Forecasting the Pacific Division and where the Golden Knights fit

It’s not the strongest division, but there’s a lot of intrigue.

Through two seasons, and rather surprisingly if we’re honest, the Vegas Golden Knights have been one of the top teams in the Pacific Division.

Two appearances in the Stanley Cup Playoffs put the Golden Knights in contention to win one of the NHL’s weirdest divisions, and the 2020 season will be no exception. There has been some significant turnover across the pecking order, while there’s hope and optimism for those still scratching the surface.

And then there are those moves where you just shrug and go about your business.

The Golden Knights are expected to contend for the Pacific Division, and likely win it, in Year 3 despite an offseason that has can be arguably labeled as a failure. That’s how good Vegas is.

Let’s look forward to what lies ahead with the Pacific this season.

Arizona Coyotes

Additions: Phil Kessel (trade), Dane Birks (trade), Carl Soderberg (trade), Beau Bennett, Victor Soderstrom (draft)

Departures: Alex Galchenyuk, Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Kevin Connauton

When gathering the family for Thanksgiving, there’s usually two tables; one for the adults and one for the kids. Last season, the Coyotes were the little kid that felt he was ready to sit at the big-people table much sooner than anticipated.

Arizona somehow, nearly, inconceivably almost made the playoffs last season. The Coyotes finished four points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild card in the Western Conference. They played the second half of the season with anybody that possessed an inkling of skating ability. Antti Raanta started only 12 games. Darcy Kuemper played at a Vezina caliber in his absence. Their highest point scorer was a whopping 47 from Clayton Keller, with captain defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson right behind at 44.

And yet they finished with 86 points, going 22-14-5 in the second half. The Coyotes nearly jumped the Golden Knights in the Pacific Division at one point. The race was neck-and-neck. So, what does Arizona do after such a surge? They trade for Phil freaking Kessel, who scored 82 points last season in Pittsburgh, which if you do the math, is ONE MORE POINT THAN KELLER AND EKMAN-LARSSON COMBINED.

Adding Kessel is good enough to make the Coyotes a threat. They’re still developing under Rick Tocchet. The hope is Arizona builds on last year, and that starts with a healthy Raanta. Adding Carl Soderberg in a trade with Colorado gives the Coyotes more scoring punch in their middle six. Arizona will benefit from a healthy Nick Schmaltz, who missed the final four months with a knee injury. The Coyotes signed Schmaltz to a seven-year, $40.95 million ($5.85 million AAV) on March 30. They acquired Schmaltz in a deal with the Blackhawks for Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini.

It might not be long before the Coyotes establish themselves with a seat at the big-people table for Thanksgiving. But will there be enough turkey to go around?

Anaheim Ducks

Additions: Dallas Eakins (coach), Trevor Zegras (draft), Anthony Stolarz, Michael Del Zotto

Departures: Corey Perry

It’s an interesting time for the Ducks.

They’re not good to make the playoffs, but are they bad enough to go through a complete rebuild?

That’s the question new coach Dallas Eakins has to answer. Eakins was hired in June from San Diego of the AHL, Anaheim’s affiliate, to right the ship that saw general manager Bob Murray be the coach at one point last season. Things got topsy-turvy in the Land of the Mouse.

Ryan Getzlaf is still the captain, but the 34-year-old forward is coming off a 48-point season in 67 games played. He has two years remaining on his contract at $8.25 million AAV. After Getzlaf, the Ducks are going to look much different. Ryan Kesler will likely miss this season after undergoing hip surgery, and longtime Anaheim favorite Corey Perry was bought out this summer. Perry signed with the Dallas Stars on July 1.

This will be an opportunity for the Ducks to throw their youth into some top minutes. Max Comtois will be the top name. He had seven points in 10 games with Anaheim before going back to juniors (48 points in 25 games with Drummondville of the QMJHL), and was a top-line forward for Canada in world juniors this past winter. Sam Steel could also join the Ducks this season. Their first-round pick in 2016 had 11 points in 22 games with Anaheim, including his first hat trick on March 26. He had 41 points in 53 games with San Diego.

Anaheim loaded up its offensive prospect pool with drafting Trevor Zegras with the ninth pick in June’s draft. If the full-on rebuild starts in 2020, Zegras could very well be on the Ducks in 2021.

Anaheim shouldn’t make the playoffs next year, but the trajectory will be interesting to follow.

