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2018-19 NHL Preview: Pacific Division

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Las Vegas Golden Knights

Can the expansion team even come close to their surprise debut last season? Some sportsbooks have their point total set near 100, so there are high expectations for an impressive encore. If it’s going to happen again, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is going to have to be just as sharp. In his 13th season with a new team after spending 12 years in Pittsburgh, Fleury was incredibly dominant, starting in 46 games, winning 29 of them, and posting a 92.7 save percentage. He had his best goals-against average ever (2.24), and he certainly didn’t play like a 33-year-old veteran who was at the tail-end of his career.

Fleury essentially bails out a mediocre defense, as did an offense that played out of its mind. To keep them fresh, they’ve added left wing Max Pacioretty and center Paul Stastny in the offseason. Stastny spent his last four seasons with St. Louis before spending his final 19 games with Winnipeg. He had his best overall season since the final year with Colorado, putting up 53 total points between the Blues and the Jets. Pacioretty is a 10-year veteran that has played his entire career in Montreal but had just 37 points in 64 games last year.

Rotoworld notes that Jonathan Marchessault was disappointed in how the first line played in the Stanley Cup Final, where they ended up falling in five games. Despite the struggles, he was still signed for $30 million over six years. “The salary doesn't change anything,” Marchessault told La Presse. “I always wanted to be a first-line player. I never put pressure on myself for stuff like that. But in the final, our line didn't play well enough. In our situation, I put pressure on myself to be better than I was in the final."

It’s almost inevitable that Vegas will take a step back next season. Their competition has scoped them out and will be better prepared. Fleury cannot keep up that same pace he had a year ago. They’re a legitimate team that will probably make the postseason again, but don’t expect them to make back-to-back Stanley Cup appearances.

 

Anaheim Ducks

The window seems to be closing for Anaheim, meaning success has to happen now or it’s going to be a long rebuild for the franchise. Last year, the defense was one of the top three in the league at an average of 2.55 goals against per game. It didn’t help them at all in their opening series against the San Jose Sharks, where they allowed 16 total goals over a four-game span and got swept.

If they’re going to have a better finish this season, or even return to the playoffs, they’ll need to be healthier. It hasn’t been a great start with right wing Corey Perry being lost for up to five months with surgery on his MCL injuries this week. He wasn’t able to score against the Sharks last postseason, but he racked up nine shots on goal over the final two games of the series to try and give the team a chance.

Heading into his 14th season, Ryan Getzlaf was limited a year ago, playing in just 56 games. Before that, in four straight years, he appeared in 74 or more games each season. Despite being in fewer games, Getzlaf was still able to rake in 61 points, just a few less than 2015-16 where he appeared in 77 games. The team is hoping to see that point total rise if he plays in more games this season.

Now entering his sixth season with the Ducks, goaltender John Gibson remains a bright spot. He had career highs of 60 games started and 31 victories under his belt. The goals against average was mediocre in comparison to his other few seasons (2.43), but good enough to get the team in the playoffs. The only problem was he couldn’t keep it up in the postseason.

The good news is Gibson will have one of the better backups in the league to spell him at times, Ryan Miller. He’ll also be behind a strong defense, one that ESPN ranks as the seventh-best going into the season.

 

San Jose Sharks

After a stunning sweep of Anaheim in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, they couldn’t overtake their division opponent, falling to Vegas in six games. They went toe-to-toe with them after losing the first game 7-0, an impressive comeback to stay competitive, and some of that was thanks to their incredible defense last season. It’s a reason why some believed they could make it to the Stanley Cup playoffs for a second consecutive year, but they could certainly get back there with the squad they have now.

Some of the most critical upgrades include defender Erik Karlsson, who has been with Ottawa for nine years. He’s been a workhorse over the last five seasons, only missing 16 regular season games in that stretch. Another addition is left winger Evander Kane, who was added in midseason and appeared in 17 games with the Sharks. He had four goals and an assist in his first appearance in the postseason, solid for a veteran making who had spent nine years on the outside looking in.

With the addition of these players, it will strengthen the team overall. They already have one of the best defenses in the league, and they also are tremendous in killing penalties -- 84.8 percent of them, which is second-best in the NHL. While there’s a lot of strength on this team, they lack a bit between the pipes. Goaltender Martin Jones posted a 30-22-6 record last year with a 91.5 save percentage.

You also can’t forget about Logan Couture on the Sharks, who will command the offense and has been a leader on the ice for his club. He signed a contract to extend his stay in July for eight years with a $64 million price tag. Couture had a career-high 34 goals last season and had 25 goals or more in three of his previous four seasons. He’s now had 52 points or more in four of his last five seasons.

The playoffs aren’t a given for the team, but they did have some pretty significant adds. Kane will undoubtedly be excited to play a full season with a playoff contender. Karlsson will boost the defense, but it did cost key parts of the team to get him.

