Pros and Cons – Part Three: Pacific Division

Since the start of the month, we have been taking a look at the Pros and Cons for each team around the National Hockey League. After starting with the Eastern Conference teams in the first two editions of our “Pros and Cons” series, we’ll now take a trip out west to the highly competitive (other fitting terms would be “bi-polar” or “inconsistent”) Western Conference for our last two parts of the series, starting with the Pacific Division, where the playoff picture is starting to look clear at the top, but most of the teams at the bottom are all one good run of games away from being right back in the race (or a bad run from being out of it).

 

Pacific Division

 

Calgary Flames (1st Place – 37-16-7, 81 Points)

PRO – This season has been quite the turnaround for the Alberta franchise as Calgary have been an extraordinary story with a ton of positives. Head coach Bill Peters left the same position in Carolina, and after an off-season trade brought two familiar Carolina faces along with Peters in winger Elias Lindholm and defenseman Noah Hanifin, Peters settled in quickly and is now a candidate for the Jack Adams trophy for coach of the year. Fans in Calgary have been waiting for their offensive stars to have breakout years and they certainly have gotten that this year.

Star winger Johnny Gaudreau (“Johnny Hockey”) has been mentioned for league MVP consideration, posting 30 goals and 49 assists for a career-high 79 points. As for the aforementioned Lindholm, in his previous five seasons in Carolina the 24-year old Swede consistently operated at a half a point per game average but has found his game in Calgary, posting career highs of 25 goals and 44 assists in only 60 games thus far. In addition, 24-year old Sean Monahan (tied for 3rd on team with 67 points) and 21-year old Matthew Tkachuk (4th on the team in points with 59) have also reached career high points totals.

On the backend, veteran team captain Mark Giordano has finally received the much-deserved recognition his career has always warranted, and has been discussed as a candidate for the Norris Trophy thanks to his solid defensive play, along with a league-leading +29 +/- rating, as well as 58 points in 58 games (his previous career high was 56 in 82 games in the 2015-16 season). Three end-of-season awards candidates in Calgary is nothing to scoff at.

Johnny Gaudreu
Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau has had a lot to celebrate this season.
Photo Credit: Jeff McIntosh, Canadian Press
CON – Just how good is David Rittich? The goaltending situation is seemingly solved after expected number one netminder Mike Smith had his early-season struggles, losing starts to Rittich. Just a few weeks ago the team had come out to say they are comfortable with “riding the hot hand” in a # 1/1A setup, but in recent weeks, Rittich had stepped up to take reign of the position, and now has an impressive record of 20-5-5.
If the Flames are going to make a deep run into the Stanley Cup playoffs, Rittich (.911 SV%, 2.66 GAA) will need to continue this hot streak and prove he is the true number one. Still, the 26-year old is an unproven starter for any extended length of time in the NHL with zero playoff experience, while Mike Smith (17-11-2, .892 SV%, 3.02 GAA) is on the verge of turning 37 and is having one of the more challenging seasons of his 13-year career. Goaltending may be the position Calgary will want to look to solidify in the off-season, if not at the upcoming trade deadline.
As for playoff aspirations, don’t count out the Flames as a sleeper candidate to make a deep run in the post-season if Rittich can continue at this pace, but if not, Smith will have to re-discover the touch that has helped him to a career .912 save percentage and 237 regular season wins.

San Jose Sharks (2nd Place – 38-17-8, 80 Points)

PRO – Everything is clicking in San Jose, and the Sharks are a favorite to contend for a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. After the Sharks acquired Evander Kane last year at the trade deadline, re-signing Kane and acquiring All-Star defenseman Erik Karlsson were top of the priority list for a franchise desperate to win its first Stanley Cup in the organization’s 27-year history. Though the start of the season came with its struggles as the team looked to build chemistry, the star-studded lineup has begun to live up to expectations, averaging 3.66 goals per game (3rd in NHL), 33.97 shots on goal per game (2nd), and the team’s power play is operating at 25.27% (4th).

