If there is any division in hockey that flies under the radar, it’s the Pacific Division. Not because the quality of play is poor, but because the damn games almost always start at 10pm Eastern time, with an occasional 10:30 thrown in there for reasons unknown. Any time a great West Coast player who’s up for an award gets jobbed out of it, it’s because of East Coast bias—or at least that’s what the diehards will say. Nevertheless, there is good hockey being played, it’s just that most of North America is already in bed.
The alluring thing about the Hockey After Dark division is that it’s setting up to be an awfully competitive one. An added bonus is that the Pacific just happens to have the league’s best player, some guy by the name of Connor McDavid. If we look at Vegas team total betting odds, the top four teams in the division are separated by just four points, none of which are McDavid’s Oilers.
Let’s look at the pecking order according to Vegas team lines:
San Jose 97.5
Los Angeles 93.5
Vegas expects the San Jose Sharks to win the division. They are an aging team, looking for one more kick at the can before Joe Thornton retires to his tractor. They have an elite play-driving talent on the back end in Brent Burns and signed the skilled but disreputable Evander Kane to a contract extension after making a trade for him at the deadline last year. GM Doug Wilson always does a good job keeping his team competitive and this year is no different.
Nipping at their heels are the Ducks, Golden Knights and Flames. Like the Sharks’, Anaheim’s core is aging, so look for them to try to squeeze more production out of Rickard Rakell and Ondřej Kaše. The latter is an interesting test case because he was one of the league’s most efficient scorers. Maybe Randy Carlyle will move him up the lineup.
Vegas won’t catch anyone by surprise again this season after winning the division and reaching the Stanley Cup Final last year. Their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith is out to prove they weren’t just a one-year wonder either. However, their depth lines will be markedly different than last season. They weren’t able to keep contributors like James Neal and David Perron, but they did bring in Paul Stastny, who many thought would remain in Winnipeg after a deadline trade brought him in from St. Louis.
The Calgary Flames will ice a new lineup after they too made some significant changes. They sent the museum connoisseur Dougie Hamilton to Carolina for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm. The Hamilton trade was a head-scratcher unless you buy the notion that he just didn’t party enough with his teammates, but that’s what happens when teams underachieve—they look for scapegoats. The right side of the forward corps will get a boost with their addition of James Neal as well.
The Kings made the sexy signing in Ilya Kovalchuk. After five years away from the NHL, though, how much tread does he have left on his tires? The potential Drew Doughty free agent sweepstakes came to a halt over the summer too when the former Norris Trophy winner re-signed, sparing us months of Doughty-to-Toronto rumors.
Below this pack of contenders are the Oilers, Coyotes and Canucks. Maybe some credit is due to Peter Chiarelli in Edmonton for not blowing his team up over the summer. Perhaps it was a mandate from on high, but Chiarelli mostly nibbled around the edges since the team crashed and burned last year. They do have a whole bunch of questions to answer, like “will any right winger in the organization please stand up?”, along with some lingering injury concerns for defenders Oscar Klefbom and Andrej Sekera. Unless some of their prospects emerge, like Jesse Puljujarvi or Kailer Yamamoto, this team will only go as far as McDavid can take them.
The Coyotes are an interesting team. They always seem to win the off-season with some really smart moves, but it hasn’t paid off in the standings yet. This year’s version of off-season winning happened when they acquired Alex Galchenyuk from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for winger Max Domi. This team played well down the stretch last year. It looks like they are trending in the right direction, but are maybe one more year away from really contending for the playoffs again.
Vancouver looks to be mired in the divisional basement this coming season. On the bright side, they are starting to amass an impressive collection of young talent that will start making their collective impact on the NHL in the next year or two. Brock Boeser broke through last year and looks to be one of the league’s best young snipers. Elias Petterson should make the team after a record-setting year in the Swedish Hockey League. Fellow Swede Jonathan Dahlen could make the team too. They are still waiting on former first rounder Olli Juolevi to make an impact on defense, and this past year’s first rounder Quinn Hughes will head back to Michigan. Their July 1st moves always defy reason, but the kids are coming and brighter days are ahead.
