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NHL season-preview capsules: Pacific Division

Pacific Division capsules

Anaheim Ducks
Head coach: Greg Cronin (first season)
Last season: 23-47-12, eighth place in Pacific Division
This season: It is hard to imagine this season can actually be worse than the 2022-23 campaign for the Ducks. They finished at the bottom of the league, at times looking like a glorified minor league team, and then did not even win the draft lottery. A new coach, some veteran additions on defense and a year’s worth of more experience for their stable of young talent will help. Anaheim should be better. Not much better, but better.
What’s new: Cronin takes over a team that was an absolute disaster on defense, but the blue line will be aided by the additions of Radko Gudas and Ilya Lyubushkin, and currently injured forward Alex Killorn arrived, too. Expect to see a rookie defenseman, Olen Zellweger, the WHL’s top blue-liner the past two seasons, and Pavel Mintyukov, the 10th overall pick in the 2022 draft, in the mix, too. Of course, the big addition is the second pick of this year’s draft, 18-year-old center Leo Carlsson, who may already be ready for the NHL game.
Players to watch: Despite having diminished expectations over the past few seasons, the Ducks are a squad loaded with talent, starting with goalie John Gibson, forwards Trevor Zegras, Troy Terry, Mason McTavish and veteran leader Adam Henrique, plus a defense that includes Cam Fowler and another rising star, Jamie Drysdale. However, the skill level has a massive drop-off following those headliners. Cronin, a longtime collegiate bench boss, is getting his first opportunity to run an NHL team at age 60. Expect to see a better team in Anaheim this season.

Calgary Flames
Head coach: Ryan Huska (first season)
Last season: 38-27-17, fifth place in Pacific Division
This season: On paper, the Flames were a playoff team last season. Didn’t happen. And yet again, on paper, Calgary should be a playoff team this time around. With much of the same squad that fell short last season, the Flames are looking to bounce back. There should be a more positive atmosphere surrounding the club in 2023-24 without Darryl Sutter as coach. The underlying issue, however, is the status of key pending unrestricted free agents, top-line center Elias Lindholm and defensemen Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev and Nikita Zadorov.
What’s new: First-time NHL coach Huska is guiding a team that dealt away top scorer Tyler Toffoli to the New Jersey Devils for forward Yegor Sharangovich and is looking to 2021 first-round draft pick Matt Coronato to provide an offensive boost. Calgary also expected to have 2019 first-rounder Jakob Pelletier on a full-time basis, but a preseason shoulder injury will keep the winger on the sidelines for months. Other additions are around the edges, such as depth defenseman Jordan Oesterle.
Players to watch: Last year was a major disappointment for Jonathan Huberdeau in his first season with Calgary following a trade with the Florida Panthers that sent Matthew Tkachuk the other way. Huberdeau spent the offseason working to regain his confidence. Goaltender Jacob Markstrom went from top-three status two seasons ago to sub-standard, and he should be on track to perform at least more to the tune of his career average. One strength the Flames do boast is a strong defense. They do not have a Norris Trophy candidate, but MacKenzie Weegar, Rasmus Andersson and Hanifin are all capable of exceeding 40 points and playing big minutes.

Edmonton Oilers
Head coach: Jay Woodcroft (third season)
Last season: 50-23-9, second place in Pacific Division
This season: The Oilers are finally legitimate Stanley Cup contenders after years of building around Connor McDavid, the best player in the game. McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have put the Oilers in “Cup or bust” territory, and for good reason. Sure, there are holes and question marks, but this is a potent offensive squad that also includes Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Evander Kane and Zach Hyman among its top six forwards.
What’s new: Connor Brown, McDavid’s junior teammate, was signed to a bonus-laden contract after missing almost all of last season due to injury. A two-time 20-goal scorer, he is pegged to start on McDavid’s line and could be set up for a career season. The Oilers also believe this is the year Dylan Holloway and Ryan McLeod are ready for the NHL all season, and their quest is to be integral parts of a more balanced third line for a team that has often been top-heavy.
Players to watch: The arrival of defenseman Mattias Ekholm from Nashville at last season’s trade deadline was a boon for Evan Bouchard, who had a breakout final third of the regular season and playoffs. Bouchard has a golden ticket being the power-play quarterback, and he is a part of the team’s man-advantage success. For all the high hopes in Edmonton, a question remains about the team’s goaltending. Jack Campbell was expected to be the No. 1 netminder last season but struggled. Fortunately for the Oilers, rookie Stuart Skinner stepped up.

