Jason Lewis covers the Pacific Division for Hockey Prospectus
With the new season right around the corner, it is time to delve into some division previews. Since joining with a few of the teams from the now defunct Northwest division, the overall quality of the Pacific division has taken a tumble. Especially when you compare it to a few years ago when the Kings, the Sharks, the Ducks, and even the Arizona Coyotes (Then Phoenix) were making regular playoff appearances. The division has come a long way since those days, and with the overpowering Central, the star studded Metropolitan, and the youthful and burgeoning Atlantic, the Pacific division may be the weakest in the NHL.
Overall they held their own in head to head match-ups with the Central. They also fared pretty well against the Atlantic division. Only the Metropolitan opponents were of some difficulty to the big bad Pacific teams. It really was a division that beat up on itself for the most part throughout the year. They may not be the powerhouse division of a few years ago, but the Pacific road trips are still incredibly difficult swings that can often derail the winning ways of visiting teams. They are going to have a couple of pretty good teams this season, but also a few clubs on the downslide. Let’s go through them, bottom up, and preview each team of the Pacific Division this year. Do not expect a clear definitive favorite for the division this year, it is a pick ‘em, a three horse race, and a toss up as to who gets the Y by their name come April.
2014-15 Point Total: 56 (29th)
Key Stats (2014-15)
Goals For: 170 (29th)
Goals Against: 272 (28th)
Powerplay: 20% (7th)
Penalty Kill: 76.7% (29th)
Even Strength Stats
Shots For Percentage 47.6 (24th)
Save Percentage: 91.5% (26th)
Corsi For Percentage: 48.6 (22nd)
Scoring Chance for/against per 60: 25.2/28.4 (21st/25th)
Key Players: C Martin Hanzal, W Mikkel Boedker, D Oliver Ekmann-Larsson, D Michael Stone
The Arizona Coyotes are going to be bad. There is no way around it. The roster has far too many holes and not enough stucco in the world to fill them. Just looking at the summary of poor statistics last season, it is hard to believe that any moves made this offseason even come close to correcting what was an atrocious 2014-15. Yes, they get Antoine Vermette back, yes they will get Zbynek Michalek back. However, it is a patch job at best. With a roster full of players aging out of their prime and starting to look exceptionally average to poor (Looking right at you Mr. Shane Doan), they have gone the right way and accepted a total rebuild. They still have a fairly young core of players like Boedker, Hanzal, Michael Stone and OEL, to build around, and the pipeline is absolutely loaded with talent. It is possible we could see some of these young guns like Anthony Duclair, Max Domi, or Brenden Perlini as early as opening night of 2015-16. A full season of health from Hanzal and Boedker will also be a nice boost to the team, as they were without the services of two of their best players for long stretches of the season.
Still, even with the admirable amount of young talent, the Coyotes have a lot of work to do. Defensively they were one of the worst teams outside of the Sabres last year, and their goaltending is an absolute debacle. Mike Smith, the same Mike Smith that had one of the highest GVTs and was fourth in Vezina voting in 2011-12, was a smoldering train wreck behind a tissue paper thin defensive team. He has been nothing short of below average since his one off .930 save percentage 2011-12, and projections are not good for he or the Coyotes defense moving forward. Offensively they may be a bit more of a threat this season with some youthful enthusiasm and healthy producers, but our VUKOTA projections here at Hockey Prospectus have them mopping up No. 30 in all of your major categories. Shane Doan has been on a steady decline, and several other forwards on the roster like Chipchura, Vitale, Rieder, and Craig Cunningham, simply do not look an offensive threat or are barely above replacement level players. They may not finish last, but it is not going to be a pretty season for the desert dogs. They simply did not change the roster enough from last season to believe otherwise. At they turn the reins over to the youth, w may get a glimpse of the future they have in store. For now though it is simply not enough. As Harvey Dent said in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, “The night is always darkest before the dawn.” Right now there is a full moon over Phoenix.
