2015-16 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Pacific Division

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2015

2015-16 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Pacific Division

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    The balance of power is shifting in the National Hockey League's Pacific Division.

    Not so long ago, the league's three California teams dominated with their skill, size and determination while their Canadian cousins struggled.

    Last season, Canadian teams seized two of the three Pacific Division playoff spots, leaving the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings and perennial playoff participant San Jose Sharks on the sidelines.

    The deck could shuffle again this season as the Kings and Sharks look to reclaim positions they believe are rightfully theirs. At the same time, the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks will be aiming to show that their success in 2014-15 was no fluke.

    Finally, the overhauled Edmonton Oilers and prospect-rich Arizona Coyotes will try to make strides out of the NHL cellar.

    Here's what to watch in the Pacific Division in 2015-16.

The Favorite: Anaheim Ducks

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    The Anaheim Ducks reached the Western Conference Finals last spring for the first time since taking home the Stanley Cup back in 2006.

    Over the summer, the Ducks made changes to an already good club with the goal of moving one step further in 2016—and capturing another championship.

    "That group is not satisfied until we win a Stanley Cup," center Ryan Kesler told Curtis Zupke of NHL.com after signing a six-year contract extension over the summer. "When we do win that Stanley Cup, I don't think we'll be satisfied then either. We're going to want another one. We have the group to do it. We have all the pieces. We just need to put them together."

    Some of those pieces were shuffled during the offseason in an effort to take that next step.

    The Ducks said goodbye to free agents Francois Beauchemin, Matt Beleskey and Tomas Fleischmann as well as traded away Emerson Etem and Kyle Palmieri. Replacements include tough defenseman Kevin Bieksa, speedy forward Carl Hagelin and a motley group of inexpensive veteran free-agent forwards: gritty Shawn Horcoff, enigmatic Chris Stewart and versatile Mike Santorelli.

    Off the ice, the Ducks brought in 2013 Jack Adams winner Paul MacLean as an assistant coach. In addition to his three-and-a-half seasons as head coach of the Ottawa Senators, MacLean also served as an assistant with Anaheim under Mike Babcock from 2002 to 2004 then followed Babcock to Detroit for six seasons, earning a Stanley Cup ring in 2008.

    After logging 109 points to lead the Pacific Division last season, the Ducks look hungrier than ever. There's no reason to think they won't dominate again as one of the NHL's top regular-season teams in 2015-16.

The Challenger: Calgary Flames

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    In just one year, the Calgary Flames have leapt from Pacific Division doormats to one of its most intriguing and exciting teams.

    The Flames defied advanced-stat analysts in 2014-15, as Sean McIndoe of Grantland explained last March.

    Not only did Calgary beat out the defending champion Los Angeles Kings for the last playoff spot in the Pacific Division, the team then laid a whupping on the overachieving Vancouver Canucks to win its first playoff series since going to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2004.

    The Flames' success was due in part to emerging young talent like Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan—and, in the postseason, Sam Bennett and Micheal Ferland. Calgary also enjoyed career years from veterans like Jiri Hudler, Dennis Wideman and captain Mark Giordano, before he suffered a season-ending injury in late February.

    Calgary goes into 2015-16 with a healthy Giordano and a deeper roster, thanks to a couple of big talents acquired over the summer: free-agent winger Michael Frolik and young defensive stud Dougie Hamilton.

    All the key players from the storybook 2014-15 season will be back for another go-around.

    Flames fans endured a decade of mediocrity before their team's rapid emergence last season. As the Pacific Division stands right now, Calgary's better-positioned than Los Angeles or San Jose to try to challenge the Ducks for the top spot.

The Bottom-Dweller: Arizona Coyotes

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    The Arizona Coyotes finished last in the Pacific Division—and the Western Conference—in 2014-15, a mere two points ahead of the Buffalo Sabres in the NHL basement.

    The slide down the standings picked up steam as the calendar flipped to 2015, leading Coyotes management to deal key veterans like Keith Yandle, Antoine Vermette and Zbynek Michalek at the trade deadline.

