(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)
At the start of the 2017-18 season there was an expectation that the Western Conference representative in the Stanley Cup Final would come from the Pacific Division. The oddsmakers, misguided as it may have turned out to be in hindsight, believed it would be the Edmonton Oilers, and that the expansion Vegas Golden Knights would be one of the league’s worst teams.
Not exactly how it all played out.
Once the games started getting played the Oilers turned out to be a season-long mess and disappointment, while the Golden Knights came out of nowhere, rolled to a division title, and then won the Western Conference before losing to the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Following an unexpected season on the ice, there was a ton of significant roster movement within the division with San Jose, Vegas, Los Angeles, Calgary and Arizona all making significant changes to their roster.
Who ended up getting better and who ended up getting worse? Let us take a look around the Pacific Division as we continue our PHT Divisional previews.
Better or Worse: Nobody stays the same in professional sports; you’re either doing something to get better or you’re doing something to get worse. And by not really doing anything to get better over the summer it makes me want to say the Ducks might be a little worse, especially given everything that happened around them in the division this summer where San Jose, Vegas, and Los Angeles all made big moves to strengthen their team. Still a good team, but not really much better than they were.
Strengths: The Ducks’ strength is definitely on the back end where they have Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, and Josh Manson leading the defense, and then have the duo of John Gibson and Ryan Miller in net. When healthy Gibson is one of the best goalies in the league and Miller was outstanding last year as a backup when needed.
Weaknesses: Corey Perry‘s injury is going to be a major blow to a team that was already lacking in offense. They are going to need Ondrej Kase to take a big step in his development and get a little more out of Jakob Silfverberg to make up for it.
2017-18 Highlight: Crushed by injuries down the middle the Ducks addressed it by trading Sami Vatanen to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Henrique. A few weeks after the trade Henrique scored one of the best goals of the NHL season against his former team when he did this.
MVP Candidate: Ryan Getzlaf may be entering his age 33 season but he is still an impact player and top-line center. He has scored at a point-per-game level the past two years and still makes everyone around him better.
Playoffs or Lottery: Even with the injury to Perry this is still probably a playoff team — especially in this division — but one that may be behind San Jose and Vegas within the the division.
Better or Worse: They will be much better. They showed huge improvement in the second half of the 2017-18 season just by having a healthy Antti Raanta in the lineup, and then they went and added Alex Galchenyuk and Michael Grabner over the summer. I also still have high hopes for Dylan Strome to be an impact player and they will also be getting a full season Jakob Chychrun on defense.
Strengths: Thanks to the additions of Derek Stepan and Alex Galchenyuk over the past year the Coyotes have a pretty decent 1-2 punch at center. Combine them with the potential of Dylan Strome, the presence of Oliver Ekman-Larsson on defense, and Raanta in net and they have a nice foundation down the middle to build from.
Weaknesses: Depth is probably the big one, and it is not just related to any one position. It is almost everywhere except for maybe center. Depth on the wings, depth on the blue line, depth in goal. The talent at the top of the lineup is intriguing and very good, but there just is not enough to complement them just yet.
2017-18 Highlight: Once they got him in the lineup Raanta was everything the Coyotes could have hoped for him to be, and his highlight of the year was this post-to-post glove save against the Montreal Canadiens.
MVP Candidate: It is probably going to have to be the Raanta show for the Coyotes this season. How much of an impact did he make on the Coyotes a year ago? In the games where he earned a decision they played at a 90-point pace (21-17-6). In the games where he didn’t? They played at a 47-point pace. A lot of their problems in the overall standings came from that brutal 1-12-1 start, a stretch where Raanta only played two full games.
Playoffs or Lottery: They will be much better and there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful about where this team can go and what it can be in the future but they still have a little more work to do before they get there. It will be another lottery season, but they will be at the back end of the lottery as opposed to the top of it.
Better or Worse: James Neal is a nice addition, but is he enough to make the team better than it was last year, when it wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs? Something to keep in mind here: Neal scored 25 goals and finished with 44 total points in 71 games for Vegas a season ago. He is their big offseason addition. Micheal Ferland, who was included by the Flames in the trade that sent their best defenseman, Dougie Hamilton, to the Carolina Hurricanes, scored 21 goals and finished with 41 points in 77 games. Add in the fact you lost your best defender and it’s hard to see how the roster is better.
Strengths: For all of the things that went wrong for this team a year ago they do have three outstanding young players to build around in Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk. All three of them are age 25 or younger and were all among the team’s top-three scorers a year ago.
Weaknesses: It is an extremely top-heavy team offensively, and while Neal might help he is probably not enough of a difference maker to take them from 26th in goals scored to the level they need to be at offensively to contend. The defense without Hamilton is also going to be a question mark because T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic both struggled last season, while Mark Giordano is another year older.
2017-18 Highlight: This is a weird one, but their 2-0 win in Anaheim at the start of the season snapped what had been a 25-game losing streak at the Honda Center that dated all the way back to the 2004 season. That is a remarkable losing streak in one building.
MVP Candidate: How can it be anybody other than Gaudreau? He is one of the best offensive players in the league and is coming off of a monster season that saw him record 60 assists and 84 total points. He is also entering his age 25 season, typically the year players hit their peak offensive production in their careers.
Playoffs or Lottery: They were 11 points out of a wild card spot (and 16 points back of a top-three spot in the Pacific Division) and I don’t see enough improvement here to make up that much ground. They are a lottery team.
Better or Worse: They could really go either way here. If the fix the special teams units that ruined their 2017-18 season they should be better, especially if Oscar Klefbom is healthy and returns to form. But they didn’t really make any meaningful additions to a team that missed the playoffs by 17 points.
Strengths: They have Connor McDavid. Period.
