First off, I want to say that I’m super excited to be covering the Pacific Division this year at Murphyshockeylaw.net! I’m thrilled to be able to add full coverage of the Pacific Division to my work covering the Edmonton Oilers over at The Oilers Rig.
Before we really get started here, I just want to introduce myself. My name is Alex Thomas and I’m a 2016 graduate of Springfield College in Western Mass. I’m the founder and a feature writer at The Oilers Rig, and am a broadcaster for the Boston Junior Bruins of the USPHL, Northeastern University, Harvard and Tufts in the NCAA.
As we get set for another hockey season, it’s time for the annual crap shoot of making predictions. You can take it to the bank that I’ll be wrong … err that this is exactly what will happen over the course of 82 games this season!
We’ll go team by team in the Pacific Division based on their projected finishes in my mind.
1.) Anahiem Ducks – While they didn’t do much this off-season, the Ducks are still the best of the bunch in the Pacific Division. John Gibson and Ryan Miller is a very strong goaltending tandem, while Anaheim’s defense is poised to be one of the best in the league yet again.
Up front, Patrick Eaves will have a full season in Anahiem after jumping on board at the deadline last year, while Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, Jacob Silfverberg, Rickard Rakell and Andrew Cogliano are all back on board.
The one thing that could prevent the Ducks from finishing first? Injuries. Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm and Kesler are all battling injuries from the playoffs and are expected to miss time. That could be a huge factor in what might be a slow start for the club.
Up front, I’d keep an eye on Nick Ritchie this season. The young forward scored 28 points (14-14-28) last season at age 20 and looked good in the playoffs. I think it is very possible he has a breakout season for the Ducks in 2017-18.
Defensively, youngster Jacob Larsson could play a big role on a team already down two defenders.
2.) Calgary Flames: Talk about an ideal off-season. The Flames gave up only draft picks for Travis Hamonic in a trade on draft weekend, then added Jaromir Jagr earlier this week. I’m not a big fan of Mike Smith and think he could sink this team, but Calgary looks loaded everywhere else.
The Flames offense should be one of the best in the NHL this season as Jagr will join a group featuring Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund and Matt Tkachuk. I also think Calgary possesses enough depth to get meaningful contributions from their bottom-six offensively, something only the best teams seem to have.
On defense, the Flames might rival the Nashville Predators for the best group in the NHL. Mark Giordano is a legit number one, while Dougie Hamilton has quietly developed into a top-pairing option himself. Both TJ Brodie and Hamonic are proven top-four options as well.
As I mentioned above, the thing that might sink this Flames team is its goaltending. Mike Smith isn’t a strong goaltender anymore and at this point isn’t getting any better. Meanwhile, Eddie Lack has struggled since leaving Vancouver and hasn’t inspired much confidence this preseason.
As for players to watch, up front I’d keep an eye on Sam Bennett. He’s another young player in the division that is poised to have a big year. In net, Jon Gillies may end up being the savior for this club. I wouldn’t be shocked if he got the net by the All-Star break.
3.) Edmonton Oilers: Last year’s break out season was something special for the Oilers, but they are going to face a tougher road this season. There will be no sneaking up on teams this year and depth could be a serious issue for this club. With Jesse Puljujarvi failing to make the NHL squad, there are real questions about where the offense will come from.
The club will be relying on Drake Caggiula, Anton Slepyshev, Jussi Jokinen, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto to provide secondary scoring behind the McDavid and Draisaitl lines. If a few of those players step up, the Oilers will be in business, but if not they could be in tough to compete for the Cup this season.
I expect Edmonton to start slow without Andrej Sekera, but this club is too talented at the end of the day to miss the playoffs. With McDavid, Draisaitl, Patrick Maroon and Milan Lucic leading the offense the club should be able to score. Defensively, I love the top-pairing of Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson and think both Matt Benning and Darnell Nurse are poised to take steps forwards.
Up front, keep an eye on Slepyshev. He was injured in camp but looked great in the playoffs and I think will get every chance to settle into a top-six role as the year goes along. Defensively, Yohann Auvitu interests me because he’s a mobile defender who can help on the powerplay, a hole for the club with Sekera on the mend.
4.) Los Angeles Kings: Surprised to see them this high? Don’t be, the Kings are still a good hockey team. Jonathan Quick isn’t what he used to be, but he is still a very strong goaltender and should give the Kings strong and consistent play all season long.
The Kings are still a good possession team, and I expect a bounce back year from top center Anze Kopitar. On top of that, LA still has enough talent up front with Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson to cobble together enough offense.
As has been the case for what seems like forever, LA’s strength will be on defense where I expect Drew Doughty to have a monster season. Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin are also back in the mix, while the third pairing is going to be filled with young. I like Derek Forbort, Kevin Gravel and Paul LaDue, but there is a lot of uncertainty there.
