Our season preview ends out west, with the 7-team Pacific Division. This should be a competitive division and these teams should be hungry for a Cup-winning season, with three clubs that have never hoisted Lord Stanley’s trophy before. Teams are ranked in order of predicted finish.
1. Anaheim Ducks
This season marks the 20th for Anaheim, and they’re looking to return to their “Mighty” form of the early- to mid-2000s. Veteran Teemu Selanne is returning to give it one more go ’round, and is hoping for another Cup victory. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry lead the troops up front, and will look for help from new Duck Dustin Penner, especially now that Bobby Ryan headed off to Ottawa. Experienced defensemen Francois Beauchemin and Sheldon Souray lead a rather young core of blue-liners, who all will need to play well in front of last year’s stand-out goalie Viktor Fasth and vet Jonas Hiller. No matter who gets the nod in net, Anaheim should be good at the goal line. Look for the Ducks to compete for the top spot in the Pacific and very likely claim it come season’s end.
2. Vancouver Canucks
What an offseason the Vancouver Canucks had. First, they bring in fiery coach John Tortorella to take the reins behind the bench. Then, a few days later at the Draft, they ship supposed No. 1 goalie Cory Schneider to New Jersey, returning the goaltending duties to Roberto Luongo. Luongo compared his relationship with Vancouver as a “divorce where he was suddenly wanted back.” But he’s also stated that he’s committed to Vancouver for as long as he’s there. The Sedin twins should impress as they always do, as long as their focus is on the ice and not on the fact that they’re in the final year of their contracts. Ryan Kesler, if healthy, is one of the best two-way forwards in the game, and Alexandre Burrows also contributes up-front. The Canucks have a very talented and strong defensive core, with Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, and Alexander Edler leading the way. Luongo, who will take on the majority of the net-minding, will be backed up by youngster Eddie Lack. If Vancouver can find their identity in Tortorella’s system, they’ll contend for the top spot in the division, and perhaps they can get over their current habit of playing poorly at the end of the season and in the playoffs.
3. Los Angeles Kings
The 2012 Cup Champ Kings almost made it over the “Cup-hangover” slump last season, but fell to Chicago in the Western Conference Finals. They return a strong core in Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jarrett Stoll, and Dustin Brown. LA also picked up talented, but oft-maligned winger Daniel Carcillo from Chicago over the summer. It will be interesting to see how Carcillo melds with LA’s system. Drew Doughty, Robyn Regehr and Willie Mitchell lead a solid defense that boasts young talents Slava Voynov and Keaton Ellerby. Ben Scrivens came over from Toronto during the summer and will back up one of the best goalies in the league, Jonathan Quick. Quick should continue to live up to his name and provide stellar net-minding for the Kings. You have to expect LA to challenge for one of the top spots in the division and the conference, especially given the confidence they’ve gained over the past two seasons.
4. San Jose Sharks
The question surrounding the Sharks this year, as in years past, is “How far can they go?” The Sharks have an older roster, with 24-year-old Logan Couture only slightly tipping the age scale to the young side. Czech youngster Tomas Hertl may make the big-league team this year, and would be the only player under 20 in San Jose. Captain Joe Thornton, Martin Havlat, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Pavelski all have the experience and talent to lead this team to the playoffs, but San Jose has never reached the Finals in their 22-year existence. Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart lead an also-older defensive squad, but youngsters Matt Tennyson and Jason Demers will look to gain more playing time this year. Antii Niemi can always be counted on to provide great goaltending and should make his presence felt again this season. San Jose will be tough to beat and will have to prove that their age only improves their ability to win games. Look for them to remain in the hunt throughout the season.
5. Calgary Flames
The “C” has found a new sweater in long-time Flame Mark Giordano and, for the first time since 1996, Calgary will begin the season without Jarome Iginla on the roster. Iginla has a new home in Boston, and Calgary will have to move on without him. Mike Cammalleri and Jiri Hudler can put up points in the offensive zone, and will have to lead the charge. Giordano leads a good core of blue-liners, and will have help from veteran Dennis Wideman and enforcer Shane O’Brien. Perhaps the biggest story of the summer for Calgary was the retirement of long-time goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. The ’06 Vezina Trophy winner leaves a wide gap in net, and the No. 1 job looks to have fallen to youngster Karri Ramo. If Ramo, who’s played 48 NHL games, can prove himself and gets help from his defensemen, the Flames may find themselves in the playoff hunt for the first time since 2009.
6. Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers are one of the few NHL teams that can boast of being a dynasty at one point in their history. However, that was long ago and the current-era team hasn’t made the playoffs since losing in the Finals to Carolina in 2006. Edmonton has great young talent in players such as Neil Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and former No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall. Hall has yet to play a full campaign with the Oilers and, if he can stay healthy, will be a constant threat in the offensive zone. Edmonton’s blue line gained a major boost with the acquisition of Andrew Ference via free agency this summer. Along with fellow veteran Ladislav Smid, Ference should provide great leadership for the defensive core. No. 1 goalie Devan Dubnyk put up good numbers last year (.920 sv %/2.57 GAA) and can provide solid-net minding for the Oilers. If Edmonton remains healthy for a majority of the season, they could find themselves back in the playoff race, but otherwise expect them to sink closer to the bottom of the division than the top.
7. Phoenix Coyotes
Phoenix, the team that finally found a home. With the IceArizona AcquisitionCo, LLC purchasing the Coyotes over the summer, perhaps the focus in Glendale will return to the rink. Phoenix has been a consistent team for most of their history and looked good during their playoff run of 2012. Captain Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata, and Martin Hanzal will be joined by new Coyote Mike Ribeiro, who should help on the offensive side. Winger Paul Bissonnette will miss the first few games due to a suspension handed down after his involvement in a fight during the team’s preseason game against the Kings. Vets Keith Yandle, Zbynek Michalek and youngster Oliver Ekman-Larsson lead the way on the defensive side. Mike Smith has been fairly good in net the past few seasons and should impress again this year. The Coyotes will have to assert themselves early in their new division to have any chance to keep playing after April. But with the added competition, that will be a lot easier said than done.
Aaron’s Atlantic Division Preview can be read here.
Aaron’s Metropolitan Division Preview can be read here.
Aaron’s Central Division Preview can be read here.