Contenders and Pretenders: Pacific Division

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contenders and pretenders
SAN JOSE, CA - DECEMBER 23: Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid skates with the puck during a NHL hockey game between the Edmonton Oilers and the San Jose Sharks on December 23, 2016 at the SAP Center in San Jose, CA. The Sharks beat the Oilers in overtime, 3-2.(Photo by Tommy LaPorte/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In the fourth and last instalment of the Contenders and Pretenders series we take a look at a division that has contained several Stanley Cup Final participants in recent years: the Pacific Division.

Contenders and Pretenders: Pacific Division

The Pacific Division is looking interesting at this stage in the season. Points-wise a group of three elite teams have emerged. The San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers are all within five points of each other. These three look poised to grab the three division spots with the Los Angeles Kings, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks in the running for the two available wild-card spots. Only the Arizona Coyotes can be counted as completely out of the playoff race.

Pretender- Arizona Coyotes

The Season So Far

The Coyotes season so far hasn’t been anything to write home about. They currently lie 19 points out of a playoff spot and should be preparing for another trade deadline as a seller. No one has really been able to shine and the rookies, who last year showed flashes of their potential, seem to be going through sophomore slumps. Even star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is having a rough season. But perhaps most concerning is the massive step back taken by Anthony Duclair. The young forward has just 9 points in 41 games this season after finishing last year with 44 points in 82 games.

Why They’re Pretenders

The Coyotes didn’t expect to be anything but an improved non-playoff team this year. However, it must still be disappointing for the squad to almost simultaneously take a step back this year. Not all is negative in Arizona, however. Jakob Chychrun, seems to be a huge steal at number 16th overall at last year’s draft. So far he looks like the biggest steal of General Manager John Chayka’s young career. There’s a bright future waiting in Arizona, but for now they’re just too inexperienced and lacking in the depth department to be much more than what they currently are.

Second Half Outlook

Expect the Coyotes to be sellers again this year at the trade deadline. There’s no hope for a playoff berth and the best hope for the young desert dogs should be a lucky lottery that might get them the number one pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Also don’t be surprised to see Radim Vrbata, the team’s top scorer, be moved to a contender looking for a bit of offense going into the postseason. Terrible as the Coyotes are now the future does look bright for them as they have one of the deepest prospect pools in the league.

Pretender- Vancouver Canucks

The Season So Far

Not many expected much from this season’s iteration of the Canucks. And unlike many of the other teams performing above expectations it hasn’t come down to goaltending in Vancouver. Ryan Miller has been average throughout the season posting a .915 save percentage, giving the Canucks a chance to win on most nights. Their season started out pretty bad. They won their first four games, before dropping their next 9 games and looking down and out before the season had really begun. Fast forward a few months and they’re just five points out of the last wild-card spot currently occupied by the Flames; a team they’re 1-2-1 against on the season with just one game remaining. They have a 1-0-1 record against the other wild-card team, the Kings. Their biggest advantage, however, is that they have three games in hand on the Flames.

Why They’re Pretenders

As mentioned before Miller is average and no more. This means there’s more pressure on the team to score. Their possession metrics are not impressive and the teams overall depth is a large question mark. Another issue for them is the teams around them

Second Half Outlook

Things are not looking up for the Canucks. They’ve struggled in their last 10 to the tune of a 3-4-3 record. Miller is not the Olympic MVP goalie he once was and can’t be expected to steal many games, though he won’t be a liability either. Another issue for Vancouver is the teams around them in the standings. The other teams simply have more high-end talent as well as depth. A top-three position seems like a distant hope and the wild-card race is fiercely contested between a rather large group of teams.

Pretender- Calgary Flames

The Season So Far

The Flames season didn’t start out as planned. They had acquired Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson during the off-season and finally looked set in goal, with potentially one of the better goalie tandems in net. It didn’t go as planned though and Elliott struggled mightily with his new team. Losing young star, Johnny Gaudreau to injury didn’t help matters. But recently they’ve been improving. Johnson took over from Elliott and helped the team before also hitting a bad stretch. The team as a whole seems to be slowly working their way back as well. New coach Glen Gulutzan has neither been a disaster nor a coaching mastermind, but has kept them afloat.

Why They’re Pretenders

The Flames are headed in the right direction. They have a young core lead by Gaudreau in place and 2016 sixth overall pick, Matthew Tkachuk, is looking like he could be a gem. The goalies, while not performing to the level the organization had hoped, are slowly improving. But their time hasn’t come just yet. The young squad could certainly sneak into the playoffs. But a young team, coupled with some depth issues and unstable goalie situation doesn’t make for a recipe for a deep playoff run.

Second Half Outlook

Gaudreau, while not playing at the level he did last year, is an offensive powerhouse. On the other hand, Sean Monahan has struggled a bit points-wise, which probably partially explains the drop in production from Gaudreau. Monahan, however, has been improving lately. If one of both goalies can hold a high level for the rest of the season the Flames could be in a good spot for the playoffs. The playoffs are certainly a possibility for them.

