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Canes Country’s 2019 Season Preview: Pacific Division

The Pacific Division was the league’s weakest a season ago, will that continue again this year?

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Vegas Golden Knights Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our series of divisional previews today with a look at the Pacific, full of plenty of intriguing storylines but looking to improve on some perennial underachievement.

Anaheim Ducks

Key Question: How long will the rebuild of the Ducks take?

Key Additions: Dallas Eakins (coach), Chris Wideman, Andreas Martinsen.

Key Subtractions: Corey Perry

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The Anaheim Ducks will welcome their new head coach Dallas Eakins into the fold with one of the premier netminders in the NHL in John Gibson. On the offensive side of the puck, however, the veterans who have led the way for several seasons have begun to give way to a younger core that has yet to prove they are ready to carry the load out in Anaheim.

Injuries were a major factor a season ago as the Ducks lost Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Cam Fowler, Ryan Kesler and Ondrej Kase all for significant chunks last season that left the Ducks woefully thin on far too many nights a year ago.

The 2019-20 season should be another season of transitioning the production and leadership of this roster to the likes of Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg. But with Gibson in net, and a weak division around them, they could contend for a playoff spot if things go really well.

Answer: Whether Gibson and Rakell carry them further than they should go or not, the rebuild has officially begun in earnest.

Arizona Coyotes

Key question: Does Phil Kessel make the Yotes a playoff team?

Key Additions: Phil Kessel, Carl Soderberg

Key Subtractions: Alex Galchenyuk

NHL: Preseason-Arizona Coyotes at Los Angeles Kings Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The major offseason trade that brought Phil Kessel to the Desert from the Steel City should provide an offensive boost for a a team that was arguably one high-end goal scorer away from being a playoff team a season ago.

If Kessel can remain a highly productive offensive weapon and the newly locked-up Clayton Keller can take another step as a point producer, the Coyotes could be tough to handle in the Pacific as they play in front of one of the most underappreciated netminders in Antti Raanta.

Perhaps this is the season that the Coyotes finally have the right blend of veterans and young talent to climb back into relevancy.

Answer: With good health, the Coyotes return to the postseason for the first time since 2012.

Calgary Flames

Key Question: Can the Flames repeat last season’s Regular Season success, but correct the Playoff failure?

Key Additions: Milan Lucic, Cam Talbot, Brandon Davidson

Key Subtractions: James Neal, Mike Smith, Oscar Fantenberg, Garnet Hathaway

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

Last season, the Calgary Flames experienced a banner regular season under new head coach Bill Peters. The Flames jumped out to an early big lead and ultimately ran away with the Pacific Division. The good vibes were quickly broken as the Flames exited early from the playoff party, but Calgary appears poised to once again contend for a division crown.

While one of the only things that did not work out for the Flames was the acquisition of James Neal a season ago, they made a curious decision to offload Neal to their Alberta rivals in a swap of underperforming veterans. The Flames bring in Milan Lucic, who will now have to find somewhere that he can fit in within the bottom-six forwards in Calgary.

For the Flames to return to the playoffs in a similar position as last year, they will have to get the same level of production from their high-octane offense. To do that, they will first need the front office to work out a deal with restricted free agent Matthew Tkachuk. Tkachuk is coming off of a 34 goal season, tied for second-most on the team, and brings true top-end scoring talent to the second line. If he returns, and the stars on the offensive side in Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and old friend Elias Lindholm perform anywhere close to the level they provided last year, the 2019-20 season could indeed put the heat in the Pacific Division.

Answer: Calgary takes a small step back, but returns to the postseason.

Edmonton Oilers

Key Question: Can the Oilers build anything of significance around the best player in the NHL?

Key Additions: Dave Tippett (coach), Mike Smith, James Neal, Riley Sheahan, Markus Granlund

Key Subtrractions: Milan Lucic, Cam Talbot, Jesse Puljujarvi, Andrej Sekera

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

When building a roster, starting with the best player in the world at the ripe old age of 22 is a pretty good building block. Adding another another 100+ point player at the age of 23 is pretty good too. Yet, the Edmonton Oilers continue to look lost in the Canadian wilderness as they look to surround Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with teammates that can make them true contenders. New General Manager Ken Holland has the enviable, yet complicated job of once again rebuilding the Oilers. Can he succeed where so many others have failed in building something sustainable in the NHL’s northernmost outpost?

Still recovering from his late season knee injury, the Oilers will have to hope that McDavid can return fully healthy and produce like the generational talent he is. They must also hope that the change of scenery trade they pulled off with the Flames nets them a productive piece for the middle-six with the acquisition of James Neal. Finally, the defense mush show some improvement, and they must hope that stopgap goaltender Mike Smith has something left in the tank at 37-years-old.

If (and those are big If’s) the supporting cast is up to the challenge, perhaps the Oilers can contend for a top-three spot in the Pacific.

Answer: McDavid returns healthy and sparkles, and Neal returns as a productive offensive player, but the defense and goaltending keeps the Oilers as an also-ran with a bottom-five goals against mark.

Los Angeles Kings

Key Question: Is there a chance for a rebound, or did the Kings not quite hit bottom in 2018-19?

Key Additions: Todd McLellan (coach), Joakim Ryan, Martin Frk

Key Subtractions: Dion Phaneuf, Brendan Leipsic

NHL: Preseason-Arizona Coyotes at Los Angeles Kings Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Kings’ fall from a playoff spot in 2017-18 into 71-point oblivion in 2018-19 was a rough one. Hampered by injuries and a complete lack of offensive touch, the Kings fell completely out of contention early on in what was one of the softer divisions in hockey. Trades ensued, and by the end of the season, the Kings managed to finish ahead of only the Ottawa Senators in the overall NHL standings.