Best Off-Season Acquisition
I think there are a lot of good candidates for this slot, but I’ll have to give the nod to Ilya Kovalchuk. He hasn’t played in the NHL in five years and Father Time will come for him eventually, but he was very productive on a stacked SKA St. Petersburg team, and he did capture an Olympic gold with the athletes formerly known as Russians. His 5-on-5 game make have taken a step back, but his shot will still be lethal on the Kings’ power play. In a division as tight as the Pacific looks to be, improving on their 19th overall mark last year might move the needle enough to get them back into the playoffs.
Worst Off-Season Acquisition
When it comes to a worst off-season acquisition category, all eyes immediately look to Jim Benning in Vancouver. He’s doled out some bizarre contracts in the past, but giving Jay Beagle 12 million dollars over the next four years to be their fourth-line center is just absurd. Stanley Cup rings don’t rust, but Beagle won that ring somewhere else, playing well down the lineup. I’ll just let this graphic from hockeyviz.com take it from here.
Best Under-the-Radar Off-Season Acquisition
I don’t know if this acquisition is under the radar or that it happened so long ago people forgot about it already, but I have to give this one to the Arizona Coyotes for their acquisition of Vinnie Hinostroza. This was the incentive for the Coyotes to take on the contract of Marián Hossa.
Hinostroza tallied 25 points last year in 50 games, while playing a depth role mostly with David Kampf and Nick Schmaltz. It’s not like he rode shotgun to Patrick Kane and picked up points by default. He had a positive impact on the shot clock last year, and this year he could see an uptick in ice time and in the caliber of his linemates if he lands on the second line with Galchenyuk. There is definitely an opportunity for him in Arizona.
Other Notable Additions
I mentioned many of these guys already, but let’s sum up the notable off-season moves from around the division:
- Former Predator James Neal left Vegas and signed a 5-year deal in Calgary.
- Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm were traded by Carolina to Calgary for Dougie Hamilton. Both players have already signed long term deals to remain with the Flames.
- Alex Galchenyuk was traded by Montreal to Arizona for Max Domi. Galchenyuk will play second-line center behind Derek Stepan.
- The Coyotes also added Marián Hossa to their impressive collection of future hall-of-famers. He joins Chris Pronger and Pavel Datsyuk.
- Paul Stastny signed with Vegas after a brief stint in Winnipeg. I for one am happy he left; it makes the Jets a little less formidable.
Player to Watch
Let’s go with Clayton Keller. The 20-year-old scored 11 goals in his first 16 games and ended the year with a team-leading 65 points. Keller is sublimely gifted as a puckhandler and fared well in his first full season the in the league. The only knock on his game is his size and strength. Officially listed at 170 pounds, he lost some puck battles throughout the year and wore down a bit through the grind of a full season. As his body matures he will become one of the league’s bright young stars, and the hope of turning the franchise around in Arizona.
Coach or GM on the Hot Seat
This is a tap-in gimme. It’s Peter Chiarelli in Edmonton.
Too many writers much better than I have poured thousands of words onto paper explaining just exactly what happened in Edmonton and how badly Chiarelli bungled some of the major trades he’s made the last few years. The Oilers entered last season as a popular dark horse pick to win the Stanley Cup. They have the requisite star power locked up, but every other aspect of the team let them down in spectacular fashion. Are they are bad as they were last year? Probably not, but they aren’t as good as the team that made the second round of the playoffs two years ago either.
Their true talent is somewhere in the middle, but that true talent might still not be good enough to make the playoffs. The bookmakers agree. Unless McDavid does something superhuman and scores 125+ points there just aren’t enough horses to get back to the playoffs. If the Oilers do miss the playoffs I can’t see Chiarelli coming back to Edmonton next year while the rebuild continues further into its second decade.
Which Team Wins the Pacific?
This poll is closed
San Jose Sharks
Vegas Golden Knights
Los Angeles Kings