From a production standpoint, the team is led by defenseman Brent Burns, who is making his case for Norris Trophy consideration with a team-leading 56 assists and 68 total points. Burns is followed by the resurgent team captain Joe Pavelski (32 G, 24 A, 56 P), the breakout season of Tomas Hertl (55 points in 56 GP), Logan Couture (55 points in 61 GP), Kane (51 points in 61 GP), and another breakout season in Timo Meier (51 points in 58 GP). Karlsson, considered this past summer to be the missing piece, is 7th on the team with 45 points in 50 games, followed by Kevin LaBanc, whose 40 points in 61 games equals his 77 game total of last season, qualifying the Sharks with a third breakout offensive performer. Don’t forget about “Jumbo” Joe Thornton (35 points in 52 GP), the 39-year old future Hall of Famer looking for a Stanley Cup ring in what could be his last chance.

Brent Burns
Norris Trophy candidate Brent Burns has led the Sharks offense and defense.
Photo Credit: Nhat V. Meyer, Bay Area News Group

CON – One would think with such a high-powered offense and defensemen like Burns and Karlsson, it would be tough to find a weakness in San Jose’s game. However, despite being a team which dominates puck possession and offensive chances on any given night, the Sharks do have issues keeping the puck out of the net. Goaltender Martin Jones (.898 SV%, 2.89 GAA) has been having a less than a stellar statistical year for a goaltender considered by many to be in the “elite” category amongst his peers. With the Sharks attempting to secure not only the division title, but make a legitimate run at the Cup, an underperforming goaltender in the playoffs certainly won’t cut it.

Jones, who is signed through the 2023-24 season, needs to find his game quickly in the final stretch of games. Current backup Aaron Dell was one of the league’s highest regarded backups in his first two NHL seasons, posting a .920 SV% and 2.32 GAA in those two years combined, but the 29-year old third-year NHLer has slipped to a .892 SV% and 3.04 GAA this season in 18 appearances. The same age as Jones, San Jose top brass is in a “win now” mindset and may look to make a move to solidify the goaltending position, with rumors circling Anaheim 38-year old backup, Ryan Miller, who recently became the winningest American-born goaltender in NHL history.

 

Vegas Golden Knights (3rd Place – 32-25-5, 69 Points)

PRO – No longer an expansion team. After their surprising and historic run to the Stanley Cup Finals in the franchise’s first year of existence, the Golden Knights didn’t start the 2018-19 season off in the same fashion. Still, head coach Gerard Gallant didn’t have much to worry about considering the division’s weaker links and has been able to right the ship, putting Vegas back into a playoff spot with teams in the rear-view mirror getting further from view.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury may not have the sexiest numbers on the year (2.60 GAA, .908 SV%), but his 29 wins and 6 shutouts prove the 34-year old, 13th-year veteran still has a lot left in the tank. The team in front of Fleury has provided him with the right amount of support, boasting the third-highest shots on goal per game (33.89 SOG), the fourth-lowest shots on goal allowed per game (28.98 SOG) and the fourth-best penalty kill (83.43%) in the league. 

 

CON – One of the keys to Vegas’ success last season was the offensive output, but although the gunpowder has been there, the guns haven’t been hitting the target. William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault led Vegas in scoring last season with 78 and 75 points, respectively, averaging almost one point per game. In contrast, Karlsson has 38 points and Marchessault 41 points through 62 games this season. Reaching last season’s totals would mean both have to average almost two points per game in the final 20 games of the season. The current team points leader, Alex Tuch, has taken a step forward this year with 42 points in 54 games, surpassing his totals from last season of just 37 points.

However, after 60 games this season, 42 points for the team’s scoring leader is not the kind of numbers that will help a team deep into the playoffs. Summer acquisitions Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny came to Vegas this summer expecting to replace the leadership roles and offensive production left behind by James Neal and David Perron (both lost to free agency). Pacioretty (18 G, 14 A, 32 P) had a slow start to his Vegas career before finding his groove, and has missed 13 games due to injury, while Stastny may be Vegas’ best offensive point producer with 24 points in 32 games, but has missed half the season due to injury. A move at the trade deadline to boost the offense in Vegas may be necessary if the Golden Knights plan on returning to the Stanley Cup Finals.

 

Arizona Coyotes (4th Place – 28-28-5, 61 Points – 1 pt. behind last Wild Card spot)

PRO – Head coach Rick Tocchet is turning heads in the desert with his team’s performance this season, with the team one win shy of matching their win total of last season. Though the division is noticeably weak, the Coyotes see themselves in a position for John Chayka to be a buyer at the trade deadline for the first time in his young career as an NHL GM, albeit not an aggressive buyer, as the team has thus far stuck to a patient building process. In fact, the Coyotes have already made one move which has paid dividends thus far in the acquisition of Nick Schmaltz from Chicago, who has registered 14 points in 17 games since arriving. Also, dynamic 23-year old center Christian Dvorak is expected to return soon from a pectoral surgery that forced him to miss training camp and the entirety of the regular season thus far. Getting a healthy Dvorak back could be the offensive addition needed in the lineup. Arizona likely won’t look to sell the farm in order to drastically improve the team when they could just rely on their own current strengths.

