By Mike Ivcic and Alex Rajaniemi
It’s the final part of our 2013-14 NHL season preview, as we take a look at the newly formed Pacific Division. Remember to check back Tuesday, October 1 for the first edition of our new weekly column, “Double Overtime,” where Alex and I will lay out our postseason predictions. There’s a high likelihood that the playoff preview will include a lot of talk about the teams in this division, which very well may be the closest, tightest race of the four. At least four teams should be given a realistic chance of winning the Pacific, and it’s quite possible that the fifth place team will have more points and take a playoff berth away from the fourth place team in the Central. Who are those teams? Well, I’m glad you asked…
Over/under on season points in parentheses.
1) Vancouver Canucks (95.5)
2) San Jose Sharks (94.5)
3) Los Angeles Kings (98.5)
4) Anaheim Ducks (90.5)
5) Edmonton Oilers (89.5)
6) Phoenix Coyotes (85.5)
7) Calgary Flames (74.5)
I haven’t gone with the “chalk” in any division, based upon Vegas odds, but this one is the closest I’ve come. I’m just still not sold on the Kings in the regular season. Too many times over the last two seasons, they had games where the offense failed to show up, and that’s too much to ask of Jonathan Quick. Plus, considering the playoff experience this club has gotten in the past two years – as well as the experience that players like Jeff Carter, Justin Williams, and Mike Richards have from elsewhere – I don’t think L.A. is going to be concerned if they don’t win the division. Speaking of Quick, I’m curious to see how the Olympics affect his game – beginning with whether or not he’s selected as the American’s starting goaltender. While he’s probably the leader in the clubhouse based upon now, I find it really hard to imagine Ryan Miller not being given the first chance to defend his net based upon his 2010 performance. Thus, Quick will almost certainly start in the backup role, something I think the Kings would actually probably prefer. Just a development to watch as January and February role around.
Since the lockout erased the 2005 season, there has been perhaps no better team, save for maybe Detroit, in the regular season than the San Jose Sharks. They have always had tremendous talent on their top two lines, a solid defensive corps, and goaltending capable of carrying the team to the Stanley Cup. Even with all of that, though, they haven’t been able to crack the Conference Finals since 2007, let alone get to or even win a Cup. Sometimes, there are just teams destined to be really really good and never actually become “great.” The early 90’s Buffalo Bills. The early 90’s Pittsburgh Pirates. The early 00’s Philadelphia Eagles. The current edition of the Washington Capitals and Vancouver Canucks could also fall into that category. But once again this year, the talent in San Jose – Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Antti Niemi, Joe Pavelski, Dan Boyle, Logan Couture – should dictate that this team once again is considered at least a substantial threat to win the West.
The other interesting area of this division is deep in the Canadian Rockies, where there might finally be a playoff game in Alberta. It won’t be Calgary, though – the Flames are not very good and will be going through a couple years of transition now that they have finally unloaded Jerome Iginla and parted ways with Mikka Kiprusoff. They also have 27 players currently on their full expanded roster born in 1990 or later, which proves two things – one, they’re committed to their youth movement and will probably blossom in two or three years, and two, I’m officially old.
Edmonton, though, is quite a different story. The Oilers have been building for years to finally get to this exact moment, where their stockpile of young talent is experienced enough to make a leap into the postseason fracas. You may already know names like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle, and Nail Yakupov, all of whom are highly-touted, highly-drafted youngsters that have grown up together in the non-spotlight of Edmonton. They have supplemented their roster with some solid veteran leaders like Ryan Smyth and Andrew Ference, and they may very well have found their goaltender of the future with Devan Dubnyk. This is a supremely They have supplemented their roster with some solid veteran leaders like Ryan Smyth and Andrew Ference, and they may very well have found their goaltender of the future with Devan Dubnyk. This is a supremely young team, even if their entire roster may not be supremely talented, but if any team is poised to take advantage of the move of Detroit from the West to the East, this Oilers team is it. Unless, Alex, you have a different idea…
1) Los Angeles Kings (98.5)
2) San Jose Sharks (94.5)
3) Vancouver Canucks (95.5)
4) Edmonton Oilers (89.5)
5) Anaheim Ducks (90.5)
6) Phoenix Coyotes (85.5)
7) Calgary Flames (74.5)
Mike, I’ll start with those young Oilers, who are going to be the top-seeded wild card in the West in my book. Years and years of losing and lottery picks gets teams places in this league, and that is where Edmonton is right now. They’re fast as all hell, they’re hungry and every one of those top picks wants to make sure Alberta knows the Oilers are back to stay. Dubnyk is still a minor concern, but he’s progressed exponentially as his GAA has bettered itself every year in the league. David Perron is a massive add from St. Louis, a scorer with a substantial snapper, and I really believe this team will come together to find the playoffs.
