal, Marchessault, Smith, and Perron that have goal-scoring ability, there’s a chance that Neal and Perron could be trade-deadline bait for a contender looking to add scoring. Expect Vegas to continue the trend of expansion teams struggling to put the puck in the net.
X-Factor: Vadim Shiapchyov
When you look at the Knights’ roster, it’s definitely a ragtag group, particularly in their forward group. What you see is probably what you’re going to get up front. However, Shipachyov will be an interesting player to follow this season. A 30-year-old center signed from the KHL as a free agent, Shipachyov is seeing his first NHL action. Over his last three KHL seasons, he’s netted 55 goals and 190 points in 153 games. If he can come close to translating that level of success to the NHL, Vegas could have a hidden gem that can be their first line center.
Big Question: Can the Golden Knights be competitive in their first season?
That depends on how Fleury plays. He’s gone through stretches in his career where he’s looked like the best goalie in the NHL. He’s also been through some tough spots where he looked like he couldn’t stop a beach ball. Unlike the Penguins’ teams he won three Stanley Cups with, he won’t have the benefit of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang in front of him. He’ll have to stand on his head often. Even though Vegas has plenty of reliable defensemen, it’s still not a spectacular group. Head coach Gerard Gallant will need to find a way to get his team to buy into his system and be a hard team to play against. They’ll win games this season with great goaltending, outworking the opposition, and getting timely goals. While Vegas is an intriguing team in their first season, don’t be surprised to see them deal players at the deadline for picks and prospects as they begin the long haul of starting a team from scratch and building them up.
Predicted Finish: 8th Place
2016-17 Record: 30-43-9, 69 points
2016-17 Finish: 13th in West, 29th in NHL
Key Acquisitions: Sam Gagner, RW; Thomas Vanek, LW; Alexander Burmistrov, C; Michael Del Zotto, D; Patrick Wiercioch, D; Anders Nilsson, G
Key Departures: Ryan Miller, G; Luca Sbisa, D
Salary Cap Hit and Space: $72.32 million and $2.68 million
What to Like
The fact that the Canucks have finally admitted that they needed to rebuild. They traded Alexandre Burrows and Jannik Hansen at the trade deadline and also waved goodbye to Miller during the offseason. Vancouver will have plenty of talented youngsters either in the lineup or trying to make it on the roster, such as Brock Boeser, Troy Stecher, Jake Virtanen, Nikolay Goldobin, and Olli Juolevi. However, they also brought in free agents like Gagner, Vanek, Burmistrov, Del Zotto, and Wiercioch to show the youngsters the way. And we haven’t even gotten to Bo Horvat, who made the All-Star Tournament last year and looks like a star in the making.
What Not to Like
It’s a rebuild. Rebuilds are painful to go through, and they’re usually the result of things going wrong for some time before the rebuilding process begins. Henrik and Daniel Sedin are nearing the end of their careers, and unless a trade is worked out to send them and their $7 million cap hits to a contender, they’ll have ended their long tenure in Vancouver without a Stanley Cup. They’re both due to be UFA’s next summer. While they’re both likely future Hall of Famers, it’s clear that they’re both past their prime while the team put together a roster that wasn’t close to contending over the last few years.
X-Factor: Jacob Markstrom
At 27, he’s finally in a position to take a number one job and make it his own. A former Panthers draft pick and backup to Miller is now in a prime position to prove that he can handle a starter’s workload. Whether or not he can actually handle that burden for a rebuilding team is the big question. Vancouver brought in Anders Nilsson to be the backup, but a platoon might happen. The Canucks’ main hope is that Markstrom seizes the number one gig and helps keep them in games.
Big Question: Since this team is in a rebuild, what does a successful season look like?
The odds of the Canucks making the postseason are remote. Any success this team has in 2017-18 will be defined by how much progress their younger players make. Horvat was one of the few bright spots this team had a season ago. Can he make the next step after signing a 6-year deal worth $5.5 million AAV? Will Boeser continue to develop after joining the team late last season and scoring four goals in nine games? Stecher placed fifth among rookie defensemen a season ago with 24 points and his development will be crucial. Will Virtanen bounce back after a tough season in the AHL? Juolevi is not a big blue-liner, but he’s very skilled. Does he make the roster? Canucks fans will have to settle for a lot of moral victories and trying to keep it close against some of the major players in the Western Conference. This team will be in the running for the draft lottery in what is expected to be a stacked 2018 NHL Draft.