Among those strengths is the team’s quietly impressive defense, ranking tenth-best in the NHL in goals against (176 GA) and boasting the league’s top-ranked penalty kill, currently at 85.88% efficiency. Goaltender Darcy Kuemper has had a breakout year in his first full season in the desert, putting up an impressive .915 SV% and a 2.63 GAA in 35 appearances now that expected number one Antti Raanta has been lost for the season due to injury.

 

CON – Despite the strong defense and goaltending, what is keeping Arizona from taking the next step forward as a legitimate playoff team is their poor offense. Granted, the Coyotes have a slew of young, talented offensive players, but 20-year old leading point scorer Clayton Keller’s 38 points in 61 games played won’t exactly scare opposition come mid-April. Aside from Keller, only 24-year old Alex Galchenyuk (14 G, 20 A, 34 P) has cracked the 30-point mark this season. Tocchet has had to rely on contributions from different areas of his lineup to win games. Derek Stepan, Richard Panik, and Vinnie Hinostroza are below the 30-point mark on the year, while defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson (29 points), Alex Goligoski (21 points) and Jordan Oesterle (20 points) have had to supplant the offense to make up for the lack of production. Arizona has the league’s fourth-lowest goals per game (2.62 GPG) and 21st-ranked power play (17.44%).

Not to add on to the worries of Coyotes fans, but if there is a time to take advantage of a weak Western Conference wild-card race and earn some playoff experience, that time would be now. When Seattle joins the NHL in a few short years, Arizona’s move from the Pacific to the Central Division could pose a much tougher challenge.

 

Vancouver Canucks (5th Place – 26-27-8, 60 Points – 2 pts. behind last Wild Card spot)

PRO – The 19-year old baby-faced Swedish rookie Elias Petterson and his rag-tag group of adult-looking teammates are giving Vancouver fans something to cheer about this season, and sitting just outside of a playoff spot. Fans who saw the careers of the Swedish twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin end last season after having been the stars in Vancouver for almost two decades, now have a new core of youngsters to look forward to in Petterson, Bo Horvat and second-year sniper Brock Boeser. These three players, along with Nikolay Goldobin and Jake Virtanen, makeup five of Vancouver’s top six point producers and are all under the age of 23. Meanwhile, 26-year old Sven Baertschi (13 points in 22 GP) and 25-year old Josh Leivo (12 points in 29 GP), who was acquired in a trade with Toronto earlier this season, have not even played half the team’s games this season.

On defense, Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher are in their mid-20’s and are expected to lead the Canucks’ backline for years to come. In addition, Vancouver has a bright future in goal with prospect Michael DiPietro (No, not that DiPietro, Isles fans, you can come back out from behind that wall) and 23-year old Thatcher Demko both looking to take over from the current #1, Jacob Markstrom, in the near future.

 

CON – The Canucks can easily be compared to the Carolina Hurricanes or Buffalo Sabres on the east coast; i.e. tons of excitement and potential, but not quite ready to take the next step yet. Head coach Travis Green, like Phil Housley in Buffalo, has taken a leap forward in the second year of his NHL coaching tenure, all the while in a highly competitive division boasting some of the league’s biggest stars (McDavid, Doughty, Kopitar, Karlsson, Burns, Gibson, Gaudreau, etc.).

Still, this team doesn’t have the experience up front or talent on the backline to compete with the best just yet, and only one player on the current roster is averaging over one point per game (Petterson, who is undoubtedly winning the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year barring any unforeseen circumstances). While the goaltending situation looks promising for the future, Markstrom and whoever his backup will be down the stretch will likely struggle in a potential playoff series against the offense of the Nashville’s, Winnipeg’s or San Jose’s of the league. At this point in the season, Canucks fans should be pleased with what they’ve seen and excited to see what is in store for seasons to come. Making the playoffs will be a great boost to confidence and a much-needed experience for this young team and its young coach if they can finish the season strong.

