BY: PAOLO MINGARELLI
Of the new divisions, the Pacific will be one of the more offensive, boasting an abundance of top tier talent with a solid mix of skill. The standings may appear streaky for most of the season, however, by the end of it all, it should come down to the Kings at the top with a lot of possibilities surrounding the teams who follow.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
“A Game of Thrones “
The Kings are in the midst of their window, making them a yearly contender for the Cup. They won the Stanley cup 2 seasons ago and the core group of that roster remains in the City of Angels. They lost in the conference finals to a powerhouse Chicago team but otherwise proved why there were the Stanley cup champions by taking care of the San Jose Sharks in 7 and the St-Louis Blues. They are one of the most deadly teams on home ice but must bring that same level of intensity on the road where they finished with an 8-12-4 record.
The Kings’ strength is down the middle: Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll and Jeff Carter. While Carter plays wing, he can fill in the center role for any injured players. This abundance of skill makes it hard for any to match up against them. Especially come playoffs. There’s no question that alongside these centers one finds compatible wingers in Dustin Brown, Justin Williams and rookie Tyler Toffoli. Toffoli had a short stint with the team but in 10 games he put up 5pts and adds to that 6pts in 12 playoff games, there’s a lot of optimism around this young player and should be the first of many Manchester Monarchs to fill in roles for the Kings in the near future. The bottom 6 in LA remains a fierce combination of skill and checking. Even though they allowed Dustin Penner to test the market, they acquired Matt Frattin by dealing Jonathan Bernier to the Maple Leafs. In Los Angeles he will be assigned as a role-player on a contending roster. The chemistry this team has developed over the years and the discipline developed under Sutter makes the team a good bet to take the division and a smart choice to make the final 4.
On the back-end the Kings are also very solid. They have their cornerstone in Drew Doughty who can play nearly every role for the Kings- from powerplay quarterback to penalty kill shutdown man. He has the ability to do it all and that’s what teams expect from their 2nd overall selection. The loss of Rob Scuderi could be one intangible the Kings will suffer the most from come playoff time. As a 2-time cup winner Scuderi plays a shut down role. However Robyn Regher signed an extension, Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene are likely to return from injury in fine shape which will more than address that need for a shutdown D-man. One emerging star is Slava Voynov. Although the Russian defenseman is not necessarily the greatest 2-way threat, offensively he had a phenomenal year and will most probably continue production and create opportunities for the team this season.
Jonathan Quick had a statistically average year for a starter, managing to string together 18 wins for the Kings. Helping shoulder the load was Jonathan Bernier, who won 9 games in 13, but even with that kind of safety blanket, the Kings confirm that their money’s future is invested in Quick’s assets who has proved himself capable during big game and over the course of the year. Ben Scrivens will make a home in LA but there’s no question he will be a backup, and will need to prove himself during a contract year. Look for this tandem to be one of the top come year’s end.
The Kings will top of the division. While some teams in the pacific are in a transition phase, either on the way up or down, the Kings find themselves as the team to beat and they will be bringing the best out of their opponents.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Shark filled waters in San Jose, but are they deadly?
The Sharks run of 100 point seasons are behind them but the team that brought them there remains a competitor. Head coach Todd Mclellan has been a part of 2 conference finals and made the playoffs every year during his 5 year tenure. With the roster intact with the exception of a few minor changes in positions to role players, the sharks are expected once again to take part in the Stanley cup playoffs.
Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton may be getting older but they remained two of the top scorers for the Sharks last season, and were definitely not part of the reason the team did not make it past Los Angeles in the playoffs. They may not be the duo they were a few years ago when Marleau scored 44 and Thornton had 69 assists, but then they don’t have to be with the rise of Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. Couture has emerged as a #1/2 center with Thornton, and last season was on pace to match his career high 65 points if given a full season. Pavelski has the talent it takes to make the team a threat, and as a regular 55 point man he becomes a force in the post season having recorded 50 points in 74 games for the Sharks. Brent Burns was originally drafted as a defenseman but with some shortcomings on the wing, transformed his talent to the wing spot on the top line, and did well for the Sharks registering 20pts in 30gp. If he stays at forward, he could feature on either of the top 2 lines and assume a presence in front of the net. The Sharks’ bottom 6 have role players like Tyler Kennedy and Rafi Torres who complement teammates nicely, but without them and the likelihood that Martin Havlat fails to complete another season without injury, the front office could look to the farm and bring up Freddie Hamilton who spent his first full season in the AHL last year.
