Lewis: Around the Pacific

Jason Lewis is the LA Kings Blogger at http://HockeyBuzz.com , and prospect writer at Hockey’s Future. Follow him on Twitter @SirJDL 

It is January in the NHL, and the Pacific division is as heated as ever. While there is a clear No. 1 team up top in the Anaheim Ducks, there is a group of teams behind them that are still fighting to move clear of the bottom six. Each and every one of these teams in the Pacific has some interesting storylines and happenings going on currently. Let’s take a look.

A Revitalized Vancouver…but Why?

Last season was a rude awakening for the Canucks franchise and fan base. They needed to improve and they needed to make changes. The Canucks skidded to a 36-35-11 record in 2013-14, their worst performance since 1999-00. With a coaching change, a general manager change, and the departure of two prominent figures in Ryan Kesler and Roberto Luongo, there was a lot of change to take in.

Vancouver has been better in the standings so far this season but is there any explanation as to why? Maybe it is the trio of the Sedins and Edler playing better. Actually numbers reflect that both Henrik and Daniel, amidst their struggles last season, were better possession players. The same can be said with Alex Edler. When you look at the roster as a whole, only 8 of their 18 eligible forwards are positive possession players this season versus 14 of their 20 last season. As a team they were 10th last season in corsi for, and this season they currently slot in at 22nd. Maybe it’s the addition of Ryan Miller. However, in 2013-14 they were also better in 5-on-5 save percentage (92.25 vs. 91.57) and had a better goals against at evens (2.19 vs. 2.44). Only goals for at evens is equivalent to last season (2.15 vs. 2.24).

What the Canucks have done, however, is improve their special teams play immensely. As of December 9, Vancouver is sitting on a power play that is 9th in the league. That is worlds better than the 26th ranked eyesore they had last year. To put that into a numbers perspective, the Canucks are scoring two extra goals every 60 minutes of 5-on-4 time this year versus last year. It may not seem like much, but it adds up. That little bump in the power play has seen their goals for average rise from 28th place to 11th. Also, the penalty kill has moved up from 9th to 3rd overall in the league in the matter of a year. Again, in a numbers perspective the Canucks are allowing one goal fewer over 60 minutes of short handed time versus last season. Whether or not the special teams are having that big of an impact on Vancouver seems unlikely. Nonetheless, the Canucks have allowed just three power play goals on their last 40 shorthanded situations dating back to December 2. They are also 7 for their last 36 on the power play which is hovering around the solid 20-percent mark. These numbers have helped balance out a goals against/for that was in the red last season.

Special teams are not everything, and they can be very situational. There are several other factors at hand with Vancouver. However, these special teams numbers are something to consider when looking at the overall scope of Vancouver’s perceived improvement from this year to last year.

Johnny Hockey

If you haven’t been catching any Calgary games and you have NHL Center Ice or GameCenter, then shame on you.

The Flames are enjoying an unexpected season of inspired play after what was predicted to be a stepping stone year in their rebuild process. With some more consistent goaltending behind them and career years from the likes of T. J. Brodie and Mark Giordano, Calgary is still in the conversation at the midway point. The possession stats tell a less inspired tale, as Calgary has the second worst corsi and fenwick for percentage in the league. Odds are they will not keep this pace.

However, it is a good story and every good story needs a leading man. Enter, Johnny Gaudreau who is currently taking center stage with the Flames. Along with Giordano and Brodie, Gaudreau has had a masterful 2014-15. The 5’9” firecracker is on pace to notch a 60+ point rookie season and touch near 30 goals. The collegiate standout had 14 points in 14 December games and is second in rookie scoring currently. You might look at his woeful 46.1% corsi and temper your expectations though, considering that is 259th out of 312 eligible forwards with at least 300 minutes played this year. Also note that his PDO is inside the top 40 at 103.1. While these are not recipes for long-term sustainability, Gaudreau is a joy to watch. He is as shifty and slick a goalscorer in the NHL as he was with Boston College, and it makes it all the better that he is just 5’9” and listed at 150 pounds. The numbers behind Gaudreau do not look all that promising for the long term, and as he cools down the stretch you should expect the Flames to do so as well. For now though, enjoy the ride of this 21-year old while he is still hot. Calgary certainly is.