Calgary Flames

Additions: Milan Lucic (trade), Cam Talbot, Jakob Pelletier (draft), Oscar Fantenberg

Departures: James Neal, Mike Smith, Michael Stone

You’re not a fool if you think the Flames will be atop the Pacific next season. You’re also not a fool if you think a drop-off is coming.

There’s no question Calgary is good at the top. Johnny Gaudreau was a Hart-caliber player. He took that next step in becoming one of the NHL’s superstars with 99 points. Then there’s Sean Monahan (82 points), Elias Lindholm (78 points) and Matthew Tkachuk (77 points). That’s four guys 26 years old and younger. That’s good.

Defensively, having Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano helps. Noah Hanifin is 22, and TJ Brodie is 29. Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington will be restricted free agents next year and are expected to take another step in development. Juuso Valimaki, Calgary’s top defenseman prospect, is also a factor here.

Depth and goaltending are the glaring issues.

Mikael Backlund scored 47 points in the first year of a six-year, $32.1 million contract. Derek Ryan and Micheal Frolik were the next top scorers at 38 and 34 points, respectively. Calgary signed James Neal to a five-year, $28.75 million contract last offseason, but traded him to Edmonton — after a 19-point campaign — for Milan Lucic, in what can only be described as another chapter in the falling from grace that is the Real Deal.

Mike Smith also left for Edmonton, and in comes Cam Talbot ... from Edmonton. Smith was the best player during Calgary’s five-game elimination in the first round at the hands of the Avalanche. Smith wasn’t great during the regular season (23-16-2, .898 save percentage, 2.72 goals-against average). It was still good enough to start in the playoffs over David Rittich (27-9-5, .911 save percentage, 2.61 GAA), who will likely be the full-time starter in 2020.

Colorado’s speed and depth killed Calgary in the first round. If the Flames want to get further in the postseason, they need more than just the core four, as good as they are. The decision to move Neal this offseason was proof of that.

Edmonton Oilers

Additions: Ken Holland (GM), Dave Tippett (coach), James Neal (trade), Philip Broberg (draft), Mike Smith, Markus Granlund

Departures: Milan Lucic (trade), Andrej Sekera (buyout), Cam Talbot

The Connor McDavid drinking game has been called to order.

Will the best player in the world make it through the season without going insane?

The top priority for new general manager Ken Holland and coach Dave Tippett is to get the Oilers to the playoffs by any means necessary, or so help them they should feel the wrath of No. 97. The first order of business?

Trading Milan Lucic for James Neal. Wonderful.

Nevertheless, this is a good opportunity for Neal to revitalize himself with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. If the Oilers can get a reborn Neal, there might be hope on the horizon.

But much like last season, goaltending will be what dooms the Oilers. Mikko Koskinen is locked up for a few more years, and they have moved on from Cam Talbot to the era of Mike Smith. You can scroll one team up for thoughts on that. The Oilers snagged Markus Granlund after three years with Vancouver. He scored 22 points last season. That is not a lot, friends.

The Oilers are much like Calgary in this sense — very good at the top (McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), but not much after.

On the blue line, the Oilers bought out Andrej Sekera for the hope of a young defenseman making the leap from Bakersfield to Edmonton. Caleb Jones and Evan Bouchard are waiting in the wings. One, or both, could come to Edmonton next season.

Unless the goaltending improves and the Oilers get more offense, though, it looks like another disappointing season on the horizon. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, albeit a large tunnel dug by Peter Chiarelli.

Los Angeles Kings

Additions: Alex Turcotte (draft), Arthur Kaliyev (draft), Joakim Ryan, Mario Kempe, Todd McClellan (coach)

Departures: Dion Phaneuf, Brendan Leipsic

Much like the Ducks, fellow Southern Californiaites the Kings are in a period of not knowing when to embrace the rebuild.

New coach Todd McClellan doesn’t face the daunting task of working with a young team. The core of Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Ilya Kovalchuk and Jeff Carter still reside. Doughty turns 30 this season, and those other three are over 30. Time is running out on L.A. winning with that group.

That timeline hinders on how much Jonathan Quick has left. He won 16 games and had a career-worst 3.38 goals-against average and .888 save percentage in 2019. It didn’t help Quick that the Kings’ abhorrent offense was 22nd overall and 29th on the power play. Quick is still good. That offense is not.

Los Angeles addressed that in the draft, taking forward Alex Turcotte with the fifth pick in this past draft. Turcotte was one of the top scoring prospects of this class. He's likely not making the trip to L.A. until next season. Top 2017 draft pick Gabe Vilardi could make his NHL debut this season after missing most of 2019 with a back issue. And top 2018 draft pick Rasmus Kupari might be there, as well.