On defense, aging Dan Boyle remains a threat on the power-play. He lost a step by making his game time take a slight hit this season. If it continues, it may become a liability over the year. Regardless, he can still move the puck well and provides a good role model to the blueline, Marc Eduard Vlasic has become a household name in San Jose. He might not be a powerplay specialist but his defensive game keeps him logging over 20 minutes per match and at 26 entering his physical prime, he can probably take over minutes that Boyle is giving up. Save for Brad Stuart and Jason Demers, the blue line is inexperienced with only Justin Braun competing in over 100 NHL games. That’s the challenge. This could hurt the Sharks if they are unable to hold back the oppositions secondary scoring,
Recall how Antii Niemi was found… it’s hard to believe that he was driving a zamboni in Finland before ending up a cup winner in Chicago. The reason it’s hard to believe is that he has since then posted an average of .919sv% in 3 seasons and put up 35 wins. At 30 years old the Sharks have no concerns about his age and they will do their best to provide Niemi with the rest he needs. It helps that the Sharks play a league low 10 back- to- back games. This will relieve some pressure from the backup goalie and help focus his A game.
The Sharks are starting to plateau. As mentioned, they are no longer recording 100 point seasons but still remain in the playoff hunt year after year. This season may require some defensive adjustment. On the other hand, if the season does not pan out for them as expected, they have Thornton, Boyle and Marleau on the final years of their respective deals as trading chips to re-tool or rebuild without giving their fans droughts of playoff-less seasons like the Oilers.
Will the Ducks fly over the Pacific?
Last season, the Ducks made the post-season despite initial media pessimism, locked up Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to max term deals, and finished atop their division resulting from contributions from across the board.
Making a splash during the off-season by trading scoring winger Bobby Ryan to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for, notably, Jakob Silfverberg and a 1st rounder in 2014 could ultimately play out as a win/win for both organizations. While Silfverberg is still a work in progress, in our opinion he has the potential to fill in that top 6 role that the loss of Ryan opened up. The play of Kyle Palmieri alongside Getzlaf was a positive for the Ducks, re-signing the winger to a 3- year deal. Saku Koivu will return to play at least one more year after demonstrating the ability to keep an elevated pace in a condensed season by logging approximately 18min/game (27pts in 47gp). Teemu Selanne, the Ducks can definitely use his skill and leadership, both of which are assets they love to have. Notable mention goes to Emerson Etem, who is a 1st round selection who made the jump to the NHL last year and was able to contribute to the club; he was a bright spot in their first round playoff exit posting 5pts in their 7 game set against the Wings. One issue the Ducks also addressed was size in the roster. They went after former Duck, Dustin Penner, who, at 30 years old, coming off consecutive below-par years with the Kings, is a no-risk signing which adds depth to the roster especially if they make the post-season.
On defense the Ducks had a great showing from veteran Francois Beauchemin playing with Sheldon Souray, who at 37 years old was able to demonstrate the ability to provide offense to a blueline in transition. Souray will start the year on the IR, implying that the Ducks will lean on a lot of their youth to step up. This means Cam Fowler and Lucas Sbisa will assume much of the workload expected from the organization. Both Fowler and Sbisa have shown the ability to play at high levels and will need to perform at this level consistently. Down the pipeline for the Ducks are players such as Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm. Vatanen had an absolutely great breakout season with the Norfolk Admirals posting 45pts in 62 games and was given an early chance to showcase his talent at the NHL level. It’s very likely that the youngster will be with the Ducks, season starting, given Souray’s injury.
Goaltending was the Duck’s strength; their tandem each recorded 15 wins and posted a save- % above .915. Having the ability to rotate goaltending has become a commodity in the league, and Duck’s position in this regard is enviable. While Jonas Hiller did suffer from vertigo a couple of years ago as legitimate #1(11/12), he was not able to provide the goaltending they needed to remain competitive. GM Bob Murray addressed this imminent shortcoming by assuring the club has a backup who is capable of playing at the NHL and thereby giving highly regarded prospect John Gibson the chance to mature and develop in the minor league system.