Los Angeles Kings
Head coach: Todd McLellan (fifth season)
Last season: 47-25-10, third place in Pacific Division
This season: Over the past couple of seasons, the Kings have been good, but not good enough. In two straight years, they have been bounced by the Oilers in the opening round of the playoffs. Los Angeles made a bold offseason move by sending a trio of players and a second-round draft pick to the Winnipeg Jets for center Pierre-Luc Dubois, arming him with an eight-year contract. The Kings boast a very good top three lines and decent defense. But will that be enough to make a deep playoff run?
What’s new: On top of acquiring Dubois to solidify the second line with Kevin Fiala and Arthur Kaliyev, the Kings re-acquired fourth-line veteran Trevor Lewis and added goaltender Cam Talbot, who will partner with Pheonix Copley. Whether that tandem is good enough to succeed in the playoffs is one of the bigger questions surrounding the Kings. Los Angeles is also looking for defenseman Brandt Clarke, the eighth overall pick in the 2021 draft, to make the roster and start developing into the squad’s next offensively gifted blue-liner.
Players to watch: With a top line of future Hall of Fame center Anze Kopitar, 41-goal scorer Adrian Kempe and 2020 second overall pick Quinton Byfield, as well as arguably the league’s best third line of Phillip Danault, Viktor Arvidsson and Trevor Moore, the Kings have a loaded group of forwards. They also wield a very good top defense pairing of Drew Doughty and Mikey Anderson, with Vladislav Gavrikov strengthening the second pair. Los Angeles now just has to prove it can withstand middling goaltending.

San Jose Sharks
Head coach: David Quinn (second season)
Last season: 22-44-16, seventh place in Pacific Division
This season: Since reaching the 2019 Western Conference finals, the Sharks have been a bad team. This season’s iteration may be the worst yet. After trading away Timo Meier last season and then shipping out 101-point defenseman Erik Karlsson over the summer, San Jose is at the point of a rebuild when run-of-the-mill or past-their-prime veterans fill in roster spots while young players are plugged into the lineup. If the Sharks don’t finish at the very bottom of the league, they will be darn close.
What’s new: Expect 2021 first-rounder William Eklund to become a full-time roster player, as well as 2020 second-rounder Thomas Bordeleau and maybe even this year’s first-round pick, Quentin Musty, although that would be a lot of young forwards at once. To aid in integrating that youth, San Jose acquired forwards Anthony Duclair, Mikael Granlund, Mike Hoffman and Filip Zadina and defensemen Jan Rutta, Kyle Burroughs and Ty Emberson. Goalie Mackenzie Blackwood also was brought in to work with Kaapo Kahkonen.
Players to watch: San Jose still has a couple of legitimate top-line forwards in Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture, although the latter is dealing with an injury and at age 34 is starting to head to the finish line of his excellent career. After that, the biggest reason to follow the Sharks is to see the up-and-comers make their foray into the league and watch whether any of those veterans will become trade-deadline pickups for clubs making a playoff push. Beyond that, it will be about next summer’s draft lottery.