Anaheim Ducks (6th Place – 24-27-9, 57 Points – 5 pts. behind last Wild Card spot)

PRO – Goaltender John Gibson is signed through the 2026-27 season after signing an eight-year extension this past August, and when healthy, Gibson is easily a top-five goaltender in the NHL. Without Gibson (.914 SV%, 2.93 GAA), this season could have been a lost cause much earlier on, but instead, this Ducks team that went through a stretch of losing 19 of 21 games until this past week, are only five points out of a playoff spot. In addition, the defense in front of Gibson is still a talented group featuring Cam Fowler, Josh Manson, and Hampus Lindholm, who are among the team’s more valuable point producers.

With young forwards like Ondrej Kase (20 points in 30 GP; season-ending injury in January), Nick Ritchie (25 points in 44 GP), and Rickard Rakell (26 points in 47 GP) earning the chance to play in the team’s top six forward group, Anaheim will have to look for answers to surround their young core with more firepower if they can move on from some of their current dead weight. Top prospect Maxime Comtois played 10 games earlier this season before being reassigned back to juniors. Comtois could be in the lineup later this season, but will certainly compete for a spot in training camp this fall.

Meanwhile, answers could be found through Anaheim’s AHL squad in San Diego, where 20-year old Troy Terry (16 G, 25 A, 41 P), 22-year old Chase De Leo (16 G, 24 A, 40P) 20-year old Sam Steel (15 G, 17 A, 32 P), and 20-year old Max Jones (14 G, 14 A, 28 P) have all been impressive. Additionally, 26-year old Sam Carrick could earn another chance at the big time, as he leads the Gulls with 47 points in 45 games, but has yet to turn that success into consistent playing time in the NHL.

Kessler Perry
Struggling Ducks may need to move on from aging stars Ryan Getzlaf (left) and Corey Perry (right).
Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez, U.S. Presswire

CON – The stars are fading in southern California. Ryan Kesler (34 years old), Ryan Getzlaf (33) and Corey Perry (33) have been relied on as top-6 forwards in Anaheim for far too long, and GM Bob Murray (now GM/head coach, Bob Murray) has had a tough go at re-tooling and refreshing the lineup the past few seasons. Getzlaf leads the team in points with just 39 on the year. The acquisition of Adam Henrique earlier last season provided the Ducks with depth at the center position, and signing Henrique to a contract extension this past summer showed enough belief in the 28-year old to eventually move into a top-6 forward role, but Henrique has never been a serious offensive threat who can take over a game like most centers who play those important minutes around the league can (and yet, Henrique is second on the team in points with only 32 in 60 games played).

Serious changes are needed in order to surround the kids with fresh legs and maybe new locker room leadership, or else the next few seasons might be hard to watch for Ducks fans, who have had to endure watching their current squad perform this season with an embarrassing, league-worst -50 goal differential (137 goals scored, 187 goals against).

 

Edmonton Oilers (7th Place – 25-29-6, 56 Points)

PRO – Is there anything else to say? Connor McDavid with a side of Leon Draisaitl. The two superstars might be the only two reasons anybody actually attends Oilers’ games anymore. That, or a chance to see Wayne Gretzky in person, who knows? The return of defenseman Oscar Klefbom from injury can only help Edmonton’s chances as the season progresses, but the lineup just isn’t deep enough to make any significant run. It may be too little too late for the Oilers, but the other positive is how weak the Pacific Division is, so assuming Edmonton miss out on the playoffs, the few bright spots lie in their prospect pool.

Forward Kailer Yamamoto has played 26 NHL games dating back to his NHL debut last season, and while his offensive output has been underwhelming (1 G, 4 A), the former 22nd overall pick is still 20 years old, and should get a chance toward the end of this season to fight for a job next year. Unless of course, the Oilers decide to keep him down in Bakersfield (where he has 13 points in 20 games), who are currently on a 15-game winning streak and aiming for a significant run in the Calder Cup playoffs, which couldn’t hurt Yamamoto’s development and confidence either. 

Staying in Bakersfield, 21-year old defenseman Ethan Bear (2 G, 18 A in 39 GP) will also look to crack the Oilers’ lineup next season to help shore up the D. Meanwhile, 2018 10th overall draft pick Evan Bouchard could also provide some much-needed help to the Oilers blue line, registering more than one point per game while captaining the OHL’s London Knights this season after playing seven games with Edmonton earlier on this year.