 

Los Angeles Kings

Similar to their rivals in Anaheim, Los Angeles was swept by Vegas in the opening round. Their offense was atrocious in that series, as it had been all season long. They had the best goal against average on the season at 2.46, but they scored just 2.89 goals per game in their favor. New head coach John Stevens, who took over for Darryl Sutter, a coach who’s won two titles with the Kings recently, shows that there’s some promise with 12 more points compared to last season.

Sportsbooks don’t think Los Angeles is a reliable team this season, with their total points expected to closer to 90 than it is against the top contenders in the Pacific. They’re hoping to buck those expectations with the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk. After spending just over four years with the New Jersey Devils, Kovalchuk switched over to play in international leagues until making a swift return with the Kings.

Vegas isn’t the only team that’s dealing with questions around their veteran goalie. Jonathan Quick may not be as dominant as he once was, but he still collected 33 wins over his last 64 games last season. It looked as if Quick fully recovered from his awful 2016-17 campaign where he played in just 17 total games after suffering an early season injury. The only blemish on his statistics last season was being a part of 28 losses, the most tagged on him in one season over his career.

Los Angeles has been merely mundane since winning trophies, appearing in the playoffs twice but not making it past the first round. To take the next step again, they’ll need to have a healthy and strong Anze Kopitar. He had a tremendous season last year, breaking a career high with 92 points this season. His previous high was back in 2009-10 where he had 81 points.

With how bad this offense can be, adding Kovalchuk will be extremely valuable in improving that. He won’t be breaking any records with his age, and they’ll need other players stepping up, but they should have a strong enough defense to contend once again -- or at least make the playoffs and hope they don’t end up getting swept yet again.

 

Calgary Flames

After failing to make the postseason in back-to-back years, a lot of changes were made to Calgary in the offseason. They finished 37-35-10 with only 84 points, and sportsbooks anticipate they’ll hit around the same number again. Perhaps the line of reasoning is implementing a new system under head coach Bill Peters, who will make his debut after the team fired Glen Gulutzan. For the second straight time, he was let go by a team after just two seasons, the previous stint being with Dallas. He’ll stay in the Pacific division as an assistant with Edmonton.

Goaltender Mike Smith’s health will also go a long way in deciding how successful this team is. He’s never been able to string together a full season and has been limited to 55 games or less in his last three seasons. While he’s not a shutdown goalie, he’s good enough between the pipes. They’ll need all the help they can get on the defensive side of the ball with how mediocre the offense is.

They’ll hope for a boost with left wing James Neal, who’s coming off a successful season with Vegas, putting up 44 points (25 goals, 19 assists. He’s now had over 40 points in four out of his last five seasons. Center Elias Lindholm was also acquired in a trade, after spending his first five seasons with Carolina. He’s boosted his production over the last few years with 89 total points, and he’ll feel at home with the former Hurricane coach at the helm.

One aspect the team will need to improve on to have any kind of success is power play goals. The Flames were in the top 10 in killing the opponents’ attempts, but they were ranked third-worst in the league last season in completing them. That’s not going to fly when the offense was also ranked fifth-worst overall in a tough Pacific division that has strong defenses.

On the bright side, left wing Johnny Gaudreau is only four full seasons in with the Flames, and he’s been an offensive machine. He had more points (84) than games he played in (80) last season, and he's had 61 points or more over the previous four seasons. The future looks incredibly bright for him, but they’ll need some massive help in other places to reach the postseason again this season.

 

Edmonton Oilers

It was a very disappointing campaign for Edmonton, who didn’t reach their playoff aspirations last season. They were mediocre to disastrous in all the key categories and were outscored throughout the season average, which was nowhere near the expectations they set for themselves. Sportsbooks are expecting significant improvement because they believe the team underperformed with one of the best players in the league, Connor McDavid.

McDavid has now had back-to-back seasons where he’s passed the century mark in points, and he’s netted 71 total goals in that stretch. That effort was wasted for a team that had just 78 points, down a whopping 25 points from the season before. Similar to Calgary who finished just ahead of them in the standings last year, they were horrendous in power plays, finishing dead last in the league at 14.8 percent. That’s not good when they also ranked 25th in penalty kills.

Chances are if the team doesn’t have to rely on McDavid so much, they could be more successful. Center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who has spent seven years with the Oilers, has had a significant supporting role and actually had more points last year (48) than in 2016-17 (43), even though he played in 20 fewer games. Assuming he can put in a complete season, he should be able to put up huge numbers.

Their other center, Leon Draisaitl, had the second-most points with 70 on the season. Outside of those three, the next-highest offensive production came from another center, Ryan Strome, with 34 points. It’s truly a top-heavy unit that really needs help, especially in the right wing position. Their best statistical player at the position, Jesse Puljujarvi, who had 20 total points (12 goals, 8 assists).