Predicted Division finish: 7th
VUKOTA Projection: 76 points, (30th)
2014-15 Point Total: 101 (8th)
Key Stats (2014-15)
Goals For: 242 (t-6th)
Goals Against: 222 (17th)
Powerplay: 19.3 (9th)
Penalty Kill: 85.7 (2nd)
Even Strength Stats
Shots For Percentage: 50.4 (17th)
Save Percentage: 91.7 (25th)
Corsi For Percentage: 49.5 (19th)
Scoring Chances for/against per 60: 25.5/27.3 (20th/22nd)
Key Players: C Henrik Sedin, W Daniel Sedin, W Radim Vrbata, D Dan Hamhuis, D Chris Tanev
When you have two world class players like the Sedins, you always have hope. However, it is going to be another season where the duo of Henrik and Daniel do not have a whole lot around them aside from an equally aging core. The Sedins will be 35, which is an outstanding shelf life for an NHL player that is still producing at a top 50 rate, which they did in 2014-15. However, the Sedin twins along with Radim Vrbata, cannot single handedly hold up the operation by themselves.
The Canucks are a relic of a once very strong team. Dan Hamhuis, Alex Burrows, the Sedins, and until recently Kevin Bieksa, Ryan Kesler, and Roberto Luongo were all members of the team that came oh so close to a Stanley Cup back in 2011. While Vancouver has held on to many of these players, and added nice pieces like Chris Higgins and Radim Vrbata, they have gone from a great team to an altogether average team. As a whole they ranked in just about the middle of everything last year outside of special teams. Worst part about that fact is that everything is average and trending in the wrong direction. They are simply declining in a lot of major categories
An aging team that is on the decline does not instill a ton of confidence moving forward. The Canucks bring a swagger though that cannot be discounted. Pundits wrote them off last season for almost the exact same reasons we are counting them out for here. Vrbata may very well continue to be productive alongside the Sedins. Alex Burrows, Brandon Sutter, Chris Higgins, and Jannik Hansen may continue to be serviceable secondary players. Heck, if they get some inspired goaltending from Miller and Markstrom they could be in the thick of things until late February and beyond. From a statistical perspective and a logical perspective, you have to adhere to Occam’s Razor and the Law of Parsimony when it comes to the Canucks: Among competing hypothesis of prediction, the one with fewest assumptions should be selected. It would be assuming far too much for the Canucks to surprise again and make the playoffs in a highly competitive Western Conference. To do so you would have to assume that the entire roster plays better than they did last season, while other teams fall off. Seems unlikely all things considered.
Predicted Division Finish: 6th
VUKOTA Projection: 88 points (23rd)
2014-15 Point Total: 62 (28th)
Key Stats (2014-15)
Goals For: 198 (26th)
Goals Against: 283 (30th)
Powerplay: 17.7 (19th)
Penalty Kill: 76.7 (t-29th)
Even Strength Stats
Shots For Percentage: 47.9 (23rd)
Save Percentage: 90.2 (30th)
Corsi For Percentage: 48.1 (24th)
Scoring Chances for/against per 60: 24.6/29.0 (24th/26th)
Key Players: F Connor McDavid, F Taylor Hall, F Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, F Jordan Eberle, G Cam Talbot, D Oskar Klefbom
The Oilers SHOULD be better, but it feels like we have been saying this for a while now. Last year set the stage for a similar story, only to have them back in the mix for No. 1 overall. A new season commences, and a new hype comes up with the Edmonton Oilers. They have made some changes, some good changes, but is it enough? Coming on board are Cam Talbot and Andrej Sekera. Theoretically these are to help balance out a shaky defensive core and a pretty questionable goaltending tandem of Viktor Fasth and Ben Scrivens, both of which finished near the bottom of the league in adjusted save percentage. Beyond Sekera though, the defense still has a lot of questions, and like most of the roster the Oilers are hoping for a boon from youth. A step forward from all of the youngsters, like Hall, Klefbom, McDavid, RNH, Nurse, and newly acquired Griffin Reinhart, would go a long way in improving the prospects of the Oilers. Oh, and how could you forget Nail Yakupov or Justin Schultz? The Oilers are practically bursting at the seams with once highly touted players barely keeping their heads above water. It seems everyone is just waiting for them to finally get their feet underneath them and move forward.
With the Oilers it seems fairly simple: Improve defensively and in goal and the rest should come around. They have too many skilled offensive players to finish near the bottom of the league in goals for again. However, it all starts in the backend. They were a possession team that flirted closer to 50% corsi for last year (48.1), but were ultimately undone by an even strength on-ice save percentage of 90.2 (30th), and although slightly moving upward from previous years, a scoring chances against and shots against rank that put them in the bottom ten (26th and 21st respectively).
