The State of Every NHL Pacific Division Team at the Olympic Break

Rob VollmanContributor IFebruary 8, 2014

The State of Every NHL Pacific Division Team at the Olympic Break

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    It's the Olympic break, and time to check in on the Pacific Division as its teams prepare for the final stretch. Some of the seven teams are in the playoff hunt, others are preparing for the draft lottery, and there are trade deadline possibilities for them all.

    We'll look at where every team currently sits in the standings, where they were expected to be and whether they've been trending hot or cold. Using analytics we'll also identify each team's key strength and biggest potential weakness down the stretch.

    It's been a surprising season so far, with a division leader that very few analysts predicted, and a division basement occupied by one of this year's most unexpected disappointments. In between there are three teams in tight races for the playoffs, all of whom are in various stages of a cold streak.

    All this information and more begins on the next slide, as we take a close look at each of the Pacific Division's teams in alphabetical order.

     

    Playoff probabilities calculated come from Sports Club Stats, Hockey Reference and Playoff Status. All other advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.

     

     

Anaheim Ducks

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    Debora Robinson/Getty Images

    Current Status: The Anaheim Ducks blew away preseason expectations and are currently sitting atop the Pacific Division, with the second best winning percentage in the league.

    Comb all the preseason expert projections and you won't find many with the Ducks on top. The Hockey News had them fourth, NBC's SBNation had them fifth and even two thirds of the normally Duck-friendly ESPN panel had one of their division rivals on top.

    Even the analytics crowd got stung. Hockey Prospectus had them in a big second-place tie with Los Angeles and Phoenix with 91 points (behind Edmonton!), James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail had them fifth with 90 points and yours truly also had them fifth in the division, but with just 78 points.

    Whoops! The Ducks are currently on pace for a whopping 118 points and statistically have between an 11 and 16 percent chance of winning the Stanley Cup.

     

    Greatest Strength: Anaheim's engine is their top-line one-two punch of goal scorer Corey Perry and playmaker Ryan Getzlaf.

    This elite duo is the main reason why the Ducks are third overall with 191 goals, have the second highest team shooting percentage (10.2 percent) and boast the third-best goal differential in the NHL (+46).

    Perry, 2011's Hart Trophy winner, is currently tied for third with 29 goals, while Getzlaf is third in points with 64. Only Alexander Ovechkin has more even strength goals than either of these stars, who each have 23. Perry's 203 shots are fourth overall, while Getzlaf is fourth overall with a 18.6 shooting percentage.

    While an argument could be made for the great goaltending they've received from Jonas Hiller, who is second in shutouts, and Frederik Andersen, who is fifth overall in save percentage and goals against average, the real key to success has always been that top line.

     

    Biggest Weakness: While it's almost impossible to find fault with this team, are they relying too much on hot streaks?

    Anaheim has had some truly dominant stretches, including a 15-3-1 streak to start the season and a jaw-dropping 18-1-0 from December through mid-January. But they've also had some colder stretches, including a 4-4-4 stint in November and 4-6-0 going into the Olympic break.

    The team's success isn't based on generating more scoring opportunities than their opponents but on capitalizing on a greater portion of them, and in more critical moments. So far it's working, with a league-best 13-2 record in one-goal regulation time games, according to the data at NHL.com.

    But shooting percentages and close-game scoring can be an inconsistent and an unpredictable variable. If the Ducks are hot this Spring, then they'll be unstoppable. But otherwise they could be ripe for a first-round upset.

     

Calgary Flames

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    Current Status: The Calgary Flames are pretty much exactly where they were expected to be, tied with the Florida Panthers for the fourth-worst winning percentage in the league.

    The Flames are third last with only 136 goals, have allowed the sixth most (177) and their resulting differential of minus-41 is third worst in the NHL.

    Prepare for the draft lottery. Despite a promising 5-1-0 run going into the Olympic break, which included impressive victories over Chicago and San Jose, their playoff chances are little better than one in a thousand.

     

    Greatest Strength: Though perhaps not technically their greatest strength, Mikael Backlund is one of the league's most underrated players.

    Backlund takes on top opponents, often in key defensive situations, and shines. Among Flames, only he and the similarly underrated T.J. Galiardi are above water possession-wise, something Backlund has achieved in each of his five NHL seasons.

    Achieving great chemistry with Jiri Hudler, Backlund is also second in team scoring with 29 points. Three of his 14 goals were scored while killing penalties, one short of the league lead. Calgary's eight shorthanded goals overall is second best in the NHL and one of the aspects of their game that opponents take most seriously.