Neither the defense nor goaltending held up last year, however. Only three other teams gave up more goals than them on average, and not even a stud like McDavid could bail them out. Neither could goaltender Cam Talbot, who registered a league-high 31 losses (plus three in overtime) and put up a mediocre 90.8 save percentage and allowed a 3.02 goals against average.

Are things going to be better for the Oilers this season? It’s difficult to see considering there hasn’t been an upgrade at goaltender and there just aren't enough reliable pieces around McDavid, especially after seeing them sink throughout the season a year ago. They’ll need others to step up to reach the postseason again.

 

Vancouver Canucks

A new era is beginning for Vancouver after seeing Henrik Sedin and his twin, Daniel, leaving the team. Right wing Brock Boeser and center Bo Horvat are replacing their roles and are looking to play even more minutes this season after dealing with injuries last year. Boeser certainly has a lot of potential after putting up 55 points in his second season (29 goals, 26 assists). Horvat had 40 or more points over his last three seasons, but the difference last year was he had 44 points over just 64 games (had 81 or 82 appearances in the prior two seasons).

It’s certainly time for a change with the Canucks, who have now missed the postseason in three consecutive seasons after having 51 total losses (11 in overtime). They ranked 26th in the league both in scoring goals and allowing them. They converted around 21.5 percent of their power plays, which ranks in the top 10 in the league, but that wasn’t enough to help their offense out.

Both Boeser and Horvat had a difficult season with injuries, especially Boeser who went down with a bad back. "Anytime you see a teammate like that go down, especially one of the best players on your team, it's definitely scary," Horvat told ESPN. "Back injuries are not to be taken lightly. Once we knew he was OK, and that he was going to be fine, we all took a deep breath."

Perhaps the weakest part of Vancouver is at the goaltender position. Jacob Markstrom, who had a 23-26-7 record last season with a 91.2 save percentage, is serviceable between the pipes, but he’s not going to be the difference maker in a game. They also have a mediocre backup helping out the defense, Anders Nilsson, and unless one of these players step up, this team could be playing from behind in a lot of contests.

Not much has changed in terms of personnel on this squad, so most sportsbooks are expecting about the same results. Defender Alexander Edler, who’s been a long-time Canuck for 12 seasons, rebounded a bit with 28 assists, the most he racked up since tacking on 38 in a tremendous 2011-12 campaign. It was the only the second time he was able to surpass 30 points in his last six seasons.

 

Arizona Coyotes

Expected to at least improve last season, Arizona finished in the basement of the Pacific with just 70 points. It was an awful start for the team, dropping their first 11 games, and they simply could never come back and really be in contention all year. Part of the problem was losing goaltender Antti Raanta, who was expected to make a big impact, but had to miss the start of the season. He ended up having a good season, posting a record of 21-17-6 and recorded a 93 save percentage, but it was simply too late to save the team.

Raanta, who has held at around a 2.25 goals against average over his last four seasons, needs to put up a complete year with his program. His 47 games last season was the most he played in a single year after being a backup for Chicago and the New York Rangers. If there’s anything that the team and their fans can hang their hat on, it’s the fact that this team should not be in the basement for another year barring injuries or another slow start.

GM John Chayka is making the moves necessary to make the Coyotes an eventual playoff team, and one key addition is center Alex Galchenyuk. He’s already dealing with a lower-body injury that will likely impact his availability at the beginning of the season. That’s already enough to make some fans worry, but it’s not as devastating as losing an incoming full-time goalie. Derek Stepan was another addition a year ago and played a full 82 games.

Stepan looks good to go for another full season. He’s scored 53 or more points in five straight years, including 56 points in last year’s campaign (14 goals, 42 assists). He’s had a whopping 28 goals or more in four of his last five seasons. Another player joining the team, right wing Michael Grabner, who played for New Jersey and the New York Rangers last season, is looking to have much more production than the 36 points he had a year ago.

It’s been six years since the Coyotes last made the postseason, but Chayka believes they could finally break that streak as early as now. “Obviously you’ve got a lot more veteran guys, established guys,” Chayka told the Associated Press. “Our youth has grown up, they’ve had a year or two years in the league, so you expect that they take that next step.”

Is that a realistic expectation for this squad? Had they played as they did down the stretch, and if Raanta were fully healthy, they at least wouldn’t have finished in the bottom of the division. Considering how tough some of these other top squads are, it’s a bit of a stretch to see them end the streak now, but these could certainly be building blocks to a great future.

 

Brian Spaen

Blogging journeyman and sports handicapper. His passion for statistics, analyzing team reports, and watching multiple hours of sports daily gives him an edge for picking who will beat the spread. Also writes about technology and video games. Hobbies include enjoying life in the big city, spending way too much time on YouTube, and discovering new craft beer and whisky.

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