Seattle Kraken
Head coach: Dave Hakstol (third season)
Last season: 46-28-8, fourth place in Pacific Division
This season: Now, do it again. Last season, the Kraken, in their second year of existence, surprised the league by comfortably earning a playoff spot. Then, they upset the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche before losing to the Dallas Stars in seven games in the second round. Now, the pressure is on. Seattle has a very balanced team and is capable of again disturbing the force.
What’s new: To deal with the losses of Morgan Geekie, Daniel Sprong, Carson Soucy and Ryan Donato, the Kraken brought in defenseman Brian Dumoulin and forwards Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Kailer Yamamoto. The club also is looking to Tye Kartye and 2022 fourth overall draft pick Shane Wright to make the jump and stay at the NHL level. As proof of Seattle’s depth, all of those players, except for Wright, are pegged to be on the fourth line or third defense pairing.
Players to watch: Jared McCann had a career season in a first-line role, Matty Beniers won the Calder Trophy given to the league’s top rookie and Vince Dunn was stellar on Seattle’s top defense pairing. Adding to the excitement is that Andre Burakovsky is fully healthy after missing half of last season with a torn groin muscle. Perhaps the biggest focus should and will fall on the goaltending tandem of Philipp Grubauer and Joey Daccord. Although neither was above average in the regular season, they were good enough for the Kraken to win with their scoring-by-committee approach. Grubauer was outstanding in the playoffs.

Vancouver Canucks
Head coach: Rick Tocchet (second season)
Last season: 38-37-7, sixth place in Pacific Division
This season: For the second consecutive season, the Canucks saw their coach get fired in the middle of the campaign and missed the playoffs. With such bleak days behind them — presumably — Vancouver heads into the new season with hopes that its roster boasts legitimate top-end talent with enough dubious depth to make the playoffs. Certainly, the Canucks are not bad enough to fall among the bottom-feeders, but they likely will be among the bubble squads in the mushy middle, maybe in the playoffs and maybe not.
What’s new: After missing the postseason by 12 points, the Canucks concentrated on their defense. Gone are Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Ethan Bear among others, replaced by Filip Hronek at last season’s trade deadline, late-season college free agent acquisition Cole McWard and offseason signings Carson Soucy and Ian Cole. Vancouver also brought in Pius Suter and Teddy Blueger to shore up the center depth on the bottom two lines, as well as Casey DeSmith for a better backup goalie behind Thatcher Demko.
Players to watch: With Demko, captain Quinn Hughes on defense and top centers Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller, the Canucks have a very good core four. The problems involve what’s around. Andrei Kuzmenko, who plays on the top line, notched 39 goals as a 26-year-old rookie. Can he duplicate that feat, and his NHL-best 27.3 percent shooting percentage? On the other wing is Anthony Beauvillier, who has only once topped 20 goals. On the second and third line wings are Brock Boeser, Conor Garland, Phillip Di Giuseppe and Nils Hoglander, at least until Ilya Mikheyev returns from a knee injury.

Vegas Golden Knights
Head coach: Bruce Cassidy (second season)
Last season: 51-22-9, first place in Pacific Division
This season: Last season’s Stanley Cup champions are more than capable of a repeat. The Golden Knights not only won the Cup, but they were never really threatened en route thanks to their deep roster at forward and on defense. Sure, goaltending was a question mark — and still remains one — but Vegas ran roughshod over the opposition. Incredibly, Vegas begins its quest to defend the crown with essentially the same lineup.
What’s new: There aren’t any real additions to note, which is amazing when considering how active the Golden Knights have been in the past. In fact, the only notable lineup changes surround who is gone. Forward Reilly Smith was the lone salary-cap casualty, while a pair of the goaltenders, Laurent Brossoit and Jonathan Quick, among the crew of four that was needed last season moved on. Forward Phil Kessel also was not re-signed when his contract ran out, but Kessel was a healthy scratch for most of the playoff run.
Players to watch: Goaltender Adin Hill came out of the pack and backstopped the Golden Knights to their title. The pressure will be on Hill to do it again, but he has one whale of a team in front of him starting with top-line center Jack Eichel, who skates with Jonathan Marchessault and Ivan Barbashev, and a second line of Mark Stone, Chandler Stephenson and Brett Howden. The bigger strength is on defense, with the crew of Alex Pietrangelo, Alec Martinez, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, Nicolas Hague, currently injured Zach Whitecloud and Ben Hutton.

–Field Level Media

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