The defending Stanley Cup champions. The best player in the world. A rising power.
Yeah, the Pacific Division is good.
If the Pacific is not the National Hockey League’s best division, then it is in the discussion with the Metropolitan. And as such, the teams that represent it in the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be sharp due to their nightly battles with the rest of the division.
THE PACIFIC DIVISION
NO. 1: EDMONTON OILERS
OVERVIEW: The logical next steps for the National Hockey League’s most explosive team is a Stanley Cup Final appearance and the franchise’s sixth Cup. Edmonton is built around Connor McDavid, the league’s best player, and Leon Draisaitl, merely one of the ten best players in the NHL. McDavid finished last season with 64 goals and 153 points in 82 games. Draisaitl had 52 goals and 128 points in 80 games.
FORWARDS: Here’s a frightening thought: The most lethal offense in the National Hockey League could be better in 2023-24. First line left wing Evander Kane (16-12-28) was limited to 41 games after he was cut on the left wrist by Philippe Myers’ skate blade. McDavid’s junior buddy Connor Brown can contribute secondary scoring.
DEFENSEMEN: Edmonton finished 2022-23 with the league’s best power-play conversion percentage (32.4%). Here’s the thing: It could have been better. Organizational decision-makers had flirted with the idea of trading for then-Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson before going in a different direction. Will the Oilers regret passing on Karlsson, who was traded to Pittsburgh this summer?
GOALTENDING: General manager Ken Holland signed Jack Campbell in the summer of 2022 to be Edmonton’s No. 1 goaltender. By the end of the playoffs, rookie Stuart Skinner had replaced Campbell. It was a meritorious promotion. Skinner compiled a 29-14-5 record in 50 games with a 2.75 goals-against average and .914 save percentage, while Campbell finished last season with a 3.14 goals against average and .888 save percentage in 36 games.
KEY TO THE SEASON: No one expects these Oilers to transform into the 1990s Devils. But if Edmonton can slightly improve defensively while maintaining its offensive potency, they can compete for the Cup.
NO. 2: VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS:
OVERVIEW: The reigning Stanley Cup champions remain almost fully intact. As such, they are among the favorites to win the Cup in 2023-24.
FORWARDS: A terrific group is led by captain Mark Stone, Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Marchessault, and first line center Jack Eichel. Ivan Barbashev, William ‘Wild Bill’ Karlsson, and Chandler Stephenson provide quality depth.
DEFENSEMEN: Arguably the NHL’s best defense corps. Vegas’ defensemen are tall, with impressive reach, and possess skill and toughness. To summarize: The Golden Knights’ defense corps often cause long nights for opposing forwards.
GOALTENDING: What can Adin Hill do for an encore? The 27-year-old became a star in the playoffs, compiling a 11-4 record in 16 games – starting 14– with a .932 save percentage, 2.17 goals-against average, and two shutouts. He will be Vegas’ No. 1 goaltender on opening night.
KEY TO THE SEASON: The last team to win consecutive Cups is the 2019-20 and 2020-21 Tampa Bay Lightning. The Knights have to be considered a favorite to repeat.
NO. 3: LOS ANGELES KINGS:
OVERVIEW: When Rob Blake took over as general manager of the Kings in 2017, the plan was to play the long game; to rebuild the organization with youth and skill. Entering his seventh season, the goal is to win. Consecutive first round playoff exits will do that. To that end, Blake traded Gabe Vilardi, Alex Iafallo, and Rasmus Kupari to Winnipeg for Pierre-Luc Dubois.
FORWARDS: Subtracting Vilardi, Iafallo, and Kupari from the organization was a steep cost, but it was always going to be expensive to land Dubois, who should slot in as a power center on the second line. Future Hall-of-Famer Anze Kopitar centers the top line and has Adrian Kempe, who led the team with 41 goals, on his right side.
DEFENSEMEN: Like Kopitar, Drew Doughty is one of the bridges between the Kings’ Cup teams and the organization’s present and future. Doughty and Matt Roy tied for the team lead amongst defenseman with nine goals. Doughty’s partner, Mikey Anderson, plays a physical game which irritates opponents. Vladislav Gavrikov, who was acquired in a trade deadline deal with Columbus, played well enough to sign an extension during the off-season.
KEY TO THE SEASON: How long it takes Dubois and his linemates to develop chemistry will be key. Additionally, can Talbot and Copley play well enough to keep Blake from having to make a move for Connor Hellebuyck or Anaheim’s John Gibson?
NO. 4: SEATTLE KRAKEN:
OVERVIEW: What can the Kraken do in Year 3? In the franchise’s second season, Seattle qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time. The Kraken eliminated the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Avalanche in the first round and took Dallas to Game 7 in their second round series.
FORWARDS: Historically, Stanley Cup-championship winning teams are deep down the middle, have a legitimate No. 1 defenseman, and strong goaltending. Matty Beniers and Shane Wright help the Kraken check off the first box. Beniers, the second overall pick in the 2021 draft, recorded a 24-goal, 57-point campaign last season. And he will be joined in short order by Wright, the fourth overall pick in the 2022 draft.
DEFENSEMEN: Perhaps the blueprint for a modern NHL defense corps. The Kraken have three puck movers in Vince Dunn, Justin Schultz, and Will Borgen, and three defensively-focused blueliners in Adam Larsson, Brian Dumoulin, and Jamie Oleksiak.
GOALTENDING: The Kraken win in spite of their goaltending, not because of it. Starter Philipp Grubauer compiled a 17-14-4 record in 39 games with a 2.85 goals-against average, but had a .895 save percentage. Finding a capable No. 2 goaltender is also on general manager Ron Francis’ to-do list.
