My Two Cents for September 21st, 2013
Let's Get Pacific- Did you hear that knock on the door? It's the NHL Season of 2013-14 and it's getting underway in less than two weeks. My Two Cents this week concludes it tour of the realigned NHL with a look at the newly formed Pacific Division. With the NHL's realignment project over the summer the Pacific Division will be taking on a more challenging look than in years past. The stalwarts of the Pacific Division, the San Jose Sharks along with the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and Phoenix Coyotes will all be there. Joining the Pacific Division will be the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. Exiting the Pacific Division is the Dallas Stars, who will remain in the Western Conference but are now part of the newly formed Central Division. Needless to say this will arguably be the most competitive division in the NHL. Frankly any one of at least four teams could either win it or be a higher seed in the post season. Whomever wins this division will have to battle hard to get it however they will also at the end have earned it too (it's that tight and that tough). With the addition of Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary this will add fuel to the fire and create new rivalries, some of which will likely spill over into the post season (the Sharks vs Kings being the example for last season). Teams are shown in descending order of projected finished with a point total (to give an idea of where a team stacks up against the rest of the division.) So here it is, "My Two Cents' " preview of the NHL's Pacific Division...
7) Calgary Flames (75)- The last four years have been long ones for the Calgary Flames. It has been that long since their last post season appearance as a team that wasn't aging well has finally lost to father time. The Flames have had to start the process of letting go of their recent past in order to begin a rebuilding project that will require their fan base to be very patient with the franchise. Amongst the final pieces of the 2004 team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals and finished a game short of the title, goalie Miikka Kiprusoff who had his best years in Calgary called it a career at age 37 over the summer. Jarome Iginla, the first person you think when Flames hockey is mentioned parted ways with the franchise in a in-season trade to Pittsburgh (Iginla in the offseason signed as a free agent with the Boston Bruins). Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Tanguay, Cory Sarich have all been traded away too. The Flames will be looking to fill holes and rebuild from within this season. The Flames at least understand that right now they are a project however this does not mean they won't complete night in night out. As a matter of fact, expect nothing less. Coming to help the Flames are newly acquired players including David Jones and Shane O'Brien from Colorado, plus TJ Galiardi formerly of the Sharks. The Flames still have some fairly steady and solid players such as Mike Cammalleri, Curtis Glencross, Lee Stempniak, Mark Giordano, and Dennis Wideman. Adding youth and a little speed are Karri Rami, Kris Russell, TJ Brodie, and Mark Cundari . In the net for Calgary most likely will be Joey McDonald, a veteran who has spent much of his career as a better that average backup. The Flames know they have their work cut out for them especially in the newly aligned Pacific. I would not call the Flames a mortal lock for the cellar. However they will need a lot of things to break their way if they are to still be competitive by the spring. If that doesn't happen look for Calgary to deal more veterans at the trade deadline to get more picks and youth in the mix. The rebuild is underway in Calgary.
