September 27, 2018 | 10:24am ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period

NHL SEASON PREVIEW: PACIFIC DIVISION

 
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Logan Couture, centre

 
 

MONTREAL, QC -- For years, the Pacific Division has been left in the shadows of its Western Conference counterpart in the Central. Since the two Championships won by the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014, the Western Conference has largely been dominated by the Central Division. From the dynasty of the Chicago Blackhawks, to the meteoritic rise of the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators, the Central has always seemed to have had the one up in the West.

But over the course of the last year, the tides have begun to shift.

It seemed as though every major transaction ran through the Pacific Division this off-season; save for John Tavares heading home to Toronto. Each team out West was poised to outdo one another, adding high profile players to compete with the Stanley Cup runner-up and second year franchise Vegas Golden Knights.

The Los Angeles Kings got the party started this off-season. After being embarrassedly dispatched by the Golden Knights in four games in the first round of last year’s playoffs, the Kings won the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes. In an attempt to bolster an anemic offense, the Kings hope that Kovalchuk’s arrival and a full year of health from Jeff Carter will be enough to improve on last season’s step forward.

The Calgary Flames followed suit on the weekend of the NHL Draft. With no first or second round picks to use as currency, General Manager Brad Treliving had to get creative in an attempt to improve his roster. In a rather big move, Treliving sent rearguard Dougie Hamilton, along with Michael Ferland, to Carolina in exchange for forward Elias Lindholm and defenseman Noah Hanifin. The Flames got younger in the move, as Lindholm and Hanifin were just draft in 2014 and 2015, respectively, joining an already fairly young core highlighted by Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. Treliving was not done there, as he bought out aging-veteran Troy Brouwer and signed perennial 20-goal left wing James Neal in free agency.

The Golden Knights should be happy with how their inaugural season went, but clearly General Manager George McPhee is hungry for more. Vegas made a big splash in free agency by signing 32-year-old centre Paul Stastny to a three-year contract. McPhee was not done there, as he traded for Montreal Canadiens’ captain Max Pacioretty just days before the start of training camp, locking up the winger to a four-year deal shortly thereafter. Vegas made sure to lock down their arguable MVP last season, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, to a three-year contract extension. Vegas came out of the gate like bats out of hell, and don’t intend on going anywhere anytime soon.

After striking out on Tavares and reportedly seeing a deal fall through to acquire Pacioretty, the San Jose Sharks entered September with its roster as status quo. General Manager Doug Wilson would not stand for it, as he swung for the fences in acquiring defenseman Erik Karlsson. Giving up a combined eight assets, Wilson brought in Karlsson in hopes of keeping pace with the fellow titans in the Pacific Division. In doing so, the Sharks now showcase one of the best defensive groups in the entire NHL, highlighted by Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

So where does the rest of the division stand after the whirlwind of summer transactions?

From the standpoint of the Arizona Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks, it seems like this year will be more of the same. The Coyotes made a solid move in acquiring disgruntled forward Alex Galchenyuk from the Canadiens, but it is not a move that will move the needle that much. The Canucks continued their rebuild, while adding character through free agency by signing forwards Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel. But while the Canucks are headed in the right direction, this season is not their year.

For the Anaheim Ducks, it must’ve been an extremely tough summer. The Ducks are a team desperately trying to hang onto past years of glory while also being cap strapped with big contracts. The team is anchored by a core on the wrong side of 30 years old, and while it has some nice young pieces in Rickard Rakell and Hampus Lindholm, it does not appear to be enough to keep the team in contention. Coupled with the five month injury to declining star Corey Perry and the continued hold out of restricted free agent Nick Ritchie, the upcoming season does not look to be too kind for the Ducks.

Any team that has Connor McDavid should never be counted out, but it is really hard to envision the Edmonton Oilers making a run this season. The Oilers are coming back with the (for the most part) same roster that led them to last year’s disappointing campaign. The question marks on defense (especially with Andrej Sekera beginning the year on Injured Reserve) still remain, while goaltender Cam Talbot will look to regain his form from two seasons ago. While the Oilers are led by their superstar captain McDavid, it will be interesting to see if his supporting cast can answer the bell. Will Leon Draisaitl live up to his mega-contract extension? Will Milan Lucic rebound after a miserable season just two years into his six-year deal? Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Ty Rattie prove to be adequate linemates for McDavid? The sky is the limit in terms of potential, but there still seems to be more questions than answers in Edmonton.

So what will become of the division when all is said and done?

It seems as though the Sharks and Golden Knights will be back at the top of the division. The two teams met in the division finals last year, and based on their respective off-season additions, the clubs seem poised to be on a collision course for a rematch.

In the division’s second tier, the Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings will do battle to grab the third seed and playoff security after making significant moves this summer. Edmonton will do its best to compete in the wildcard race, but the club’s defense and goaltending issues will cause hurdles for much of the season.

The fall from grace of the Ducks will highlight the division’s bottom tier. The Ducks’ descent from the upper class of the Western Conference has been a long-time coming, and should take its first stage this season. The club’s aging core of Ryan Getzlaf and currently-injured Ryan Kesler have seen their best years go by, and there is not enough offensive artillery to compensate for it. There is only so much goaltender John Gibson and the club’s young defensive group will be able to cover up, and the Ducks will be joining the Canucks and Coyotes in the basement of the Pacific division.

The Pacific division is shaping up to be a dog fight. Half of the club’s went all in this summer to challenge for the top, while none of them are far and away ahead of the curve. It seems as though the tide has shifted in terms of the titans out West, and the Stanley Cup could very well be decided on the Pacific coast come June 2019.

Final Regular Season Standings:

  1. San Jose Sharks

  2. Vegas Golden Knights

  3. Los Angeles Kings

  4. Calgary Flames

  5. Edmonton Oilers

  6. Anaheim Ducks

  7. Vancouver Canucks

  8. Arizona Coyotes

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Anthony Di Marco is the NHL Correspondent for The Fourth Period.
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