Rat Trick Predicts: Pacific Division Preview


Jan 29, 2015; San Jose, CA, USA; Anaheim Ducks center Rickard Rakell (67) and San Jose Sharks defenseman Matt Irwin (52) scramble for the puck during the third period in front of the Sharks goal at SAP Center at San Jose. Sharks won 6 to 3. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like every website is doing a season preview these days, so we here at The Rat Trick might as well do one too.  Working from west to east, let’s start with the Pacific Division preview:

May 30, 2015; Anaheim, CA, USA; Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler (17) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Chicago Blackhawks in the second period in game seven of the Western Conference Final of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

1. ANAHEIM DUCKS – The Ducks were one game away from a date with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Finals last year.  But true to the (perhaps unfair) tradition of a Bruce Boudreau-coached team, Anaheim couldn’t pull off the big series win.  They surrendered five goals each in Games 6 and 7 to the Chicago Blackhawks, ending a fantastic season on a truly sour note.

The Ducks want to maintain their spot as one of the best franchises in the Western Conference, instead of playing second fiddle to the Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings.  They’re in a great position this season to challenge for the Presidents’ Trophy and win the Cup if they can finally get the big win that seems to avoid Boudreau at all costs.

Anaheim is simply stacked on its top line, as Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry can dominate in either zone.  Having Ryan Kesler as a 2nd line center is a nice luxury to have as well, especially when young players like Jakob Silfverberg and Richard Rakell are sure to help out with scoring.  Even the defensemen can get in on the scoring act, as Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, and Hampus Lindholm all have an offensive edge to their games on the blue line.  Suffice it to say, the Ducks can put up 5 goals in a game against any team in the NHL.

A solid goaltending pairing of Frederik Andersen and Anton Khubodin should hopefully keep the Ducks from sweating through any barn-burner games.  Boudreau always appears to favor the wide-open style of game, so the goalies will certainly be forced to make some tough saves if the Ducks get stretched out too much.  Both the goaltending and defensive units for the Ducks are talented, but both are also young.  That’s certainly no problem, but when this team reaches the playoffs they’ll have to expect some clutch, responsible performances from these youngsters.

The floor for the Anaheim team is certainly to be a playoff squad, but a realistic goal for this franchise is a second Stanley Cup.  The Ducks certainly have enough talent to be considered one of the best overall teams in the NHL.  Now they just have to find a way to win when it counts.

Sep 22, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Kings left wing Milan Lucic (17) and Arizona Coyotes center Martin Hanzal (11) battle for the puck in the second period of the game at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

2. LOS ANGELES KINGS – The King’s last season was more confusing than the end of Interstellar.  After winning it all the year before, Los Angeles spent the entire year in a Cup hangover and missed the playoffs altogether.  There weren’t many injuries to speak of, the Kings just weren’t very good.  Usually steady players Dustin Brown and Mike Richards were actually pretty bad, tallying just 16 goals between them.  Backup goalie Martin Jones struggled when Jonathan Quick couldn’t start, posting a meager .906 save % in 15 games.  Oh, and three different players on the team were arrested.

The team is certainly looking for a kind of retribution after their embarrassing and heavily joked-about finish to last year.  Los Angeles still boasts one of the league’s best defenses, a formidable top two lines, and a premier NHL goalie to boot.  That should be more than enough to get them over whatever ailed them last season.  Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Marion Gaborik are elite NHL players, and young breakout candidates like Jake Muzzin, Tyler Toffoli, and Tanner Pearson are right below them.  Factor in scoring veterans like Milan Lucic and Jeff Carter, and the Kings are as equipped as ever for another Cup run.

You have to assume that a team like the Kings won’t stay down for too long.  There is too much raw talent throughout the squad, and Darryl Sutter is too good of a head coach to leave this team short of the playoffs again.  Expect them to challenge for the Pacific Division title the way they were supposed to last year.

Sep 29, 2015; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman (6) is checked Colorado Avalanche center Mikhail Grigorenko (25) at Scotiabank Saddledome. Flames won 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

3. CALGARY FLAMES – This team almost made you want to root for a Canadian team in the playoffs.  Coming out of almost nowhere to sneak into 3rd in the division, Bob Hartley’s Flames impressed the league with a 97-point season.  Breakout seasons from Mark Giordano, Jiri Hudler, and heartthrob rookie Johnny Gaudreau led the way, along with solid goaltending from Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo.

The 2015 Flames seem a lot like the 2012 Panthers — both made the playoffs earlier than their “blueprint” would’ve indicated, as they went from rebuilders to contenders very suddenly.  The Flames made a huge splash in the offseason though to keep the good momentum going: they fleeced the Boston Bruins in a trade for Dougie Hamilton, giving back three draft picks (only one in the first round).  Hamilton, Giordano, T.J. Brodie, and Dennis Wideman make up a very talented squad of defensemen.

The scary thing about the Flames is how well they’re built for both this season and the future.  Young players like Hamilton, Gaudreau, and Sean Monahan have probably yet to come into their own.  But in the meantime, veterans like Hudler, Hiller, and Michael Frolik can pick up the slack in the meantime.  Bet on the young core continuing to grow, and the rest of the division failing to keep up.