    Best yet, Backlund is signed for just $1.5 million for another year after this, according to Cap Geek. It is often forgotten that he is still only 24 years old and could easily become a key top-six forward in Calgary's long-term development.

     

    Biggest Weakness: It's difficult to pick a single greatest weakness on a team that is going through a rebuild.

    Their .895 team save percentage is second-worst in the NHL. The Flames have just 26 power play goals, better than only the hapless Panthers, which is unsurprising given that they've drawn only 179 power play opportunities, fifth-worst in the NHL.

    Ultimately, the root cause of all their difficulties is that they simply never have the puck. According to Extra Skater, their 46.1 possession percentage is fourth-worst in the NHL. A team without the puck can't draw penalties and will have their weak goaltending fully exposed.

    There's no quick solution to this problem other than to continue to make gradual improvements. They have a good coach, some good prospects and the cap space required to make the right adjustments. They can get there, it just won't happen overnight.  

     

Edmonton Oilers

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Current Status: Every year there is usually one team per division where everything seems to go wrong. In the Pacific Division this year, it has been the Edmonton Oilers.

    Preseason opinions were divided. Among the mainstream, this was believed to be the season where the Oilers were going to "arrive" and where their incredible wealth of blue chip talent would finally come together and threaten their first playoff berth since the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

    On the flip side, those who use analytics saw warning signs of further basement dwelling, as skeptically reported by David Staples of the Edmonton Journal. But even we didn't anticipate the full extent of Edmonton's defensive and goaltending collapse.

    The bottom line is that the Oilers are currently a clear draft lottery team, with a winning percentage and a goal differential better than only those of the Buffalo Sabres. Looking to build momentum any way they can, the Oilers are currently riding a 5-1-1 streak into the Olympic break, with an eye on building towards next season.

     

    Greatest Strength: The Oilers do have some tremendous top-six offensive punch. Their 9.3 team shooting percentage is ninth in the NHL, and it's mostly thanks to their young stars Jordan Eberle (12.2 percent), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (11.5), Taylor Hall (11.3), Justin Schultz (11.0) and Nail Yakupov (10.5).

    These five players, aged 20 to 23, have combined for 73 goals on 641 shots (11.4 percent) and have added 118 assists for 191 points. Other than Yakupov, they are the team's ice-time leaders at their respective positions and take on the top opposing lines.

    The Oilers may have 99 problems, but top-six scoring isn't one of them.

     

    Biggest Weakness: On the surface, Edmonton's problem appeared to be their goaltending, whose combined .899 save percentage is the second-worst in the NHL. Though they have replaced Devan Dubnyk with Jason LaBarbera with Ben Scrivens and Ilya Bryzgalov, the big problem was never the man in nets, but rather those playing in front of him.

    The Oilers gambled on starting the season without sufficiently upgrading their defensive talent up front and focused on having a great quantity of defensemen rather than a great quality. They have consequently allowed 197 goals—the most in the NHL.

    Edmonton plays most of their games without the puck, and in their own end. According to the data collected at Extra Skater, their 43.8 possession percentage is the third worst in the NHL and on a steady decline. Not a single Oiler has been above water possession-wise this season.

    That lack of possession has a ripple effect across their entire game, not just on their goaltending. For example, playing without the puck has resulted in drawing only 204 power play opportunities, the fifth fewest in the NHL. To make matters worse, their poor defence has resulted in a league-leading 10 short-handed goals, or roughly one in every 20 power plays.

    Getting the elite scoring talent is actually the hard part. Tragically, failure in the relatively easier task of acquiring good, veteran defensive talent has squandered a season that could have been used to take a big step towards the inevitable return to Stanley Cup contention.   

     

Los Angeles Kings

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    Reed Saxon/Associated Press

    Current Status: The Los Angeles Kings have been absolutely ice cold since the new year. Their record is a miserable 6-14-2 since a nifty 9-1-0 stretch right before Christmas, and they have but two wins and five points in their last 11 games combined. That's cold.

    The Kings are certainly getting their chances, consistently outplaying and outshooting their opponents most every night, but the puck will simply not go in. What makes teams go on scoring slumps like these? Anyone who has the answer could have a job waiting for them in Los Angeles (or New Jersey, come to think of it).

    While it may not be time to panic just yet, the odds of the 2012 Stanley Cup champions making the final four for a third straight season drop with every passing game.

