November 14, 2018 | 12:58pm ET
BY Hannah Spraker, The Fourth Period

THE PACIFIC: DIVISION OR DISASTER?

 
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TORONTO, ON -- As we inch closer to American Thanksgiving, we begin to get a better understanding of where teams are at and where they are likely to finish come April.

That being said, who’s already ready to throw out their season predictions?

When it comes to the Pacific Division at least, I think it is safe to assume the vast majority of us did not anticipate this is what we would be looking at at this point in the season; especially with big names like Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, and Ilya Kovalchuk being thrown into the mix.

From top to bottom, no matter which way you slice it, the first month of the NHL season was just bad hockey. Only three players have broken the 20-point mark in the Pacific so far. What gives? Bad luck is one thing, but when you’re Karlsson and you’re a minus-9, or Pacioretty and you only have two points, that’s another thing.

Now there are always a couple teams that are expected to perform poorly, whether they are transitioning or rebuilding; it’s just assumed they won’t finish for a playoff spot. Then there are those teams who are riding the injury train and just can’t seem to gain momentum or consistency. Then there are the teams who should be doing great, who should be scoring goals and winning games and for whatever reason, they aren’t up to par. We’ve seen the consequences of this recently.

The Los Angeles Kings fired head coach John Stevens and brought in Willie Desjardins in hopes to bring a new coaching style to maybe put some pep in their step, but they are dead last in the league with a -21 goal differential. Yikes.

So here’s all you need to know about the worst division in the NHL thus far:

The City of Angels Needs a Savior... and Some Knee Braces

Blame the coach, fire the guy, hire a new one. Done. Ok, Los Angeles, now what? Kovalchuk hasn’t quite taken off to the degree he was expected to, although he leads the team in scoring. Starting goaltender Jonathan Quick and backup goaltender Jack Campbell will both miss a good amount of time due to a torn meniscus, and Los Angeles is starting to look like Vegas last year with the constant battle for a healthy goaltender. Fans have pretty much abandoned ship with this whole “Lose for Hughes” hashtag.

Los Angeles needs an impact player, pronto. The roster, as talented it is, boasts older guys mostly over 30, and not playing to their potential. Bringing in a young, fast player could be the defibrillator that this club needs. As TFP reported earlier this month, “the Kings appear willing to package defenseman Jake Muzzin and left wing Tanner Pearson in a deal, which may include additional pieces, for (William) Nylander.”

I honestly think that would be a great trade for both parties involved, and Nylander would certainly be a huge help to L.A.’s offense, but whether GM Rob Blake brings the young Swede to La La Land or not, there still has to be a significant move made soon if the Kings want to salvage their season. Perhaps it is time to trade away some of the core... or maybe a big portion of it?

Lady Luck Abandoned Las Vegas

From the Stanley Cup Final to the bottom of the heap, the Vegas Golden Knights are not the same team they were last season, or are they exactly what they should have been? Goaltending is the same, the top line is the same, most of the roster is still the same... they did not make too many crazy changes in the off-season that could tank a team. So maybe this is just what it looks like when Lady Luck is no longer on your side.

William Karlsson had an absolutely insane season last year, and while he will probably still score 20 goals, there is no way he is breaking 40 again. Not a chance. On paper, that team last season should not have had that kind of success; call it luck, call it whatever you like, maybe the Hockey Gods did their magic, but this season the Vegas Golden Knights are not that Stanley Cup Final team, nor will they be soon by the looks of it.

Yes, the injuries of Paul Stastny and Erik Haula are a hit to the teamm as well as the Nate Schmidt’s suspension, but goaltending has not been the “out of this world” performance that is was last season either. Flower Power is diminishing and Marc-Andre Fleury has not looked like himself to start the season. The team is coming back down to earth and they’re taking Pacioretty with them. Seriously though, the guy has two points, both goals, yes he was injured for a bit, but for a guy who scored over 30 goals four seasons in a row, this is bad.