KEY TO THE SEASON: The Kraken will not catch anyone by surprise in 2023-24. How will they respond to having a target on their back?
NO. 5: CALGARY FLAMES:
OVERVIEW: It can only get better in Calgary. Because it’s not possible for things to get worse. A nightmarish 2022-23 season began with the free agent loss of Johnny Gaudreau and the trade of Matthew Tkachuk in the summer of 2022. Following a regular season in which the Flames were 38-27-17, then-general manager Brad Treliving left for the same role in Toronto, then-head coach Darryl Sutter was fired, and top-six scoring winger Tyler Toffoli was traded to New Jersey.
FORWARDS: Question: What is the least optimal approach a coach could take after his general manager acquired a speedy and skilled player such as Jonathan Huberdeau? If you’re Sutter, you take away his strengths by making him play a grinding style. New general manager Craig Conroy acquired skilled forward Yegor Sharangovich in the Toffoli trade, and the possibility exists the 25-year-old and Huberdeau could find themselves on the right and left sides of top-line center Elias Lindholm.
DEFENSEMEN: The bright spot for the Flames in 2022-23. Calgary’s defense corps is strong in its own end and has the skill to contribute on the offensive end. Treliving was praised for landing MacKenzie Weegar in the Tkachuk trade, and it will be a boon if Conroy can sign Noah Hanifin to a long-term contract extension.
GOALTENDING: A bounce-back season from Jacob Markstrom would go a long way to help the Flames course-correct. Calgary’s No. 1 goaltender was 23-21-12 in 59 games with a 2.92 goals-against average and .892 save percentage. Backup Dan Vladar was not much better (14-6-5 with a 2.91 goals-against average and .895 save percentage in 27 games).
KEY TO THE SEASON: Getting off to a good start to the season would be a positive for a franchise that is still recovering from the 2022-23 maelstrom.
NO. 6: VANCOUVER CANUCKS:
OVERVIEW: It cannot get worse. The Canucks were a disaster on-and-off-the-ice last season, beginning with players publicly criticizing the medical staff and capped with the unsightly courting of then-TNT studio analyst Rick Tocchet to replace Bruce Boudreau as head coach, though Boudreau was still in place.
FORWARDS: The thing about the Canucks is that they can score. Vancouver finished 13th in the NHL in goals per game (3.29), led by Elias Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko. The duo tied for the team lead with 39 goals each. Brock Boeser (18-37-55), J.T. Miller (32-50-82), and Anthony Beauvillier (18-22-40) are capable depth scorers.
DEFENSEMEN: The Canucks recently announced Quinn Hughes had been named captain. The 23-year-old finished last season with 76 points (seven goals and 69 assists) in 78 games as Vancouver’s No. 1 defenseman. Filip Hronek, Tyler Myers, Ian Cole, Carson Soucy, and Matt Irwin round out a corps that finished 25th in the NHL in goals against average (3.61).
GOALTENDING: Thatcher Demko was limited to 32 games in 2022-23 due to injuries. When he was on the ice, he compiled a 14-14-4 record with a 3.16 goals-against average and .901 save percentage. How much of that was due to a team that did not have a defensive structure and how much fell on Demko?
KEY TO THE SEASON: Will Tocchet implement a system and structure and accountability to a team that appeared to have none of those attributes last season?
NO. 7: ANAHEIM DUCKS:
OVERVIEW: The rebuild continues.
FORWARDS: Trevor Zegras, Troy Terry, Mason McTavish and Leo Carlsson will be the foundation upon which Anaheim’s forward corps is built upon. Veterans Adam Henrique, Ryan Strome, and free agent signee Alex Killorn are in the fold due to their experience and the not-insignificant fact that they can still contribute on the stat sheet.
DEFENSEMEN: It wasn’t all that long ago that the Ducks had the likes of Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Dmitry Kulikov, and John Klingberg on their blueline. All have left Orange County for other NHL destinations. Franchise stalwart Cam Fowler returns and general manager Pat Verbeek brought in Radko Gudas and Robert Hagg to add experienced depth.
GOALTENDING: Multiple things can be true. Here is an example: John Gibson is a talented goaltender. John Gibson had an awful statistical 2022-23 (14-31-8; 3.99 goals-against average; .899 save percentage). John Gibson faced 1,983 shots last season. John Gibson played in 53 games and started 52. Will newly hired head coach Greg Cronin implement a defensive structure that limits the number of shots Gibson faces on a nightly basis? Or does Verbeek trade Gibson to a contender looking to upgrade in net (New Jersey?).
KEY TO THE SEASON: Anaheim won’t be a playoff team this season, but can the additions of Killorn and Gudas help the maturation process of the Ducks’ young players?
NO. 8: SAN JOSE SHARKS:
OVERVIEW: San Jose has never drafted first overall in the franchise’s 32 NHL seasons. Will that change after the 2023-24 season?
DEFENSEMEN: General Manager Mike Grier and head coach David Quinn are essentially running back the same corps that helped the Sharks finish 30th in the NHL in goals against average (3.84). Newcomers Jan Rutta and Kyle Burroughs add depth, but aren’t franchise-changers.
GOALTENDING: As previously noted, keeping the puck out of the net was an issue for the Sharks last season. Kaapo Kahkonen returns and it’s likely that he will be part of a tandem with former Devil, Mackenzie Blackwood.
KEY TO THE SEASON: See overview.