Pacific Division Preview: Kings should stay low, but that’s just perfect
Who’s trending up? Who’s going to miss the playoffs? Who might surprise everyone? We’ve got answers.
The Los Angeles Kings will begin yet another difficult quest in a few days. The Pacific Division might seem like the weakest one in the NHL. Last season, only three Pacific Division teams made the playoffs - the Vegas Golden Knights, the San Jose Sharks, and the Calgary Flames.
The Central Division, when talking about the whole Western Conference, is still super-stacked. Only two teams from there failed to make the playoffs last year - the Chicago Blackhawks and the Minnesota Wild, and most Wild fans were disappointed about their fate. With a chance at Jack Hughes, who wouldn’t want to be in the draft lottery? Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the Kings with 71 points or the Ducks with 80 points didn’t cause much fear around the league.
Should this all change rapidly in the upcoming few months? No, not really. Looking at the Central Division, all the teams — right from the defending Stanley Cup champions, the St. Louis Blues, down to the young and powerful Colorado Avalanche — seem to have a legit shot at making a long playoff run. The Wild Card spots in the West appear almost impossible to get for the teams in Pacific.
Pacific Division Outlook
However, never say never. Last season, the Flames won the Pacific Division and the whole Conference as well. Superstars such as Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sean Monahan should shine still. They practically switched backup goaltenders with the Oilers, just a completely natural Alberta change. Cam Talbot signed with the Flames, while Mike Smith signed with the Oilers. Last year, the Flames looked super-dangerous, although their goaltending was hard to read. In the playoffs, Smith shone, while everything else fell apart.
Now let’s turn the page and look for our most-loved rivalry team, the Sharks. After posting impressive numbers last year, they somehow managed not to win the Division. Everyone thought it was over for the Sharks in the series versus the Golden Knights, but you already know what happened next. Struggling with several injuries, ultimately, San Jose failed against the Blues in the Conference Final. And yes, the wait continues; the Sharks still haven’t won the Cup.
In the offseason, San Jose had to do a bit of cap gymnastics. They lost their captain Joe Pavelski but signed Erik Karlsson to an eight-year deal worth $11.5 million per season. The Sharks also managed to keep their over-50-point producer Kevin Labanc for a ridiculous $1 million-a-year salary cap hit. The Sharks don’t have a first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, so they better win the Cup next June or wait another 10 years to get another real chance.
Far from being the underperforming expansion team everyone had expected, the Vegas Golden Knights have become a team to beat. Last year was brutal for them with blowing a 3-1 series lead and a 3-0 Game 7 lead versus the Sharks. Despite having no salary cap space, the Golden Knights achieved to build a contending team for sure. There is a hope Paul Stastny, Reilly Smith or Max Pacioretty will keep their mojo going, and that Mark Stone is their MVP candidate.
As for other teams in the Pacific, the Oilers look improved. Their team still depends way too much on Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and their magic. The first three picks to claim the playoff spots in the Pacific Division should be Vegas, San Jose, and Calgary. If I had to choose the fourth team on the list, it’s the Arizona Coyotes. In the offseason, the Coyotes acquired Phil Kessel and Carl Soderberg, while keeping their young talent intact. The Coyotes have been in the conversation for a while now, and they sure are about to break out, or explode, or something. One thing is for sure - something is bound to happen in Glendale.
The Vancouver Canucks haven’t improved enough to make the playoffs, but one would say that about any other team not being the Sharks, the Flames, or the Golden Knights. They should use a ton of youngsters this season. They luckily re-signed Brock Boeser, acquired J.T. Miller (giving up a first?!), and also signed Tyler Myers to a huge contract.
Over in Orange County, the Ducks seem to executing their rebuild better. The Kings could already see a bit of that in the preseason, but Anaheim will be looking to their young guns to run their system. John Gibson should be in the Vezina Trophy´s discussion yet again.
Kings’ Spot in the Mix
And now, how will all this affect the Leafs? I mean, the Kings, of course. (The Maple Leafs, by the way, are good in the Atlantic Division with four players signed for approximately $40 million.)
The predictions are harsh for the Kings. They should rank low in the Pacific Division (would you believe they could only get 55 points?). However, that’s just perfect for them.
“It’s a proud group that had a real tough season and is not happy about it. Does that mean we’re going to run away with things and win the Stanley Cup this year? No. But they’re a proud group that’s open to suggestions and trying new things,” said Todd McLellan, the new Kings head coach.
That’s probably the most important thing for the Kings, to start something new. Forget about what happened either in 2014 or last year. “You can’t win the way you did in 2012 and 2014. There are some fundamentals that you can take away from that, but you gotta learn new things. Get better every day. If you get to a certain part of your career, and you’re not still trying to learn, it’ll pass you by, quick,” said Kings GM Rob Blake.
“They were talented, had a lot of skill, but they had that inner drive and desire to overcome things. I’m not sure that was as high last year as it was in the past,” McLellan said as he compared the Kings from the past with the Kings from the 2018-19 season.
Yeah, maybe the Kings will end up low in the Pacific Division in the 2019-20 season. However, that’s not their main concern right now. They want to make sure they figure out some things and improve daily. To overcome their tough Pacific Division, and the Western Conference, opposition, it going to be very difficult. The Kings will try to find their place in it to start to build a new successful era.
Notes From Around the NHL
In the Central Division, practically all the teams should be in their primes, perhaps excluding the Blackhawks. Looking at the Eastern Conference, the Kings’ favorite opponents, the New Jersey Devils, and the New York Rangers improved big-time. In 2018, the Rangers were in the mix for Ilya Kovalchuk, but he chose to go to Los Angeles. That helped the Rangers save the salary cap space to sign Artemi Panarin now. Well, why not?
The Devils have been involved in almost every big move in the offseason. They acquired P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds, and Nikita Gusev, and drafted Jack Hughes. Both the Rangers and the Devils didn’t make the playoffs last year. Brendan Leipsic, the former King, signed with the Capitals. There will a heavy-loaded Metropolitan Division. However, the Atlantic Division can’t be overlooked, with the Tampa Bay Lightning winning the Eastern Conference for two straight years, and the Boston Bruins making the Cup Final last season.
To sum this up, the Kings will not have an easy go when traveling on the East Coast. It’s more likely than not that the Stanley Cup champion comes out the Eastern Conference. Nevertheless, last season, it was the dead-last NHL team from January winning it all, so anything can happen.