    While Vermette and Michalek both rejoined the team as unrestricted free agents over the summer, Sam Gagner, Martin Erat, Lauri Korpikoski, Marc Arcobello and John Moore have all moved on.

    New free-agent acquisitions include utility forward Brad Richardson and tough guy John Scott. The Coyotes also traded for defenseman Stefan Elliott and picked up Nicklas Grossmann as part of the complicated deal with Philadelphia that involved the movement of the injured Chris Pronger's contract.

    After their tough 2014-15 campaign, there's nowhere to go but up for the Coyotes.

    Starting goaltender Mike Smith rebounded from arguably the worst season of his career with a gold medal-winning performance for Team Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Championships, so he should be back on form.

    The bright spot for the Coyotes in 2014-15 was Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who exploded offensively to lead all NHL defenseman with 23 goals—and who still has upside at age 24.

    In addition, this season the Coyotes will also start integrating some of the spoils they've acquired with their trades and high draft picks. Former Chicago Blackhawks prospect Klas Dahlbeck is expected to be a regular on defense, while blue-chippers Max Domi and Anthony Duclair should be part of Arizona's forward ranks on opening night.

    Expect to see a more competitive Coyotes team this season, but don't expect them to collect enough points to surpass Connor McDavid's Edmonton Oilers and get out of the Pacific Division basement.

Best Old Rivalry: Los Angeles Kings-San Jose Sharks

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    This season, the battle between Northern and Southern California will be all about regaining respect, as the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks both look to return to playoff contention.

    The Kings and Sharks developed some serious hate during consecutive postseason meetings in 2013 and 2014—both won in seven games by Los Angeles.

    Emotions ran high in the 2013 series, which was ultimately decided by a single goal. Then, the Kings delivered what may have been a knockout blow to the Sharks franchise in 2014—rebounding from an 0-3 deficit to win four straight games and start their improbable run to their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.

    The Sharks' 2014 collapse triggered a crisis of confidence, costing Joe Thornton his captaincy and leading to a coaching change after San Jose stumbled to the finish line last season, outside the playoff picture. 

    Meanwhile, the Kings also failed to qualify for the 2015 postseason and were unable to defend their championship. Los Angeles has been known for its ability to squeak into the playoffs before cranking up its level of play—the margin of error that pushed it to the outside last season was a mere three points.

    Last February, the NHL shone the spotlight on this evolving rivalry by placing the Sharks and Kings in front of a crowd of 70,205 spectators at Levi's Stadium near San Jose, but fans were treated to a low-key 2-1 win for Los Angeles at a time when both teams were more concerned with making the playoffs than putting on a show. All told, the Kings took last year's season series by a margin of 3-2.

    The rivalry renews on October 7, when the Sharks visit Staples Center on opening night for the second straight season as both teams try to start writing their redemption stories.

    Familiar foes on similar paths—which team will hold the upper hand at season's end?

Best New Rivalry: Calgary Flames-Vancouver Canucks

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    If you check out HockeyFights.com, you'll see that just eight fights took place during the entire 2015 postseason. Five of those eight happened in one series—the explosive first-round matchup between the Calgary Flames and the Vancouver Canucks.

    Calgary and Vancouver have a rivalry that goes back decades but has been dormant in recent years. When the Flames won their lone Stanley Cup back in 1989, they escaped the first round in overtime of Game 7 thanks to a puck that deflected into the net off the skate of Calgary's Joel Otto—a goal that could well have been called back today thanks to video replay and the standard of the "distinct kicking motion."

    In 1994, Vancouver got the upper hand in double OT when Pavel Bure broke in on Mike Vernon to win Game 7 of that first-round series and catapult the team on a run to the Stanley Cup Final. Then, in 2004, ex-Canuck Martin Gelinas was the overtime hero for Calgary in Game 7 of the first round against Vancouver, sending the Flames onto the Stanley Cup Final.

    When they met again last April, the Flames and Canucks battled like it was the old days—two teams who weren't expected to be in the postseason picture playing their hearts out with nothing to lose.

    Calgary and Vancouver will renew acquaintances with a home-and-home series to open the 2015-16 regular season—on opening night in Calgary, then three days later at Rogers Arena. 

