2015-16 Season Preview: Pacific Division
Since it’s August, which is a dry month in the NHL hockey world other than NHL.com’s 30-in-30 coverage, I’m going to be doing an early preview of the 2015-16 season, which will be divided up into divisions, which means there will be four parts. For this first part, I will be covering the Pacific Division. Disclaimer: Here and there, I’ll be using advanced stats to try and justify my opinions, and since I’m new to this stuff I’m having various friends of mine help me. Therefore if I sound like a total idiot still, I’m sorry but bear with me on that.
It was an interesting offseason to say the least. With players set to return to training camp by about mid-to-late next month in September, let’s preview which NHL teams improved, took a step backward, or stayed put.
The Oilers’ offseason went as expected, I suppose. After the San Jose Sharks had parted ways with their previous head coach, Todd McLellan, the Oilers took advantage of the opportunity to hire him along with coaches Jim Johnson and Jay Woodcroft, both of whom were also fired from San Jose. Personally, I think this is a great coaching staff. It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t help much in terms of getting the Sharks over the hump. However, I truly believe this is a coaching staff that knows what they’re doing. McLellan, of course, was an assistant to former Detroit head coach Mike Babcock when they won the Stanley Cup back in ’08.
Add the current coaching experience of this new staff along with one of two generational players in Connor McDavid from this past year’s NHL Entry Draft and you’ve got a team that could potentially be trending upwards given they really focus on working on a few key aspects, like defense and goaltending. They have no problem scoring goals.
Now, of course, I understand any criticisms that that opinion might get. The Oilers have a reputation and tendency to screw up the development of their first-round picks, and I’ll admit I was on board with that notion initially too. However, with some big changes coming out of the front office especially the hiring of Peter Chiarelli as GM from the Boston Bruins, I have a strong feeling that those changes will translate quite well onto the ice. It’s up to the players, now, on how they choose to handle it.
The Oilers also brought in goalie Cam Talbot in a trade with the New York Rangers along with Anders Nilsson from the Chicago Blackhawks to hopefully finally bring stability in net. The 28-year-old, who originally signed with the Rangers via free agency in 2010, spent two seasons (2013-2014, 2014-2015) with the Rangers putting up a .931 save percentage, 2.00 GAA, and 8 shutouts in 57 games of the regular season. In his only two postseason appearances during the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he accumulated a .846 save percentage and a 2.61 GAA. He was 33-15-5 in the regular season and 0-2 in the postseason.
Anders Nilsson, a former 3rd rounder for the New York Islanders, spent two seasons with the Isles (2011-12, 2013-14) while being bounced back and forth between the NHL and their AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. In 23 games played at the NHL level, he totaled his season with the Isles with a .898 save percentage and 3.05 GAA, along with one shut out in the NHL. At the AHL level, he accumulated a .911 save percentage, 2.67 GAA, and 2 shut outs in 46 games, before signing with the KHL’s Ak Bars Kazan last season. His rights were dealt to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Nick Leddy trade in October of 2014. Earlier this offseason, the Blackhawks traded his rights to the Oilers for unsigned prospect Niam Coughlin.
With the acquisitions of both Talbot and Nilsson, look for Ben Scrivens to be the odd-man out later in the season.
In the last of their noteworthy offseason moves, the Oilers acquired defenseman Eric Gryba from the Ottawa Senators to bolster up their defense. In his three seasons with the Senators (2012-2015), he totaled just 4 goals and 25 assists, with 29 points in 165 games in the regular season. In his postseason record, he only played 10 games in two postseasons with the Sens (2012-13, 2014-15) with no points, and was a -2.
Other minor acquisitions include Brad Ross from the Toronto Maple leafs and Lauri Korpikoski from the Arizona Coyotes.
While they still maybe a long shot from the playoffs, they’re certainly taking strides towards it. I think so long as the players themselves commit too, like I said earlier, they’re on the right track.
The Arizona Coyotes missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season, and the first time since changing their moniker to “Arizona Coyotes”.
The ‘Yotes haven’t had much of an eventful offseason either in terms of trades, their only trade acquisitions being Boyd Gordon from Edmonton and Nicklas Grossman from Philadelphia.