    Thanks to a very strong start, the chances of the Kings making the postseason are statistically between 75 and 88 percent. They need a solution, and they'll need it before their schedule resumes in late February.

     

    Greatest Strength: The Los Angeles Kings are the best possession team in the NHL. According to the data at Extra Skater, their possession percentage is 56.1 percent, quite similar to where it was in 2012, where they apparently came out of nowhere to win the Stanley Cup.

    There is actually not a single King who is below water possession-wise, and they are also without a single player who has started more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive zone. They have consequently allowed only 128 goals, second-fewest in the NHL, though that is also thanks to a second-best .922 team save percentage.

    Interestingly, the Kings are an aggressive team who throws a lot of hits, which is atypical for a team that usually has the puck. Only Willie Mitchell, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams have received at least 10 more hits than they've thrown. Los Angeles games are consequently highly penalized affairs, and the Kings rank in the top three in both power plays for and against.

     

    Biggest Weakness: The Kings can't score. They have the second-worst shooting percentage in the league at 7.2 percent and the second-worst power play percentage at just 13.6 percent.

    They are currently sixth-last in the NHL with 139 goals. Their recent slump included a six-game stretch in which they scored only three goals total. That's normally something the Kings do to their opponents, not to themselves.

    A great example of this frustration is their hard-working captain Dustin Brown. Despite five straight seasons consistently scoring between 53 and 60 points, and an abridged 2013 season that was on a similar pace, Brown has just 16 points in 58 games.

    If there's a silver lining to this cloud, it's that many of these same things could have been said about the Kings in 2012 as well. They were one of the best possession teams in the league with one of the lowest shooting percentages. In my view, as long as they continue to outplay their opponents, the Kings remain an excellent Stanley Cup dark horse.  

     

Phoenix Coyotes

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Current Status: The Phoenix Coyotes are currently hanging onto the eighth and final postseason position.

    The Coyotes are sitting precariously atop a chain of five teams. One point separates them from Vancouver, and then them from Dallas, them from Winnipeg and them from Nashville. Statistically, their playoff chances sit between 37 and 40 percent.

    Their grip on the postseason is especially tenuous given their 7-10-1 record so far in 2014. Their recent 4-1 victories over Minnesota and St. Louis ended a skid of ten straight games in which they lost the possession game to their opponents.

    On a more promising note, all four of their shutouts this season were earned during that cold stretch, and half of those by Thomas Greiss, who is finally being called upon to relieve starter Mike Smith of his potentially excessive workload. Smith's 1,437 shots faced leads the league, his 47 games are tied for the lead and his 129 goals against is just one back of Ondrej Pavelec. The ability to depend on Greiss could go a long way to holding the final playoff position.

     

    Greatest Strength: Phoenix has balanced top-six scoring, which makes it difficult for opponents to key in on and shut down any particular line or player.

    In fact, the Coyotes have six players with at least 36 points, a feat that only Chicago and St. Louis has matched, and no one has exceeded. This is especially impressive since their leading scorer last year, defensemen Keith Yandle, had just 30 points.

    Joining Yandle, the five high-scoring forwards include Mike Ribeiro, Mikkel Boedker, Radim Vrbata, Antoine Vermette and Martin Hanzal. Captain Shane Doan would almost certainly have been included if he hadn't missed 13 games with a lower body injury.

    The ability to spread out effective scoring over two or three lines allows the Coyotes to make the most of what is otherwise a fairly average offence.

     

    Biggest Weakness: The Phoenix Coyotes need more effective penalty killing. Right now the team's penalty-killing percentage of 79.6 percent is fourth-worst in the NHL, and the 41 goals they have allowed is the third-most.

    This could be the fourth time in the past six seasons that Phoenix will fail to kill at least four out of every five penalties, with a 80.7 percentage in 2007-08, barely avoiding making it five for seven.

    An ineffective penalty kill can have a ripple effect. It can prevent a team from being as defensively aggressive as they need to be, and compromise their ability to protect late leads. That could be one reason why the Coyotes have the eighth-worst record when entering the third period with the lead.

    On the plus side, Antoine Vermette has three short-handed goals, one back of the league lead, and their penalty kill was highly effective in both 2009-10 and 2011-12. A single trade deadline adjustment could be enough to correct this.

     

     

San Jose Sharks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Current Status: The San Jose Sharks are flying high. They're sixth overall with 172 goals and fifth best in goals allowed with 140. In terms of the underlying analytics, their possession percentage of 54.5 percent is third-best in the NHL, according to the data at Extra Skater.