When he was sent to Vegas from Montreal for Tomas Tatar, Nick Suzuki and a draft pick, it was the exhale he was looking for; a chance to really get back on track and be the top goal scorer he can be. A change of scenery is good, right? Well, for Tatar it was. He has had the opportunity to be in a bigger role in Montreal, and so far he is thriving in it.

I would think that Pacioretty should start to pick it up and round into form. A guy as talented as he is, there is no reason he shouldn’t be scoring, and hopefully for Fleury’s sake he just had a rough start because these are two guys who have the talent, have the discipline, for some reason just aren’t up to speed yet.

I think for Vegas it is really just rounding into true form after a Cinderella story season. They’ve made their big move in getting Pacioretty, now it’s really just a matter of finding their identity and chemistry coming off their inaugural season.

Coyote-Ugly?

Move over LeAnn Rimes. Much like the plot of the 2000 movie, the Arizona Coyotes seem to be in a bit of an identity crisis. With new ownership in the works, the best penalty kill in the league (despite being barely over a .500 team), injuries, and the most shorthanded goals in the NHL, the Coyotes are a toss up – they could be dangerous or mediocre. Time will tell.

Looking at their penalty kill and how great this team has been defensively, much of the praise goes to goaltenders Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper. Raanta had been playing great until missing a few games with a lower body injury, with a .929 sv% in 9 games and Kuemper is putting up decent numbers as well.

Another catalyst of the successful PK: Michael Grabner, Brad Richardson and Derek Stepan. Grabner’s speed is a huge benefit to this club and he and Brad Richardson each have three short handed goals, and Stepan has got two of his own. They are just creating opportunities left and right for this team proven by the fact that the Coyotes are shooting the puck on the penalty kill more than any other team in the league.

Arizona is a weird team though because their success on the penalty kill is unmatched, but they cannot seem to generate much offense otherwise. They are near the bottom in the league in goals for, averaging 2.75 per game. So while they aren’t allowing many goals, they also have the worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the league.

Alex Galchenyuk spent some time sidelined due to injury, but is nearly at a point per game and should start to help generate some scoring for the Coyotes. Clayton Keller has put up decent numbers so far and leads the team in scoring and in points, but hasn’t been the amazing goal scorer he has been expected to be thus far. So maybe call it a team-wide scoring slump? Bad luck? Whatever it is, Arizona is odd. Defensively strong, and offensively strong but only on the penalty kill. It’s weird. They need to generate some 5-on-5 momentum if they want to battle for a playoff spot come April.

Not So Mighty Ducks

The buck stops with Bob. Twitter is demanding for Randy Carlyle’s head on a platter with #firecarlyle circling around the inter-web, and don’t get me wrong, I was not a fan of bringing back Carlyle as head coach in the first place, but I think when it really comes down to it, the finger points to management.

Looking at the team that the Ducks put on the ice night in and night out is not a contending team, that’s on management. Half of those guys should be in the AHL, and the veterans are aging and aging fast, but with so much money tied up in massive contracts with no-move’s, they are stuck and that has been the story for a few seasons now.

The Ducks have been bitten with the injury bug yet again, seems like the same narrative to start every season with this team with Corey Perry out for five months, Ondrej Kase continuing issues with concussions, Korbinian Holzer, and Carter Rowney all spending time out, as well as Ryan Getzlaf slotting in and out of the lineup with injury. Does that play a role in lackluster performance? Absolutely, but at the end of the day, GM Bob Murray has failed to make any big changes in the offseason to start to put this team back in the discussion or given them the tools they need to succeed in today’s NHL.

Patrick Eaves has recently come back from battling health issues, along with Kase, who had his season debut the other night after dealing with concussions, so hopefully for the Ducks that adds a little ‘oomph’ to their scoring. Kesler, despite what he says, is not the same player he was coming back from that hip injury. Rickard Rakell has been rather quiet on the scoring front, and Pontus Aberg and Jakob Silfverberg lead the team in scoring. Weird, right?