 

CON – How does this organization rebound from Peter Chiarelli? How can the Oilers and their fans avoid years of hearing “The trade was one-for-one” over and over again; in reference to the recently fired former general manager trading Taylor Hall (last season’s MVP as a member of the New Jersey Devils) for Adam Larsson (an eighth year defenseman who has played up to his 2011 fourth overall pick-potential for maybe two of those eight years)?

Well, time heals all wounds, and while the Oilers prospect pool features some possible NHL-ready players, in the meantime, Edmonton fans will have to hold on hope that current NHL-rostered youngsters Jesse Puljujarvi, Ty Rattie or Jujhar Khaira can improve on their performances from now until season’s end (unless they are traded in the next few days). Somebody in this organization has to take the pressure off McDavid and Draisaitl from having to do it all on offense. So far, poor defense and less-than-stellar goaltending have not helped in that regard.

 

Los Angeles Kings (8th Place – 23-31-6, 52 Points)

PRO – If the posting of this article had been earlier this month, the positive for Los Angeles would have probably sounded something like, “at least Drew Doughty already signed his big contract extension,” but even though the playoffs are out of the question for the Kings, head coach Willie Desjardins finally has the team playing decent hockey and they are out of the league basement, for now. In the weak Pacific Division, L.A. isn’t mathematically out of the playoff race, but it’s time to start thinking about the future.

If GM Rob Blake can move a contract like Jeff Carter at the deadline or in the off-season, the Kings won’t be bereft of depth at the center position. With Anze Kopitar, the clear first-line center and Adrian Kempe on the second line, teenage prospects Gabriel Vilardi, Rasmus Kupari, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, and Akil Thomas could all compete for roles next season, despite all playing center. Vilardi and Thomas have the most experience on the wings and could end up making the team next season in that kind of role if not down the middle. Meanwhile, 22-year old Michael Amadio has been fighting for regular playing time in the NHL as well, playing 73 games as a bottom-6 center over the past two seasons and becoming a quick fan favorite. On the wings, Alex Iaffalo and Tyler Toffoli have been producing at just under half a point per game pace for the Kings, and assuming neither is traded, should retain similar roles next season in the top six.

 

CON – The real question is, just how many of these current Kings players will be here next season? After their first-round exit to Vegas last spring, it was becoming clear the current core of the team was too old and too slow to compete in today’s NHL. With exception of Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick, the rest of the roster looks expendable, with many of their big names carrying too much weight in terms of contract value and… well… weight, which may have been the thought process of the Tanner Pearson for Carl Hagelin trade earlier this season, in order to inject some speed into the lineup, but things just didn’t work out for Hagelin either, who was then flipped to Washington this past week for a third-round draft pick. Toffoli has been mentioned in some rumors, while Carter could be the missing depth center for a playoff-bound team willing to take on his contract. Bottom six veterans Trevor Lewis and Kyle Clifford would also have value to playoff teams looking to add grit to their squad.

Even the summer signing of Ilya Kovalchuk came with its fair share of questions, adding a 35-year old international star who “retired” from the NHL to play the past few seasons back home in Russia. A once-elite NHL player who left North America previously with a known history of back issues and a massive mistake of a contract. Even though Kovalchuk has proved he can still hack it in the NHL, he hasn’t been the difference-maker the Kings have been searching for. It’s absolutely time for the L.A. Kings to go into a full rebuild, and start shedding the weight to make room for their prospects to move up the ladder.

 

With the league’s trade deadline coming up this Monday, February 25th at 3:00 p.m., teams in the Pacific could see a number of changes as they look to improve their rosters for the last 6-7 weeks of the seasons or rebuild for seasons to come. In the meantime, the fourth and final installment of the series will finish up with the Central Division, featuring two of the league’s Stanley Cup favorites, and a surprising turnaround for two teams thought to be well out of it race for the final automatic playoff spot in the division as well as the West’s two wild card spots.

 

 

 

Ed Palumbo
About Ed Palumbo 12 Articles
Ed is a 2010 graduate of Temple University with a degree in Sport and Recreation Management. A New Yorker at heart, he now resides in Philadelphia and supports the NY Giants, NY Mets, NJ Devils, West Ham United, and the Philadelphia Union. A former hockey coach and amateur scout, Ed is also the founder of the Prospective Hockey Central mobile app, connecting scouts and players in the recruiting process.

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