    Thanks to their great two-way play, and a league-best 13-6 record in post-regulation play, the Sharks have the seventh-best winning percentage in the NHL, and a four to eight percent chance of capturing their first Stanley Cup.

     

    Greatest Strength: San Jose is a team of many strengths, the greatest of which is their tremendous strength down the middle. The Sharks have built their lineup around a wealth of well-rounded, skill-based, two-way centers who help unleash the full potential of each of their lines.

    The Sharks' captain and leading scorer Joe Thornton, for starters, is one of this generation's greatest playmakers, and is currently one back of the league lead in assists with 48.

    Underrated superstar Joe Pavelski's 29 goals are tied for third in the NHL, as are his 10 goals on the power play and his 19.0 shooting percentage.

    Logan Couture (who is currently out with a hand injury) centers one of the league's best two-way shutdown lines, feeding most of Patrick Marleau's 202 shots, which are fifth-most in the NHL.

    Even fourth-liner Andrew Desjardins finds ways of contributing, winning 55.7 percent of his faceoffs and personally drawing 20 of the team's 210 power play opportunities, fourth-most in the NHL. As a team they've allowed only 149 power play opportunities, fewest in the league, for a spectacular +61 team power-play differential.

    All together, San Jose's pivots are sporting a 53.2 percent faceoff percentage, second to only the Los Angeles Kings. This is a deep and outstanding team down the middle.

     

    Biggest Weakness: There are goalies who can play every game without rest while providing consistently competitive goaltending, but Antti Niemi isn't one of them.

    Niemi, whose 48 games leads the league and who is leading the league in minutes played for the second straight season, hasn't always been the model of consistency. Only once in his last seven starts did he stop at least a league average number of shots. His overall .912 save percentage is 18th among the 25 netminders with at least 30 starts this year.

    Perhaps Niemi's workload is too heavy, having played in 91 of San Jose's 107 games over the past two seasons. If so, using Alex Stalock more frequently is an option, having earned shutouts in two of his seven starts this season, where he has posted a combined 1.26 goals-against average.

    Granted, Stalock had only 72 minutes of NHL experience going into this season, and a mediocre .909 AHL save percentage, but if the Sharks don't have confidence in him, they should take advantage of the trade deadline to find someone in which they do.

     

Vancouver Canucks

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Current Status: The Vancouver Canucks have been a dominant force for years, having qualified for the postseason all but two times so far this century, and carrying an active streak of five straight division titles. This, however, is not that team.

    The Canucks have actually been on a slow decline ever since their well-timed peak in 2011's heart-breaking Stanley Cup loss. They have lost six in a row at the tail end of an awful 4-12-3 stretch.

    They are currently sitting a single point out of the final playoff position, with only a 30 to 41 percent chance statistically of squeezing in by season's end.

    Even if the Canucks do scratch their way into the postseason, don't expect it to be any easier next year. A rebuild may unavoidably be in Vancouver's future.

     

    Greatest Strength: One of Vancouver's greatest strengths for years has been their penalty killing. Featuring a strong blue line, former Selke winner Ryan Kesler and highly underrated short-handed specialists Brad Richardson and Chris Higgins up front, the Canucks have a knack for shutting things down after being penalized.

    The team's current penalty killing percentage of 84.5 percent is fifth best in the NHL. Last year they were eighth at 84.0 percent,  sixth with 86.0 percent in 2011-12 and third in 2010-11 at 85.6 percent.

    Relatively small sample sizes can sometimes allow mediocre teams to have solid penalty-killing numbers for a season or two, thanks to a few lucky bounces or hot goaltending. To maintain great percentages for four straight seasons suggests a genuine proficiency.

    Of course, one of the keys to their success has been their blue line, almost all of whom are injured...

     

    Biggest Weakness: The Canucks are not healthy. Three of their top four defensemen have been knocked out of the lineup recently, along with two of their depth defenders. It's hard for a team to win with two injured defensemen, let alone five.

    To make matters even worse for Vancouver, iron man Henrik Sedin is also out indefinitely, along with highly underrated value signing Mike Santorelli.

    All these injuries are big reasons why Vancouver has been outscored 23-10 over the past six games, and why they have fallen to fifth-last in power-play percentage (15.1 percent) and fourth-last in overall shooting percentage (7.8 percent).

    But coach John Tortorella won't want any excuses. They will have to find a way to qualify for the playoffs with this current lineup, while hoping that they return to health by the time that they begin.

     

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.