If two of those young defenders emerge and fill full-time roles, I suspect the Kings will be a playoff team this season. If not, they could finish well below my optimistic prediction for SoCal’s hockey team.
In terms of players to watch, Michael Cammalleri really sticks out up front. He returns to LA after a tough stint in New Jersey, but could be a useful piece if he can stay healthy. Not many are talking about him, but I still think highly of Cammy. Defensively, I think Gravel has the highest ceiling of the youngsters and wouldn’t be shocked if he solidified himself this year.
5.) San Jose Sharks: Shocked to see them this low? I don’t blame you. That said, I’m down on the Sharks coming into this year. Patrick Marleau was one of the club’s better goal scorers and they did nothing to replace him this summer. Joe Thornton already took a step back last season, so what can we really expect this fall after a major knee injury last year?
The Sharks have a lot depth issues as it stands and I’m not sure they can rely on Brent Burns to carry them as they did a season ago. On top of that, the backup goaltending options aren’t confidence inspiring. Martin Jones is very good, but can he handle a 65 game load this season? It’s fair to ask.
The Sharks will be competitive thanks to their top end talent, but with Edmonton and Calgary both emerging as threats in the already tight West, I think it is fair to suggest that the Sharks shortcomings will hurt them this year. Missing the playoffs a year after bowing out in round one could lead to a youth movement with this team as well.
6.) Arizona Coyotes: The future is very bright for this Coyote team, but the future is not this season. I LOVE their young core up front with Clayton Keller, Max Domi, Dylan Strome, Christian Fischer and Christian Dvorak leading the way. I’m also high on Anthony Duclair still, and I do like Brendan Perlini.
There will be growing pains with this young group, but I really think Arizona has something special up front right now. This group could very well compete with the young squads in Edmonton and Calgary sooner rather than later.
Defensively the Coyotes quietly got very good this summer. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers will join Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Alex Goligoski to form a solid top-four that will be back stopped by Antti Raanta in net. Don’t forget, the club also added Derek Stepan and Nick Cousins up front for center depth.
I don’t think they are there just yet because of the amount of youth up front with minimal veteran help, but Arizona could be a sleeper playoff team if the growing pains are kept to a minimum. I went with a conservative prediction here, but I can see them being that one team that shoots up the standings like Edmonton did a year ago.
Up front, I’d keep an eye on Clayton Keller as my player to watch. The sheer talent on this kid is impressive and I think he could be the franchise face moving forward. Defensively, veteran Jason Demers had a tough go of it in Florida a year ago but I think he’s a strong defender that could calm things down for the Yotes.
7.) Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks should be embracing a full-on rebuild but it feels like they are still trying to compete. The club signed Sam Gagner, Michael Del Zotto and Thomas Vanek this summer, but I’m not sure what that will accomplish. Those are good secondary pieces, but Vancouver still doesn’t have enough top end talent.
The Sedin twins are back for another run, but they took a step back last season and aren’t getting any younger. Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser should both be good pieces for the future, but the Canucks don’t have another young top-six option on their roster … yikes.
Troy Stecher and Chris Tanev are a nice duo on defense, but neither of them is a top-pairing option at this point. Olli Juoveli doesn’t look close to NHL ready, and outside of Jordan Subban there isn’t much developing down in Utica.
The Canucks will finish near the basement again this season, and maybe this time they will finally embrace the full rebuild and move the Sedin twins, Alex Edler and others. It’s the right thing to do.
In terms of players to watch, Jake Virtanen could provide more hope for the future if he can establish himself this season. He had a good camp and made the team, so there is still some hope for him. Defensively, Patrick Wiercioch is an analytics darling but has never truly emerged. He’s going to get ample opportunity this season and I think can be a nice surprise for Vancouver.
8.) Vegas Golden Knights: Let’s face it, it is going to be a very tough first three to five years for the Vegas franchise. The club doesn’t have a difference maker at forward or on defense. Marc-Andre Fleury will steal a few games for the Knights, but other than that it could be a long season.
I LOVE the team’s prospect pool and think they are set up quite nicely for the future, but in the here and now it’s going to be a tough road. James Neal, David Perron, Jason Garrison and Colin Miller could be nice pieces to move at the deadline for future assets, and Neal should keep people entertained with his scoring ability, but that’s about it.
I do think Vadim Shipachyov, Reilly Smith, Oscar Lindberg and Jonathan Marchessault could all be nice pieces for the present and future, but again it is slim pickings outside of them.
I’ll label Smith, who had a big year for Gerard Gallant in Florida in 2015-16, and former first round pick Alex Tuch as players to watch up front for Vegas. On defense, I think Brayden McNabb could emerge as the leader to carry the Knights from expansion to being competitive. He’s young enough and talented enough in my mind.
Enjoy it folks, hockey is back!!