Saturday, September 14, 2013

Pacific Division Thoughts

Lots of interesting storylines in this division, from potentially the last hoo-hah of Thornton, Marleau, and Boyle in San Jose, to seeing if Phoenix can rebound with Mike Ribeiro in the mix, Edmonton's experiment with saying they'll do things their fanbase loves (puck possession), seeing if Anaheim can become that decent puck possession team we've seen glimpses of each of the last two seasons, and, of course, John Tortorella versus Canadian media.

I vacillated a lot between Anaheim, Phoenix, and Edmonton—I can see a good case for any order there. I felt there was a lot of uncertainty with Vancouver. Other than that, I feel pretty good with my picks here...unless I missed something huge.

*Predicted playoff team

1. Los Angeles*

Lost: F Dustin Penner (UFA), G Jonathan Bernier (trade), D Rob Scuderi (trade)
Gained: F Matt Frattin (trade), G Ben Scrivens (trade), F Daniel Carcillo (trade), D Jeff Schultz (UFA)

Forwards: The Kings have some excellent forwards. Anze Kopitar is one of the top ten centers in the game and a perennial Selke candidate. Justin Williams is consistently a very productive player offensively, Dustin Brown could be worth more than a win based on penalty differential alone, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are both solid two-way forwards...the list goes on. There's some more youth lower in the lineup (Tyler Toffoli, Matt Frattin, and Trevor Lewis, for example, plus Linden Vey and Tanner Pearson in the AHL).

Defense: I think Drew Doughty is one of the top five defensemen in the game. Slava Voynov is working his way up. You could do worse than guys like Alec Martinez, Matt Greene, and Jake Muzzin as depth D. I don't like Robyn Regehr, but Doughty is good enough to overcome his partner's lack of puck-moving ability, and the Kings do have Derek Forbort to step up in case Regehr declines even more. This blueline looks weaker than it was two years ago, but not to the point of being a big weakness.

Goaltending: Jonathan Quick often gets mentioned in the same breath as Henrik Lundqvist, but his track record is a little thin—it's two below average seasons, two average or slightly above, and one terrific, plus two great and two unimpressive playoff runs. I don't think we can bank on elite netminding here just yet. Ben Scrivens looked like a good backup in Toronto, and maybe he can spell Quick from time to time; if not, no matter, since Quick can handle a heavy workload, and is average at worst.

tl;dr : only a little worse than the team that steamrolled its way to the Stanley Cup two years ago.

2. San Jose*

Lost: TJ Galiardi (trade), G Thomas Greiss (UFA)
Gained: F Tyler Kennedy (trade)

Forwards: It's a pretty strong group in San Jose. Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau can play toughs on one line, Joe Pavelski and Kennedy can handle the rest on another. Joe Thornton gets easier minutes with Brent Burns and, potentially, skilled rookie Tomas Hertl. The fourth line is weak, but the strength of the first three lines more than makes up for it.

Defense: Marc-Eduoard Vlasic and Justin Braun formed a very good shutdown pair last year. Dan Boyle is still decent enough. Scott Hannan and Brad Stuart might have made a good third pair three years ago, but not so much today. No wonder San Jose is built to cycle in the offensive zone.

Goaltending: Antti Niemi looks like one of the game's best netminders, and I don't see any reason to not expect a strong season again.

tl;dr : They've been good-to-great for a long time; no reason to expect that to suddenly change, unless they decide to trade Thornton, Marleau, and/or Boyle (all UFAs in 2014).

3. Vancouver*

Lost: HC Alain Vigneault
Gained: HC John Tortorella

Forwards: Ryan Kesler is a bit of question mark—he hasn't quite returned to his previous Selke-level form. If he does, though—and he hasn't lost his special teams prowess—Vancouver should be a good possession team with great percentages. They have two top-line (ish) forwards on the first and second lines, and plenty of speed in the bottom six. That being said, their PP may suffer since Tortorella, unlike Vigneault, isn't exactly a guy with a history of running great power plays.

Defense: No changes. Still have Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, Jason Garrison, and Alex Edler as a strong top-four. If young Chris Tanev takes another step forward, could be the best blueline in the league.

That is, if they mesh well with John Tortorella. If Torts brings his Tampa strategy, there shouldn't be much to worry about. But if he asks them to block shots and be passive defensively—when the team's strength is doing things with the puck, not without—there may be some issues.

Goaltending: Not having Schneider will hurt for the 20 games the backup has to play, but Eddie Lack has been really good in the minors, so he should be serviceable in the NHL. Roberto Luongo is likely still elite.

tl;dr : Lots of talent, should be good if they mesh well with coach.