On paper the Ducks top six should be great, but the bottom six with the exception of Adam Henrique and Aberg are all AHL guys, or should be. This team is lacking consistency, or doesn’t have any if we’re being real here, and if it were not for John Gibson, the Ducks would be last in the Pacific for sure.

Gibson has been en Fuego! Bailing the Ducks out left and right, he is single-handedly saving their you-know-what. He’s seen over 500 shots this season, second most in the league and still holding a great save percentage. My only concern here is he needs help from the guys in front of him. If he keeps having to bail out this team and face this many shots, he is going to get injured. Yes, Gibson is injury prone despite his out of this world performance. Tweet me all you want, if he keeps seeing this many shots and having to carry the team, he’s going to get hurt.

All of this being said, it is far easier to fire the coach than the GM, and while I think the buck stops with ‘Bargain Bob,’ Randy is certainly in the hot seat and maybe even more-so now that Joel Quenneville is available. Carlyle’s style of hockey is outdated and I think that the Ducks fired him for a reason in the first place, and maybe they thought Stanley Cup history would repeat itself by bringing him back, but so far only disappointment.

Now, to everyone who is saying that the Ducks continue to fall apart in the second period: they’ve been doing that for a long time, that is not specific to Carlyle. The bigger issue to me is the team on the ice. Murray needs to start making moves for younger, quicker players and an impact player, rather than these minor trades for old third and fourth liners.

It could be believed that the Ducks may also be interested in pushing for Toronto Maple Leafs young Swede William Nylander. TFP Editor-in-Chief David Pagnotta reported last week that Murray attended the Maple Leafs game against the Vegas Golden Knights in Toronto along with the Ducks Director of Player Development Rick Paterson, though watched the game from the stands, hiding from the pressbox.

Now this could be interesting because is Murray wants to get off the hot seat, this would be something worth looking into, although the cost would be high. Toronto needs to boost their defense and Anaheim has no lack of talented blue liners, although I would imagine it would take some significant names and Bargain Bob to work some magic to make a trade like that. I could see player like Brandon Montour and Josh Manson going in a package deal if he could make that work.

Dark horse: If a trade with the Leafs is in fact in the works, could see discussion or some kind of deal trying to be made for defenseman Cam Fowler. He has a NTC with a four-team list, so maybe some negotiating could be done there. Toronto was interested in Fowler two seasons ago when it was a discussion of Fowler for James Van Reimsdyk, and in all honesty, with the position Toronto is in and the team they have there, Fowler would slot in well and be a great addition for that blue line. If that would be something Murray explores, Cam would have to be willing to go to Toronto, and I can only speculate, but I can’t imagine he wouldn’t want to go to a contending team.

So whether it is firing Carlyle and going after Coach Q, or pursuing Nylander or another speedy goal scorer, I would highly anticipate some big changes to come in the Ducks organization.

Oilers Going Christmas Shopping Early

The Edmonton Oilers got off to a good start, but are now an up and down roller coaster. Just over .500, once again they are riding the coattails of Connor ‘McJesus’ and Leon Draisaitl. Defense has been shaky and the bottom six forwards have contributed close to nothing when it comes to offense. Their young rookies are stuck in a revolving door to the AHL. This has been a problem with Edmonton for quite some time – McDavid will win you a few games, hands down, but he can’t carry a whole team on his shoulders and expect to win night in and night out.

That being said, the Oilers are shopping goaltender Cam Talbot. He’s in the last year of his contract and while he’s been lights out for them before, his performance thus far has been inadequate. TFP reported last week that it is unclear who is being targeted, but Columbus Blue Jackets Sergei Bobrovsky could be a possibility. The problem is, he has a no-trade clause in his contract, although he does submit a 10 team list, so maybe some negotiations could be made. If Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli could swing something to get Bob, I think that would be a huge boost for this hockey club. Defense needs to pick it up, depth players need to start contributing to scoring and perhaps a goaltender change is to come if the Edmonton Oilers want to stay relevant and show more than the underwhelming performance that has been the norm for them as of late.

