Who Will Win the Pacific Division in 2018?

image

Liam Richards/The Canadian Press via AP

1. Edmonton

Let’s get this out of the way right now. The Oilers are going to improve dramatically without having to improve their roster. Why is that, you ask and how on Earth does that make any sense. For starts, this NHL offseason did not see a single move in which one particular NHL team swung the needle in their favor. Kevin Shattenkirk was considered the best free agent defensemen this summer and he’s never been counted upon to play top line minutes. Meanwhile, T.J. Oshie was considered the best free agent forward but his reputation would never be what it was without spending two seasons as Alex Ovechkin’s linemate and six measly shootout attempts at an Olympic hockey game.

Trades did alter the league in some ways, and I’ll get to one particular team that could argue all that I just said in the previous paragraph based off of one such transaction they made through this method. However, I don’t think it is enough to swing the Pacific Division over to the Edmonton Oilers.

It took them four number one overall picks and a third overall pick for them to finally get over the hump, but Todd McClellan has finally put this team where it should have belonged for some time. Connor McDavid is now one Stanley Cup away from being the one true face of the NHL while Leon Draisatl has become a star role player on this team. At 29, Milan Lucic has delivered as a secondary scorer while Oskar Klefbom is becoming one of the best young defenseman in the league. Lastly, goaltender Cam Talbot has finally brought stability in net for the Oilers after so many years of poor development and one egregious misevaluation.

I still have trebidationsas to whether or not Edmonton can build beyond what they were last year. For starts, Kris Russell just continues to defy the odds of being a good defensemen despite analytics telling us otherwise and has sparked a social media that might as well rival the 2016 Presidential Election. Also, I found it quite strange to see the Oilers let go of Jordan Eberle so easily for struggling youngster Ryan Strome. The trade set themselves up to have over $10 million in cap space, but all of that is going away once McDavid’s rookie deal expires and the richest cap hit in NHL history begins.

Personally, I still find it pathetic that not enough NHL teams give the best players in the sport over $10 million per year, especially as we approach the ten-year anniversary of Alex Ovechkin’s 13-year, $124 million contract extension agreement. But as the salary cap continues to increase too slowly and become too much of a disgrace towards the game, McDavid’s contract is going to prove too costly, especially if the Oilers pull a Washington or two in the postseason.

That being said, the best and most important players from this team still have a few years left before they hit their prime and that is enough to make them such a heavy contender for the Stanley Cup in 2018.

2. Calgary

Last season, Calgary were among the revelations of the 2016-17 season. First year head coach Glen Gulutzan improved the entire system play of the squad and with the development of some of the younger players. Johnny Gaudreau and  Sean Monahan are now established front line players that any NHL team would want, but what made the Flames so good last season was their depth on all fronts.

The second line of Mikael Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk and Michael Frolik went on to become one of the most potent second lines you will find in the NHL. The trio return again this season with possibly better results; especially when you consider that Tkachuk is turning 20 in December. Along with that, it is quite difficult to find a better trio of defenseman on one team than the one with T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton. Add the fact that Travis Hamonic was acquired in an all-in trade this summer and the Flames are showing their intention that they mean business in 2018.

What does separate Calgary from being a complete contender is that not every piece fits in the team-wide puzzle. Troy Brouwer continues to be an overrated scorer with poor possession numbers while making too much money for his talents. Sam Bennett is still struggling to find his true role in the NHL after going fourth overall in the 2014 draft and Michael Stone isn’t really that much of an upgrade in defense over teh departing Deryk Engelland. Lastly, Mike Smith…

Just…Calgary has already ruined the careers of Jonas Hiller, Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson in the span of two years. What in Brian Burke’s or Brad Treliving’s mind thinks that the 35-year old Smith will be that much better? Even new backup Eddie Lack is not one to be counted upon if things go pearshaped, as evidenced by his performances in Vancouver and Carolina. Maybe their hoping that 2016 second round pick Tyler Parsons can rescue them after th OHL season is over, but man is that such a risky gamble.

Until then, the Flames will be a fun team to follow, and they do have a decent chunk of cap space to go after a solid rental at the trade deadline or alter the roster positively next summer. Just don’t expect them to go into the 2018 postseason without some forms of hiccups.

3. Anaheim

After hiring Randy Carlyle back to where all his success began, you woulkd think the stench he brought from Toronto would fester around the whole of Anaheim’s locker room. Instead, he kept the shape of the team as it is and guided them to a Conference Finals appearance. That’s a strong acheivement when you consider that Corey Perry is now being reduced to a third line scoring role and the rest of the Ducks’ best players were drafted into the NHL 14 years ago.

With Ryan Miller being the lone addition to the squad, the hopes are for Anaheim to continue where they left off. However, they will actually have to start the season with many key pieces out until as late as Christmas. Ryan Kesler is still recovering from offseason hip surgery while both Sami Vatanan and Hampus Lindholm are both recovering from surgery from torn labrums.