They signed Antoine Vermette, who returns to Arizona after helping Chicago win their third Cup in six years, and got back-up goalie Anders Lindback — who split last season between the Sabres and Stars — to fill the void left by departing goalie Mark Visentin. They also brought back defenseman Zbynek Michalek and signed former Canuck Brad Richardson, along with former Penguin and agitator Steve Downie. Both Michalek and Grossman (of Philadelphia) join Oliver-Ekman Larsson on the blue line.
A first round pick of the Coyotes in the ’09 Entry Draft, OEL has proven to be a cornerstone piece for the ‘Yotes defensive core. In his five seasons with the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes, he’s amassed a total of 55 goals and 99 assists, totaling 154 points. In his 16 playoff appearances in the postseason of 2012, he had a goal and three assists. Despite his mostly negative plus-minus ratings over the years, he’s a highly skilled defenseman with great hockey sense and is very skilled and mobile with the puck. Give him a few more years and he’ll be one of the Coyotes’ top defensemen.
Speaking of young talent, the ‘Yotes drafted center/left-winger Dylan Strome from the Erie Otters at 3rd overall.
Eliteprospects.com describes the 18-year-old, 185 lbs forward as this:
A competitive offensive dynamo in nature, Dylan Strome possesses the technical skills and the intangible traits that differentiate leaders from followers. He makes his own luck; no number that shows up beside his name on the score sheet is handed to him on a silver platter. He consistently showcases the size and speed to attack and break through the opposition defense, and always knows where his linemates are in relativity to his position. Possesses a hard, accurate release on his shot, which he is never afraid to use. All-in-all, Dylan Strome is a player who wants to win more than anybody else, a person who takes it upon himself to do everything he can to help his team win, and a leader who provides his team with the motivation and will that it takes to win.
I think the kid’s got potential, and along with the rest of the mostly young roster like Max Domi and former Rangers prospect Anthony Duclair, the Arizona Coyotes will be a threat in the years to come.
One player to definitely keep an eye on over the course of the season is starter Mike Smith. Smith, whom the ‘Yotes seem to feed off whenever he has a good game, had his worst season last year. He had a record of 14-42-5. His GAA rose to 3.16, and recorded no shutouts for the first time in his nine-year career. It didn’t help that the defense in front of him allowed 267 goals either, which ranked third in the League. According to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Arizona ranked 28th among all teams in terms of shots against over a 60-minute span, with a rate of 32.9 shots fired on their goalie.
As of now, I think the ‘Yotes miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Their defense has to be better, and the team as a whole needs more work. However, somewhere down the line depending on how things go, they could be in the mix for a playoff position.
The Calgary Flames had a hell of a playoff run before losing in 5 games to Anaheim in the second round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
They also made a hell of an impressive move in the offseason, acquiring Dougie Hamilton from the Boston Bruins for a 2015 first rounder and a pair of 2nd round picks from the same draft, a steal for the Flames.
Hamilton adds to what already looks like a pretty solid defensive core for Calgary, with Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman, and Deryk Engelland, along with Ladislav Smid. According to NHL.com, the Flames’ defense had the most productive season accumulating a total of 195 points. With Hamilton’s point productions, he could easily mesh into Calgary’s defense.
One minor transaction for Calgary was giving up Max Reinhart to the Nashville Predators. Reinhart, a third round selection for Calgary in the 2010 Entry Draft, posted 235 points (94 goals, 141 assists in 266 games for the Kootenay Ice of the WHL (Western Hockey League) from 2008-2012.
Can the Calgary Flames do it again this season? I’m going to say yes. Although the Flames largely remain the same, with Vancouver having downgraded this year — in my opinion — and the Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes having been where they are, the Flames have a shot at making the playoffs again.
Having mentioned the Canucks talking about the Calgary Flames, it’s only appropriate I talk about Vancouver now.
The Canucks did not have much of a successful offseason. Yes, they still have Radim Vrbata and the Sedin twins. However, they did lose a few key players, like Eddie Lack (whom I’ll talk about later on in this four part series when I cover the Metro division), Kevin Bieksa, Adam Clendening, Nick Bonino, and Zack Kassian.
Bieksa, who spent 10 seasons with the Canucks, reunites with team mate Ryan Kesler in Anaheim. The Canucks received a 2016 pick in return. The 34-year-old had to waive his no-trade clause.
In 597 games with Vancouver, Bieksa had 56 goals, 185 assists, and 241 points.
Adam Clendening and Nick Bonino went to Pittsburgh along with a 2016 2nd-round pick in return for Brandon Sutter and a conditional 3rd rounder.
