Fear The Fin's Pacific Division preview
With the 2013-14 regular season underway in just over an hour, we project the final Pacific Division standings and where the Sharks rank among them.
7. Calgary Flames
In: F T.J. Galiardi (trade, SJS), F David Jones (trade, COL), F Joe Colborne (trade, TOR), F Corban Knight (trade, FLA), D Shane O'Brien (trade, COL), D Kris Russell (trade, STL)
Out: F Alex Tanguay (trade, COL), F Roman Cervenka (UFA, Europe), D Cory Sarich (trade, COL), D Anton Babchuk (UFA, Europe), G Miikka Kiprusoff (retirement)
2013 finish: 19-25-4, 42 points, 13th in West
Projecting the NHL standings is always a bit of a crapshoot; no matter how certain you are of your picks, there are always going to be teams that either ride or are crushed by the percentages resulting in entirely unexpected finishes. So, with that in mind, I'm comfortable in saying the Calgary Flames are going to be terrible. There's really no conceivable way in which any amount of luck saves this season in Southern Alberta. They don't have a number one center, they don't have a number one defenseman and they don't have a number one goalie. And it isn't like they've made up for those deficiencies with depth, either, with Joe Colborne and Sean Monahan alternately penciled into the No. 2 center hole up front while Shane O'Brien and Kris Russell are slated to log top-four minutes on defense. Yikes.
Things are a mess in Calgary but at least this time it's sort of, kind of by design. At the very least, the organization has admitted they have a problem; the rebuild is underway and Brian Burke is now at the helm. They had a solid draft, adding Monahan and Morgan Klimchuk to a prospect cupboard which already features Sven Baertschi. And there are good pieces on the current roster; Mark Giordano is an effective two-way defenseman while Curtis Glencross, Matt Stajan and Lee Stempniak are all useful forwards if not first-liners. But the Flames' organizational objective is ostensibly to lose in order to win (a strategy that has worked out just great for the Oilers, Blue Jackets and Thrashers) and they're certainly set up to accomplish the first part of that goal this season.
6. Edmonton Oilers
In: F David Perron (trade, STL), F Boyd Gordon (UFA, PHX), F Jesse Joensuu (UFA, NYI), D Andrew Ference (UFA, BOS), D Anton Belov (UFA, Europe), D Denis Grebeshkov (UFA, Europe), D Philip Larsen (trade, DAL), G Jason LaBarbera (UFA, PHX)
Out: F Magnus Paajarvi (trade, STL), F Shawn Horcoff (trade, DAL), F Eric Belanger (buyout), D Ryan Whitney (UFA, FLA), G Nikolai Khabibulin (UFA, CHI)
2013 finish: 19-22-7, 45 points, 12th in West
Previewing the Sharks' second game of the shortened 2013 season, I wrote that the Oilers were "moving in the right direction, even if that's in spite of the work of their incompetent management staff than because of it." Since then, the organization has essentially cleaned house on that incompetent management staff, firing General Manager Steve Tambellini, hiring Craig MacTavish in his stead and replacing head coach Ralph Krueger with former Toronto Marlies bench boss Dallas Eakins. So have they moved even further in the right direction under MacTavish? To some extent, certainly. MacTavish was able to dispose of Horcoff's contract, replacing him with a younger, cheaper model in Boyd Gordon. He was forced to give Andrew Ference a few years too many but adding a defenseman who has logged top-four minutes on Stanley Cup finalists two of the past three springs shores up the Oilers' once-woeful defensive depth. As do the additions of Belov and Grebeshkov from the KHL and Philip Larsen in the Horcoff trade. The top end of their blueline remains unimpressive but at least Edmonton now has a glut of solid 4-7 options.
Of course, MacTavish's biggest moves came up front where he turned Magnus Paajarvi into young star David Perron and held on to skilled veteran winger Ales Hemsky, perhaps involuntarily. Unfortunately, injuries look to have rendered a lot of MacTavish's work irrelevant. Top two centers Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner begin the season on the shelf, which decimates the team's center depth; they'll start the year with an out-of-position Taylor Hall, Gordon, and AHLers Mark Arcobello and Will Acton down the middle. Those injuries and the aforementioned lack of a true first defense pairing likely puts a team that could have challenged for a wild card spot behind the eight-ball. There's still a lot to like about the Oilers; Hall might be the best left wing in the NHL right now, Nail Yakupov could easily explode with a breakout sophomore season and the likes of Perron, Hemsky, Jordan Eberle and (when healthy) Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner provide them with a great top six. But until they can supplement that with forward depth and high-end defensemen, it's hard to see them claiming a playoff berth. And with Edmonton having already blown through Hall and Eberle's entry-level contracts, and entering the final year of Nugent-Hopkins', the clock on building a contender is ticking.