They are going to again be leaning on youth, but some key additions makes them slightly better. Given the outstanding competition the face from the Central division teams in achieving a wild card spot it is hard to imagine they will be a playoff team. They will probably be in it a bit longer this year, and may even finish ahead of a few teams! I think all that can be reasonably expected out of the Oilers this year is an overall improvement from the core pieces. If they do not get at least that, it might be time to cut bait on many of these assets. This will be a big year for Edmonton one way or another. Just do not expect playoffs. They still have too many holes and developing players.
Predicted Division Finish: 5th
VUKOTA Projection: 87 points (25th)
2014-15 Point Total: 97 (16th)
Key Stats (2014-15)
Goals For: 241 (8th)
Goals Against: 216 (14th)
Powerplay: 18.8 (13th)
Penalty Kill: 80.6 (20th)
Even Strength Stats
Shots For Percentage: 46.2 (27th)
Save Percentage: 92.2 (18th)
Corsi For Percentage: 44.4 (28th)
Scoring Chances for/against per 60: 24.0/29.4 (26th/26th)
Key Players: D Mark Giordano, F Sean Monahan, F, Jonny Gaudreau, D T.J. Brodie, D Dougie Hamilton, F Jiri Hudler
Take a moment and look at that stat pack. Is this a team that looked like a playoff caliber team? One that made to the second round no less? That is the reality of the 2014-15 Calgary Flames. They were a total stat beating team. Despite going against most, if not all major metrics of prediction, the Flames put together an inspired run that saw them jump back into the postseason.
While there is no one thing you can point to that overwhelmingly tells how they made the playoffs, you can look at their record against the West and in one goal games to get a small picture of it. The Calgary Flames, surprisingly, held one of the best records in the West when it came to playing other Western Conference teams. At 31-16-3, only Anaheim at 31-16-3 and St. Louis at 30-16-4 had better within the conference records. Furthermore, the Flames went 22-6-1 against the Pacific Division. That was the best of any team in the division, including better than the conference winning Ducks. Calgary simply got up for the big games it seems. Credit Bob Hartley for whatever he did to produce this sort of mentality. Calgary also went 10-20-4 when trailing after two periods, which was one of the best point percentages for any team training after two in the league. A third period goal differential of +34 was matched only by Tampa Bay. Their team shooting percentage was also second only to Tampa Bay.
In General, there are a lot of reasons to think that Calgary is a prime team for regression. However, they went out and acquired two big pieces in the offseason in Michael Frolik and Dougie Hamilton to help adjust some of their more troubling stats. Both are solid possession players and should have a major impact. Setbacks not withstanding, they should also get improved years form youngsters like Gaudreau, Monahan, Colborne, Jooris, Bouma, and the feisty Michael Ferland. A full year of Mark Giordano will also help. For these reasons it looks like Calgary is on the upswing. The goaltending is still at question, but neither Hiller nor Ramo were particularly outstanding but they somehow managed. Are they a lock for the playoffs? Not entirely, but they will be a better all-around team than last season.
Predicted Division Finish: 4th
VUKOTA Projection: 97 points (4th)
San Jose Sharks
2014-15 Point Total: 89 (22nd)
Key Stats (2014-15)
Goals For: 228 (17th)
Goals Against: 232 (23rd)
Powerplay: 21.6 (6th)
Penalty Kill: 78.5 (25th)
Even Strength Stats
Shots For Percentage: 50.4 (18th)
Save Percentage: 92.0 (21st)
Corsi For Percentage: 51.3 (14th)
Scoring Chances for/against per 60: 27.6/26.5 (5th/21st)
Key Players: F Joe Thornton, F Joe Pavelski, F Patrick Marleau, D Marc-Edouard Vlasic, D/F Brent Burns, F Logan Couture
The San Jose Sharks will not be that bad. Bottom line. The lingering mental effects of the catastrophic bailing out of the 2014-15 postseason hunt are still well felt throughout the fanbase. However, in general, the San Jose Sharks are still a pretty good hockey club with a deep roster and a lot of world class talent. Yes, it was an altogether bad finish for San Jose, but there was actually very little in it that was responsible outside of some very minor details and key failings. Down the stretch last season, the Sharks went from an 80% chance of making the playoffs in early February to a 20% chance in March. They compiled a disappointing 13-16-3 record in the final 32 games of the season. Some of those losses, well, actually almost all of those losses came to very key opponents. They lost six games to divisional opponents (Calgary 2, LA, Ari, Van, Edm), and a few others to teams hovering around them in the standings like Winnipeg and Dallas.