Originally a 6th round pick of SJ in the ’07 draft, Bonino was traded to Anaheim after the 2013-14 season. In Vancouver, he was one of their more lethal weapons, scoring 15 goals and tallying 24 assists totaling 39 points in 75 games.
Per NHL.com, Brandon Sutter is expected to be “a big piece of their foundation”. A former Carolina Hurricanes draft pick in ’07, the 26-year-old center/RW scored 45 goals and tallied 33 assists in 209 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
According to Canucks General Manager Jim Benning, acquiring Sutter will allow for young Bo Horvat to naturally develop into the system. The first round, ninth overall selection in 2013 had 13 goals and 25 points in 68 games in his rookie campaign.
The Canucks also acquired Brandon Prust from the Montreal Canadiens and gave up Zack Kassian.
Given all these moves, I don’t see the Vancouver Canucks going back to the playoffs this year, and even if they do it’ll be a first round ouster again. Could they be trying to rebuild? Maybe. Who knows? One thing’s for sure. They’re a team full of question marks this year and years to come.
San Jose Sharks
After the debacle season that was 2014-15 in which the Sharks ended up missing the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, the front office in San Jose hopes to turn things around again especially in time for the 25th anniversary of Sharks hockey (I mean, you’ve got to think they’re going to really want to gain their fan’s support for this). The first major move in the offseason was to part ways with Todd McLellan and let go the rest of the coaching staff. Former associate coach Larry Robinson was bumped up to Director of Player Development.
With all the words being tossed around by General Manager Doug Wilson and us hockey and Sharks fans like “rebuild”, “retool”, whatever you want to call it, it all finally became clear to us that this wasn’t going to be a rebuild. It was a retool.
Although he hinted at potentially making a blockbuster deal at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the only real moves that were made were trading former starter Antti Niemi’s rights to Dallas, which they got a 2015 7th rounder in return and trading for former LA back-up Martin Jones, in turn giving up their first rounder for next year and unsigned prospect Sean Kuraly.
Afterwards, DW — though usually not the type to dive into free agency — did just that as he signed former Pittsburgh defenseman Paul Martin (17 goals, 92 assists) and former Washington Capital Joel Ward (57 goals, 64 assists).
First, let’s talk Jones. Yes, Martin Jones is an unproven goalie, with a save percentage of .923 and 1.99 GAA. While he does have his flashes of brilliance, he’s got a shaky track record at best. After coming off a great rookie season with the Kings, going 12-6-0 with 4 shutouts in 29 games, he had a less than stellar 2014-15 campaign, with only 4 wins and 5 losses. Of those 4 wins, 3 of them were shutouts.
The question is, can Jones prove himself to the Sharks to replace Nemo as the number one starter? Well, that’s a question that will be answered probably soon enough during the season as he battles for number one position with Alex Stalock, who also didn’t have a very good second full year coming off his rookie campaign. Now remember, before you people start crying inexperienced goalie tandem, the coaching staff and front office were going for potential, not experience. Niemi did have experience, but he was inconsistent as was the rest of the team.
Paul Martin gives San Jose a little more depth on the blue line, and could possibly pair up with Brent Burns. As for the rest of the defensive pairings, Vlasic and Braun will most likely stay the same. While both didn’t exactly have a great season last year (then again, neither did any of the other guys on that roster, other than Pavelski really), they’re still the Sharks’ best defensive shutdown pair. The departure of both veteran D-man Scott Hannan and young defenseman Matt Irwin also leave holes on the blue line, which will be filled by Mirco Mueller and, possibly, Matt Tennyson interchangeably throughout the season, both being young defensemen.
One last looming issue, one that’s been in question since Joe Thornton was stripped of his captaincy last offseason and since DeBoer said himself that the Sharks will indeed have a Captain prior to the home opener, is who’s going to be the next captain of the San Jose Sharks? Judging from last season and his overall attitude and work ethic, it could be a no-brainer that Joe Pavelski is named Captain of the Sharks. Other viable candidates are Logan Couture and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic. Last season, the Sharks stuck with four alternate captains: Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Vlasic, and Pavelski.
All in all, did team Teal make enough changes in the offseason to get themselves back in the playoff picture? I think yes. Paul Martin is a veteran D-man, and according to Wilson, is versatile and can move the puck well. Joel Ward spent the last four seasons of his NHL career playing with the League’s best offensive goal scorers in Alex Ovechkin. Based on the way he plays, Ward could either slot in on the top line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski — Pavelski being the other right winger on that line, or be a third liner with Tommy Wingels and Chris Tierney.
