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Pacific Division Preview: Changing of the Guard

The Pacific Division may not hold the true powerhouses of the NHL, but it won’t be lacking in storylines.

San Jose Sharks v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Here we are, once again, just a day out from another chapter of National Hockey League history waiting to be written. No division in the league represents this passage of time more so than the Pacific, which features some of the best and brightest young stars of today, as well as some of the quickly fading stars of yesteryear.

As is custom during this time of year, we must make our predictions, hopefully with some accuracy. Here’s what the Pacific Division should look like in 2017-18, ranked in reverse order from last to first:

8. Vegas Golden Knights

Colorado Avalanche v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

For all the feel-good optimism surrounding the Knights going into their inaugural season at the beautiful T-Mobile Arena, it’s difficult to feel optimistic about their chances of finishing anywhere other than last in the Pacific.

General manger George McPhee put together a nice little forward group, yet none with true first line experience. How the likes of Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and William Karlsson respond to seeing the opposition’s best checkers will go a long way in deciding Vegas’ fate.

Although there’s some intriguing talent up front, McPhee dropped the ball on the blueline. Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt could take a serious step forward, but there’s just not much in the way of puck-moving ability outside of those two. Marc-Andre Fleury will keep the Knights entertaining. Maybe their core players prove that they can handle being true first-liners and the blueline is actually competent but -- um — don’t go to Vegas with that bet.

7. Vancouver Canucks

Vancouver Canucks v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Canucks are lucky that an expansion team devoid of top-end talent was added to the division this year, otherwise there’s little to no doubt that they’d finish dead last. A franchise that ought to be firmly in tank mode went out and signed veterans Sam Gagner and Thomas Vanek over the summer, leaving one to wonder what exactly they’re trying to accomplish this season.

Perhaps there’s a method to the veteran madness. Vancouver could flip some of their veterans for younger prospects and/or draft picks at the trade deadline, which would be a very tidy piece of business. It remains to be seen if that is indeed what they intend to do.

Daniel and Henrik Sedin made it clear during the off-season that they intend on retiring in a Canucks uniform, handcuffing the franchise from recouping some value for two guys who could still help a contender reach the next level. All signs point to this being a tanking season in Vancouver, they just might not know it yet.

6. Arizona Coyotes

Arizona Coyotes v Ottawa Senators Photo by Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images

Give general manager John Chayka some credit here: he’s actually attempting to ice a hockey team with NHL-caliber players on it this season. The Coyotes significantly improved their roster this past summer, which should mean that their youngsters will get a chance to experience competitive NHL games for the first time in their careers.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson headlines a now impressive blueline that features Niklas Hjlamarsson, Jason Demers, and Alex Goligoski. Antti Rantaa was very good as a backup in New York, and he should be able to keep things competitive behind that defense corps.

Rick Tocchet brings a fresh voice behind the bench after what feels like an eternity of Dave Tippett’s mullet. His experience alongside Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh the last few years will surely help matters in the desert, especially up front. Young guns like Dylan Strome, Christian Dvorak, Clayton Keller, and Max Domi should bring a real wave of optimism to Arizona this season, but the playoffs remain a tough ask.

5. Los Angeles Kings

2017 NHL China Games - Los Angeles Kings v Vancouver Canucks Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

The Kings’ front office seems to have a really good handle on the changes they need to make in order to get back to the post-season. Los Angeles has struggled to convert on their vaunted possession numbers in recent years, leading to a new philosophy that espouses generating scoring chances over blindly throwing pucks on net.

It’s the classic shot-quality-over-quantity argument, but it feels like it legitimately applies to the Kings, who certainly know how to have the puck more than the opponent. The issue here, however, is that their personnel remains much the same, save for the addition of Mike Cammalleri on a cheap deal.

Should LA really be on to something here, then there’s a real possibility that they become a legitimate contender once again. They’re very much a boom-or-bust team, and the “bust” isn’t exactly a far-fetched possibility, either.