6) Vancouver Canucks (82)- I know that some of you will see this and wonder what am I thinking. First, this is not intended as a knock on the Canucks franchise whatsoever. The Canucks have been one of the more winningest teams in the Western Conference the last four years lack of hardware not withstanding. However the Canucks may now be at a cross roads and actually look like a team that is more likely to be trending down than up. This has little to do with the playoff loss to the Sharks last spring, though for this franchise that loss didn't help. There is just a vibe here with the Canucks that doesn't seem to bode well for them. The move to the Pacific Division is a plus as they will not have to leave the Pacific Time Zone to play a divisional opponent on the road, and their travel will be reduced too. Alain Vigneault, the Head Coach in Vancouver for the past seven years is now in New York behind the Rangers bench. Ironically, the Rangers former coach John Tortorella is now the head man in Vancouver. They were not traded for each other, but it almost seems like they were. Henrik and Daniel, better known as The Sedin Twins are still a duo to be reckoned with. Dan Hamhuis, Jannik Hansen, Ryan Kessler, Alex Burrows, Jason Garrison, Alexander Elder and Kevin Bieksa are still with the team and are a solid group of players. The Canucks also made a statement in keeping stalwart netminder Roberto Luongo while sending the younger Cory Schnieder to New Jersey during the offseason. Brad Richardson was brought in from the LA Kings, and Mike Santorelli who split last season between Florida and Winnipeg. But why sixth? My thoughts are these. The Canucks have gone through a lot on an emotional level over the last three years more than any other team in the league. This started with the loss of the Stanley Cup series to Boston two years ago after winning the first two games. The last two seasons, Vancouver is just 1-8 in their last nine post season games. They had the look of a team that was spent. Honestly (and not a knock on Coach Tortorella) for some reason I just don't get a good feel for this team. Tortorella could rally this franchise and have them compete deep into the post season. At the same time, Tortorella can also be gasoline combined with a blowtorch which may send the Canucks south in the standings fast. The Canucks just seem to be a very spent team and will find it even harder to get out of the blocks. Also consider that in the old divisional line up, the Canucks only competition in the old Northwest Division was themselves. In the new Pacific Division they will be dealing with teams who recently have had their number such as Los Angeles, San Jose, and Anaheim. All three of those teams seem to be better overall at this point and time. The Canucks will have a much tougher time and if this team is spent it will take its toll. Add a coach who's known for being combustible if things go south, and it could be a year of major adjustments in British Columbia. This just seems to have the makings of a bad mix and some trouble ahead for the Canucks.
5) Edmonton Oilers (85)- This is a franchise who's current roster has the tough assignment of playing in the larger shadow of its past folklore. The Oilers for the last few seasons have been the NHL's youngest team and have gone through more growing pains then they could have ever imagined. The lockout shortened season of 2012-13 was not kind to Edmonton as they posted a 19-22-7 48 game record. Despite that, it was still good enough for third place in the division and a big step for the franchise. This season, the Oilers may still be a year away from being a true post season contender however that window of opportunity is now within the sights of this young team. Taylor Hall at age 21 is an NHL veteran now having played three seasons already. He has taken his bumps and bruises without a peep or complaint, then bounces back and goes at it even harder than the last time. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, still recovering from shoulder injuries is expected to be back soon after the season starts. Once he is back, he will be just as potent of a player as Hall is. Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, and Justin Schultz are all a part of a youth movement that now has strong experience and are players who are only getting much better. Sam Gagner who ranked second in team scoring last season has signed a new three-year deal and is also looked at as a team leader. The Oilers have also brought in some solid help during the offseason with the acquisitions of Andrew Ference (Boston), David Perron (St Louis), and Denis Grebeshkov, an Oiler from 2007 though 2010 who his known as a defenseman with scoring capabilities. In the net for the Oilers Devan Dubnyk, who after a rough start redeemed himself and is now a good candidate for the number one man in goal. Also with the Oilers are Jason LaBarbera (Phoenix), and Richard Bachman (Dallas). Craig McTavish, the Oilers former Head Coach and a player from their Stanley Cup glory days is back with the franchise after a few seasons away. He hired Dallas Eakins as his Head Coach to lead this team. Eakins, who has been with a few teams at an assistant landed the Oilers Head Coaching job after interviews at Colorado and Dallas. Eakins is viewed as one of the best Head Coaching prospects in the league. The Oilers have a lot of youth to be certain. However this team looks like a group that has started to mature and truly has at least an outside chance at the post season. If the Oilers have a good season and somehow don't make the post season this year, their fans fear not. This team will bust through the post season door soon enough and is on the threshold of being a very good team. The Oilers if nothing else will be a fun team to watch in 2013-14. Don't take this team lightly.