All thoughts point to the Kings riding with this core wave for as long as they can, including this year. If luck happens to strike in their favor and they push for a playoff spot, more power to them.

San Jose Sharks

Additions: None

Departures: Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi, Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Ryan

Alright. Here we go. This is the Sharks’ window. It’s open. The time to win the Stanley Cup begins now. There’s no turning back.

Without getting too caught up in what did or did not happen in Game 7, While the Golden Knights blew a 3-1 series lead and a 3-0 lead in Game 7, the Sharks nearly had one hell of a colossal failure of a season. Luck and what have you on their side, the Sharks made it to the Western Conference Final before losing to the eventual champion St. Louis Blues.

San Jose has one victory this summer; re-signing 29-year-old Erik Karlsson to an eight-year, $92 million contract. When healthy, Karlsson showed in the playoffs how dominant he can be. The Sharks are going all-in on a defensive triad of 29-year-old Karlsson, 34-year-old Brent Burns ($8 million AAV through 2024-25) and 32-year-old Marc-Edouard Vlasic ($7 million AAV through 2025-26).

Cue Gamora asking Thanos, “What did it cost?”

Captain Joe Pavelski is now with the Stars. Joonas Donskoi, a very good middle-six player for the Sharks, is now in Colorado. Gustav Nyquist, whom they acquired at the trade deadline, is in Columbus. San Jose can get by with Logan Couture, Evander Kane, Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc and Tomas Hertl. It’ll be interesting how they replace Pavelski. They could probably win without him; that’s still a lot of talent. San Jose was certainly inspired to play for Pavelski when he went down in Game 7 against Vegas.

If not for Pavelski returning for Game 7 against Colorado in the second round (and a blown call that went in favor of the Sharks), who knows if the Sharks would have had enough in the tank to get past the buzzsaw Avalanche?

Alas, the Sharks are still talented, despite having Martin Jones in net. They’re going to be in the thick of things. But will they have enough to make a deep playoff run?

Vancouver Canucks

Additions: J.T. Miller (trade), Tyler Myers, Vasili Podkolzin (draft), Oscar Fantenberg, Micheal Ferland, Jordie Benn

Departures: Luke Schenn, Derrick Pouliot

The Canucks are one of those weird teams where you know they made some win-now moves, but you know they’re probably another year or two away.

But, man, it’s hard not to like Vancouver.

J.T. Miller gives the Canucks much-needed offense in the top-six. There’s this sense he can break out after being in a crowded rotation in Tampa Bay. Tyler Myers is one hell of a pickup defensively, and now they have two really good blue-liners with Quinn Hughes getting a full season under his belt. Jordie Benn and Oscar Fantenberg provide some good depth, and if they can get a healthy season out of Alex Edler, that’s a good mix of stability and youth in an area where the Canucks need it.

Especially if the plan is to make Thatcher Demko the full-time goaltender.

Meanwhile, we’ve gotten this far without even referencing Elias Pettersson. The reigning Calder winner should be even better in Year 2.

The addition of Micheal Ferland gives Vancouver a back-to-back 40-point scorer to put on the middle six.

We’ve also gone this far without referencing Brock Boeser, who still doesn’t have a contract. The restricted free agent forward, once signed, will create one hell of a tandem with Pettersson on that top line.

Part of me thinks Vancouver is still some time away from the playoffs, but there’s part of me that thinks they can go on an Arizona-like run and make a charge for a wild card spot. If you’re going to watch any team this year, make it the Canucks. They’re going to be fun.

Where does Vegas fit?

Let’s account for all that we know here, and what we know of the Golden Knights.

Barring injuries, suspensions or anything of the like, Vegas should win the division.

San Jose will be there. Arizona is going to be better. Calgary should be there barring a collapse of epic proportions. Those four will be battling for the top three spots. But the Golden Knights, even with an offseason as lackluster as this one, is still probably the best team out of the bunch.

There are certainly questions surrounding Vegas’ defense, but the top six is one of the best in the NHL. That will carry them far. Marc-Andre Fleury still looks formidable in net. If Gerard Gallant and Dave Prior balance out his season output in appearances, expect another solid season from Fleury.

Vegas should be a favorite to get to the Stanley Cup Final this year, but that’s another topic for another day.

  1. Vegas Golden Knights
  2. San Jose Sharks
  3. Calgary Flames
  4. Arizona Coyotes
  5. Vancouver Canucks
  6. Edmonton Oilers
  7. Anaheim Ducks
  8. Los Angeles Kings