Will the Pacific Be The Best Division in the West Next Season?

The Kings and Sharks will be two of the best teams in the NHL next season, but how will the rest of the Pacific fare?

Last season the Pacific Division put an astounding four teams into the playoffs, the only division to do so in 2010-2011. The lone team that failed to crack the top eight was the Dallas Stars, who lost to the Minnesota Wild on the final day of the season. If Dallas would have won that final game the Pacific would have had every single team in the postseason for the first time in Division history.

Although the Pacific Division hasn't traditionally gotten the publicity of of the Central Division (or any Division in the Eastern Conference), it has been the best division in the Western Conference for two years running. Four teams made the postseason last year, and in 2009-2010, three teams finished in the top eight as well.

This dominance of the Western Conference can be illustrated by a metric other than straight playoff appearances however. By looking at the Pacific's record against other divisions we can see where wins and losses are coming from and attempt to control for any inter-division point splitting that can punish a team's playoff chances when playing in a difficult division with better opponents. This is probably the best way to see the "strength" of a division, as it rewards teams for being competitive even if they do not finish in the top eight.


2010-2011 Record vs. Non-Division Opponents

Division GP vs. Central
vs. Northwest
vs. Pacific
Overall
Points
Pts/GP
Pacific 200
56-38-6
63-24-13
-
119-62-19
257
1.29
Central
200
-
50-37-13
44-45-11
94-82-24
212
1.06
Northwest
200 50-38-12
-
37-49-14
87-87-26
200
1.00

That was the story in 2009-2010 as well, with the Pacific finishing with a winning record against both the Central and Northwest Conference. The Central, following a year where they sent four teams to the postseason, fared much better than they did in 2010-2011, but the Northwest Division performed even worse despite sending a team besides the Canucks to the postseason.


2009-2010 Record vs. Non-Division Opponents

Division GP vs. Central
vs. Northwest
vs. Pacific
Overall
Points
Pts/GP
Pacific 200
51-36-13
59-29-12
-
110-65-25
245
1.23
Central
200
-
57-33-10
49-38-13
106-71-23
235
1.18
Northwest
200 43-49-8
-
41-48-11
84-97-19
187
0.94

With a new season upcoming however, the Pacific Division's two-year run of superiority in the West might be coming to an end. The Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks will be Stanley Cup contenders right out of the gate due to their impressive offseasons, and by season's end both should finish as top five teams in the NHL. Outside of those two teams however, there are some serious question marks surrounding Anaheim, Dallas, and Phoenix.

The Anaheim Ducks boast a fearsome top line of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Bobby Ryan, but their scoring depth should be a point of concern yet again. The blueline is a unit that has some excellent players in Lubomir Visnovsky and the up and coming Cam Fowler, but after that the talent level takes a dive into middling territory. The biggest keys for them next season will be the return of Teemu Selanne and Jonas Hiller. Selanne seems to be optimistic about a return this season, and Jonas Hiller is saying he is good to go as well-- if both can stay healthy the Ducks should stay competitive, but with all the career years Anaheim had last season (Perry, Visnovsky, Selanne's 80 point season at the age of 40) things are going to have to break just right yet again for them to comfortably make the postseason.

The Dallas Stars' young cast of players should exciting to watch next year, with Loui Eriksson, Jamie Benn, and Alex Goligoski all developing into exciting offensive weapons, but the loss of Brad Richards stings immensely up front. Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribiero are two strong veterans who should have quality seasons, with Steve Ott and Adam Burish helping to chip in on the gritty side of the game. The blueline is where the biggest questions remain, because outside of the supremely underrated Stephane Robidas, there isn't much in the way of good two-way players. Kari Lehtonen's health is always an issue for him, but last season he was excellent in keeping the puck out of the net at even strength. The addition of Vernon Fiddler, Sheldon Souray, and Michael Ryder round out a good offseason for a team dealing with an internal cap-- all these players are on the low-risk high-reward side of the ledger, with Souray being the biggest question mark of them all.

Phoenix is probably the biggest loser of all the Pacific Division teams with the loss of Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryzgalov was the face of the franchise in my eyes, and while it's unfair to say that he was the sole reason they finished 4th and 5th in the West during the last two seasons, subtracting your Team MVP and replacing him with Mike Smith isn't exactly a recipe for success. The blueline has never been a team strength, something that Bryzgalov was able to hide, and the lack of any noteworthy free agent acquisition in this area should hurt them as well. On paper Phoenix looks like one of the worst teams in the Western Conference, with their only saving grace being the masterful Dave Tippet who has already taken two rag-tag Coyotes teams and put them into the postseason. Although Tippet's ability to get his team to play above their skill level shouldn't be questioned, I think this is the year where his personnel becomes too much to overcome.

Star-divide

With the Ducks, Stars, and Coyotes all possessing some noteworthy question marks going into next season, I think the Central Division is in the best position to overtake the Pacific as the best Division in the West. The Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues took some good steps forward with their offseason acquisitions and should be much more difficult to play against even if they do not end up making the playoffs. The Chicago Blackhawks took a similar approach to the Blues, picking up veteran players on one year deals to support their already impressive core-- Corey Crawford looked like the real deal last year, and while I don't think he will be as good as he was against Vancouver during the postseason, his season as a whole was very strong. Detroit is getting older but will stay competitive, even if Ian White doesn't fill the shoes of Brian Rafalski-- Nashville took a step back, but Barry Trotz always gets the most out of his players and will keep them in the playoff hunt all season long.

The Northwest has one great team (Vancouver) and two that will be really fun to watch even if they aren't very good (Minnesota, Edmonton), but they just don't have the top to bottom strength that the Central and Pacific do. It wouldn't be a surprise to see only Vancouver make the playoffs for the second straight season.

To me it comes down to the Central and the Pacific fighting all year long as the best division in the Conference-- who do you see coming out on top?

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