5. Anaheim Ducks
In: F Jakob Silfverberg (trade, OTT), F Dustin Penner (UFA, LAK), F Mathieu Perreault (trade, WSH), D Mark Fistric (UFA, EDM)
Out: F Bobby Ryan (trade, OTT), D Toni Lydman (retirement)
2013 finish: 30-12-6, 66 points, 2nd in West
Every season, there's at least one team that catches lightning in a bottle and rides the percentages to greater success than anyone could have imagined. In last year's 48-game schedule, there were several but the most prominent example in the Western Conference was Anaheim. Despite finishing 20th in the league in even-strength shot differential with the score close, the Ducks won the Pacific Division and the West's 2nd seed before losing to Detroit in the first round. Some of that disconnect was due to their legitimately terrific power play, but a much larger portion was courtesy one of the highest even-strength shooting percentages in the conference and a 14-2-6 record in one-goal games. Neither of those things is a good bet to repeat itself and with two of Anaheim's top four defensemen gone (Sheldon Souray sustained a long-term wrist injury while Toni Lydman retired), it's possible the team's possession numbers actually decline. The Ducks also lost one of the best snipers in the NHL when they traded Bobby Ryan to Ottawa and the centerpiece of their return, Jakob Silfverberg, is slated to begin the year on the shelf.
But it isn't all doom and gloom in Southern California. Far and away the team's best move of the offseason came just two days ago when Bob Murray acquired center Mathieu Perreault from Washington while giving up nothing of value in return. Since he entered the league, only 43 forwards have scored more even-strength points per minute than the diminutive Perreault who could prove to be the first legitimate second-line center in Orange County since the Ducks traded Andy McDonald to St. Louis six years ago. Dustin Penner is back in Anaheim and while he reportedly hobbled through an unimpressive training camp, he and youngsters Kyle Palmieri and Emerson Etem could help fill the offensive void left by Ryan's departure. The Ducks also return one of the best third lines in hockey with Andrew Cogliano, Saku Koivu and Daniel Winnik back for another spin. Along with an above-average duo in net, there are certainly some positives in Anaheim and it wouldn't be shocking if they can claim a wild card spot but their disaster zone of a defense makes it unlikely.
4. Phoenix Coyotes
In: F Mike Ribeiro (UFA, WSH), F Brandon Yip (UFA, NSH), F Tim Kennedy (UFA, SJS), G Thomas Greiss (UFA, SJS)
Out: F Boyd Gordon (UFA, EDM), F Nick Johnson (UFA), G Jason LaBarbera (UFA, EDM), G Chad Johnson (UFA, BOS)
2013 finish: 21-18-9, 51 points, 10th in West
On the opposite end of the variance spectrum from Anaheim in 2013 was Phoenix who finished with one of the worst even-strength shooting percentages in the conference and posted a 8-6-9 record in one-goal games. They also couldn't buy a power play goal to save their lives. That last bit should theoretically be fixed by the addition of erstwhile Capitals center Mike Ribeiro, who should also provide some even-strength production and reignite Shane Doan to do the same. Ribeiro's arrival will likely move Martin Hanzal into more of a shutdown role, catering to his strengths, while Antoine Vermette and the perennially underrated Radim Vrbata hook up for secondary scoring duties.
While the Coyotes don't exactly boast a star-studded cast up front, they do on the blueline where Oliver Ekman-Larsson continues to develop into one of the finest two-way defensemen in the NHL while Keith Yandle remains an elite offensive catalyst from the back end. Zbynek Michalek can still log plenty of tough minutes effectively and David Rundblad is coming off a fantastic preseason and may finally start living up to his impressive potential this year. As much as I disliked the Mike Smith contract, he's an above-average starter. In typical Coyotes fashion, there might not be anything particularly eye-catching about this team (although I'd contend Ekman-Larsson qualifies) but they boast a deep forward corps, good goaltending and arguably the best blueline and best head coach in the division. Phoenix is two years removed from making it to the NHL's final four and, while I don't think they'll go that far this season, they should grab a wild card playoff spot.
3. Vancouver Canucks
In: F Brad Richardson (UFA, LAK), F Mike Santorelli (UFA, WPG), D Yannick Weber (UFA, MTL)
Out: F Derek Roy (UFA, STL), F Maxim Lapierre (UFA, STL), F Mason Raymond (UFA, TOR), F Andrew Ebbett (UFA, PIT), D Keith Ballard (buyout, MIN), D Cam Barker (UFA), G Cory Schneider (trade, NJD)
2013 finish: 26-15-7, 59 points, 3rd in West
After being embarrassed by the Sharks in a four-game, first-round sweep last spring the Canucks return with a relatively unchanged roster but a decidedly significant change behind the bench. Alain Vigneault is out, John Tortorella is in and while many believe Tortorella's purportedly rugged coaching style and abrasive demeanor is a poor fit for Vancouver, this is the same guy who led the "safe is death" Lightning to a Stanley Cup back in 2004. Furthermore, Torts' bench management habits last season with the Rangers suggest he's keyed in to the zone-matching strategies Vigneault employed to much success during his tenure in B.C. And even if he isn't bluffing about using the Sedin twins in penalty killing situations where they're more likely to have to block shots, I'm not sold that's a bad thing. More ice time for your best players usually yields positive results and it's not like the twins aren't creative enough to excel in any situation.