However, the question will inevitably be, will the players and coaches do enough to get them back into the postseason? If the Sharks can adapt to DeBoer’s “pressure hockey” system, and their defense along with their goaltending holds up — Jones and Stalock being key to bailing their team out, they might have a shot at third in the Pacific at the most or a Wild Card spot at the least. Otherwise, it’ll be another early offseason.
The Ducks are coming off reaching the Western Conference Finals for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup back in ’07, only to lose to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks.
In way of offseason moves, they improved themselves a little, trading forward Kyle Palmieri away to the New Jersey Devils. They got Carl Hagelin from the New York Rangers in a deal that sent Emerson Etem to the Broadway state. In other words, they trade a bit of their speed for size, which should be an interesting and nice fit for the Ducks.
Etem, the Ducks’ 2010 1st round draft pick, spent three seasons with Anaheim, scoring a total of 15 goals and 16 assists for 31 points in 112 regular season games.
In 23 appearances in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he had 6 goals and 2 assists.
Hagelin, a slightly more experienced player and the Rangers’ 6th round draft pick from the 2007 Entry Draft, spent all four seasons with the New York Rangers racking up 58 goals and 130 points in 266 games played. I think Hagelin will very well fit with the Ducks’ system. According to Eliteprospects.com, he possesses a great two-way ability, and a willingness to forecheck and work for the puck.
The Ducks also acquired back-up goalie Anton Khudobin from the Carolina Hurricanes and gave up James Wisniewski. Anton Khudobin could be challenging for back-up position with Ducks’ 2011 2nd round pick, John Gibson, as Frederik Andersen seems to be the undisputed number one starter.
As mentioned earlier in the Vancouver Canucks section, the Ducks acquired Kevin Bieksa. Though on the decline now as a defenseman and player, he could help mentor the Ducks’ youth.
Now, the remaining task at hand is for the leadership group of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf to get the Ducks over the hump and back into the Stanley Cup Final. After eight years of postseason failure, however, can they accomplish that? While Getzlaf and Perry have had great regular seasons, during the 2015 postseason they only amassed a total of 38 points (12 goals, 26 assists). Against the Blackhawks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, both Getzaf and Perry were a -1. Unless they get it together in the playoffs, they’ll be looking at another postseason disappointment.
Los Angeles Kings
After coming off a 2014 postseason campaign which saw them win their second Stanley Cup and three years, they failed to make the playoffs for the first time since the ’08-’09 season.
Including some off-ice drama with two former Kings, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll (who had planned to opt for free agency prior to his arrest), L.A. lost Justin Williams (otherwise known as Mr. Game 7) to FA. Martin Jones was traded to the Boston Bruins, who then subsequently traded him to the San Jose Sharks.
In the Martin Jones trade, their only one of the offseason, they acquired forward Milan Lucic. Lucic, drafted 50th overall by the Bruins in the ’06 Entry Draft, amassed a total of 139 goals and 342 points in 566 games. Standing at 6 foot 3, 235 lbs, he would easily fit into L.A.’s style of play, as they are physical and relentless on the forecheck.
In place of Martin Jones, the Kings signed Jhonas Enroth to a one-year contract via free agency. Originally a 2nd round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2006, Enroth spent six seasons with the Sabres and was traded midseason to the Stars in 2014-15. During his time with the Stars, he was 5-5-0 in 13 games played, with a .906 save percentage, 2.38 GAA, and one shutout.
Last season, according to NHL.com/Stats, the L.A. Kings were among the top 5 in goals against, and 18th in the League in goals for, tied with Chicago with 155 goals. They are also 19th in the League in wins (3) when trailing after the 2nd period — all while 5-on-5.
Overall, the Los Angeles Kings might have another rocky season and miss the playoffs again, unless their leaders and role players step up. However, on a positive note, 2010 second round draft pick Tyler Tiffoli had a nice season with 26 goals, 49 points, and a +25 rating. Look for him to try to build on his career highs in his fourth season in the NHL.
One player they’ll definitely miss is Williams, who had a huge impact in the line-up. The 33-year-old right-winger, known for thriving in big game situations, had 18 goals and 23 assists last season, and 9 goals and 16 assists during the Kings’ second Cup run in 2014, scoring two games winning goals.