Weaknesses: Perhaps the best way to put this would be to reference you to a story from the Edmonton Journal over the weekend that looked at the players on the roster bubble in training camp and point out the fact that every single player listed at right wing is listed as being on the bubble. My goodness, that is bleak. Also bleak: The defense. And the goaltending. And basically everything that is not Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
2017-18 Highlight: This assist by McDavid to set up Patrick Maroon is truly something to behold.
MVP Candidate: McDavid is the odds on favorite to win the MVP award at the start of the season, mostly because he is the best player in the world at the moment and is coming off of back-to-back scoring title and 100-point seasons. He is going for a third consecutive scoring title, an accomplishment that is incredibly rare in NHL history. To get another MVP award though he is going to need the team around him to be better.
Playoffs or Lottery: As incredible as it may seem for a team that has the best player in the league, they are probably a lottery team again. For the third time in four years. There just is not enough talent around McDavid to make them a contender.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
Better or Worse: He may be 35 years old but Ilya Kovalchuk will be a big addition for an offense-starved team. Will he be a 50-goal, 90-point player? Not a chance. But he should be at least capable of 30 goals and 60 points, something that would make him one of the most productive players on the team.
Strengths: They are one of the best defensive teams in the league with one of the best defensive players in Drew Doughty. They haven’t finished lower than 10th in goals against since the 2009-10 season and are consistently in the top-five. No team in the league gave up fewer goals a season ago.
2017-18 Highlight: Kopitar was the Kings’ best player all year and was perhaps at his most dominant in a 7-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche when he scored four goals.
MVP Candidate: The one that was the runner-up a season ago, Kopitar. He is one of the best two-way players in the league that offers a game-changing combination of top-tier offense and shutdown defense.
Playoffs or Lottery: The Kings have missed the playoffs in two of the past four seasons and have not made it out of the first round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2014. They have been, pretty much, a bubble playoff team for the past four years and there really is not much to suggest that is going to change this season.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Better or Worse: Better. Much better. They should have a full season of Joe Thornton (injured) and Evander Kane (acquired at the trade deadline and signed to a contract extension) and they acquired a two-time Norris Trophy winner in Erik Karlsson. It would be a shock if they were not better.
Strengths: With Karlsson and Brent Burns they have three of the past seven Norris Trophies on their blue line and a player in Marc-Edouard Vlasic that gets votes every year. There is not a better top-three anywhere in the NHL on defense.
Weaknesses: They are not many. If we were to reach here we could say they were a middle of the pack team a year ago offensively, finishing 14th in goals scored and 16th on the power play, but you have to figure both of those numbers can easily go up this season given the additions.
2017-18 Highlight: Logan Couture scored 12 more goals than any player on the Sharks this past season. None of them looked better than this goal against the Winnipeg Jets.
MVP Candidate: Going to go with Karlsson here, simply because he is going to play a ton of minutes on what should be a Stanley Cup contender and assuming he is 100 percent healthy should have a monster year. Especially playing on a team that has Stanley Cup level talent around him.
Playoffs or Lottery: They were second round playoff team a year ago made some pretty significant additions to the roster, including one of the biggest pick-ups over the summer in Karlsson. They are not only a playoff team, they are a Stanley Cup contender.
Better or Worse: Even though Henrik and Daniel Sedin were at the end of their career and as good as they were in their prime, they were still two of the Canucks’ best players and among their top-three scorers. They are now gone. The players coming in from outside the organization to replace them: Jay Beagle and Antoine Rousell on long-term contracts to be fourth-liners. They are a worse team today.
Strengths: The biggest strength on this team will be getting Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat back for full seasons after both missed 20 games a year ago. Boeser is one of the league’s bright young stars and should be the Canucks’ best player for the foreseeable future.
Weaknesses: Goaltending is going to be a problem. Jacob Markstrom is the starter but has never really been anything better than average at any point in his career. The duo of him and Anders Nilsson is going to have to exceed any reasonable expectation anyone might have for them to help make this team competitive, especially playing behind the defense.
2017-18 Highlight: You could not have scripted a better farewell game in the NHL for the Sedins than this.
MVP Candidate: Brock Boeser finished the 2017-18 season as the Canucks’ leading goal-scorer and point-producer. He did that as a 20-year-old rookie in his first full season of NHL action, and despite missing 20 games due to injury. He is their best player by a mile.
Playoffs or Lottery: One of the worst teams in the league from a year ago that did not really get any better in the offseason. They are not only a lottery team, they are a potential Jack Hughes team.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Better or Worse: I don’t know if they will be “better” in terms of results on the ice, because that would mean actually winning the Stanley Cup, but the roster on paper certainly looks better with the additions of Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty. Sure, they lost James Neal and David Perron, two really good contributors on the 2017-18 team, but the two players coming in to replace them are better.
Strengths: Their top line was one of the best in the NHL a season ago, and while there is every reason to believe that William Karlsson and Reilly Smith will regress a bit, they should still be very good. Jonathan Marchessault is also every bit as good as he showed. They also have an outstanding goalie.
Weaknesses: For as good as their top-six is — especially that top line — their bottom six is definitely lacking a little bit. The fourth line received a lot of praise in the playoffs, but I’m not sure how well it holds up over an 82-game season.
2017-18 Highlight: The whole season was a highlight, but their Western Conference clinching game against the Winnipeg Jets was the culmination of a truly remarkable, totally unexpected season.
MVP Candidate: Marchessault showed that his 30-goal season from the 2016-17 season in Florida was anything but a fluke by following it up with a dominant performance in Vegas, earning himself a long-term contract extension.
Playoffs or Lottery: Nobody should expect another run to the Stanley Cup Final, but this should still be a playoff team and probably even a strong contender in the Western Conference.