From the top, I believe Los Angeles is the best in the West, Mike. They aren’t satisfied with just squeaking into the playoffs, they’re a powerhouse and they need to make a statement this year that their cup championship wasn’t just an eight-seed fluke. Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick are the names you know – but look for Tyler Toffoli and Slava Voynov to have tremendous seasons for theses guys in LA. The Kings are poised to be the Sharks super-franchise that never was (the 00’s where San Jose just couldn’t get it done).
Speaking of those Sharks, here they are in second place in the Pacific Divison. It is a well coached team with tons of experience both up front and behind on the blue. Joe Thornton wants a cup desperately, Patty Marleau wants one desperately, and this team wants to win one for both of their leaders as they ride out into retirement (soon). A young core led by Logan Couture, little Joe, and Tommy Wingles allows this team to pair size and veteran poise with young energy and skill. Antti Niemi knows how to get it done in net, Dan Boyle will anchor the defensemen once again, and the Sharks will win games in the bunches.
Vancouver will benefit most from the coaching swap that happened this offseason with the Rangers and Canucks for one reason: Roberto Luongo. There is no more controversy surrounding Luongo, no more tension between goaltender and coach, and with John Tortorella’s defensive, shot-blocking style coming into British Columbia we may see the Robby Lu we’ve all been missing. He helped groom 200-something-overall pick Henrik Lundqvist into the King, so why can’t he hep a resurgence from Canada’s gold-medal winning goaltender? Plus it’s an Olympic year, so Luongo has something to prove (really, Holtby before Roberto?). They’ll still score, as the Sedins are, well, still the Sedins. They lineup is largely the same, just with a different system in place. I think Vancouver fans will love the change, although they’ll need to get used to Torts’ post-game antics in the fledgling months of this year.
Anaheim is going to be one of the heartbroken teams this year, looking in on what is probably the 9 or 10 spot in the West, just a few spots out of the post season. The lose Bobby Ryan, bring back the timeless Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne, and return an excellent goalie tandem with Hiller and Fasth in the cage. Bruce Boudreau sparked this team last year to a division championship in the shortened season, and I believe he is the coach of the future for this still-growing team, but there’s too much competition in the Pacific this year for the Ducks to get into an automatic spot. They could prove me wrong and get in as the 8-seed, but I think the loss of Ryan is really going to hurt the Ducks in the scoring department.
Many times we see a significant drop in points from third to last in divisions, and this is a year where I believe we’ll see that same phenomenon. The Ducks are going to contend for a last-in/last-out spot, but after that some teams have to lose games. That’s where the Desert Dogs and the Calgary Flames fill in. The Coyotes have an over-heralded goaltender in Mike Smith and a pathetic scoring arsenal highlighted by Mike Ribeiro and an aging Shane Doan. Rookie Max Domi should get some time this year, and young defensemen Keith Yandle (who’s budded into a top-line scoring defensemen) and Oliver Ekmann-Larsson will continue to develop overall. They won’t, however, sniff the playoffs. As for Calgary, they’re already waiving the white flag. The Flames are rebuilding. Mikka Kiprusoff is gone to retirement, finally lowering the number of magnificent Finnish goalies in the league â I’ll give you a dollar if you can name the starter for the Flames right now, Mike. From top to bottom this team isn’t anything special. Mikael Backlund will score and continue to grow, the addition of Shane O’Brien will help with depth on defense, and Jiri Hudler should add some goals as well, but it is going to be a tough year for Flames. Wait ‘till 2017 is my guess.