JFTC's 1st Annual Pacific Predictions Roundtable!
Spoiler warning for the 2014-15 NHL season.
This thing starts tonight that you may have heard of, though you'd be forgiven if you haven't: the NHL regular season! That's right, it's once again time to watch the Kings do infuriatingly awful crap that includes (but is not limited to):
-play Robyn Regehr
-Corsi the living crap out of their opponents and yet somehow still lose 1-0
-play Robyn Regehr
-high stick some people IN THE FACE!!! (and you better believe there will be blood!)
-play Robyn Regehr
-watch Jonathan Quick do stuff like this
-play Robyn Regehr
-no seriously, they will be playing Robyn Regehr
Look, we all know that the Kings are a pretty infuriating regular season team to watch. They're way too good to ever feel like they're really going to miss the playoffs (so no drama there- and be honest, even in 2012 you knew in your heart of hearts that they weren't gonna miss), but they're usually losing just enough to give them almost no legitimate shot at the Pacific Division crown by January or so. If the NHL wanted to do us all a favor, they would just automatically seed the Kings 3rd in the Pacific every year from now on and save everyone the trouble.
But maybe all that's going to change this year. Maybe this is the regular season where the Kings finally break through and win their first division title since 1990-91 (and only their second division title ever). You could just wait and see, but where's the fun in that? Instead, let our panel of experts* tell you what's going to happen before the season even starts! Sound good? Good.
(*and Ryan Dunn)
For the purpose of this roundtable, we asked almost all of the Jewels from the Crown staff to rank the teams 1-7. In addition to us, we also let Dunn be involved, because normally he has to associate with a Sharks fan and a Ducks fan all the time and that just can't be any fun at all. Finally, rounding out our panel of experts* are the two ladies from THX BUD, Chanelle & Diane. They submitted their picks together, so they counted as one vote. Based on where everyone ranked the teams, I took the averages and compiled our final list. I'll also list under each team exactly who voted for them and in what place (so as should go without saying, 7th place won't be listed under the Kings 'cause no one voted for them there, etc). Finally, one of the many contributors to this roundtable will try to explain each team's final ranking as best they can. So without further ado.....
(*and Ryan Dunn)
Jewels from the Crown Roundtable: Pacific Division Standings
1. Los Angeles Kings
Average Ranking: 1.5
1st: Andrew, Eric, Langluy, Nick, Robert, Sheng
2nd: Dunn, John, THXBUD
Oh yes folks, we went there. If you thought the JFTC staff would be too scared of the dreaded "homer" label to vote for the Kings on top, you were very, very wrong (when it comes to 6 out of 8 of us, at least). In our defense though, the Kings are really good at hockey. While I didn't personally pick them first in the division (and to be honest, I'm regretting my choice more and more by the day, but we'll get to that in a second), I can definitely see a strong argument that this is finally the year the Kings finish atop the Pacific.
The lineup is undoubtedly deeper at forward than it's been to start any season in recent memory. As hard as this may seem to imagine now, Marian Gaborik, Tanner Pearson, and Tyler Toffoli were all not with the team when the puck dropped to open 2013-14. All three will be in the lineup when the Kings raise their latest banner to the rafters. If Gaborik can stay healthy (granted, that's a big if), there's little reason not to expect an uptick from last year's 29th ranked 5v5 shooting percentage (6.51%), given his history of driving shooting percentage while he's on the ice. Of course, the Kings did see better shooting luck during the lockout-shortened year only to get submarined by a very poor year in goal from Jonathan Quick, so that alone isn't a guarantee of success. But if this is finally the season where both go right for the Kings- and by "go right" I mean "have shooting and save percentages that are both around league average"- there's really no reason why they shouldn't win this division. You know the phrase "if it wasn't for bad luck I'd have no luck at all"? Well, all the Kings need is the "no luck at all" option, and they could probably cruise through the year on top.
2. San Jose Sharks
Average Ranking: 2
1st: John, Robyn, THXBUD
2nd: Andrew, Langluy, Nick, Sheng
3rd: Dunn, Eric, Robert
Despite a drama-filled offseason following an ugly first-round exit, San Jose ended up doing basically nothing this offseason. That's mostly a good thing, since San Jose was excellent last year (54.71% Fen close, +47 goal differential), and with only minor modifications they're likely to be excellent again in 2014-15.
Those biggest change was the departure of Dan Boyle, who had an excellent run with San Jose but started to show his age last season. The Sharks did not sign a replacement (despite having plenty of cap space), but instead shifted Brent Burns back to defense, and then moved Joe Pavelski from third-line center in order to replace Burns on Joe Thornton's wing. All these moves leave San Jose with the weakest bottom six they've had in years. The depth is lacking on defense too; the club will need to rely on two of Matt Irwin, Scott Hannan, and 19-year-old Mirco Mueller in the top 6, which is a dicey proposition.
There's still much more good than bad in San Jose, though. The top-end forward talent is excellent, the power play should continue to be one of the league's best at shot generation, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been playing at a Norris level for two years now. Perhaps some drop-off is to be expected as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau approach their mid-thirties, but San Jose should still have enough to get home ice in the first round.