    In a division where this year's playoff picture looks anything but clear, expect to see sparks fly right from the opening faceoff.

Best Line: Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler of the Calgary Flames

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    No line in the Pacific Division was more impressive last season than the Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-Jiri Hudler unit in Calgary.

    Chosen 104th overall in 2011 due to his 5'9", 150-pound frame, Gaudreau tied for the rookie scoring lead with 64 points and tied for 29th in the overall NHL scoring race last season, proving that he had more than enough size to hold his own at hockey's top level.

    Gaudreau's linemate, Hudler, tied for eighth overall with a career-best 76 points, and Monahan tied for 40th with 62 points—ranking them second in the Pacific in scoring as a line behind Vancouver's Daniel and Henrik Sedin with Radim Vrbata, which was broken up by the end of the year.

    The Sedin twins, of course, will be players to watch again this season, and the Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry-Patrick Maroon unit should be even better than last year in Anaheim if Perry stays healthy.

    Over in Los Angeles, Milan Lucic is showing early chemistry with Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik and—oh, yeah—don't forget to keep an eye on that Connor McDavid fellow when he kicks off his pro career with the Edmonton Oilers.

Best Defense Pairing: Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin of the Los Angeles Kings

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    The Calgary Flames boast the deepest defense in the Pacific Division, but with T.J. Brodie sidelined with a broken hand for three to six weeks, according to NHL.com, the nod for the best defensive pairing in the division has to go to Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin of the Los Angeles Kings.

    Doughty and Muzzin are now a longstanding duo and helped the Kings post the best defensive record in the Pacific Division last season. The pair was effective, even though its workload was heavier than ever due to the Kings' unexpected loss of Slava Voynov for all but the first six games of the season. Doughty ended up averaging 28:59 of ice time per game, second highest in the league.

    As well as being a strong shutdown pair against opponents' top lines, Doughty and Muzzin both chip in points—a rare situation in which both partners contribute at both ends of the ice.

    Elsewhere in the Pacific, as well as the Flames' defenders, keep an eye on Oliver Ekman-Larsson in Arizona and the young defensive group that includes Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen in Anaheim.

Best Goalie: Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings

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    Entering his ninth NHL season with two Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy and a William M. Jennings Trophy to his name, Jonathan Quick is by far the most decorated goaltender in the Pacific Division.

    While the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers start fresh in net this year with Martin Jones and Cam Talbot, respectively, Quick has been an anchor for the Kings for nearly a decade—handling a heavy workload and playing his best hockey when the pressure mounts.

    Last season, Quick's 2.24 goals-against average was the best in the Pacific Division, as were his 36 wins. 

    In concert with his top defense pairing of Doughty and Muzzin, Quick should prove to be a strong anchor as Los Angeles fights its way back into playoff contention.

Projected 2015-16 Standings

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    1. Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks have taken aggressive steps to overcome their shortcomings. Another strong regular season will be used primarily to set the scene for a determined playoff run.

    2. Calgary Flames: In a very short time, the Flames have built a deep lineup that's well-balanced between skill and grit and features a solid veteran presence mixed with an impressive crop of young talent. The Flames will show that last season's success wasn't a fluke.

    3. Los Angeles Kings: The Kings boast too much raw talent to miss the playoffs for a second straight season. Assuming their off-ice issues are behind them, a long summer of rest and training should see the Los Angeles players in top form to start the year.

    4. San Jose Sharks: The Sharks are also deep with talent and will have a fresh voice behind the bench this year, but the team's chemistry issues will continue to cause trouble. Best-case scenario: San Jose will be pressing for a wild-card playoff spot.

    5. Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks surprised with 101 points and second-place standing in the Pacific Division last year. They'll be hard-pressed to match that achievement if the Kings and Sharks bounce back as expected this season.

    6. Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers' new blood on and off the ice will form a foundation for a strong future, but Connor McDavid's not going to vault Edmonton into the playoffs in his rookie season. Edmonton's still a couple of players away from being able to ice an NHL-caliber defense.

    7. Arizona Coyotes: An infusion of young talent will bring some excitement to the Gila River Arena this season, but the Coyotes will find themselves in the draft lottery conversation once again at the end of the year.