That will mean some of Anaheim’s prospects could be put to the test, but it could also mean Carlyle’s flaws as a talent evaluator really begin to show with Francois Beauchemin and Jared Boll still under contract with the team. Instead, these should be positive times for the Ducks to trot out Brandon Montour, Jacob Larsson, Sam Steel and Nic Kerdiles.

Like the next handful of teams lower than them, Anaheim has an interesting feel of sameness. They have blend of old and new to this roster, but it’s difficult to envision the younger players ever taking over whenever the older veterans get stale. Maybe that is enough to get them over the hump, but it also could stall them if they need to take the extra step. Until then, Anaheim is a dangerous threat, especially once everyone is back healthy.

4. San Jose

Once we get to this territory in the Pacific Division is where you really start to smell the rot. Honestly, I’m struggling to see how teams like San Jose are going to get above 90 points. The Sharks struggled mightily to score goals last season and instead of using the offseason to get better, decided to just let go of long-time Shark Patrick Marleau with no replacement. Sure, Marleau is in his late 30s, but he still was one of the team’s best players. The prospect cupboard is so bear that none of them are being counted upon to make the club at forward. You could talk me into Timo Meier scoring more points now that he’ll get a full 82-game season under his belt and you’d hope that Thomas Hertl can regain to full health, but I seriously don’t see where this is enough to make the Sharks better offensively.

Defensively, as awesome as Brent Burns was, he’ll be 30 years old it’s not like Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Paul Martin are that much younger. Martin Jones, honestly, could be the star of the team this season unless we see something new out of Logan Couture that we haven’t seen in his entire career. Beyond that, I just see a very average hockey team full of average hockey players that aren’t going to amount to anything beyond that.

This is now year two of San Jose hitting no mans land and unless this division gets better, there’s no incentive for them to tank. They really struck lightning in a bottle with their Stanley Cup playoff run in 2016 and it will take another instance like that for them to do it again with almost the same crop of talent. It just doesn’t seem feasible and I just don’t anything attractive about them.

5. Los Angeles

That being said, the Sharks are not the only team from California stuck in quite a dark place. The Kings are coming into 2017-18 in what you would think would be the beginning of a new era. John Stevens returns as the full-time head coach after a seven-year hiatus from such high ranks and Rob Blake takes over as the team’s general manager. Beyond that, not a ton has changed.

The reason for that is the absolute pit of salary cap misery the team has been put in from former general manager Dean Lombardi. Marian Gaborik, Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick are on such massive contracts that any signs of them performing worse than what they were five years ago would be considered a franchise killing albatross. Jeff Carter continues to produce well, but that can’t be counted upon every year as he enters his age-33 season. The always injured Gaborik is still recovering from knee surgery that he went through back in April and is currently being replaced by the low risk, but just as big an injury risk Mike Cammalleri.

Christian Folin will hope to get more playing time than he did with Minnesota to prove his worth and Jonny Brodzinski will hope that at age-24, can translate his solid AHL and NCAA scoring numbers into a third line role at the NHL level. Adrian Kempe will also hope to get a full 82 games in his age-21 season. But beyond that, this team is mainly the same. Just none of the new additions scream upgrade in such a time of need and Darcy Kuemper is just not a dependable enough backup netminder in case Quick falters like he’s been doing the last couple of seasons. Also, after so many years of playing a high-puck possession but low-shot quality system under Daryl Sutter, can we really depend on John Stevens to bring fresh enough ideas that the Kings can start to become a better hockey team than they were previously?

Maybe Tyler Toffoli’s or Tanner Pearson’s production skyrockets where they can be among the 20 to 30 best scorers in the league, but I just can’t depend on that. This is a franchise that really needs to consider unloading as many bad contracts as possible if they are to ever have a much more promising future in the long term. If there is one team that can not wait for a lockout to happen so they can use the amnesty excuse to get rid of a contract, there is no question Los Angeles is on top of the list. Then again, they didn’t need a lockout to “legally” get out of Mike Richards’ deal.

6. Arizona

Of all the teams in the NHL, Arizona fascinates me the most in terms of both their ceiling and their floor. After financial despair has limited them to not going beyond a surprising conference finals run in 2012 and pulling off three straight seasons with less than 80 standings points, general manager Michael Chayka has slowly developed one of the strongest and most intriguing collection of prospects you will find in the NHL. The vast majority of those players will be expected to play the full 82 games this season and it will be amazing to see if they will make it out alive from the proverbial Hunger Games that is the NHL.

It was just two seasons ago that Max Domi and Anthony Duclair were such an exciting young scoring duo for the future. Dylan Strome is still a star prospect even if you add that he was Connor McDavid’s linemate back when he was an Erie Otter. Lastly, Clayton Keller was probably the best player in last season’s World Junior Championships. I still haven’t brought up Christian Dvorak or Lawson Crouse in any of this.