4. San Jose Sharks

San Jose Sharks v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Although the Sharks will once again be trotting out the same reliable core that’s kept them in playoff contention for the past decade, this season feels like the first where the wheels could legitimately fall off the wagon.

The blueline will truly be the fulcrum of this team’s fate. Marc-Edouard Vlasic had a legitimately poor 2016-17 campaign, and he’s not exactly getting any younger — or less relied upon. The Sharks gave up one of their only puck-movers in David Schlemko during the Expansion Draft, putting the pressure on the likes of Tim Heed to come up from the AHL and immediately fill that void. Not impossible, but not exactly the easiest task, either.

Up front, the Sharks may actually be better than they were last year — provided Timo Meier takes the next step everyone seems to be expecting him to. Marcus Sorensen, Ryan Carpenter, and Kevin Labanc will bring much needed speed and skill to supplant a slowing core. San Jose will definitely be in the playoff picture once again, but don’t be surprised if they fall just short.

3. Calgary Flames

Calgary Flames v Anaheim Ducks - Game Two Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Yes, the addition of Jaromir Jagr makes a significant difference for the up-and-coming Flames. A team that has no shortage of top-end forward talent now finally has a guy that can truly help round out the group. Naturally, Jagr could show slow down but — okay stop me there, we all know that’s never going to happen at this point.

Calgary already boasted one of the better bluelines in the NHL last season, and they only strengthened that by adding Travis Hamonic. The former Islander isn’t necessarily an elite defenseman in his own right, but he won’t have to behind Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton.

Yes, the Flames were swept by Anaheim in the first round last spring, but anyone who watched that series knows they could have easily made it a series had it not been for some truly bone-headed penalties. Mike Smith’s arrival in net was met with skepticism, but he should be at least average behind such a formidable blueline. If everything comes together for Calgary this year — including some discipline — they’re a shoo-in for one of the top three spots in the division.

2. Edmonton Oilers

Montreal Canadiens v Edmonton Oilers Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

Scary thought: Connor McDavid will improve as a hockey player in 2017-18. Scarier thought: Edmonton’s blueline. Yes, the Oilers boast potentially the best hockey player in the world alongside a nice collection of forward talent, but it’s hard to put them at the top of the division in good faith with the way their blueline looks.

Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson form an excellent first pairing — which covers for a lot. Even so, there are legitimate concerns on both the second and third pairings. If Darnell Nurse can take a step forward and Kris Russell lives up to the hype of his new contract, then perhaps Edmonton claims the top spot in the division. That remains an open question.

Weaknesses aside, the Oilers will continue to be one of the better stories in the league this year, with McDavid leading the charge of a fast-paced, high-flying offense. Their top-six may only be matched by a certain team over in Pittsburgh, especially if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Milan Lucic experience bounc-back seasons. Exciting times ahead in Oil Country.

1. Anaheim Ducks

Anaheim Ducks v Nashville Predators - Game Four Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Early season injuries to Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, and Ryan Kesler could very well cost Anaheim its sixth consecutive division title. Yet of those injuries, Lindholm’s is the only of true significance. Rickard Rakell’s shift back to center already looks promising, as he’s posted some stellar possession numbers between Andrew Cogliano and Jakob Silfverberg during the preseason. Those two have historically been used in a defensive role, but they could hit a new offensive stride alongside Rakell.

Lindholm’s absence — his return expected to be in early November — could really sting. Brandon Montour and Francois Beauchemin haven’t looked good as a pairing in the preseason, which could be a problem for Anaheim early on. Vatanen obviously isn’t as much of a fulcrum for the Ducks, but his return will also help put everyone back in their correct slots.

The narrative surrounding the Ducks will undoubtedly revolve around Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry this season, but a full season of Patrick Eaves on the first line, as well as progress from Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie means it may not have to be. John Gibson had a very nice first season as a starter, and should he stay healthy, he’ll further step into the realm of the league’s elite goaltenders. The division crown is Anaheim’s to lose, although they’d gladly trade yet another crown for a much bigger Cup.