Calgary’s Hot Despite Goaltending

I hear Mike Smith is switching to Geico, hoping to save more. Seriously, what’s up with Mike Smith? He has the worst save percentage and goals against average for active goaltenders in the Pacific, one of the worst in the league, and can’t seem to stop a beach ball. He’s a good goaltender, he just hasn’t shown it this season.

The good news is Calgary is still doing well despite a rocky start and Smith’s performance. They are especially dominating in the third period, becoming the comeback kids of the NHL. They lead the league for scoring in the third period with more than half of their goals for coming in the third.

The Flames acquired James Neal as a free agent from Vegas in the summer and like some other big contracts in the Pacific, he has not played well, no where near where he should be, and Flames Head Coach Bill Peters essentially benched him after giving him a handful of opportunities to get something going on that second line.

The top line, on the other hand, is absolute dynamite. Johnny Hockey, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm have been insane and are putting the puck in the net left and right. Matthew Tkachuk has also been great and has nearly 20 points along with Gaudreau and Monahan. The pleasant surprise for me has been Flames Captain Mark Giordano. The 35-year-old defenseman is showing no sign of slowing down and has been contributing a great deal to the Flames offense as well as playing a vital role in their powerplay. The only other defenseman in the Pacific to make such a offensive impact is Brent Burns.

Sam Bennett’s future in Calgary has been a question for some time now, but it still seems like management is content with the role that he is in. I really don’t think he’s going to be that huge impact player that Calgary was hoping he would be when they drafted him, but for now it seems like they’re sticking with him and seeing how he performs, although I doubt if his production continues to decline this season like it has since his 2015-16 season, the Flames will keep him around much longer.

Young defensemen Jusso Valimaki and Rasmus Andersson have been gaining respect and attention around the league and are showing promise to add a great deal of depth to Calgary’s blue line.

At the end of the day, this is a good hockey team, if they can get goaltending consistency going, they will be much more dangerous, but I fully anticipate them to finish top three in the Pacific.

Resilient Canucks Keep Winning Despite Injuries

It has been a collective effort from top to bottom, a despite the numerous injuries that have plagued the Canucks lineup, they continue to win. Sven Baertschi, Alex Edler, Brandon Sutter, Jay Beagle, Thatcher Demko, Anders Nilsson and Brock Boeser are all spending time on injured reserve for their respective injuries, but its times like this when you need your depth players to stand up, and that is exactly what they have been doing.

Of course Elias Pettersson is the headliner there in Vancouver, leading the team in point and is by far the front runner for the Calder Trophy. The 19-year-old has already had a historic NHL start, with 16 points in his first 10 games, proving night after night that he is the dynamic player he was hyped up to be, creating offense for his team and giving Vancouver that one-two punch down the middle.

Bo Horvat has taken on a larger role on the team and so far, taking on more minutes, a first line role and more defensive responsibility than every before, but he’s thriving in it. Loui Eriksson is having a bounce back season already and production up and down the roster seems to be picking up with the exception of Derrick Pouliot (don’t know what happened there), but he’s been rather invisible so far.

A silver lining to all of these injuries is that they have given other player the opportunity to showcase what they can really do when put into a larger role, ultimately giving head coach Travis Green more to work with.

Some more examples of this: Ben Hutton, and Jake Virtanen. In 15 games, Hutton was able to match what he was able to do in 61 games last season (6 pts), and Virtanen is also on pace to top his 20 point season last year and is proving he is more than capable in a top six role. He is finally playing up to that potential that he was expected to meet.

Goaltending in Vancouver hasn’t been elite, but it hasn’t been bad either. Nilsson was putting up some decent numbers before getting hurt, and Jacob Markstrom has not been great, but hasn’t been horrible either considering he has seen the second most shots in the Pacific behind Anaheim’s Gibson.