4) Phoenix Coyotes (88)- The Coyotes one season after reaching the Western Conference Finals fell back to earth in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. To be fair, this is one franchise that the players on the team diverse a lot of credit. The reason being that it has to be tough to play on a franchise that up until this past July was not certain if it was going to be staying in the Phoenix area or maybe relocating to Seattle, Hamilton or any number of points on the map in between. However the ownership situation has finally been settled and the Coyotes will remain in Arizona at least for the next five season, which allows them to focus on the ice more than anything else. The Coyotes are seen here as a team that can sneak into the post season. However in order to do that the Coyotes will have to raise their level of play on the ice now that the Pacific Division is a little more crowded than before. Add to the mix strong competition from old foes Los Angeles, Anaheim and the Sharks and the Coyotes will once again have their work cut out for them. Ofcourse for Phoenix this has always been the way it has been and it is nothing new to them. The Coyotes in the offseason signed former Dallas Star and Washington Capital Mike Ribeiro to a four-year deal. The Coyotes in addition also made internal commitments to a host of players including Lauri Korpikoski, Mikkel Boedker, Kyle Chipchura, and veteran net minder Mike Smith who has proven to be one of the top "shut down" goalies in the entire league. There is also ofcourse the ever reliable stalwart Coyote Shane Doan who turns 37 next month, yet can still play the game like he's 23 on his best days. The Coyotes are a team that when they are on will embarrass any team who just sees them as a just another opponent. The Coyotes may not be a Stanley Cup favorite, but they still can grind with any team on any given evening. If the Coyotes do not make the post season they will probably have at least some say on who does out of the Pacific Division.
3) Anaheim Ducks (95)- The Anaheim Ducks are a franchise that despite being now seven years removed from the title run of 2006-07 are still one of those teams you immediately point to in the Western Conference, not just the Pacific Division. In the time since their championship season, Anaheim has gone through some transitions and with the exception of maybe one season has always been a factor in the west. The 2013-14 season will be no different. Last season the Ducks reminded the west that there is still more than one Cup caliber team in Southern California, not just the one that plays just 35 miles away to their north up Interstate 5. The Ducks won the Pacific Division last season before a shocking fall to the upset minded Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the post season. The Ducks this season have a chip on their shoulder and are out to rebound from that loss and continue their quest for their second title in franchise history. The Ducks will have motivation for that too. Teemu Selanne, a player who will no doubt be the first Anaheim Duck to go into the NHL Hall of Fame on the first ballot will be playing his last season at age 42. Don't let his age fool you. Selanne is as in good of shape as most younger players in the league, and probably in better shape than any of us will ever be. Selanne's offseason training methods are very similar to former 49ers (NFL) great Jerry Rice. Selanne is still a very lethal weapon for the Ducks as he goes as hard as anyone in the league. The Ducks however are far more than just Selanne. Add Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Francois Beauchemin, and the return of Dustin Penner and you have a group of players that when they are at their best can be the "Murders Row" of the league. Anaheim meanwhile has very quietly put together a core of younger players that are already competing at a very high level. Emerson Etem, Kyle Palmieri, Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa are players that will have the Ducks competitive long after Selanne calls it a career. Jakon Silfverberg, 23, who came over from Ottawa in the Bobby Ryan trade, scored 10 goals last season and will bring speed to go along with youth. This combination will put Ducks fans at ease about the Ryan deal as Silfverberg has the potential to be a solid player for many seasons to come. Add veterans such as Sheldon Souray, Saku Koivu, Andrew Cogliano, and ex-Shark Daniel Winnik, the Ducks will once again be a force to be dealt with all season long. Anaheim is also solid in the net with Jonas Hiller and a strong backup in Viktor Fasth. Head Coach Bruce Boudreau coaches a very fast and up-tempo game which more than compliments the Ducks roster. The main thing for the Ducks is to win the division which they conceivably could do. If they don't win the Pacific Division title they should still easily make the post season. Anaheim will be dangerous irregardless of where they seed. The Ducks also have a chip on their shoulder and the emotion of Selanne's last season. The Anaheim Ducks are a bona fide Stanley Cup threat. Again.
