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Canes Country’s 2018 Season Preview: Pacific Division

The NHL’s best defenseman now resides in the Pacific, and he’s got company ... on his own team. And what will Vegas do for an encore act?

NHL: Preseason-Vegas Golden Knights at Colorado Avalanche Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Today, we conclude our series of season preview by taking a look at the NHL’s Pacific Division.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-San Jose Sharks at Anaheim Ducks Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks are a veteran-heavy team, but in a packed Pacific, will it be enough?

Part of the problem with a healthy dose of 30-plus-year-old players is, well, health. Ryan Kesler is expected to miss a significant amount of time this season with a hip problem. However, Ryan Getzlaf looks to anchor the team once again, and with a stalwart in goal like John Gibson — who at 25 years old plays with the skill and know-how of years beyond his age — the team should have a reliable established group to lead the team both on the ice and in the locker room.

It’s not as if the Ducks are lacking promising youth, though. Rickard Rakell is arguably a top 20 or 25 wing in the league with a point total that has grown incrementally the past four seasons from 31 to 69. Ondrej Kase, another young winger, scored 20 goals in just his second season in the league as part of a 38-point campaign.

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Vegas Golden Knights Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Coyotes

Arizona has made a few moves the past few seasons to try to find an affordable difference-maker, but in the process, its farm system has gone to waste outside of Dylan Strome and a few first-rounders that are either not near NHL-ready or struggling in the lower leagues.

One upside for the team, though, was the strength that Clayton Keller showed in his rookie season. The No. 7 Draft pick in a stacked field of top prospects in 2016 led the team in points (65), goals (23) and tied with Derek Stepan — shipped from New York in the 2017 offseason — for the lead in assists (42).

Lost in the sludge of last season’s struggles was Antti Raanta’s promise. The netminder, who was expected to fill in for longtime Coyote Mike Smith, ended up plagued by injury after injury, none of which were very severe. In his 47 games, though, he posted a 2.24 GAA and saved 93 percent of shots he faced.

If Raanta’s healthy, Keller proves 2017-2018 wasn’t a fluke and a few players step up big -- most notably Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Stepan or Christian Dvorak (not putting my money on Vinnie Hinostroza just yet) -- maybe the Coyotes can apply pressure to the division favorites. But honestly, it appears to be another year of trying to tread water.

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Calgary Flames

The Carolina Calgary Flames traded away two 40-plus-point scorers in the offseason to the Hurricanes for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm. Argue all you want about who won the trade, but the point is they didn’t lose a ton of talent in the offseason. They’ve still got a hold of star forwards Johnny Gaudreau (potentially an MVP candidate if the Flames push for the playoffs) and Sean Monahan and got a decent year out of Mike Smith, who they hope can bring his goals allowed a tick down.

However, one question that I’m sure many of us in the Hurricanes base have is how firing Glen Gulutzan and bringing on Bill Peters will fare for a team that is trying to push deep in the playoffs for the first time this decade. Peters had a lack of fire (pun intended) at the helm of the Hurricanes, so I’d be worried about the switch, but with Lindholm, Hanifin and Derek Ryan already acclimated to the head coach, maybe the team will grow comfortable with new leadership soon.

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Edmonton Oilers

Connor McDavid. Connor McDavid. Connor McDavid.

The best player in the league stayed healthy the entirety of a sad 2017-2018 season for the Oilers, broke the 100-point mark second season in a row, and according to reports, he’s gotten even faster (unbelievable). Fun fact: the last player to win the Ted Lindsay Award twice before age 22? Literally no one.

But last season was an affirmation that one player can’t make a team. The Oilers defense especially let them down and forced Cam Talbot to face the most shots in the division (2036), a pressure to which he succumbed by allowing a league-most 188 goals.

They recently re-signed Darnell Nurse, one of their strongest defenders, but with Andrej Sekera out for the foreseeable future with a torn Achilles, the team will need help from all around.