2013-2014 will be a good season for the Ducks who will face their main divisional competition in their from their California rivals: San Jose and Los Angeles. To note that both teams had difficulty playing on the road last season and those derbies could ultimately assist Anaheim who was 4th in the West last season playing-home-ice to remain in the playoff hunt.
Can the Desert Dogs add some bite?
Since the arrival of Head coach Dave Tippet, the Coyotes have only missed the playoffs once. For a team whose financial woes are often the topic of conversation, the on- ice product branded by GM Don Maloney has answered the hockey fan’s expectations cleverly, making the Coyotes into a stingy club that has the ability to win low scoring games.
A big signing for the Yotes this summer could be the addition of Mike Ribeiro who played for Tippet in Dallas and posted a career high 83 points. There’s no doubt that he still can play; he showed as much in Washington (49pts in 48gp). He can help a struggling power play and overall goal scoring for the team that fell in the bottom 10 last seasons. Providing offense one finds Radim Vrbata playing wing along with Mikkel Boedker,-both wingers provide speed and a touch of finesse that if harnessed can make their power-play a tool in the arsenal rather than a liability. Captain Shane Doan is entering the twilight years of his career. He is dwindling down from the 60pt range to a more respectable 50. As a leader, he brings character and grit to their roster. Big center Martin Hanzel is entering his physical prime at the age of 26- he brings size, 6’6” 235lbs, down the middle. Hanzel along with centerman Antoine Vermette offer the club stability at the center ice position.
One look at the Phoenix depth chart on defense and you’re able to pick out 6 players that have made impacts at the NHL level and a couple of NHL ready prospects. It’s a great pool to have checked these four: Keith Yandle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Zbynek Michalek, and Derek Morris. All have the experience and the talent, being entrusted with over 20 minutes of ice time each. Having such a balanced blue-line also provides them with the ability to develop and maintain an offensive game for long periods of time. This can be one of the reasons that in an 82 game season the wear and tear will not be a make or break for the Yotes who also have youngsters like Michael Stone, Bradon Gormley and David Rundblad all ready and waiting for their chance to crack the NHL roster. On paper, this may be one of the best defenses in the league and a big reason why goaltender Mike Smith shines in Phoenix!
If Mike Smith can remain healthy, the Coyotes have a good chance of making the playoffs. The Yotes hope that Smith will bring them the same kind of performance he did in his first full season putting up a.930sv% while recording 38 wins. Tomas Greiss will be backup to Smith until prospects Mark Visentin and Michael Lee can elevate their game to the next level.
It’s a shame that most of the talk surrounds the Desert Dogs financial situation, which has been seemingly resolved for the next few years. The on ice product has achieved the compete level that permits them to regularly place for a playoff spot at #3 or #4 in a division that has the Kings as the clear cut #1 around they could find a spot.
The window is closing fast.
Mike Gillis is on every armchair general manager’s hot seat. Without going into too much detail, according to many, the Luongo situation was not handled neither intelligently nor appropriately. On the other hand, Luongo returns to play out his contract under a new head coach- John Tortorella. This result of this pairing could be interesting to watch considering how well Tort’s system helped Henrik Lundqvist shine. On a more entertaining note, it will be interesting to see Torterella at Vancouver press conferences and behind the bench as well facing a knowledgeable hockey media and restless hockey fans respectively.
The Sedins are back and are now playing out the final year of their contract. They are 33 years old but their style of play allows for them to continue putting up all-star numbers. Last year they finished 1-2 in the team lead in points. They have great chemistry with Alex Burrows who has been able to put up 50 points when used in a top line spot. The fact that centerman Ryan Kesler did not play very many games last year hurt the Canucks, as did the acquisition of Derek Roy which definitely did not work out for them. If Kesler returns to his form, the second line spot should be his. Along with Kesler was the injury to David Booth. The former Panther was brought in to add scoring depth but unfortunately he hasn’t found his touch in Vancouver. Hopefully Torts can spark his game. To solidify the bottom 6 getting Brad Richardson as a depth center was essential. Even though the Canucks have 2 very exciting center prospects in Brandon Gaunce and Bo Horvat, they are still somewhat young and shouldn’t be written into the lineups yet. The possibility of Jordan Schroeder getting a chance to play is much more likely; he has done time in the AHL and played in 31 games last season.