Along the way, Chicago just decided to get rid of Nicklas Hjalmarsson for absolutely nothing other than cap space. You know what they say though: what’s Chicago’s incompetanceis Arizona’s gain and Hjalmarsson is going to be such a massive boost to Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

All will depend on how the rest of the veterans can gel with the new stars that if the NHL and ownership can ever get gripes with the NHL as to how to best develop hockey in Glendale off the ice, the Coyotes can really be building something here. This debate and furor has been such a hot button topic in the league for too long that any competent commissioner should have been able to quash this issue years ago. Instead, Gary Bettman will be celebrating 25 years as head honcho of the entire sport in February. By the way, this is not the only headache Bettman has to deal with in some ploty of land surrounded by desert.

7. Las Vegas

When anybody new joins the NHL, there is some definite trepidation as to how well they will perform in their very first season. After all, the expansion draft rules basically suggested that Vegas was only able to pick up roughly 11th best players on every NHL roster. Along with that, considering the locale of this new franchise, there will always be infinite frustrations as to why they are not located in an area where it is guaranteed to pack an arena every night. You know, like Hamilton, Quebec, Saskatchewan, the North Pole and Mike Milbury’s backyard. Either way, we are where we are, and for better or worse, the NHL has added a 31st member to its fraternity.

With the Golden Knights in the fold, they clearly will be a working progress for the foreseeable future. Anybody that believes that William Karlsson has what it takes to be a second line forward or that Tomas Hyka, a former Czech Extraliga regular or Luka Sbisa have any business being on an NHL roster is kidding themselves. Along with that Jason Garrison is just not good enough to be a top pair defenseman while Shea Theodore is another year or three from gaining such responsibility. They do have some pieces that could be put to good use.

They do, however, have some pieces that could be put to good use. Cody Eakin has always been a useful depth center and Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault have been solid top six forwards with Florida. Once James Neal returns to full health, he will also be a major contributor. Lastly, you don’t need to let me know how good of a player and criminally underused Nate Schmidt is. Finally, Vegas was able to leverage their situation of being able to get irreplaceable players from other NHL teams by stockpiling draft picks via trade. From 2017 alone, they were able to attain 11 draft picks, including four within the first 34 picks. All four of them in forwards Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki and defensemen Nick Hague and Erik Brannstrom have the potential to be a part of a strong core for Vegas’ future. But in the meantime, this team is going to be terrible. Will

But in the meantime, this team is going to be terrible. Will they be so bad that they’ll be like the 2001 Atlanta Thrashers? I seriously doubt it. Still, they have no depth at center and their top-tier talent in defense is quite substandard. Anyone that gets to 50 points should be applauded because it will take loads of strong counter-attacking and good goaltending from Calvin Pickard and Marc-Andre Fleury in order for them to even sniff a playoff spot. Then again, the Western Conference was an unmitigated disaster last year, and this year doesn’t seem to be any different.

8. Vancouver

If for anything else, you can be assured that the Vancouver Canucks are nothing short of a tire fire. Colorado fans will argue that they should hold this distinction, but when in doubt, the Avalanche has their best players in their prime. The tiebreaker on this matter is if you’re from British Columbia, which jersey number do you really want to purchase?

The Sedin twins are in the final years of their careers and Bo Horvat just seems to have too much of a ceiling to be a franchise guy. Jake Virtanen still can’t make this roster after being taken fifth overall in 2015. If anything, that jersey number could be Brock Boeser (aka the Blonde David Backes), who absolutely dominated in his two years at North Dakota and in his first nine games as a Canuck. Knowing if he’s good enough to lead a brand new future for Vancouver is the real objective of their season.

Otherwise, even if Boeser is a talent, can you really put him on the top like with the Sedins and sacrifice the rest of the lineup? Can a Boeser-Bo Horvat-Sven Baertschi second line work in a bigger sample size after generating 52.3% puck possession in just 81 even strength minutes? Better yet, can Boeser cure everything disgusting about Thomas Vanek’s game where Dylan Larkin couldn’t? If he’s able to pull that off, just make him general manager and captain while you’re at it! Until then, the future is endless for Boeser.

Beyond that, the corpses of Loui Eriksson and Michael Del Zotto are not going to be enough to salvage this cesspool of a front office and neither is the possible resurrection of Jacob Markstrom in goal. Alex Burmistrov maybe good, but as long as he’s playing with Derek Dorsett, there’s no point in paying attention to this topic. Just trade for Tanner Glass while you’re at it. Never mind, General Manager Jim Benning might be too stupid to think that that is a good idea. Until then, this is looking like Vancouver should be stopping at nothing but to win the Rasmus Dahlin sweepstakes. Even if they don’t pick first overall, it’s not like this team is stacked with prospect talent. Defensemen Olli Juolevi and center Ellias Pettersson could be ones to watch down in the prospect pool, but they won’t have any effect on the NHL club until 2019. Because that’s where this once proud franchise is: stuck on looking for some way up.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: