The Pacific is notable for its glut of elite centers, its (to East Coast folks) inconvenient time zone, and a huge gap between its best teams and its worst (with Arizona hanging out in between). Expect at least a couple, if not all three, of the Canadian teams to improve this year, but don't expect either LA or San Jose to slip very much. This is probably the second toughest division in the league, and while it would be nice if the Ducks won it for a third straight year, it would be a lot nicer if they won when it counts.
Last year: 54-20-8, 1st in Pacific, 2nd round exit.
What they did: Despite opening the season with a 6-1 drubbing at the hands' of Patrick Roy's Colorado Avalanche, the Ducks found themselves near the top of the league's standings relatively early on in the season. Led by superstars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, they pulled ahead of the President's Trophy competition with a string of 17 wins in 18 games in December and January, including two particularly memorable wins against the Vancouver Canucks, one because Perry scored with less than a second remaining in overtime, the other because the Ducks scored a franchise-record nine goals while allowing only one [Ed Note: That one against was still Bullsh**. -CK].
Inevitably, the winning pace slowed in 2014, and aside from a four-goal comeback against the Winnipeg Jets capped by trade deadline acquisition Stephane Robidas' overtime goal, the real excitement didn't start until playoff time. The top-seeded Ducks knocked off the Dallas Stars in six games, the last of which involved another multi-goal comeback. In the second round, several things happened that seemed important at the time, but nothing except the Game Seven collapse at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings matters now.
What they've done: GM Bob Murray fixed a long-standing hole in the Ducks' lineup when he sent Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, and the 24th overall pick to Vancouver in exchange for Ryan Kesler. Bonino's loss was significant but manageable, because at that point the Ducks had Getzlaf — Kesler — Mathieu Perreault — Rickard Rakell — Nate Thompson down the middle. In other words, this team looked scary good. Then Murray let restricted free agent Perreault walk and ultimately sign with the Winnipeg Jets for three years at $3M each. Next came the infamous Clayton Stoner contract: four years at $3.25M per. And then the Dany Heatley signing, one year at $1M. And Jonas Hiller signing with the Calgary Flames and the Ducks quacking into 2014-15 with a (really good but still a) rookie and a (really good but still a) sophomore in net.
What they'll do:
Kesler and Heatley are good acquisitions. Kesler because he's good and he fills a major need, and Heatley because after Bruce Boudreau benched Teemu Selanne in the playoffs last year, why would you worry about him giving Heatley too much ice time? Either he starts scoring or he's gone. Start worrying about things that will kill us in the playoffs, like not signing Perreault, or signing Stoner, or starting inexperienced goalies. The Ducks will be a playoff team, and if Kesler's line can take the toughest matchups away from Getzlaf and Perry, those guys might break 100 points each. But the defense is shaky, and a first-round matchup with either of the other California teams could spell an early playoff exit unless Bob Murray overhauls the blue line before the trade deadline.
Quick pick: 3rd in Pacific, 1st round exit.
Last year: 37-30-15, 4th in Pacific, missed playoffs.
What they did: In their final year of being mislabeled with a city adjacent to the one in which they actually play, the 'Yotes caught early fire, winning 11 of their first 16 games. Oliver Ekman-Larsson established himself to those who hadn't been paying attention for the previous year or so as the best player on the team and, just maybe, one of the best in the world. But OEL, Keith Yandle, Mike Smith, and Dave Tippet do not an entire team make. The Coyotes flirted with the playoff cutoff throughout the year, and ultimately doomed themselves with a 1-6-1 showing to finish out the season two points shy of the last wild card spot.
What they've done: Gone is the offensive production of Radim Vrbata (UFA to Vancouver) and Mike Ribeiro (compliance buyout, signed with Nashville), as well as the (negligible?) defensive contribution of Derek Morris (still UFA). In to replace those points is Sam Gagner, acquired alongside B.J. Crombeen for Tampa Bay's sixth-round pick in next year's draft. GM Don Maloney also signed bottom-six center Joe Vitale and backup goalie Devan Dubnyk to reasonable contracts. And Jobing.com Arena will henceforth be known as the Gila River Arena, as opposed to, say, ACME Anvil Arena.
What they'll do: It is definitely within the realm of possibility that Ekman-Larsson could grab his first Norris Trophy and in the process drag this team into the playoffs. It is probably far more likely, however, that like Shea Weber in Nashville he will continue to play defense at an elite level while watching his forwards fail and fail and fail to produce enough offense. Gagner scored 37 points in 67 games last year. Antoine Vermette scored 45 in 82 and Martin Hanzal scored 40 in 65. That's pretty good depth if one of those guys is a third-line center, but with the departures of Vrbata and Ribeiro, it isn't going to be enough. Like most teams that miss out on the dance, it will come down to the last couple of weeks of the season, but it might not be as close as it was last year.
Quick pick: 5th in Pacific, miss playoffs.
Last year: 6th in Pacific, missed playoffs.
What they did: Last year was an unashamed rebuilding season for the Flames, who never really challenged for a playoff spot. I think Flames fans are okay with this because they expect it to pay off in the future, as opposed to the thankless mediocrity they've had to endure for most of the years since their 2004 run to the Cup Final. Despite hanging out near the basement all season, there were some bright spots, most notably the exceptional play of Mark Giordano — second on the team in points despite playing D, by far highest quality of competition, best corsi, best traditional +/-, passes the eye test, whatever your criteria is — and the breakout performance of youngster Sean Monahan, who finished three goals shy of leading all rookies.
What they've done: Rookie GM Brad Treliving lost the leading goal scorer from last year's team when Mike Cammalleri signed with the New Jersey Devils, but he picked up a bona fide number one goaltender the same day when Jonas Hiller inked a two year, $4.5M per deal. The Flames also lost TJ Galiardi, Chris Butler, Joey MacDonald, and Blair Jones to free agency. They signed free agents Deryk Engelland and Mason Raymond, and traded a draft pick for Brandon Bollig.
What they'll do: Picking up Hiller (who is a good bet to post a shutout on November 18th for the Flames' first win in Anaheim in roughly 46 years) will probably help more than losing Cammalleri will hurt, and that coupled with the natural progression of Monahan and the other youngsters means the Flames could be a better team this year than last. As with their provincial rivals, however, a little bit of improvement isn't going to get them into the playoffs any time soon. Buffalo and Carolina might be early favorites to win the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, but don't count the Flames out just because they signed a good goalie.
Quick pick: 7th in Pacific, miss playoffs.
Last year: 29-44-9, 7th in Pacific, missed playoffs.
What they did: The last four or so seasons for the Oilers are all starting to blend together in my mind. In each case, the team starts out with an exciting crop of young talent, a smattering of rookies and sophomores and baby-faces all around. In each case, those players score some pretty goals and show off flashes of brilliance that indicate a bright future that is near at hand. And in each case, abysmal defense — not just by the folks on the blue line but by players at all positions — sinks the team to a position near or at the bottom of the Western Conference. In 2013-14, the Oilers adhered to that basic formula, ultimately finishing dead last in the West, 24 points out of a playoff position. But there are a couple of details worth noting. First, they traded for Ben Scrivens in January, and he answered the call by setting an NHL record with a 59-save shutout. Second, and this is addressed more to Ducks fans, the entire Oilers team looked better than we've seen them in years in the three late March and early April games between the Ducks and Oilers, of which Edmonton won two. Taylor Hall was particularly impressive.
What they've done: Ryan Smyth announced his retirement before the season ended, and a couple months after that GM Craig MacTavish drafted German center Leon Draisaitl third overall. Two days later, he (potentially) made room for the kid on the NHL roster by shipping out center Sam Gagner to Tampa Bay in exchange for winger Teddy Purcell. Also gone are winger Ryan Jones and defensemen Anton Belov and Mark Fraser. In their places, MacTavish signed free agent winger Benoit Pouliot (36 points with the New York Rangers last year) and defensemen Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin. The Oilers also hired a pretty smart guy named Tyler Dellow to do smart people stuff for them. I haven't heard any specifics about what his role will be, but most plugged-in Oilers fans are hoping he will have the ears of both MacTavish and head coach Dallas Eakins.
What they'll do: Their goaltending (Scrivens and Viktor Fasth, also acquired midseason) is definitely better than what they had going into last year (Devan Dubnyk and Jason LaBarbera, then Ilya Bryzgalov, then Scrivens and Fasth), and a player like Fayne is exactly what they need on the blue line. That said, the rest of their defense isn't so hot (unless someone like Oscar Klefbom or Martin Marincin really breaks out), and their forward corps can only improve so much, especially with an 18 year-old centering the second line. Still, this team should be a little better than last year's. But good enough to make the playoffs? Not in this conference.
Quick pick: 6th in Pacific, miss playoffs.
Last year: 46-28-8, 3rd in Pacific, won Stanley Cup.