Predicted Finish: 7th Place
2016-17 Record: 30-42-10, 70 points
2016-17 Finish: 12th in the West, 27th in the NHL
Key Acquisitions: Niklas Hjalmarsson, D; Derek Stepan, C; Antti Raanta, G; Nick Cousins, C; Emerson Etem, RW; Jason Demers, D
Key Departures: Shane Doan, RW; Mike Smith, G; Radim Vrbata, RW; Connor Murphy, D; Alexander Burmistrov, C; Anthony DeAngelo, D; Peter Holland, C; Jamie McGinn, LW/RW
Salary Cap Hit and Space: $58.36 million and $16.64 million
What to Like
The Coyotes are a little further along the rebuilding path than the Canucks are. Over the last four years, their stockpile of youngsters already on the team or ready to take the next step is impressive. Max Domi, Christian Dvorak, Lawson Crouse, Anthony Duclair, and Brendan Perlini have shown flashes of during the early parts of their NHL careers. Domi seems like he’s ready to take the next step, while Duclair is looking to bounce back after struggling a season ago. Highly-touted prospects Dylan Strome and Clayton Keller are expected to crack the roster this season. Arizona also traded for Stepan and Raanta from the New York Rangers and Hjalmarsson from the Chicago Blackhawks. Hjalmarsson will join Demers, Alex Goligoski, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson in what should be a pretty solid top-4 blue line. Jakob Chychrun was impressive on the back end as a 19-year-old and should only get better.
What Not to Like
The departure of former longtime captain and franchise cornerstone Shane Doan was pretty awkward for both sides. The Coyotes declined to re-sign him, and he eventually retired, but it was an inauspicious end to a great career spent with the same franchise dating back to their days in Winnipeg. Also, we’ve heard about this team’s rebuilding project for about three years. It’s time that it started bearing fruit. While a playoff appearance isn’t expected, being out of contention by January isn’t gonna be good enough, either.
X-Factors: Dylan Strome and Clayton Keller
Strome was the third overall pick in the 2015 draft. Each of the top 11 picks from that class have found themselves in the NHL. Strome is the lone exception in that group. He’s the kind of big, skilled center that every team covets, and he’s lit up the OHL with the Erie Otters. However, he’s been unable to stick in limited NHL action. With his junior eligibility complete, his time is now to make this roster and prove he can be the productive center Arizona needs him to be.
Keller was a first round pick in 2016 and signed with the Coyotes after just one season at Boston University, getting into three games in Arizona last season and notching two assists. In just one season at BU, he tallied 45 points in 31 games. If both he and Strome can find their games, there could finally be hope in the desert.
Big Question: Can Antti Raanta give them the goaltending they need?
While the acquisitions of Stepan, Hjalmarsson, and Demers were aggressive moves, picking up Raanta is the most important. Mike Smith was a solid goalie for some bad Coyotes teams over the last five years, but even he wasn’t able to help boost a rebuilding group back to respectability. Raanta is the latest in a line of goalies to serve as a backup to a star before getting his shot. The question is this: is Raanta is the next Cam Fowler or Martin Jones, becoming a legitimate number one guy? Or is he the next Anders Lindback, falling flat on his face? This will determine how Arizona’s season goes. The Coyotes aren’t likely to make the postseason, but they need to challenge San Jose and Los Angeles for the middle of the pack in this division while finishing ahead of Vancouver and Vegas. The playoffs won’t be there, but progress will be made in the desert under new head coach Rick Tocchet.
Prediction: 6th Place
Los Angeles Kings
2016-17 Record: 39-35-8, 86 points
2016-17 Finish: 10th in the West, 22nd in the NHL
Key Acquisitions: Mike Cammalleri, LW; Christian Folin, D; Darcy Kuemper, G
Key Departures: Ben Bishop, G; Brayden McNabb, D; Matt Greene, D; Devin Setoguchi, RW; Jarome Iginla, RW
Salary Cap Hit and Space: $66.57 million and $8.43 million
What to Like
Goaltender Jonathan Quick enters this season healthy and looking to bounce back after a groin injury on opening night a year ago cost him the majority of the season. Defenseman Drew Doughty remains one of the elite blueliners in the game while Jeff Carter should continue to be an offensive force for this team. Assistant coach John Stevens was promoted to the head coaching gig after Darryl Sutter was fired. Perhaps a fresh voice behind the bench can provide this team a spark.