Contender- Los Angeles Kings

The Season So Far

The Kings season started out about as bad as they could have imagined. 20 minutes into their opening night game against the San Jose Sharks they lost Jonathan Quick. Quick hasn’t played since. The caused some early troubles for the team, before Peter Budaj, perhaps the best story of this season, emerged as their saviour. Budaj has gone from AHL goalie to leading the NHL in shutouts. Beyond Budaj, it seems like Jeff Carter has put the entire Los Angeles offense on his shoulders and currently sits second in goals scored with 29 goals behind only Sidney Crosby.

Why They’re Contenders

The Kings have been perhaps the second-best team in the league this decade. If they make the playoffs few teams will want to face them if it can be avoided. The Kings are currently in the first wild-card spot, but it’s a precarious situation with many teams pushing for the two spots. The Kings are still an elite team though with the stingiest defense in the league and the best possession numbers. They’re not the team they were two or three years ago, but they still have a lot of skill in the lineup and should threaten most teams.

Second Half Outlook

The most important acquisition the Kings can make might be a return from Quick. While Budaj has performed admirable, there’s little doubt the Kings hunger for their starting goalie’s return to action. The Kings will also hope to get a bit more scoring from their lineup so they don’t have to rely too much on Carter. Best case for the Kings is that they catch up to the rest of the Pacific and finish top three and maybe even start with home-ice advantage in the playoffs.

Pretender- Edmonton Oilers

The Season So Far

Two words: Connor McDavid. Rid of the injury that took him out of nearly half of last season, McDavid has really shown the league his skills this year. McDavid is currently tied for the league lead in points with Crosby and has been dominating nearly everyone he’s been on the ice against. Beyond McDavid, Cam Talbot has taken great strides in his second year as a starting goalie, posting a stellar SV% of .921.

Why They’re Pretenders

McDavid is already a superstar in the league, but superstars can’t do it all by themselves. Once McDavid leaves the ice the rest of the Oilers still struggle. Leon Draisaitl has had a breakout season that would draw much more attention if he didn’t play on the same team as McDavid, but the overall depth still isn’t there. They paid a hefty price to acquire Adam Larsson, but the blue line is still an issue for the team.

Second Half Outlook

The Oilers will likely make the playoffs for the first time since 2006, when they lost in the Stanley Cup Final. The breakouts of McDavid, Draisatl and Talbot has helped the team immensely and they’re finally headed in the right direction. But for the Oilers to call themselves true contenders they will need more time and better personnel. For now a first- or second-round playoff appearance seems like the ceiling for them.

Contender-Anaheim Ducks

The Season So Far

The Ducks season has gone pretty much as how the Ducks likely had hoped. They’re right in the thick of the playoff race with a good chance of winning the Pacific Division. Their goal scoring has been nothing impressive with their shots and goals per games ranking just 21st and 24th, respectively. Their defensive structure, however, has been sound, with the goals against and shot against per game ranking sixth and ninth.

Why They’re Contenders

There was some concern among parts of the NHL community when the Ducks hired Randy Carlyle, given his record for not playing very possession-driven hockey. The Ducks possession stats did indeed take a fairly large drop, going from 52.36% in 2015-16 to 49.7% in 2016-17. The drop has also affected their scoring a bit, but with a strong roster still in place they’ve been able to stay at or near the top of their division most of the season.

Second Half Outlook

The Ducks are in a strong position entering the stretch run of the season. For them, the goal should be to turn up the scoring before the season ends. Once the playoffs start and teams start being more stingy, goals will be harder to come by. The Ducks have already struggled in that department. More than anything they need Corey Perry to find his goal-scoring touch. He currently sits at just 11 goals through 56 games. It’s not for a lack of trying though, but rather that his shooting percentage sits 6% below his usual shooting percentage.

Contender-San Jose Sharks

The Season So Far

The Sharks season has, for the most part, been a successful one. While they struggled out of the gate alternating winning and losing streaks, they have slowly been rising. After taking 40 games to get their first five-goal game and generally struggling to score, things have improved recently. They’re 8-1-1 in their last 10 and are starting to find the net. Martin Jones has looked solid most of the year with a .919 SV% while getting one of the heaviest workloads in the league. Brent Burns has emerged as an even bigger star than he was last year and is currently within four points of the league lead in points. Burns has a very real chance of becoming the only defenseman not named Bobby Orr to win the Art Ross Trophy.

Why They’re Contenders

Simply put they’re contenders because of their record. After some time with many different defensive pairings due to different defensemen going down with injuries, the blue line is finally healthy again. With a healthy blue line comes one the best defensive corps in the league; a blue line that allows the third fewest shots against per game. Add to that the return of Tomas Hertl from his multi-month absence due to a knee injury and the Sharks are fully healthy for the first time in months. They’ve managed to sit at or near the top while missing important players so the Sharks will hope to rise even further now that they’re healthy.

Second Half Outlook

Expect the Sharks to ride their current form into a secure playoff berth. They also still have a good shot at winning their division which would open up for many possible matchups in the first round of the playoffs. For the Sharks the only target is returning to the Stanley Cup Final and getting a different result than last year. With their depth on both offense and defense they look set for another deep run.

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