Apr 21, 2015; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Vancouver Canucks left wing Daniel Sedin (22) skates with the puck against the Calgary Flames during the third period in game four of the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Saddledome. Calgary Flames won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

4. VANCOUVER CANUCKS – The Canucks had a fairly surprising record last season, ending the campaign with 101 points and a nice cozy 2nd place finish in the Pacific Division.  However, their season ended quickly in the playoffs as they were ousted by the Flames in six games.  And at least on paper, it doesn’t look like much was done over the offseason to deal with their issues.

GM Jim Benning has to hope that there is a method to what many people view as madness.  Brandon Sutter, Matt Bartkowski, and Brandon Prust were brought in to Vancouver, but it remains to be seen if those additions will be enough to change the Canucks’ fortunes.

And the Canucks will need to hustle to win, because there window to win appears to be closing quickly.  Daniel and Henrik Sedin are 35 years old, and so is Ryan Miller.  None of those players are who they were even two or three years ago.  Backing up Miller is Panthers legend Jacob Markstrom, and backing up the Sedin twins are… Radim Vrbata and Brandon Sutter, I guess.

The Canucks still have an outside chance at the playoffs, but they might not have enough in the tank to do much if they get there.  Perhaps it would be better off for the Canucks to press the sell button sooner, but that’s not part of Benning’s method.

September 29, 2015; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer (top) instructs center Logan Couture (39) during the third period against the Vancouver Canucks at SAP Center at San Jose. The Sharks defeated the Canucks 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

5. SAN JOSE SHARKS – The Sharks were always a guilty pleasure to watch late at night on the West Coast, with their exciting style of play, great goaltending from Antti Niemi, and handsome teal sweaters.  Things have changed recently to say the least.  Everybody’s favorite coach, Peter DeBoer, is in charge in Todd McLellan’s stead.  Antti Niemi headed to Dallas over the offseason.  At least the jerseys still look fabulous.

Depending on how well DeBoer meshes with the veteran Sharks line-up, they could be looking at a return to the playoffs with potential to make some serious noise.  A top-six featuring Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture is no joke.  Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brent Burns, and Justin Braun are high-quality defensemen, and adding Paul Martin to the fold can only help.  This is a team that is used to winning in a highly-competitive Western Conference, and that experience hasn’t left the players despite the coaching change.

But in the recent past, the Sharks have ridden goaltending stalwarts Evgeni Nabokov and Antti Niemi through the regular season and playoffs.  This season, they feature Martin Jones and Alex Stalock between the pipes.  Neither are terrible goalies, but both are extremely unproven and could be the downfall of this team if GM Doug Wilson’s gamble doesn’t pay off.

I’m still buying the Sharks for a possible wild card spot, but I’d be worried that the Sharks’ window is closing faster than the team would care to realize.  This will be a new-look Sharks squad, but we’ll have to see if that’s better for the future.

Sep 25, 2015; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Edmonton Oilers left wing Anton Slepyshev (42) celebrates his goal during the overtime period against the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre. Edmonton Oilers win 4-3 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

6. EDMONTON OILERS – Who the hell knows if the Edmonton Oilers will be any good this year.  The patterns of multiple years of failure suggest the Oilers might still have some leaks to seal, but dammit this is a different team.

Starting at the very top of the list, Connor McDavid is here and is the real deal, as everybody knows.  Having him bounce passes off Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov, and Oscar Klefblom among other young studs should give every Oilers fan joy.  And coaching all these young guns is a very smart offensive mind in Todd McLellan, who will almost certainly haunt Sharks fans for years to come with this kind of line-up.  San Jose fans will cry uncle by McDavid’s third hat trick against the Sharks this season.

What Edmonton is still missing, even after all these years of the same problems, are goaltending and defense.  The team brought in Andrej Sekera on D and Cam Talbot between the pipes, but those fellows might not have the juice to right the franchise.  Realistically, the Oilers will still struggle to prevent goals, unless Talbot is actually the puck-stopping monster we saw glimpses of in New York.

In two or three years, the Oilers will be one of the most exciting teams in the NHL and a sexy pick for the Stanley Cup.  For now, they must suffer through mediocrity and growing pains as punishment for winning all those draft lotteries.

Sep 29, 2015; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Arizona Coyotes left winger Max Domi (16) battles for the puck with Edmonton Oilers defenceman Nikita Nikitin (86) during the first period at Rexall Place. Mandatory Credit: Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

7. ARIZONA COYOTES – Last year, the Coyotes suffered through a 56-point season to easily secure the worst record in the Western Conference.  This year, Arizona might have to buckle up for another rough season.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson is still the best player on the entire squad, coming off a 23-goal season, leading all defensemen.  However, there are slim pickings outside of the Swedish stud.  Keith Yandle is long-gone, Mike Smith appears to be a shell of his former self in net, and there is a serious lack of scoring on the forward units.  Shane Doan, Antoine Vermette, and Mikkel Boedker are recognizable names, but the team will need rookies and draft picks to produce as soon as possible to compete in the competitive Western Conference.  Luckily for the Coyotes, Dave Tippett is still an excellent defensive coach and is still the best guy for a young and inexperienced roster.

Much has been made of the ridiculous arena situation in Glendale, but it seems those issues are behind the team for now and they can refocus on the future of the franchise.  The Coyotes won’t compete soon, but at least this season the team brass will be able to see what they have to work with.

Next: Where Are The 2010 Florida Panthers Now?

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