2) San Jose Sharks (96)- The San Jose Sharks have been here before. They are the one franchise in the NHL that the fanbase has shown unconditional love to. This is a good thing. The Sharks have done many things well throughout their history and can boast about only missing the post season six times in 22 seasons. However the story with team teal as we all know too well is "Always The Bridesmaid, Never The Bride." From an entertainment standpoint, the Sharks for the most part have delivered. From a consistency standpoint, again the Sharks for the most part have delivered. However, for all of the success the franchise has had there is one thing that continues to elude them...the Stanley Cup (or at least an appearance in the Finals). Last season the Sharks were the NHL's version of a roller coaster ride. After winning their first seven games and seemingly hammering teams night in and night out, the Sharks over their next 23 games would go 6-11-6 and just looked bad. If not for goalie Antti Niemi, those six wins and six overtime losses may have both been fewer and the Sharks would have missed the post season for the first time in more than a decade. The Sharks are composed of the usual suspects, the Team Captain Joe Thornton. Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, Brent Burns and more. In the offseason the Sharks by an unwritten team rule did not participate in the free agent market. However this time there was more than sufficient good reason not to. The Sharks made a long-term commitment to Couture who has basically become the leader of the team and the face of the franchise. The Sharks also locked down Raffi Torres who was acquired from Phoenix before the trade deadline last spring. Torres seemed to light a fire under the team once he arrived and they Sharks rode that fire all the way to the second round before dropping a tough seven game set to the rival LA Kings. Torres however only played two shifts in the Kings series before being banned for a shoulder to shoulder hit that Commissioner Bettman and his minions didn't particularly care for. The Sharks also traded for Tyler Kennedy from the Pittsburgh Penguins and ultimately extended a new five-year deal to Pavelski. The Sharks are also looking to move younger players into the mix such as Thomas Hertl who could crack the Sharks line up shortly after his 20th birthday in November. In the net for the Sharks is veteran Antti Niemi who will be backed up by either Alex Staylock or Harri Sateri. Gone is Thomas Greiss who signed a free agent deal with Phoenix in July. The only real albatross for the Sharks is the contract of Martin Havlat who cannot be bought out by league rule despite the fact it's clear he may never play again. The Sharks are stuck paying Havlat $10 million in ghost money over the next two seasons making his contract the worst ever deal in franchise history. Led by Head Coach Todd McLellan with assistants Larry Robinson and Jim Johnson, the Sharks once again will challenge. The Sharks should once again make the post season. Anything beyond that will depend on the team itself.
1) Los Angeles Kings (105)- Simply put the Los Angeles Kings have emerged as the class of the Pacific Division. This is a team that when fully healthy has very few flaws to speak of. The Kings are not only the best team in Pacific Division, but also the best team in the Western Conference not named Chicago. The Kings like any other team this season will have its struggles throughout points of the season, however the line up with this team is very deep and is stocked with players who want to get a second Stanley Cup title. Led by their Team Captain Dustin Brown, the Kings simply comprise one of the league's best rosters. This roster is so loaded that Head Coach Darryl Sutter and his assistants know going to work every night knowing that they have a team that can take care of itself and there is little tweaking they really need to do. Aside from Brown, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Drew Doughty, Justin Williams, Kyle Clifford, Jeff Carter and more are part of one of the most powerful teams in the NHL. Los Angeles also has a good level of young talent on this roster with the emergence of Tyler Toffoli, Jake Muzzin, and Slava Voynov who had key rolls with the team that carried into the post season. Also the Kings added some edge with the offseason acquisition of Daniel Carcillo who won a Cup with Chicago last season. Carcillo not only will be a tough person to deal with on the ice, but also may serve as someone who can give a good debriefing on the Blackhawks. In the net, Jonathan Quick will again be the team's number one goalie, backed up by Ben Scrivens who was acquired from Toronto for Jonathan Bernier in the offseason. The Kings should win the Pacific Division and emerge as one of the top two seeds in the Western Conference simply because they are the most loaded team in the division. Even if say either Anaheim or San Jose were to win the division, the Kings will still be in the post season and will at least play into the second or third round of the post season. If they do all that and get Chicago figured out, the Los Angeles Kings could very well find themselves in the finals again, only this time as the odds on favorite to take it all once again.
Next Week- With the season divisional previews now done, the Kingshark Line will make its post season picks and predictions. The seedings will be projected by the point totals assigned to each team. A few days later, the regular season begins. Hockey and the new 2013-14 NHL season is not only around the corner, it's at the doorstep.
...just my two cents...
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