What Not to Like
A team that finished tied for 25th in goals didn’t make many moves to improve themselves in that department other than signing 35-year-old Mike Cammalleri to a one-year deal. Former GM Dean Lombardi awarded players like Marian Gaborik, Dustin Brown, and Anze Kopitar with new contracts in the seasons after the Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014. However, Kopitar is coming off a career-worst season while Brown and Gaborik continue to decline with age. The contracts of Brown and Gaborik have become boat anchors due to their age and declining production. While this isn’t a team on the verge of drafting in the top 5, getting into the playoffs will be a struggle.
X-Factor: Tyler Toffoli
Two years ago, Toffoli broke out with 31 goals and 58 points, providing the Kings with a big offensive spark. Last season, he missed 19 games due to injury and his production dipped to 16 goals and 34 points. Having signed a new 3-year deal worth $4.6 million AAV, Toffoli will be needed to provide some scoring for an aging lineup that has struggled to put the puck in the net even when they were winning Cups. If he can rediscover his 2015-16 form, the Kings will once again be in the thick of the playoff push.
Big Question: How healthy is Jonathan Quick?
When Quick is healthy, he’s one of the premiere goaltenders in the NHL. In the two seasons Los Angeles won the Cup, the Kings ranked 26th and 29th in scoring during the regular season. His play can help cover a lot of flaws. When he was injured last season, Peter Budaj was brilliant filling in. However, he’s now in Tampa Bay. If Quick goes down again, it’s tough to trust Darcy Kuemper or Jeff Zatkoff to carry the load. Los Angeles has missed the playoffs two of the last three seasons. The Kings desperately need Quick to stay healthy for them to return to the playoffs. While LA will be in the thick of the hunt late in the season, they just don’t have the offensive firepower to hang with Anaheim, Edmonton, Calgary, and even San Jose.
Prediction: 5th Place
San Jose Sharks
2016-17 Record: 46-29-7, 99 points
2016-17 Finish: Third in the Pacific, lost to Edmonton in 6 games in Round 1
Key Acquisitions: None
Key Departures: Patrick Marleau, LW; David Schlemko, D; Mirco Mueller, D
Salary Cap Hit and Space: $66.29 million, and $8.71 million
What to Like
Despite the fact the core of this team is getting older, it’s still a very talented core for a franchise that has missed the playoffs just once in 13 seasons and made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016. Defenseman Brent Burns won the Norris Trophy last season, while Joe Thornton is still one of the better setup men in the league at 38. Joe Pavelski is still capable of getting 30-plus goals at 33 while Logan Couture is in his prime. Marc-Edouard Vlasic continues to be one of the most underrated blue-liners in the league. The Sharks are also set between the pipes with Martin Jones, who went from a long-time backup a couple of years ago to one of the most steady and reliable starting goalies in the NHL.
What Not to Like
After 19 seasons, longtime franchise icon Patrick Marleau left as a free agent for Toronto. Despite approaching 40 years of age, he was still a guy capable of providing offense. As good as this team’s core is, they seemed a step slow in their first round loss to Edmonton, but to be fair, they were beat up heading into that series. The Sharks’ window is getting shorter and shorter, and eventually younger players are going to have to take the torch from the veterans. San Jose also didn’t make any significant free agent additions, so it appears they believe they’ve still got a chance to make a Cup run with the group they have. However, there’s no doubt that time is running out for this group.
X-Factor: Timo Meier
The ninth overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Meier is a versatile forward that can play either center or both wings. The 20-year-old Swiss-born Meier had a nose for the net in junior hockey, and after graduating to the AHL, scored 14 goals in 33 games. In 34 NHL games, he only scored three times on 85 shots on goal. Despite the absymal shooting percentage with the Sharks, his individual possession stats were excellent. If he can find a way to hit the back of the net more often, that will go a long way to taking some of the pressure off the Sharks’ big guns.
Big Question: How much longer does this team’s core have?
The Sharks have consistently been a playoff team for much of the last 20 years. They’ve been successful at drafting and developing players while also managing to supplement their home-grown guys with big trades that have kept them in contention. However, San Jose has a couple of years left before guys like Thornton move on and Pavelski, Burns, and Vlasic eventually begin to decline. The Sharks are going to need more from Meier, Mikkel Boedker, Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi, and Melker Karlsson, as well as prospects like Kevin Labanc, Danny O’Regan, and Dylan DeMelo. San Jose is still going to be in the playoff hunt, but with the road to Pacific Division glory now going through Alberta and not California, there’s a strong chance the Sharks miss out on a playoff spot if the stacked Central Division takes both wild card spots.
