2014-15 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Pacific Division

Tom Urtz Jr.@@TomUrtzJrContributor ISeptember 29, 2014

2014-15 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Pacific Division

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    The NHL Pacific is one of the NHL's better divisions, and there are a number of teams that will vie for the top spot.

    The two-time Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings will be at the top of everyone's list, but the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks will give them a run for their money. Teams like the Vancouver Canucks could surprise people as well after cleaning house behind the bench up top.

    With that in mind, here's our look at how the Pacific could shake out in 2014-15.

The Favorites: Los Angeles Kings

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    Cap Geek provides a perfect snapshot of why the Los Angeles Kings are the favorites.

    They have a stacked roster of talent, and the majority of their top-end players have deals that are on the books for the next five years. The Kings have a great group of forwards that blends experience and youth, a defense on the rise and one of the greatest goalies in the NHL today in Jonathan Quick.

    Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik are two of the Kings' top forwards and are in position to have an amazing season, and Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez make up a blue line that blends offense and defense.

    The defending Stanley Cup champs have all the reasons in the world to win the division this season, because when you consider their proven talent and then factor in youthful additions such as Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli, they will once again be a force to be reckoned with.

The Challengers: Anaheim Ducks

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    In previous years the San Jose Sharks would occupy this role. This year the Anaheim Ducks occupy this spot because of the improvements they made this summer.

    Ryan Kesler will enhance the Ducks' forward depth at center, while Dany Heatley could prove to get a new life on a line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. The continued maturation of the youth on the roster will also help.

    The biggest strength the Ducks have going for them in the future is on the blue line, where their current defense corps includes Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Francois Beauchemin and Sami Vatanen among others. Fowler, Lindholm and Vatanen are all in their early 20s and had solid offensive production in 2013-14.

    The Ducks' defense and goaltending ranked ninth in the league last year in fewest goals allowed per game at 2.48,  a trend that should continue.

    The entire defensive side of the Ducks' game includes talented youth and experienced veterans, which is can also describe one of the team's assistant coaches.

    The blue line is also under the tutelage of assistant coach and Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Niedermayer, which can only help. The one question that people will ask of the Ducks concerns their goaltending: Can John Gibson recreate his end-of-season and playoff heroics? It is a valid question, but if he is unable to get the job done, Frederik Andersen will be more than able to stand between the pipes.

    The Ducks have a nice combination of players on the roster, and despite the presence of those who need to prove their worth, they will be the biggest challengers the Kings have this season.

The Cellar Dwellers: Calgary Flames

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    The Calgary Flames' roster isn't much different than it was last season. The addition of Jonas Hiller should help them win a few more games, but ultimately they will regress to be the worst in the division. The Edmonton Oilers should improve this season with some better goaltending and a different strategy that makes the most of the players on their roster.

    The Flames' loss of Mike Cammalleri and Lee Stempniak, two-thirds of their top line is gone and they didn't replace them. They do have Curtis Glencross, Jiri Hudler and Sean Monahan, but they aren't enough to make the Flames true competitors.

    The Flames are a team that could ultimately finish in the bottom portion of the lottery draft for Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. They have some talented players and youngsters such as Sam Bennett, but ultimately they are in dire need of more talent to compete in a very tough Pacific Division.

Best Old Rivalry: Los Angeles Kings vs. Anaheim Ducks

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    The Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks are the only teams in the California area to win a Stanley Cup. A rivalry between the two squads started when the Ducks entered the NHL in 1993; the teams first met on December 2, 1993.

    Since that point the all-time record between the two teams is tied at 53-53-11, and the rivalry took on new life last season when the two teams faced off in the playoffs for the very first time. The Kings defeated the Ducks and went on to win the Cup.

    The Ducks' demise during the playoffs came at the hands of the Kings' tremendous center depth, which is part of the reason Ryan Kesler is now a Duck.

    You can be assured that the Ducks will look to vanquish the Kings' supremacy in terms of Stanley Cup wins as they go for their second title in 2014-15.

Best New Rivalry: San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

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    The San Jose Sharks had a 3-0 series lead on the Kings, but it all fell through. The Sharks choked big-time, and the anguish of that series loss added new fuel to a rivalry between two California powerhouses.

    The Sharks' loss to the Kings has led to a shuffling of the deck within the team and the stripping of Joe Thornton as team captain. To add insult to injury, the Kings will be raising their Stanley Cup banner on opening night of the season, with the Sharks in the building.

    This form of embarrassment is sure to add some extra intensity, and sparks are sure to fly when the puck drops on October 8. 

Best Line: Marian Gaborik, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams of the LA Kings

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    Marian Gaborik is one of the NHL's underrated goal scorers and came alive during the playoffs. After his course had run with the New York Rangers, he was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets and then to the Kings at last year's deadline.

    On the Kings, he didn't have to be the top guy, and he exploded with Anze Kopitar feeding him the puck. That should continue this season, as Kopitar is an amazing offensive and defensive center and was finally recognized for the player he is during the playoffs last year. He has always been known for his two-way play, but he is finally getting his due as an elite player.

    Justin Williams is a perfect complement on this line because of his timeliness and experience. Mr. Game 7 always comes through in the clutch, and with Kopitar and Gaborik this line is a perfect combination to dominate the Pacific Division.

Best Defensive Pairing: Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin of LA Kings

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    Drew Doughty established himself as one of the NHL's top defenders last season and had a very impressive playoff run with the Kings. He's a solid skater, a skilled offensive player and a quality defender who can shut down opponents.

    Jake Muzzin is a defender on the rise and was quietly one of the Kings' better defenders throughout the playoffs. Muzzin has solid size at 6'3" and 214 pounds, is a solid puck-mover and can get physical if needed.

    The two work really well off each other, and both are capable shutdown guys but can also generate some offense when needed. The pair were amazing in the playoffs, and there is no reason why they won't continue to get the job done in 2014-15.

Best Goalie: Jonathan Quick of Los Angeles Kings

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    The Kings' Jonathan Quick has showed time and time again why he is one of the better goalies in the NHL. He is a two-time Stanley Cup champ, a Conn Smythe winner for playoff MVP and a netminder with some solid numbers.

    Quick's career record is 176-117-33 with a .915 save percentage and a 2.28 goals against average. His playoff record of 45-31 with a .923 save percentage and 2.22 goals against is even better, confirming his value over all other goaltenders in the division and conference.

Projected 2014-15 Standings

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    1. Los Angeles Kings: With tremendous depth and balance offensively and defensively, this team is bound for greatness in 2014-15.

    2. Anaheim Ducks: After making some improvements at center and infusing some youth in the roster, the Ducks have enough to contend in a very tough division.

    3. San Jose Sharks: The Sharks’ roster is still amazing with Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but it remains to be seen how far their goaltending will take them.

    4. Vancouver Canucks: The addition of Ryan Miller should stabilize the roster, and a new coach with a new direction should help Henrik and Daniel Sedin get back on track. Look for new addition Radim Vrbata to explode offensively as well.

    5. Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers will benefit from new consultant/analytics guru Tyler Dellow; his understanding of the finer details should enable the team to take some steps in the right direction. The Oilers are a team that could surprise if things break their way, but the blue line and net are still unproven.

    6. Arizona Coyotes: The loss of top-scoring winger Vrbata and the buyout of center Mike Ribeiro will hurt the team's offense. The addition of Sam Gagner should help, but the team needs more work. Look for some regression this season as the Canucks bounce back and the Oilers rise up.

    7. Calgary Flames: The Flames will be incorporating some young talent on the roster this season which could allow them to enter the Connor McDavid sweepstakes.