Darryl Sutter, All-Star Coach

Word broke from Columbus Dispatch reporter Aaron Portzline this week that Darryl Sutter and his assistants had been asked by the NHL to coach one of the two All-Star teams that would square off in Columbus later this month. And it appears now that the 56-year old will answer the call along with Nashville coach Peter Laviolette.

While Sutter, Stevens, and Davis Payne kept pretty tight lipped on the subject, it is definitely a nice gesture by the NHL. Sutter has been a revolutionary addition to the LA Kings on and off-ice mentality, and it is only fitting that he would be asked to participate.

It would not have been all that surprising had the low-key man from Viking said no, though. The Kings bench boss plays his cards notoriously tight to the vest with the media and with being center stage. His team is currently entrenched in a wild card slugfest right now with a pivotal January month in front of them. The thought of Sutter behind the bench of an All-star game is a pretty enjoyable thing to imagine. Will it be a 3-2 game?

Walking Wounded

Corey Perry returned to action with the Ducks at the end of December after a near month long battle with a knee injury. Prior to that, the Anaheim sniper dealt with a case of the mumps.

It has been that kind of season for the Ducks though. As of January 8 the Ducks had lost 241 reported man games to injury. That is second only to Columbus, and over 100 games clear of the next Pacific division team. In fact, the rest of the division combined has lost 429 games. Six team, 429 games. One team, 241 games. Pretty astounding that the Ducks still remain where they are in the standings. While some of the injuries have come to more peripheral players, none have been more difficult to endure than the loss of Corey Perry. However, the emergence of Matt Beleskey as the team leading goal scorer has helped soften the blow. Beleskey, 26, is on pace for a 30+ goal season and is currently 10th overall in goals in the NHL with 17. While Beleskey’s PDO and shooting percentage seem to be a bit on the obscene side, the Ducks have made a name for themselves as a team that can sustain the unsustainable during the regular season. Even if his numbers slide even the slightest, he is still looking at a career year.

The team is 5-4-1 in their last 10 but have built up a large enough cushion that any regression they may endure could be offset by their great first half. If they keep getting solid contributions from depth players, and can get Corey Perry back into full form, the Ducks may be sniffing at a Presidents’ Trophy yet again.

Sharks Bottom-Six

If you thought your team was fielding a questionable bottom-six, it might be worth while to remember just what the Sharks have been lining up with lately.

Melker Karlsson/Barclay Goodrow – James Sheppard – Matt Nieto
John Scott – Andrew Desjardins – Tye McGinn

While rookie Melker Karlsson has been hot to start the month of January, the Sharks are going likely going to need some adjustments in their bottom six if they want to remain competitive with other divisional opponents. With Joe Thornton being out it definitely does hurt the overall depth, however, is San Jose really confident going into a seven game series against either Los Angeles or Anaheim fielding any of those bottom line combinations? Perhaps this is an issue that the Sharks address at the deadline, but for now they are fielding some questionable players on the third and fourth lines.

Chart courtesy of War-On-Ice.com

As you can see, with the X-axis representing Fenwick against over 60, and the Y-Axis representing Fenwick for over 60, only Matt Nieto stands out as a player in the positive end of the spectrum currently. The Kings and Ducks bottom line regulars are also included for sake of comparison. It is important to remember that these lines are not set in stone, and Todd McClellan has recently seen it fit to bounce both Goodrow and Karlsson up and down the lineup to spread the wealth. That has left players like Tomas Hertl and Nieto in a more checking oriented role. Also, Thornton being in will push the center group around to allow for more depth. Nonetheless, the question remains if the Sharks are comfortable with their bottom six matching up in a series against the Kings or Ducks? Bottom line scoring and play was a theme throughout the Kings-Sharks series last postseason, and to prevent a repeat of that series the Sharks may need to bolster the ranks.

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