Prediction: 4th Place
2016-17 Record: 45-33-4, 94 points
2016-17 Finish: Fourth in the Pacific, first wild card spot, swept by Anaheim in Round 1
Key Acquisitions: Mike Smith, G; Travis Hamonic, D; Eddie Lack, G; Spencer Foo, RW
Key Departures: Brian Elliott, G; Chad Johnson, G; Lance Bouma, LW; Brandon Hickey, D; Ladislav Smid, D
Salary Cap Hit and Space: $69.78 million and $5.22 million
What to Like
The addition of Travis Hamonic on the blue line in a trade with the Islanders, bolsters an already strong back end, and he should slot in on the second pairing with T.J. Brodie while Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton man the top pair. With Michael Stone on the third pair, the Flames are incredibly deep defensively. Up front, Calgary is loaded on their top two lines, as Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are the centerpieces, supported by Micheal Ferland, Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, and the emerging Matthew Tkachuk. The goaltending has been a problem for a long time, but the Flames are counting on Mike Smith to stabilize their crease.
What Not to Like
Since Miikka Kiprusoff retired in 2013, it would be kind to say that the Flames’ goaltending situation has been a graveyard. A graveyard whose names include Karri Ramo, Reto Berra, Joey MacDonald, Joni Ortio, Jonas Hiller, Niklas Backstrom, Chad Johnson, and Brian Elliott. Now it’s Smith’s turn to right the ship between the pipes. Unlike in Arizona, Smith shouldn’t have to stand on his head and do acrobatics in the crease for the Flames. He merely has to be average or better. His play will go a long way in determining Calgary’s fate this season.
X-Factor: Sam Bennett
The fourth overall pick in 2014, Bennett can be viewed as untapped potential. The 21-year-old forward posted 18 goals and 36 points in 77 games two seasons ago as a rookie. Last year, he fell to 13 goals and 26 points despite playing in four more games. He’s played at center and at wing, but he hasn’t been able to crack Calgary’s top two lines. He was re-signed to a two-year bridge deal during the summer with a salary cap hit of $1.95 million. While this team gets plenty of scoring from Monahan and Gaudreau, they need more contributions from Bennett to give them more depth scoring up front.
Big Question: Will Mike Smith be the one to settle Calgary’s goaltending situation?
The 35-year-old was acquired from Arizona during the offseason, and he should have plenty of good hockey in him. However, since he finished fourth in Vezina Trophy voting in 2011-12, his numbers have dropped. Part of that is due to the struggling Coyotes teams he played behind during that time. In 2011-12, he had a 2.21 goals-against average, .930 save percentage, and eight shutouts. Since then, his best GAA was 2.58 in 2012-13, his best save percentage was .916 in 2015-16, and he hasn’t posted more than three shutouts in a season. If he holds up his end of the bargain, the Flames could make a long playoff run. If not, this team will be first round fodder if they manage to even get into the postseason.
Prediction: 3rd Place
2016-17 Record: 46-23-13, 105 points
2016-17 Finish: Pacific Division Champions, lost to Nashville in six games in the Western Conference Finals
Key Acquisitions: Ryan Miller, G; Francois Beauchemin, D
Key Departures: Shea Theodore, D; Clayton Stoner, D; Jonathan Bernier, G
Salary Cap Hit and Space: $71.68 million and $3.32 million
What to Like
The Ducks have won five consecutive Pacific Division titles and should continue to be a Stanley Cup contender. Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler form the leadership nucleus that’s all in their early 30’s. They’ve still got some good hockey left in them, but they’re definitely beginning the back nine of their careers. Younger veterans like defensemen Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, and Sami Vatanen, as well as forwards Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg have been productive players either in their prime or entering it. The team continues to be among the best in the league at developing young defensemen. John Gibson is just 24, but has the crease locked down in Anaheim. We still haven’t seen his best hockey yet.
What Not to Like
Kesler is one of the most important players on this team, but it was recently announced he needs hip surgery and could be out until some time around Christmas. As good as this team is, losing one of the best two-way players in the game is a blow. Although Anaheim has consistently been a Cup contender over the last several years, they’ve had nothing to show for it. Four years in a row, they saw their season end in a Game 7 on home ice. Last year, that streak came to an end when they beat Edmonton in Game 7 at home in the second round. However, they still weren’t able to get past Nashville in the Western Conference Finals. Those five straight division titles and two conference finals appearances in three years ring hollow when the only Stanley Cup title in team history came in 2007. In addition, both Edmonton and Calgary will have something to say about Anaheim’s run at the top of the division.