Defensively should be an improvement. With Torterella behind the bench the Canucks will become a stingier team. Recall that the Rangers were known for their ability to get in front of the puck during the last few years. Considering how the tandem of Luongo and Schneider was often left making highlight saves, Tort’s sensitivity for defensive positioning could pay off in the end and become the part of the game that keeps the Canucks chasing the playoff spot. Alexander Edler is one of the main pieces of this Vancouver defense. Capable of generating offense, he has been one of the top 2 scorers on the blue line for the last 5 seasons. Along with Edler is Dan Hamhuis, last season. He assumed the reins on D and during his 2 full seasons with the Canucks posted a stellar +29 rating. To stop the opposition and kill penalties, Kevin Bieksa will need to maintain his level of play, although his physical presence and his passion often see him taking penalties. As a vocal leader in the room he will need to be present to settle the team down considering an adjustment period for the new coach. One breakout star for the Canucks could emerge in Chris Tanev who although still young, plays a sound defensive role.
Luongo is the starter…again! There was a mess but Luongo is a professional. He confirmed he will honor his contract. During his career as a number one in Vancouver, Luongo has a .917sv% over 7 years. Add to that a coach who will provide him with more defensive stability, and Luongo could come back to form and be the reason they are ultimately chasing the playoff spot. Coming in as backup is Eddie Lack, who played 2 good seasons in the AHL notwithstanding suffering a hip injury.
After 6 of 7 division titles were won by the Canucks, the new division structure will not be in their favor. This division puts the Kings as heavy favorites. The Canucks and the Sharks are swimming in the same waters. But the Sharks have already addressed most of their shortcomings and challenges. This division’s battle for the spots ranging from 2-5 will be ferocious. Unfortunately it is more likely than not that the Canucks may be looking from the outside by the time it’s all said and done.
Will a new general manager refuel the Oilers?
There are two reactions to the Oilers. On the one hand, tuning in to watch their young forwards has made them one of the most exciting teams on the scene; on the other hand, you can’t help but feel that their defense is holding them back from enjoying playoff hockey.
While the casual hockey fan can appreciate watching young talent grow during the course of a few seasons, the Oilers faithful have been waiting far too long for some playoff hockey and another Stanley Cup banner in the rafters. This year it’s time for the team to take their game to the next level. The core group of prospects is the same as years past. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky and last year’s rookie sensation Nail Yakupov. Craig Mactavish decided to go out and acquire different talent up front in the form of David Perron in exchange for prospect Magnus Paajarvi. Concern for Perron’s health ever since he suffered a concussion in 2011 has been the conversation surrounding this young talent. If he can remain healthy, the Oilers will have two of the most dynamic scoring lines in the entire league. While the ability to score goals is there, it will be the ability to prevent goals that must be addressed by the Oilers this season. A player like Boyd Gordon should fill the need for a third line center that will win faceoffs. He comes into the year as a 57% faceoff-winner from last season, edging out Sam Gagner for the team lead. He can be used on the penalty kill, and as an added bonus can leave Gagner to man the second unit. Last season both the penalty kill and power play finished in the top 10 in the league, (9th and 7th respectfully) and with an improvement to the roster with contributions by Perron on the power play and Penalty kill contribution with Gordon, it’s reasonable to believe the Oilers will finish around the 10th spot in both categories by year’s end.
The big off season signing of Andrew Ference into the lineup adds not only a playoff grinder for the post regular season but also solid NHL experience for a blue line that is in dire need of supporting its young players in contributing to the team’s playoff push. A statistic to note is that of all the returning Ds from last season, the highest +/- was Jeff Petry at +1, who, in passing, also lead all D in average ice time(21:54/game). Ference can help provide some depth in that 3-4 spot as he did in Boston. But missing a true cornerstone could ultimately edge them out of the playoffs. Along with Jeff Petry the Oilers have faith in Ladislav Smid, the 27 year old lead the team in Blocked Shots and finished second (behind Petry) in Hits. It will be interesting to see how Nick Schultz bounces back in the final year of his contract after a poor year. Could he be held for trade bait or worse? Two young talents like Taylor Fedun and Martin Marincin, who behind Justin Schultz last season, lead the AHL team in points by defenders, are likely to pressure the Oilers into making room for them in lieu of other seasoned veterans like Nick Schultz.