3. Anaheim Ducks
Average Ranking: 2.9
2nd: Eric, Robert, Robyn
3rd: Nick, THXBUD
4th: Andrew, John, Langluy, Sheng
That bubble has to burst sometime! We're not convinced that the Ryan Kesler Experience will make a huge difference since the Sharks and Kings are largely unchanged down the middle where it matters most in the West and, in the case of the Kings, there's more consistent firepower on the wings with a full season of Gaborik, Toffoli, and Pearson.
Infamous #1 Kings fan Bruce Boudreau has also already talked a bunch about how he thinks everyone is chasing the Kings this season. If this means the Ducks play copycat and focus less on going full tilt during the entire regular season in hopes finally seeing what the view looks like beyond the second round, then it might be just the thing the Kings need to slip past them if Perry and Getzlaf don't keep up their outrageous scoring. Most importantly, we all know Trevor Lewis is going to score a hat trick against great goalie hope John Gibson this season, and with that in the cards, they don't deserve to be any higher.
4. Vancouver Canucks
Average Ranking: 3.7
3rd: Andrew, John, Langluy, Sheng
4th: Eric, Nick, Robert, Robyn, THXBUD
Like San Jose, Vancouver was in the position of re-tooling or re-building this offseason. However, unlike Doug Wilson, Jim Benning didn't panic by throwing his best players under the bus. Expect bounce back seasons from the Sedins, Burrows (barf), and Edler. And while Miller's cost was exorbitant, the term was reasonable, and he should provide stability between the pipes.
Depth at center is a grave concern for an otherwise well-rounded squad; Bonino appeared to benefit from generous shooting luck last year, while Vey and/or Horvat may not be ready for a top-nine role on a prospective contender. The Canucks could use their improving stable of prospects to rectify this potential weakness.
5. Arizona Coyotes
Average Ranking: 5.6
5th: John, Nick, Robyn, Sheng, THXBUD
6th: Andrew, Dunn, Eric, Langluy
The 2014-15 NHL season hasn't even started, but the pecking order in the Pacific Divison is pretty clearly established. California's on top. Vancouver is a popular pick for fourth, and three teams with faint playoff hopes line the bottom. The Arizona Coyotes are one of those teams, and unlike the maybe-this-year Oilers and the finally-rebuilding Flames, the Coyotes are likely on the downswing. Arizona lost Mike Ribeiro and Radim Vrbata, two of their top three even-strength scorers, over the summer. Keith Yandle was left off of the Olympic team (sorry Dean Lombardi) and some struggles on the defensive end justified the omission. Mike Smith was average, and had a rough season before turning things around when the Coyotes were already out of the playoff race.
So why are the Coyotes in fifth? For one, ever since Dave Tippett took over behind the bench, the Coyotes have made a habit of exceeding expectations. The Coyotes are also looking towards new arrival Sam Gagner and probable team MVP Oliver Ekman-Larsson to each take a step forward in leading their respective units. Mike Smith could certainly put together a better season than he did last year as well. The Coyotes aren't going all in for the playoffs (as evidenced by the demotion of stud prospect Max Domi), but they aren't going to just go away.
6. Edmonton Oilers
Average Ranking: 5.8
5th: Andrew, Langluy, Robert
6th: John, Sheng, THXBUD
7th: Eric, Nick, Robyn
Picking out where the Oilers will finish is a difficult proposition this year. On one hand, the team has clearly made some big improvements in the offseason, picking up free agents like Benoit Pouliot and Mark Fayne that will help them possess the puck more (a clear weakness of the team last season). On the other hand, this team was still so bad last year that it's tough to believe they've really gotten much better. I've seen a lot of talk about how goaltending destroyed their season right from the start during their previous campaign, and obviously that's true to some extent because Devan Dubnyk was horrific. But that still completely ignores their 43.6% Fenwick Close from last season, 28th in the league and more than three percentage points back of 27th ranked Colorado. That seems like a lot more ground than Pouliot or Fayne will be able to help them make up.
Still, there's a chance they have a better year than many of us are predicting. As we just mentioned, Colorado was the next team ahead of them at 27th and still had a fantastic year on the back of strong goaltending and shooting percentage luck. Could the Oilers have a year like that, maybe get great luck while also improving a little bit possession-wise? Sure they could. But it's not a likely scenario. Hence why they find themselves down here in the doldrums, yet again.
7. Calgary Flames
Average Ranking: 6.5
6th: Nick, Robert, Robyn
7th: Andrew, Dunn, John, Langluy, Sheng, THXBUD
The Flames made some good additions over the summer with Jonas Hiller and Mason Raymond, but their defense is still suspect. There's only so much Mark Giordano will be able to do, and luminaries such as Deryk Engelland and Corey Potter will not help either. Sam Bennett and John Gaudreau (should they make the team and not be sent to juniors/the AHL) will probably propel their offense to some wins, but I'm not convinced Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller will be able to steal enough games for Calgary not to be competing with Edmonton for worst in the Pacific.
And that's it folks! In case you want to see where everyone voted individually in one handy little table, I put one together for you below. Enjoy the start of the season!