Now that Boeser is out with a groin injury, that makes things a bit tougher for the Canucks but if they keep up this collective resilience, they can definitely make it past the hump of these injuries and keep their name in the discussion.

Hats off to Green for adapting a faster, more skill driven style of play that the NHL demands today and his style; while it may be different from many NHL coaches, he is very personal and focused on the players and communication. It almost seems like he’s taken a dad-like approach to coaching this young group of players, and they seem to respond well to it. If they continue to succeed then his contract is a steal at one million through 2021, just don’t ask him to play Fortnite.

Sharks Can Only Move Forward, Right?

Sharks cannot suddenly stop or swim backwards, they have to constantly be moving forward, but for Karlsson, this has not been the case. When Karlsson was traded from Ottawa to San Jose in September, the general consensus was that San Jose would be the most dangerous team in the Pacific or even the Western Conference, and that could still be true, but so far Karlsson has been nothing but a disappointment in his start with the Sharks and perhaps the biggest disappointment in the league thus far.

Now the Sharks have one of the most dangerous blue lines in the NHL when firing on all cylinders, and I fully anticipate Karlsson to pick up the pace, but his slump is troubling. When you’re a -9 and a few other guys on the roster are hovering around the same number that is one thing, but Karlsson is a -9 and the rest of the team is no where near that. He is too talented of a player to continue with this kind of abysmal performance. Call it acclimation to a new environment or whatever you like, this is just one of those cases where he should be performing and he’s not.

The whole team hasn’t been playing to their potential or at least playing together to their potential, but they seem to be gaining some momentum as of late. Timo Meier is leading all Pacific Division forwards in goals and Brent Burns leads all Pacific defensemen in assists and points, he seems to be shooting the puck more, killing it on special teams, and looking like his Norris trophy winning self yet again.

Head Coach Pete DeBoer has been playing musical chairs when it comes to line combinations and defensive pairings but it is time to buckle down and find some chemistry and momentum to stick with. It is understandable why he’s gone that route early on in the season, but we’re really entering crunch time and Christmas will be here before you know it, time to turn it up a notch.

I still firmly believe that the Sharks are going to be a force to be reckoned with come April. They are a power forward team with one hell of a blue line and dependable goaltending. My Stanley Cup pick in our TFP season predictions, if Karlsson can get a kick in the pants and get moving, the bottom six can start contributing more offensively and goaltending stays strong, there is no reason they can’t take the Pacific. On paper, they have everything they need; it is a matter of execution. It appears that they are beginning to round into for, but a lot can still happen.

The Best of the Worst

When looking at the Pacific compared to the rest of the league and even the leaders in the Pacific is looking at the best of the worst.

Vancouver, as resilient as they have been, compared to the rest of the league does not look like a Stanley Cup contender, not even close in my opinion, and there is no denying the Pacific Division is the worst in the National Hockey league... by a landslide, and that first month was just plain atrocious.

It is still too early to make any concrete predictions, and a lot of hockey has yet to be played, but there are teams in the Pacific that have the potential to make a run, if they can tweak and refine their current situations. So as we enter the Thanksgiving season where trades are to be made, injuries are to be overcome, and possible pink slips are to be handed out to head coaches, we’re getting a better understanding of who slots where, who’s in the hot seat and what needs to be done to get these clubs back into shape.

For now, I’m sticking with my pick that San Jose takes the Pacific, but the Canadian teams are giving California a run for their money out the gate.

Yes, the Pacific Disaster compared to the rest of the league has been laughable, but there is no reason that a team like San Jose shouldn’t pick it up. Although for other cases, like Los Angeles, it’s looking like it will probably remain disastrous, unless some big changes are made, but that’s the wonderful thing about this league, you just never know what might happen. Only time will tell.

 
 
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Hannah Spraker is a Columnist and the Anaheim Correspondent for The Fourth Period.
Follow her on Twitter.

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