The Oilers office is also banking on some forwards to come through to help McDavid, including second-liner Milan Lucic, who scored only 10 goals and tallied 34 points last season after nearing the 50 point mark the previous four years. And 20-year-old Jesse Puljujarvi could be a potential breakout candidate after 20 points in 65 games last season.

NHL: Calgary Flames at Los Angeles Kings Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Kings

The Kings bounced back last season with a return to the playoffs, but were swept out of the first round by Vegas. Los Angeles enjoyed rebound seasons from a number of players, most notably Anze Kopitar, who was a finalist for the Hart Trophy with 35 goals and 92 points. Perhaps the most surprising season came from Dustin Brown, whose 61 points were a career best after a string of down seasons.

Drew Doughty leads the way on defense, with his 60 points last year putting him in the top three for the Norris Trophy. Jonathan Quick remains one of the top goalies in the league.

In a search for more offense after scoring three total goals in the series against Vegas, the Kings signed Ilya Kovalchuk, who returns to the NHL for the first time since 2013 after a stint in Russia. While Kovalchuk likely won’t be the point-per-game player he was when he left, he should still be able to contribute (especially on the power play) despite being 35.

The Kings’ core of Kopitar, Doughty and Quick, along with other strong contributors like Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and Alec Martinez gives this team a chance. Despite the Pacific division’s number of quality teams, if the Kings can get a healthy season from Jeff Carter and 20-25 goals from Kovalchuk, they should be in the mix for a top-three spot.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Detroit Red Wings Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

San Jose Sharks

These guys do anything interesting recently? If Toronto won the offseason, the Sharks’ acquisition of Erik Karlsson makes them a close second. The Sharks didn’t have to give up anything earth shattering to land the former Senators captain, and can now add the best defenseman in hockey to go with Brent Burns and the criminally underrated Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Throw in Justin Braun to round out the top four and a few talented youngsters vying for third-pairing spots, and this is probably the best d corps in hockey.

The Sharks are strong up front too with the likes of Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier. The health of Joe Thornton’s knee is a concern, but he’s back for another year and should still have something left in the tank. Martin Jones is coming off another solid season in net.

The Sharks have to be the favorite to win the Pacific, and are a very strong contender to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.

NHL: Preseason-Calgary Flames at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Vancouver Canucks

Remember Brandon Sutter? He’s still here.

Remember the Sedin twins? They’re not.

Henrik and Daniel’s retirement should have kicked off a full-scale rebuild for the Canucks. Operative word there being should, as the team still opted to add veteran forwards Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Tim Schaller and Tanner Kero.

Now, there’s nothing wrong this those players… if you’re adding pieces to a contender. But the only thing the Canucks are going to contend for this season is the right to draft Jack Hughes.

It’s not all bad, as the team will continue to look for steps forward for promising young players such as Bo Horvat, and Elias Pettersson, the No. 5 pick in 2017, should be a Calder Trophy contender.

It figures to be another bleak season in Vancouver, but there are some pieces in place for the future. Seriously though, stop signing fourth liners while you’re rebuilding.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Washington Capitals at Vegas Golden Knights Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Vegas Golden Knights

This is the most interesting team in hockey for the second year in a row. Following a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, everyone wants to see what the Golden Knights can do for an encore.

While the Knights missed out on Karlsson, they did land Paul Stastny in free agency to offset the losses of James Neal and David Perron, adding a top-six center while also keeping him from a fellow contender in Winnipeg.

All eyes will be on the top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith to see if they can keep up their torrid pace from last season. While Karlsson likely won’t be able to sustain his ridiculous shooting percentage, he should be motivated entering another contract year after landing a one-year deal.

Vegas is set in goal with Marc-Andre Fleury coming off an unbelievable season that landed him a three-year contract extension at $7 million per year.

The Knights’ weak spot is on the blueline with Nate Schmidt suspended the first 20 games of the year for using a banned substance. With GM George McPhee having been rumored to be heavily interested in Karlsson, it’ll be interesting to see if he goes shopping for a blueliner (Justin Faulk, anyone)?

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Vegas come back to earth a bit in year two, but this is still probably a playoff team.