The Penalty kill was also a big sore spot down the stretch. They gave up a total of 48 powerplay goals last season, and exactly half of those (24) came in the final 32 games of the season. Even more damning, 15 of them came in one goal games. Not being able to kill penalties at key times destroyed them. Somewhat like the Kings, a goal here and there really spelled the end for San Jose. The Sharks are hopeful that new coach Peter DeBoer can help turn around some of those defensive issues. In his last three seasons coaching New Jersey, DeBoer’s teams ranked 21st, 1st, and 16th in penalty killing. It should be noted that the Devils arguably had much weaker personnel than the Sharks had.
With all that in mind, those are easily correctible deficiencies. When you talk about the core of the Sharks, you are still talking about one of the better groups of players in the NHL. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Logan Couture, and Brent Burns are all talented players, and the youthful pieces of Tomas Hertl, Mirco Mueller, Melker Karlsson, and Matt Nieto also stand out. There has been almost no roster turnover for the Sharks, aside from bringing in Paul Martin and Joel Ward. Both players should help them overall. While a lot of pundits are circling goaltending as a key factor in the Sharks season, it should not be forgotten how much Niemi struggled. Of the 29 most regular starters in the NHL, Niemi’s .919 adjusted save percentage ranked 21st. Neither Martin Jones nor Alex Stalock have a lot of slack to make up. Niemi had poor numbers last season, and the Sharks still only missed the playoffs by a hair. Even if they get subpar goaltending from their tandem, they still should presumably be able to match what Niemi posted last season. If there was one toxic set of numbers it is definitely the scoring chances allowed (21st in the league), coupled with the 21st worst on-ice save percentage. They Sharks had a few skewed stats like that, usually heavy on the offensive side but weak on the goaltending and defensive side.
All things considered, they should not be brushed off yet. They have an aging core of world class players who will eventually decline. However, there is probably another good year left in them at the least. They will be in the playoff conversation in 2015-16.
Predicted Division finish: 1C
VUKOTA Projection: 98 points (2nd)
Los Angeles Kings
2014-15 Point Total: 95 (18th)
Key Stats (2014-15)
Goals For: 220 (20th)
Goals Against: 205 (7th)
Powerplay: 19.0% (11th)
Penalty Kill: 80.9 (16th)
Even Strength Stats
Shots For Percentage: 54.5 (1st)
Save Percentage: 92.6 (9th)
Corsi For Percentage: 55.3 (1st)
Scoring Chances for/against per 60: 26.6/23.5 (12th/3rd)
Key Players: F Anze Kopitar, F Jeff Carter, G Jonathan Quick, D Drew Doughty, D Jake Muzzin, F Tyler Toffoli, F Marian Gaborik
In a random and somewhat unpredictable fashion, the Los Angeles Kings missed the playoffs last season. While that, in and of itself, seems like a terrible thing that needs immediate fixing, the Kings did not miss in a manner that sounded alarms or warranted overreaction. When the dust all settled it was pretty clear why the Kings missed the postseason: Shootouts, one-goal games, and a few statistical downturns from key players. It was not by any massive failing of their own, as the Kings were still outstanding in a number of key defensive and offensive categories. They were a top five possession team, with several of the top possession players as well like Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli, Marian Gaborik, and Anze Kopitar. Defensively, Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin continue to be a force to be reckoned with in terms of possession and puck moving. Jonathan Quick also remains one of the NHL’s finest goaltenders when he is on his game. As we saw last year, by his disastrous middle third of the season, his play can have a massive impact on where the Kings go.
Be that as it may, amidst all the perceived struggles, inconsistent game-to-game and month-to-month efforts, the Kings missed by a few shootout goals and overtime results in the end. They went a whopping 2-8 in shootouts, and lost the second most games in overtime this season at 15. If as little as two or three of those games went in the win column instead of the loss, we would be talking about a playoff team.
With an extended summer, a few key pick-ups in Christian Ehrhoff and Milan Lucic, and some serious self-reflecting by players like Brown and Kopitar, the Kings should be right back in the thick of things. We will certainly have to see how much the extended break helps the Kings, as several players were able to work on deficiencies in their game rather than heal bumps and bruises and soak in a summer with Stanley. Dustin Brown made a commitment to fitness, as did roster hopeful Andy Andreoff. Doughty and Muzzin worked in Canada this off-season on getting pucks on net rather than blocked, something the duo were extremely poor at. Altogether, we will see if the long offseason was all talk or actual pay off.