4. Edmonton*

Lost: F Shawn Horcoff (trade), F Magnus Paajarvi (trade), HC Ralph Krueger
Gained: F Boyd Gordon (UFA), F David Perron (trade), D Anton Belov (UFA), G Jason LaBarbera (UFA), HC Dallas Eakins

Forwards: This group is quite good, when healthy. Taylor Hall is the best LW in the game, Jordan Eberle is a legit 1RW, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, when he's fully healthy, should be a competent 1C. After those three, Sam Gagner and David Perron are good second-line scorers, and Nail Yakupov is a threat to take a huge step forward and become one of the better wingers in the game in his own right. Linus Omark, Boyd Gordon, and Ales Hemsky should be fine third liners...after that, it gets ugly, but like with San Jose, the top three lines should be good enough—well, at least once RNH comes back.

Defense: Eakins and MacT have talked quite a bit about puck possession, but regaining the puck may be an issue. Jeff Petry and Ladislav Smid are good enough, but after them, there are plenty of question marks. GM Craig MacTavish seems to have gone with quantity over quality, with all of Edmonton's options possessing some upside but not being sure things yet. Andrew Ference is getting up there in years; Anton Belov still hasn't played a single game in the NHL; Justin Schultz still needs to develop more to be a good 5v5 option; Oscar Klefbom could make an impact right away, but as a young defenseman, he'll probably need some more time; Nick Schultz needs a reliable puck-moving partner, which the Oilers may not have outside of Petry. Definitely a big source of uncertainty for the Oilers.

Goaltending: Devan Dubnyk is a solid starting netminder, and Jason LaBarbera was a nice backup signing by MacTavish, posting pretty sound numbers in Phoenix (though the Dave Tippett/Sean Burke effect is likely a contributor there).

tl;dr : Lots of goals for and against. Might score enough to make playoffs.

5. Phoenix

Lost: F Boyd Gordon (UFA), G Jason LaBarbera (UFA)
Gained: F Mike Ribeiro (UFA)

Forwards: The Coyotes don't have any standouts up front, but there is a decent amount of depth. Martin Hanzal, David Moss, and Antoine Vermette are good two-way forwards, while Mike Ribeiro, Shane Doan, and Radim Vrbata add some scoring punch. Young Mikkel Boeddker could put it all together this year at last.

Defense: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Keith Yandle, Zbynek Michalek, Derek Morris, Rostislav Klesla, and potential star puck mover David Rundblad? Not bad at all.

Goaltending: Mike Smith was fabulous in 2011-12, but didn't exactly have a good track record before that. Sean Burke and Dave Tippett need to continue working their magic, or the Coyotes could begin bleeding goals in a hurry.

tl;dr : Dave Tippett can probably keep this team decent, but they'll only make the playoffs if their goaltending is good-to-great—and Mike Smith is by no means a guarantee to be good (or even healthy).

6. Anaheim

Lost: F Bobby Ryan (trade), D Toni Lydman (UFA, retirement), C Matthew Lombardi (UFA), C David Steckel (UFA)
Gained: F Dustin Penner (UFA), F Jakub Silfverberg (trade), D Mark Fistric (UFA)

Forwards: Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry can anchor a very good top line, and Teemu Selanne is still a good top-six player who can be a big part of your power play. After them, the Ducks will be banking on players like Devante Smith-Pelly, Emerson Etem, Silfverberg, Peter Holland, and Kyle Palmieri to develop quickly. Along with players like Saku Koivu, Daniel Winnik, and Andrew Cogliano, there's plenty of speed, but not too many, well, "good players." I don't think Bruce Boudreau is the type of coach to excel without good players.

Defense: Francois Beachemin was quite good last year, and Cam Fowler should make an outside push for the American Sochi team. The rest of the blueline is minimally competent, I guess, but ideally your minimally competent NHLers aren't forced to fill your second and third pairs...although if Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm can carry their strong AHL play over to the NHL, the Ducks could be in surprisingly good shape.

Goaltending: Viktor Fasth is more likely than not an average (or below) goaltender who just got hot to start his career (see here on James Reimer, who had a better start to his career than Fasth). But Jonas Hiller, is a top-15 goalie, likely top-10, so Anaheim should be fine.

tl;dr : Good goaltending and special teams. Need the kids to step up, because Getzlaf, Perry, Selanne, and Hiller can't carry the entire team (well, alright, maybe sometimes).

7. Calgary 

Lost: F Alex Tanguay
Gained: F David Jones, F TJ Galiardi

Forwards: lol. (Mike Cammalleri plus plenty of bottom-six or middle-six types, although Sven Baertschi and Sean Monahan could become stars.)

Defense: lol. (TJ Brodie is good, Mark Giordano and Dennis Wideman are competent, little else.)

Goaltending: lol.

tl;dr : It's hard to project Calgary finishing last in the conference—it's likely that another pretty bad team will get a dose of bad luck and end up passing the Flames—but if you had to bet on just one team, it's this one.

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