The Los Angeles Kings head into the 2013-14 NHL season in search of a long-awaited Pacific Division title. However, the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks will provide stiff competition, while a team from north of the border is hoping to continue its regular-season dominance.
Despite winning the Stanley Cup in 2012 and making it back to the Western Conference Final in 2013, the Kings didn't come close to finishing atop the Pacific Division in either season.
In fact, the Kings have not won a division title since joining the Pacific in 1993.
Re-alignment has brought a few changes to the division, which now looks very similar to the 1995-1998 version. It includes the following teams:
- Anaheim Ducks
- Calgary Flames
- Edmonton Oilers
- Los Angeles Kings
- Phoenix Coyotes
- San Jose Sharks
- Vancouver Canucks
Here's a look at which Pacific Division teams will give the Kings the most problems as they hunt for their second division title (Smythe Division, 1990-91) and Stanley Cup championship in franchise history.
Stats courtesy of NHL.com.
2013 Season Series vs. Flames: 3-0-0
The Calgary Flames are in the very early stages of a major rebuild. They traded Jarome Iginla to the Penguins last season (now with the Bruins), and it seems as though Miikka Kiprusoff will be calling it a career. The latest change comes in the front office, as Brian Burke is now the team's president of hockey operations, according to CBC.ca.
With that in mind, don't expect the Flames to pose much of a threat to any team, as they will likely occupy the 30th spot in the league standings for much of 2013.
2013 Season Series vs. Oilers: 2-0-1
The Oilers have gone through a rebuild of their own, but are still a year or two away from being serious contenders in the Pacific Division.
Youngsters like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have the potential to be superstars and will likely put up big numbers this season. However, they still have some work to do to improve defensively.
The Oilers will be better than last season, but shouldn't give the Kings much trouble.
2013 Season Series vs. Coyotes: 3-2
After their best season in franchise history in 2012 in which they lost to the Kings in the conference final, the Phoenix Coyotes had a disappointing 2013 campaign.
With 51 points (21-18-9), the Coyotes finished 10th in the West and fourth in the Pacific. Although they may not be favorites to win the division this year, they do pose more of a threat to the Kings than the Oilers and Flames.
Just how serious of a threat? Well, that depends on the health and performance of goaltender Mike Smith.
Smith had an incredible 2011-12 season, posting a .930 save percentage and 2.21 goals-against average. However, like Jonathan Quick, he had trouble recapturing that magic in 2013. Both goaltenders have the ability to bounce back, and Smith could make life difficult for an L.A. team that has trouble scoring from time to time.
Smith and defensemen Kieth Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are crucial parts of a Phoenix team that lacks star power up front.
The Coyotes could make a wild-card push and maybe even find themselves facing the Kings in the playoffs.
2013 Season Series vs. Sharks: 2-1-1
With six division titles, the San Jose Sharks have finished atop the Pacific more often than any other team. However, regular-season success has never translated into postseason glory.
Still in search of their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in what could be their 10th consecutive postseason appearance, San Jose's roster remains largely unchanged from last year. The Sharks had an up-and-down season, finishing in sixth place in the conference, just two points back of their California rivals for fifth in the West.
San Jose's top two lines are solid and include veterans like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but it's youngsters like Logan Couture and defenseman-turned-forward Brent Burns who could make things difficult for the Kings.
Both players are determined, two-way forwards with good on-ice vision. Their lines will likely face L.A.'s top unit as well as the line featuring Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
The Sharks also have a great netminder in Antti Niemi who, when on his game, can shut the door on some of the NHL's top players.
That said, they lack the depth that the Kings have up and down their lineup. The Sharks are a formidable opponent who should make the playoffs, but the Kings still have an edge.
2013 Season Series vs. Canucks: 1-2
The Vancouver Canucks are the lone team from the now defunct Northwest Division that could cause problems for the Kings.
They rank ahead of the Sharks, just barely because of their depth and dominance in the Northwest, where they had won five consecutive titles.
The Canucks have an excellent mix of shutdown and offensive defensemen. Dan Hamhuis and Alexander Edler both topped the 20-point mark in the lockout-shortened season. Jason Garrison also had a strong year, finishing second on the team with a plus-18 rating. And, let's not forget Kevin Bieksa, who continues to provide a physical presence on the back end.
These blueliners not only work to disrupt L.A.'s forecheck, they will also help on the offensive side, moving the puck up ice and maintaining pressure in the offensive zone. This should help the Sedin twins have yet another impressive campaign statistically.
The biggest X-factor for the Canucks is, without a doubt, goaltending.
Roberto Luongo (and the rest of the hockey world) thought he was finished in Vancouver. Now the undisputed starter, perhaps Luongo will enter the season with a different mindset and perform at the level he's capable of. If so, he could make things awfully tough on the Kings' offense.
The Canucks are a lock for the postseason, but a sixth consecutive division title seems unlikely.
2013 Season Series vs. Ducks: 2-1-1
The window may be closing on the Sharks and Canucks, but for the Ducks it appears to be opening. The Ducks took the Pacific Division crown in 2013 and should be equally tough to beat in 2014.
They made a couple notable offseason moves that may help them in the immediate future and down the road as well. Anaheim traded Bobby Ryan to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Jakob Silfverberg, Stefan Noesen and a first-round draft pick. Silfverberg is a talented young winger who could see time on the Ducks' top line.
More importantly for L.A. fans, the Ducks signed Dustin Penner to a one-year, $2 million contract. The former King played for Anaheim briefly in 2006, before helping the team win its first Stanley Cup in 2007.
At age 30, Penner is still a strong third-line player with great physical upside. And, you can bet he will play with a chip on his shoulder come Dec. 3 when the two teams meet for the first time.
Anaheim also has the 43-year-old Finnish Flash, Teemu Selanne, back for one more season. Meanwhile, the dynamic duo of Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth should share the spotlight in goal.
The Ducks are a highly skilled team that plays a fast-paced brand of hockey. This should make for some exciting, closely contested games against the Kings, who will continue to play a tough, defensive style.
If there is one team L.A. fans should worry about heading into the season, it's the Ducks.