X-Factor: Corey Perry
You’re probably looking at this and thinking, “How is one of the team’s top players an X-Factor?” Here’s the deal: Perry finished last season with 19 goals, his fewest since notching 13 in his rookie season in 2005-06. He’s a former 50-goal scorer and Rocket Richard Trophy winner with a salary cap hit of $8.625 million. Expecting 50 goals again might a bit too much. But it’s not unreasonable to expect Perry to finish in the high 20’s or low 30’s in terms of goals scored. If he can rediscover his scoring touch, that will help the Ducks out tremendously.
Big Question: Can the Ducks close the deal?
Anaheim’s window is more wide open than San Jose’s, but their top three players, Getzlaf, Perry, and Kesler, aren’t getting any younger. However, there is still enough depth and talent on this team to continue to be a contender going forward. While they ended their Game 7 issues on home ice, they’re still a team that hasn’t been able to close the deal and win a Cup. They haven’t even returned to the Stanley Cup Final since they won their only championship over 10 years ago. Anaheim is still a contender, but teams like Calgary and Edmonton have significantly closed the gap in the race for the top of the Pacific Division heap.
Prediction: 2nd Place
2016-17 Record: 47-26-9, 103 points
2016-17 Finish: Second in the Pacific, lost to Anaheim in seven games in Round 2
Key Acquisitions: Jussi Jokinen, F; Ryan Strome, F
Key Departures: Jordan Eberle, RW; Benoit Pouliot, LW
Salary Cap Hit and Space: $66.67 million and $8.33 million
What to Like
For the first time in a LONG time, the Oilers enter a season with sky-high expectations. After making the playoffs for the first time since 2006, Edmonton came very close to an appearance in the Western Conference Finals. They’ve gone all in with the dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The 20-year-old McDavid won the Art Ross and Hart Trophies as the only player in the league to hit 100 points, 70 of them assists. Draisaitl broke out with 29 goals and 77 points and was a monster in the playoffs. They were both signed to eight-year contracts, with McDavid’s deal kicking in next season. Edmonton also has a strong supporting cast featuring Patrick Maroon, Milan Lucic, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Mark Letestu, Adam Larsson, and Oscar Klefbom. Cam Talbot emerged as a strong starting goaltender capable of backstopping this team to a deep run.
What Not to Like
I’ll paraphrase the first Spider-Man movie: “With great results come great expectations.” The Oilers will not be able to sneak up on anyone anymore. The team that was a punchline on how not to rebuild has all of a sudden become a Stanley Cup contender and their window is wide open. The only difference is everyone in the division is gunning for them and there is a lot of pressure on this team to perform, both internal and external. However, as long as this team stays healthy, there’s no reason why this group can’t sit atop the division and make a long playoff run. However, they will have to deal with the loss of Andrej Sekera until mid-season due to a torn ACL.
X-Factors: Jesse Puljujarvi and Ryan Strome
Puljujarvi is a 19-year-old winger taken fourth overall in the 2016 NHL Draft. After opening last season with the Oilers and struggling, he was sent to the AHL, where he scored 12 goals and 28 points in 39 games. He’s still on his entry level contract and won’t turn 20 until next May. If he can find a spot as a trigger man on McDavid’s wing, it would allow Draisaitl to move to center on the second line. Draisaitl was on McDavid’s wing for much of last season, but moved to center in the playoffs and scored 16 points in 13 games. Puljujarvi has the size at 6’3″ to be a physical, goal-scoring force. Strome was acquired from the Islanders in a trade for Jordan Eberle, and should slot in as a winger on one of the top two lines. The 24-year-old Strome notched 50 points three seasons ago, but has tallied just 28 and 30 in each of the past two seasons. If he can rediscover his game and Puljujarvi can find his way at the NHL level, it makes an already potent lineup more dangerous.
Big Question: Progress has been made, but what is next for this team?
For several years, the Oilers were lost in the wilderness, but with the additions of McDavid, Draisaitl, Lucic, Larsson, and Talbot over the last couple of years, they’ve emerged to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. They were in the hunt for a division title until the final game of the regular season and nearly got to the conference finals. True progress would be getting that far next spring. If they get that far, then a trip to the Stanley Cup Final is not out of the realm of possibility. This season will be a great time for them to make a Cup run, because starting in 2018-19, McDavid’s extension kicks in and he and Draisaitl will combine to take up $21 million in cap space for seven years. The Oilers are clearly following the model Chicago and Pittsburgh by paying their superstars and building around them. Edmonton will have to keep the pipeline of prospects open like Pittsburgh while also knowing when to dump contracts like Chicago has been forced to do over the years. Although McDavid and Draisaitl will eat up a lot of cap space, the Oilers will contend as long as they’re in the lineup.