While replacing the loss of Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards, Slava Voynov, Justin Williams, and Robyn Regehr, may seem like a tall order, but four of those five players were beyond prime and on the decline. Justin Williams remained effective, but he, too, was starting to drift downwards. The Kings acquired Christian Ehrhoff to shore up the second pair and lay off Doughty’s absurdly high minutes per game. Elsewhere, the Kings acquired Milan Lucic in order to give the first line a little more cohesion and production. One big question mark this season will be surrounding the production of Milan Lucic. On paper it looks like a great fit on the top line, but paper is not always precise.
Predicted Division Finish: 1B
VUKOTA Projection: 96 points (8th)
2014-15 Point Total: 109 (3rd)
Key Stats (2014-15)
Goals For: 236 (10th)
Goals Against: 226 (19th)
Powerplay: 15.7 (28th)
Penalty Kill: 81.0 (15th)
Even Strength Stats
Shots For Percentage: 50.8 (14th)
Save Percentage: 91.9 (21st)
Corsi For Percentage: 51.2 (16th)
Scoring Chances for/against per 60: 25.6/23.5 (18th/5th)
Key Players: F Ryan Getzlaf, F Corey Perry, D Hampus Lindholm, D Sami Vatanen, F Ryan Kesler, F Jakob Silfverberg
At this point, how do you bet against the Ducks in winning the division and being another solid regular season team? Despite having some less than desirable advanced metrics, the Ducks year after year have got it done in the regular season. You could argue that they were simply one game away from having a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup the last two years as well (Game 7 losses to Chicago and Los Angeles). Much like Vancouver and the Sedins, the Ducks boast one of the most, if not the most, elite tandem in the NHL: Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. As long as the Ducks have those two, things seem to be just fine. In fact, over the last three seasons the Ducks have held a fantastic Fenwick For Close percentage of 56.7% when they are on the ice. When they are not on the ice? 45.5%. They truly are the straws that stir the drink for Anaheim. While they are both aging, and both getting further past their prime years, there does not seem to be any reason to believe a slowdown is imminent from either. When that happens the Ducks are surely going to have to re-evaluate things. For now it seems alright. What has also helped is the development of players like Sami Vatanen, Jakob Silfverberg, Patrick Maroon, and Rickard Rakell. Losing Matt Beleskey and Kyle Palmieri could put a damper on some depth scoring.
They were an unsettled roster, which furthers the mystique of how they finishes so strongly. They rarely had a set bottom six, and they rarely had any set defensive pairs on the bottom third. They dressed a whopping 40 players last season for at least one game. That was amongst the most of any NHL team. What should help them this year is the crop fresh young talent in San Diego. Top end prospects Shea Theodore, Nick Ritchie, Brandon Montour, and Nic Kerdiles are all going to be a short hour and a half drive away for 2015-16. Do not be surprised to see them make an impact. Goaltending is still an extremely unsettled position as well, as Freddie Andersen and John Gibson are now joined by Anton Khudobin and Matt Hackett. The writing on the wall is there for everyone except Gibson, who recently signed an extension. Expect a platoon scenario again this year unless Gibson finally steps in to take the reins.
It is hard to see them as an outright contender for a cup, or a contender for the division title. It actually might be closer than a lot of people thing. Los Angeles and San Jose have more stable rosters that could go toe-to-toe with Anaheim, however The Ducks always have had the consistency and elite goalscoring tandem that thwarts the aforementioned teams. Boudreau, if anything, has brought consistency to the Anaheim efforts. They again flourished in one goal games (33-1-7), went 36-5-6 when scoring first, and won the most games in the league when trailing after two periods (12). Much like Calgary, there is a mental fortitude and approach that Anaheim has during the regular season that cannot be underestimated. They have some ugly-ish fancy stats, but they have beat them year after year. The roster turnover is not much, and the influx of youngsters should be enough to keep them competing for a good playoff spot in the West. It will be closer than year’s past, but advantage Anaheim pending any major setbacks or 2015-16 Small Pox outbreaks in the locker room.
Predicted Division Finish: 1A
VUKOTA Projection: 94 (13th)