What they did: As has been the case for a few years now, the Kings have been one of the best defensive teams in the league while scoring very few goals relative to the other teams at the top of their conference. They finished last season 25th in the league in goals for, but first in the league in goals against. To combat his team's goal scoring ailment, GM Dean Lombardi traded Matt Frattin and two draft picks for once-feared goal scorer Marian Gaborik. Gaborik came alive for LA during the playoffs, where he helped the Kings' offense score almost an entire goal per game more than they did in the regular season (3.38 vs 2.42).
What they've done: Lombardi's biggest off-season move was resigning Gaborik for seven years at a cap-friendly rate of $4.875M per year. Other than that, not much to report. Willie Mitchell is out and Adam Cracknell is in, but that's about it for player turnover.
What they'll do: Expect the same Kings team you saw in the playoffs: good at scoring, good at defending, good at winning. Sure, Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick are on bad contracts, but that probably won't negatively affect the team as early as this season. Along with the Chicago Blackhawks, these guys are probably the most widely favored team to win it all next year, and the most likely to turn me into a Sharks fan for the first two weeks of May.
Quick pick: 1st in Pacific, 2nd round loss.
Last year: 51-22-9, 2nd in Pacific, 1st round exit.
What they did: The story of the Sharks' regular season last year is the same story they've had for a long time: winning games, piling up points, and knowing that it doesn't mean a thing to their fan base until the playoffs begin. Things like Tomas Hertl's four-goal game, the season-long dominance of both Joes, the emergence of Alex Stalock as a challenger to Antti Niemi, and Dustin Brown's knee highlighted what has become an 82-game waiting period for Sharks fans. The postseason began on a high note that lasted for three games before it all fell apart in the most spectacular possible fashion, and as a result there are people out there who think Justin Williams is a better hockey player than Joe Thornton.
What they've done: GM Doug Wilson kicked off the summer by announcing that the team was to undergo some sort of rebuild. And while he did let go of veterans Dan Boyle, Brad Stuart, and Martin Havlat, he kept most of the team's core intact, including aging stars Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Other significant changes include the addition of accomplished face-puncher and occasional hockey player John Scott, the re-re-conversion of Brent Burns from forward to D, and Todd McClellan's decision to strip Thornton of the C and Marleau of the A. (Boyle had the other A). McClellan did the same thing when Marleau was captain following a first-round loss to a different California rival in 2009.
What they'll do: Plenty of folks have this idea that, because of what happened in the playoffs, the Sharks are a bad team that should be completely blown up because they can't possibly win as currently constructed. I have a different idea. I have this idea that they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in seven games (without the services of their best defenseman) and the fact that it was a first-round loss has more to do with the new playoff format and the imbalance of power between the conferences than it has to do with their "failed leadership." As such, I think they are going to be very good again this year. How good?
Quick pick: 2nd in Pacific, win Stanley Cup.
Last year: 36-35-11, 5th in the Pacific, missed playoffs.
What they did: Very few teams in NHL history have managed to create as vast a gulf between expectations and results as the Canucks did last year. GM Mike Gillis brought coach John Tortorella aboard, and both were most deservingly dismissed at the end of the season along with the team's five year playoff streak. Lowlights included but were not limited to: the 9-1 dismantling at the hands of the Ducks, a fifteen-day suspension for Torterella after he tried to force his way into the Flames' locker room, the end of Henrik Sedin's 689-game ironman streak, an unexciting return on the inevitable Roberto Luongo trade, the beginning and end of the Ryan Kesler saga, and a third period against the New York Islanders that they entered with a three goal lead and left with a three goal deficit.
What they've done: New President of Hockey Operations Trevor Linden hired a new GM (Jim Benning), who in turn hired a new coach (Willie Desjardins), a new starting goaltender (Ryan Miller), a new second line center (Nick Bonino), and a new potential right winger for the Sedins (Radim Vrbata). Other additions include Derek Dorsett, Luca Sbisa, Dustin Jeffrey, and Linden Vey. Besides Kesler, other important departures include Jason Garrison, David Booth, Zac Dalpe, and Mike Santorelli.
What they'll do: Desjardins will seek to reverse the damage done by Tortorella's top-heavy minute distribution, hard-nosed, Sedins-have-to-kill-penalties system. My guess is that it's going to work. The Sedins will appreciate cushier zone starts and a more balanced ice time distribution, Ryan Miller will be pretty good for at least the first year of his contract, Alexander Edler simply cannot be as bad as he was last year, and Vrbata will rack up the points while playing alongside linemates that are more talented than he is for the first time in a long time. I don't think the Canucks will be Cup contenders, but they shouldn't be bottom feeders either. Expect them to duke it out with Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, and Nashville for a wild card spot all season long.
Quick pick: 4th in the Pacific, qualify as a wild card, 1st round exit.