Pacific Division Review: Can anybody challenge Golden Knights?

Pacific Division Review
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Throughout this week, PHT will review each of the NHL’s (restored) four divisions. Who’s the favorite, who’s rising, and who’s in decline? How did the offseason affect the outlook? Today, PHT reviews the Pacific Division. Read about the Central Division here, the Atlantic Division here and the Metropolitan in this post.

Current Division Favorite: Vegas Golden Knights

There is not a division in the NHL where there seems to be such a sizable gap between the clear division favorite and the rest of the pack.

It is difficult to compare last year’s performances to this year because of the divisional alignment and unbalanced schedules, but of the teams in the Pacific Division this season only one of them (Edmonton) finished the 2021-22 season within 10 points of Vegas’ point total. The next closest team? Calgary 27 points back.

The Golden Knights not only have the best roster in the division, one that has been in the Conference Final/Semifinals in three of its first four years in the league (including this past season), but the rest of the division is just all stuck in various levels of mediocrity or rebuilding. Anaheim is stuck in neutral, Los Angeles has a bright future but is probably not ready for that jump, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton are total wild cards, and Seattle is an expansion team.

It would be a shock and major upset if Vegas does not win this division and win it easily.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

Biggest Offseason Move: Canucks add Ekman-Larsson, Garland; Golden Knights trade Fleury

It is hard to choose one over the other because both are significant.

Let’s start with the Canucks’ additions of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland from the Arizona Coyotes. The Ekman-Larsson portion of the trade is by far the riskiest because of his contract and declining play the past two seasons. Is that just a blip on the radar made worse by playing for a struggling team getting ready to start a rebuild? Or is it the sign of a veteran player that has already played his best hockey and is now going to eat a significant chunk of the Canucks’ salary cap space for the next few years? The Canucks better hope it is the former. But hope is not always the best plan.

The Garland portion of the deal seems like a far more certain (and potentially productive) addition. He has already proven to be one of the more efficient goal scorers in the NHL during 5-on-5 play, is in the prime of his career, and adds some much-needed forward depth to a team that has been way too top heavy.

[Related: What is the Vancouver Canucks’ potential this season?]

Elsewhere in the division, the Golden Knights parted ways with the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, Marc-Andre Fleury, trading him to the Chicago Blackhawks in a salary cap clearing trade. They received one minor league player that they have already waived. That leaves the Golden Knights’ net in the hands of Robin Lehner, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Lehner is a bonafide No. 1 goalie as well. It does, however, weaken what was a major strength for the Golden Knights as they go from having two outstanding goalies to just one outstanding goalie.

Pacific Division Team On The Rise: Los Angeles Kings

The Kings might not be ready to make a major jump toward Stanley Cup contention this season, but they should be there in the not too distant future.

They have the best farm system in the NHL with Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte, Tobias Bjornfot, and Arthur Kaliyev leading the way. They also still have one of the best two-way players in the NHL in Anze Kopitar leading the roster and made a couple of significant additions this offseason by signing Phillip Danault in free agency (giving them an outstanding 1-2 punch at center with Kopitar) and trading for Viktor Arvidsson from the Nashville Predators.

In most other divisions you would probably look at this team as being a year or two away from the playoffs. But in this division? With these teams around them? And with the additions of Danault and Arvidsson? They might have a chance this season.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Teams with the best five-year window]

Pacific Division Team On The Decline: San Jose Sharks

The Sharks have missed the playoffs two years in a row and it is difficult to imagine that streak ending this season even in this division. There are some bad contracts here, an aging core that has lost a lot of its punch, not enough young difference makers on the horizon, and still major questions in goal. For the better part of the past 20 years the Sharks have been one of the league’s top teams and a consistent contender. Eventually though everybody needs to rebuild at some point.

Questions for Oilers, Flames, Kraken

There are still some serious depth issues around them even after the re-signing of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and addition of Zach Hyman, while the defense and goaltending is a series of question marks that only seem to have poor answers. McDavid and Draisaitl are in the prime of their careers and the best offensive players in the league. This team should be a contender. The fact it is not is a damning indictment of the job the current and previous front office has done.

  • Elsewhere in Alberta, the big question the Flames have to answer revolves around the future of star forward Johnny Gaudreau.

He is entering the final year of his contract, is still the Flames’ most dynamic offensive player, and has seemingly had his future with the team in question for years now. Can they work out a deal? Does he hit the trade block if things start poorly?

[Related: Anaheim Ducks look like team stuck in neutral]

  • Does Seattle have enough to be competitive in this division at the start? Or will it be looking back at the expansion draft as a series of missed opportunities that could have produced a better team at the start with more assets to deal from?

Even if Seattle had made different moves in the expansion draft nobody should have reasonably expected them to repeat the Golden Knights’ success from four years ago but the rest of the division is flawed enough that things could get interesting here.

  • Then we have the Anaheim Ducks. An NHL roster right now that is not anywhere near good enough and no clear direction on where they are going as a team.

Will this be the year they really start a rebuild? Or will they do something to improve the short-term outlook in a meaningful way? Like, say, a Jack Eichel way? They need to do something because the status quo is just going to further the current mediocrity they have been playing through.

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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.