We’re just a day away from opening day in the NHL and we have our last division preview in the Pacific Division. There are some good storylines and some good teams in this division. I’ll have my playoff and award predictions Tuesday. Before we get started, here are the other divisional previews.
Let’s get started.
1. Los Angeles Kings
Last year: 27-16-5 2nd in Pacific Division (Lost in Conference finals to Chicago)
Player to watch: G, Jonathan Quick. He is the favorite to be the starting goalie for Team USA in Sochi Olympics. Despite not having a year up to his lofty standards, Quick is an elite NHL goalie that makes the Kings a sexy pick to repeat their 2011-12 Stanley Cup win.
X-Factor: D, Willie Mitchell. He was a key piece for the Cup-winning Kings, but is battling the after effects of a knee injury. Mitchell may not be ready to go right away and would leave L.A. with only five defenseman on one-way (NHL-exclusive) contract. His quick return is needed.
Forecast: The Kings are one of the league leaders in non-power play puck possession. This team has great scorers like Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. They have all but four players still on the team from when they won the title. They have a good mix of youth and experience. This team will be in the mix.
2. Anaheim Ducks
Last year: 30-12-6 1st in Pacific Division (Lost to Detroit in first round)
Player to watch: RW, Corey Perry. He’s the main scorer along with Ryan Getzlaf now that Bobby Ryan was traded to Ottawa for Jakob Silfverberg and a first-round pick. Perry failed to score a single goal in the first round loss to Detroit. He’ll be looking to bounce back this season.
X-Factor: RW, Kyle Palmieri. This young man has come into the league with a lot of hype, but he now needs to deliver. He was placed on the top line with Perry and Getzlaf. This could be a foreshadowing of the future.
Forecast: Anaheim is smarting over the loss to Detroit in the first round. This team had the tools to get to the Finals. The team is on a mission because it’s Teemu Selanne’s last season and they want to get him one last Cup. Jonas Hiller had a shaky season, but I expect him to bounce back. This team can challenge the Kings.
3. San Jose Sharks
Last year: 25-16-7 3rd in Pacific Division (Lost to Los Angeles in conference semifinals)
Player to watch: C, Logan Couture. He has become the leader of this Sharks team by taking the mantle from Joe Thornton and is the leading returning scorer. He’s also willing to play defense as he led the team in blocked shots.
X-Factor: D/RW, Brent Burns. Coach Todd McLellan made the move to put Burns in the forward spot after depth problems towards the end of the regular season. Burns has a gritty style that will open up opportunities for the other players on the ice. The Canucks and Kings put big bodies on him to neutralize him. Burns will need to figure out how to generate offense on the wing.
Forecast: The core of Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton are starting to get a little older and the window might be closing on these guys. Antii Niemi is still a rock between the pipes and has the experience of winning the Cup. The Sharks have never realized the lofty expectations placed upon them, but there’s still a little time.
4. Phoenix Coyotes
Last year: 21-18-9 4th in Pacific Division (Missed playoffs)
Player to watch: C, Mike Ribeiro. He’s the first big signing by the new ownership group. His power play production increased to 0.56 points. He’s also great at the faceoff dot as he’s won nearly 45 percent of draws. He’ll be needed to give the Yotes the scoring production they need.
X-Factor: The new owners. We all know about the ownership saga that the Coyotes have faced since the NHL took over the club. New owners George Gosbee, Anthony LeBlanc and the rest of IceArizona can now focus on hockey instead of where they may be moved to. (Although there is a 5-year out clause if the team loses over $50 million in that time frame.)
Forecast: The team does have a good coach in Dave Tippett and general manager Don Maloney have done more with less in the last few seasons. They did re-sign Mike Smith and have good players like Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. I expect the Coyotes will be more relaxed on the ice and be going after a playoff spot.
5. Vancouver Canucks
Last year: 26-15-7 1st in Northwest (Lost to San Jose in first round)
Players to watch: Fs, Henrik and Daniel Sedin. It will be interesting to see how the twins will deal with the new system that new coach John Tortorella is trying to implement. I said that it will be interesting to see how the duo will react when Torts ask them to block a shot. The two are fun to watch offensively, but need to shore up their defensive game.
X-Factor: G, Roberto Luongo. It’s been a trying last couple of years for the man who could be the number one goalie for Canada. He is getting older and has that massive contract on the books that the Canucks tried to get off the books. He’s still got the tools to be an elite goalie if the thrives in the new system.
Forecast: I have this team finishing outside of the playoff places as of now, but can challenge for the division if they can acclimate themselves to the new system. Tortorella wants to play an up-tempo style, but experts wonder if the Canucks can handle it. Luongo also needs to reclaim his confidence if they want overtake the Coyotes in my projections.
6. Edmonton Oilers
Last year: 19-22-7 3rd in Northwest (Missed playoffs)
Player to watch: RW, Nail Yakupov. He’s one of the most fun players to watch in the NHL. His speed is amazing, but it looks like he’s enjoying himself out on the ice. He, Ryan Nungent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle are the core of a team that has a lot of promise.
X-Factor: Coach Dallas Eakins. He’s a former NHL player and was the longtime coach of the AHL Toronto Marlies (affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs). He’s already changed things at the start of his tenure by asking his team to be more physical.
Forecast: I did toy with the idea of putting the Oilers in the playoffs, but the goaltending and the defense are too big of a question mark for me. They did get David Perron from St. Louis and have Sam Gagner to go with the young core. This team needs to address the defense if it wants to get into the playoff fight.
7. Calgary Flames
Last year: 19-25-4 4th in Northwest (Missed playoffs)
Player to watch: LW, Curtis Glencross. He’s the leading returning scorer for the Flames. He’ll be asked to do a lot. (Especially if Mike Cammallieri gets traded at the deadline as expected)
X-Factor: President, Brian Burke. We’ve seen the good side (Vancouver) and the bad side (Toronto) of Burke. He says he’s not the face of the club and will little input into the running of the club. However, if things go south, we will see him taking charge of the club.
Forecast: It’s going to be a stormy one for the Flames. Jarome Iginla was traded last season and longtime goalie Mikka Kiprusoff retired. Calgary is going to have the best shot… at getting the most ping pong balls in the 2014 Draft Lottery. It’s the start of the rebuild for this club and it’s always darkest before the dawn.
Dan Mount is an NHL and college football writer for TJRSports.com. He is based out of Watertown, NY and can be followed on Twitter @DanMountSports.