The real concern for the Canucks isn't their coach, it's their scoring depth; or, more accurately, lack thereof. Vancouver GM Mike Gillis has tried to construct a passable bottom six in the aftermath of Manny Malhotra's NHL career but simply hasn't been able to do it, the failed Derek Roy experiment included. Youngsters Zac Dalpe and Jordan Schroeder will be given every opportunity to take on that third-line center role but what if neither unproven player is up to the task? Ryan Kesler and David Booth's injuries have left Vancouver's second line in shambles in recent seasons and they'll need contributions from both players, who appear to finally be healthy, in order to avoid becoming a one-line team yet again. The outlook is brighter elsewhere. Vancouver returns a deep blueline headlined by Dan Hamhuis, Alexander Edler and Jason Garrison and featuring solid complementary pieces Kevin Bieksa, Chris Tanev and (potentially) Frank Corrado. Cory Schneider's trade to New Jersey once again leaves the crease in the capable glove of Roberto Luongo, who's a good bet to have a bounce-back season. No, these aren't the 2011 Canucks but rumors of their demise have been greatly exaggerated; they'll make the playoffs.
2. San Jose Sharks
In: F Tyler Kennedy (trade, PIT)
Out: F T.J. Galiardi (trade, CGY), F Scott Gomez (UFA, FLA), F Tim Kennedy (UFA, PHX), G Thomas Greiss (UFA, PHX)
2013 finish: 25-16-7, 57 points, 6th in West
If the Sharks can just figure out how to score goals at even-strength, they'll have as good a chance as any team to not only claim the Pacific Division crown but win the franchise's first Stanley Cup. The team enters the season with no other real glaring weakness; they boast one of the best (if not the best) power plays in the league, look to have fixed their penalty kill under Larry Robinson's tutelage, are the only NHL team with three first-line centers, remain one of the league's elite possession teams, feature a defense that isn't flashy but suppresses shots at a high level and have a starting goaltender coming off a MVP-caliber season. But their lack of even-strength scoring was awfully problematic last season as they finished the year with a negative 5v5 goal differential despite Antti Niemi's spectacular campaign. They also lit the lamp at even-strength just 14 times over 11 playoff games; another 5v5 goal here or there could have easily made the difference in their second round loss to L.A.
With Martin Havlat and Raffi Torres starting the season on the shelf, improving their five aside offense becomes even more of a dicey proposition for San Jose. They'll need newcomers Tyler Kennedy and Tomas Hertl to contribute at a high level immediately while Brent Burns needs to start this season where he left off last year. They could also use some help from their back end, where really only Dan Boyle has a history of production. When fully healthy, few teams can match up with the Sharks' forward depth but there's enough uncertainty in the meantime that it's safest to project a second-place regular season finish. But assuming young defenders Justin Braun, Matt Irwin and Jason Demers hold their own this season, a healthy San Jose club could be one to watch in the playoffs.
1. Los Angeles Kings
In: F Matt Frattin (trade, TOR), F Dan Carcillo (trade, CHI), G Ben Scrivens (trade, TOR)
Out: F Dustin Penner (UFA, ANA), F Brad Richardson (UFA, VAN), D Rob Scuderi (UFA, PIT), G Jonathan Bernier (trade, TOR)
2013 finish: 27-16-5, 59 points, 5th in West
There are certainly reasons to be skeptical of the Kings maintaining their dominance for another season. Extending Robyn Regehr was an unquestionably poor move; the over-the-hill defenseman was an anchor wrapped tightly around Drew Doughty's legs from the moment Dean Lombardi acquired him at the trade deadline and was easily the team's worst blueliner in the playoffs. The departures of Dustin Penner via free agency and Tyler Toffoli via a questionable demotion strip the Kings of even more forward depth, compounding last season's losses of Simon Gagne and Andrei Loktionov.
But the Kings do appear to be getting Willie Mitchell back, giving them an excellent top three alongside Doughty and Slava Voynov, and they still have both a core of premier forwards in Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams, Dustin Brown and Mike Richards as well as a great goaltender in Jonathan Quick. As much as they've lost some valuable pieces at the edges, the players who led the Kings to the 2012 Stanley Cup and fueled their historically dominant run of possession play over the past two seasons are still in Los Angeles, which means the Kings are still the class of the division. That could certainly change; if Quick's regular season resembles his last one, if Regehr continues to receive way too many minutes, if Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin ride the pine in favor of inferior defensemen, if Toffoli ends up spending the year in Manchester or if Dwight King ends up spending the year on the top line, the Kings would run the risk of yielding their crown. But for now, they probably deserve to be considered the prohibitive favorites.