Can the Kings make an improvement this season? While they certainly have not added any pieces that inspire a lot of confidence, they could also improve organically with better health and more dedication to a new system brought in by Todd McLellan. They would also greatly benefit from a return of the scoring touch from veterans Anze Kopitar and defenseman Drew Doughty, along with players such as Tyler Toffoli, Alex Iafallo and Adrian Kempe taking the leap forward many have expected.

With multiple sub-par seasons and major injury concerns, it is fair to wonder what type of goalie the Kings now have in their Stanley Cup hero, Jonathan Quick. Down to an .888 save percentage in 46 starts last season, can Quick regain his form at age 34? There are plenty of questions throughout the roster, likely enough questions to make a return to postseason form hard to see.

Answer: 2018-19 may have been rock bottom, but the Kings aren’t ready to get up off the mat quite yet.

San Jose Sharks

Key Question: Can the Sharks keep rolling as a possible contender out West?

Key Additions: Dalton Prout

Key Subtractions: Joe Pavelski, Justin Braun, Joakim Ryan, Joonas Donskoi, Gustav Nyquist, Micheal Haley

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-St. Louis Blues at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

With big ticket items such as re-signing Erik Karlsson on the menu for the offseason, the San Jose Sharks saw significant turnover in terms of players exiting, while not necessarily bringing much in themselves. While the veteran roster will also return Joe Thornton, long-time star and captain Joe Pavelski was allowed to walk in free agency and ended up in Dallas. Will the star power on the blueline with Karlsson and Brent Burns be enough to carry the load? They have help up front from Thornton, Evander Kane, Logan Couture and Timo Meier, but will they have the internal depth to fill out the rest of the roster?

In net, Martin Jones will continue to be counted on. The Sharks are hoping for a bounceback season from Jones, as his .896 save percentage and 2.94 goals against average both represented career lows in 2018-19. With some goal-scoring expected to dry up, better goal prevention will be important moving forward.

If the Sharks can yet again produce the quality depth pieces internally that allows them to spend on more expensive items, they will again be serious contenders in the Pacific Division and the Western Conference. But this season represents the true test of that depth. At this time, the Sharks possess a win-now roster that still has more question marks than most would prefer to have on a Cup contender. The first few months should provide a good glimpse as to how much work the Sharks might have to do at the trade deadline to remain a playoff team.

Answer: The Sharks get just enough help from their depth and return as a playoff team.

Vancouver Canucks

Key Question: Can the Canucks get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2015?

Key Additions: Micheal Ferland, Jordie Benn, J.T. Miller, Tyler Myers

Key Subtractions: Markus Granlund, Ben Hutton, Derrick Pouliot, Luke Schenn, Ryan Spooner

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Canucks have finally built a new core that they expect to lead their next generation of contending teams. Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Bo Horvat are the trio that led the Canucks into surprising flirtation with a playoff spot in the Pacific for much of last season, but now the hard part begins: taking the next step.

The addition of some toughness with Micheal Ferland and J.T. Miller should be helpful. Help on the blueline from Jordie Benn and Tyler Myers is certainly something that Jacob Markstrom will welcome in front of his net. The question is, will those additions be enough to turn a near-.500 team a season ago into a playoff bound team in 2019-20?

Despite the heroics from Pettersson in his rookie year and the continued goal-scoring from Boeser and Horvat, the Canucks actually struggled to put the puck in the net last year. They finished 25th in goals scored, and the additions made at this time are not likely to address that concern directly. The Canucks must hope that the depth they have in young players such as Jake Virtanen and Sven Baertschi can provide the needed secondary scoring. They must also hope that one of more of their talented core trio makes the leap from a very good 60+ point player to a 80+ point star.

These leaps are possible, and the Canucks certainly have the ability to surprise in the Pacific if everything goes their way. They should be an enjoyable team to watch as their young core becomes more and more experienced. And if they are close this February, expect the front office to make a push for the first playoff spot in nearly five years.

Answer: This is a talented team that should be fun to watch, but they will come up just short of the playoffs.

Vegas Golden Knights

Key Question: Can the Golden Knights return to the postseason and avenge their bitter first-round exit with another deep run?

Key Additions: Garret Sparks, Patrick Brown

Key Subtractions: Erik Haula, Colin Miller, Nikita Gusev, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Ryan Carpenter

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The Salary Cap beast came to Las Vegas this offseason and exacted its pound of flesh from the Vegas Golden Knights. The extremely deep and energetic roster that George McPhee built will continue to have enough talent to compete, but the time had come for some of their current players to get paid. William Karlsson got his money, and with the extension of Mark Stone just after his arrival from Ottawa in a trade late last season, the money disappeared quickly. Out go Erik Haula (to Carolina, obviously), Colin Miller, and Nikita Gusev in deals that were designed to alleviate salary cap issues. Three talented pieces that were big parts of winning hockey teams in Vegas are no longer there, and they leave a significant hole.

While many viewed building a winner from an expansion team to be one of the more difficult things to do in sports, based on the NHL Expansion rules, now actually comes the hard part in this modern NHL: Keeping a good thing going.

The Golden Knights will still have a deep roster. They will still have top-end play in net. But they will likely not be able to be huge players at the trade deadline for a finishing piece like that were each of the last two seasons. Can they construct a roster at the beginning of the season that will stand the test of the year and keep them as a contending team in the West?

Answer: The Golden Knights did lose some pieces, but the team still maintains enough of their relentless depth to roll into the Pacific Division playoff picture.