It seems that the Oilers #1 Netminder will be 27 yr old Devan Dubnyk who has seen action in the better part of the last four seasons in Edmonton. The only drawback is that he achieved a .500 record only once. More recently he did have a respectable 2.57 goals against and a .922% suggesting signs of progress. There has been speculation about acquiring another goalie to compete with Dubnyk for the top spot. So it’ll be up to Dubnyk to show that he can play to the level they hoped when they selected him in the first round. If not there may be a change in attitude and directions with his contract expiring at the end of the year.
With the window of opportunity closing for a few teams in the pacific division, the Oilers look more and more like a middle of the pack team with their current build. They could finish as high as 3rd if all the right pieces come together. Realistically they will be competing for 4th place and the wild card spot in the playoffs out west.
The rebuild begins.
The last few years have been progressively more irritating for the Flames fan base who tolerated management’s attempts to make the playoffs and come short year after year. Ultimately the Flames had 3 big assets and pulled the trigger on 2 deals while the third finally hung up the skates. Long time Captain Jarome Iginla, Iron man Jay Bouwmeester and franchise goaltending leader Mikka Kippusoff are no longer on the roster and this seems to confirm an ultimate changing of the guard in Calgary.
There is a lot of young talent in the forward group for Calgary. Mikael Backlund is going to be entering his 3rd full season in the league and will be given ample opportunity to showcase his ability to assume a top 6 spot within the Flames long term plans. Sven Baertschi, another first rounder, will also be one for the organization to watch. While in the AHL, Baertschi provided substantial point production last season with 26pts in 32gp and played to a point every second game at the NHL level under limited playing time (approximately 13min/game), an ice-time number that will likely go up this year given the loss of Iginla. While many may hope to see their top ten pick in the 2013 draft Sean Monahan make his NHL debut, the Flames may find it wiser to have him spend more seasoning time in juniors- this may be ultimately best for both parties. If not, the youngster has great vision and was by far the best player on his OHL junior squad, a team that was not a contender but still managed to see the best of Monahan on a nightly basis- the kind of attitude that is exactly what the Flames need from their young stars. The current lineup of NHL experienced stars includes the likes of Mike Cammelleri and Matt Stajan who will likely feature on the top line and be the ones who set the tone to the young developing core. An interesting player to watch will be TJ Galiardi. The Calgary native will probably be given good playing time and the chance to find his game. At 25, he is beginning to enter his physical prime, Bob Hartley will have a lot of young talent to work with but this is not the first time he has come into a less than ideal situation: recall his years with the Atlanta Thrashers.
On Defense the top 2 will consist of Mark Giordano and Denis Wideman who will both command the most ice time per game on a blue line that has no one over 30. Youth on roster is in many ways a good and desirable facet; however, it is also necessary to endorse some competent veteran presence in order to offer intangibles to the up- and- comers. For the Flames the young D will be highlighted by the play of T.J. Brodie who they hope can be used in a more offensive role on the 2nd power play unit, while players like Mark Cundari and Kris Russel, both from St-Louis Blues, but not in the same transaction, will be offered an opportunity to play in an NHL lineup and possibly lock up a future in the league.
For years the most consistent aspect of the Flames would be for Mikka Kippusoff to steal games and play to his usual self giving the Flames a chance to win games on a nightly basis. This year marks the first time in a decade that someone new will be handed responsibility between the pipes. The Flames reached out to (G) Kari Ramo from the KHL who for 3 straight years has posted a GAA of 1.98 (on average) and a Sv% over .920. This is not a knock on the KHL but is he capable of coming to North-America and posting similar numbers on different ice size and NHL caliber goal scorers. Should he not pan out for the Flames, Joey MacDonald and Reto Berra could offer decent backup. While Macdonald has played on his fair share of NHL teams and can be labeled a journeyman, Berra was acquired in the Bouwmeester trade and has yet to play in the NHL, and as such will likely be an AHL starter before coming up to the NHL.
I do not expect the Flames to be contenders or to make the playoffs but the 2013-2014 season will be an interesting one for Calgary fans who can catch a glimpse of what the future holds for the club, and how viable management’s vision of the future is.