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Pacific Review: Sizing up the competition after one month of play

We’re a month deep into the 2019-20 season and we now have a pretty clear idea of which teams are good and which teams aren’t. There’s still plenty of hockey left to be played, but let’s size up the competition in what seems to be a very challenging Pacific Division.

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1. Edmonton Oilers

10-4-1 (21 points) / Goals For: 44 (15th of 31) / Goals Against: 38 (8th of 31)

After one month of play, the Oilers are standing alone at the top of the Pacific Division. This is a better start than anybody could have imagined but, of course, there’s still plenty of work to be done. There are a lot of things to like about what we’ve seen from the Oilers after 15 games. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have reached a new level, both special teams have been excellent, the defence has been rock-solid, and both Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen have been good in net. That said, the team is relying too heavily on McDavid and Draisaitl and badly needs to find some depth scoring. The Oilers will more than likely need to find offensive reinforcements in order to make their way through a competitive Pacific Division. That might involve calling up some prospects from the AHL or diving into the trade market well the deadline.

Verdict: Edmonton’s start has been incredibly encouraging and playoffs are most certainly a possibility this spring. 

2. Vancouver Canucks

9-3-2 (20 points) / Goals For: 53 (3rd of 31) / Goals Against: 34 (5th of 31)

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The Canucks went all-in this off-season and it’s paying off for them. Since losing their first two games of the season, Vancouver has won nine of their last 12 games and appears to be a legitimate playoff contender in the Pacific Division. J.T. Miller, who was acquired from Tampa Bay, has been the perfect fit alongside young stars Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. The additions of Tyler Myers, Jordie Benn, and rookie Quinn Hughes have turned a once weak blueline into a strong one. The big key for Vancouver will be whether or not their goaltending duo can continue to be as good as they have been. Thatcher Demko and Jakob Markstrom have combined for a .924 save percentage. If they can keep anything close to that up, it’s hard to imagine the Canucks slowing down.

Verdict: Heading into the season, Vancouver was a complete wild-card, but their off-season moves have paid off and they’re looking like a playoff team.

3. Anaheim Ducks

9-6-0 (18 points) / Goals For: 41 (19th of 31) / Goals Against: 36 (6th of 31)

After a 2018-19 season in which the team was completely derailed by injuries, the Ducks are back to full health. The team owns a 9-6-0 record through their first month of play thanks largely to excellent goaltending from John Gibson and Ryan Miller, who have combined for a .927 save percentage so far. A key to Anaheim having a rebound season this year was always health, which they’ve had thus far, and some breakout performances from young forwards. To this point, though, none of Sam Steel, Isac Lundstrom, Max Jones, or Max Comtois have been difference-makers as the Ducks had hoped. The team boasts some of the worst underlying numbers in the league and will need to rely on their goalies in order to maintain their success.

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Verdict: If this team is going to squeeze back into the playoffs, they’ll likely have to rely on some out-of-this-world play from their goaltenders. 

4. Vegas Golden Knights

Record: 8-5-2 (18 points) / Goals For: 49 (7th of 31) / Goals Against: 45 (16th of 31)

The Golden Knights have been exactly what you’d expect them to be one month into the season. The team is having no issue scoring goals and their offence is coming from up and down the lineup. The bigger issue has been keeping the puck out of the net, as Vegas’ blueline leaves quite a bit to be desired. Marc-Andre Fleury has been excellent, posting a .920 save percentage, but he’s also being overworked. Fleury has started 12 of Vegas’ 15 games as the Golden Knights don’t have a stable backup. They’ve already used three different backup goalies and none have inspired confidence. If Fleury gets injured, things will go south for this team quickly.

Verdict: The Golden Knights are a strong team, but their lack of depth in net puts them in a vulnerable position. 

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5. Calgary Flames

8-6-2 (18 points) / Goals For: 46 (12th of 31) / Goals Against: 46 (19th of 31)

A lot of things went right for the Flames during their excellent 107-point season last year. Expecting all of those things to go right again is pretty naive. Calgary has been decent to start the season, but they haven’t yet shown the same dynamic attack that resulted in them finishing at the top of the Western Conference last season. Both Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are off to slow starts, having three goals each, and depth scorers like Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, Derek Ryan, Sam Bennett, and Mark Jankowski have combined for just eight goals. I expect Gaudreau and Monahan to pull it together sooner rather than later, but the others aren’t a given.

Verdict: The Flames are a good team off to a mediocre start, but they’re going to have to figure things out quickly because the Pacific isn’t a cakewalk like it was last year. 

6. Arizona Coyotes

8-4-1 (17 points) / Goals For: 38 (21st of 31) / Goals Against: 28 (2nd of 31)

It looks like the Coyotes are finally enjoying a breakout season. The key to Arizona’s early success has been their rock-solid ability to keep the puck out of the net, as they’ve allowed just 28 goals against in 13 games. This has to do with a combination of strong defence and solid goaltending, as the Coyotes allow fewer quality chances against than pretty much everybody in the league. The additions of Phil Kessel and Carl Soderberg and getting Christian Dvorak and Nick Schmaltz have helped, but the team still needs to find more offence in order to really be successful.

Verdict: The Coyotes’ elite defensive game has brought them into the mix as a playoff contender but their scoring woes could hold them back. 

7. Los Angeles Kings

5-9-0 (10 points) / Goals For: 38 (21st of 31) / Goals Against: 57 (30th of 31)

The least surprising team in the Pacific Division has been the L.A. Kings, who are performing just as anybody expected they would. The Kings are on pace to finish with an even worse record than they did last season, and if they sell off some impending free agents at the trade deadline, they could make a serious bid for last overall in the league.

Verdict: The Kings have their eyes on the future and their poor start is an expected indication of how their season will go.

8. San Jose Sharks

4-10-1 (9 points) / Goals For: 36 (24th of 31), Goals Against: 56 (29th of 31)

This has to be the biggest surprise in the Pacific Division. The Sharks were expected to yet again be playoff contenders, but they’ve fallen completely flat out of the gate and sit dead last in the division. The Sharks are having a hard time scoring goals and their goaltenders have been terrible, which, of course, is a bad combination. Digging into their underlying numbers, it isn’t as if the Sharks are underachieving and poised for a rebound. This team has just flat out been bad. Given the talent on the roster, I have a difficult time writing them off after one month of play, but things are looking grim for a Sharks team that doesn’t have their first-round pick in 2020.

Verdict: We shouldn’t write them off just yet, but it looks like Father Time might have caught up with the top-heavy Sharks. 

What does it all mean?

Heading into the season, the Pacific Division was probably the most difficult to predict as it was loaded with wild-cards. After a month of play, you can make the case that it might be the toughest division in hockey.

While the Oilers getting off to a hot start to the season is encouraging, it’s a little frustrating that it also coincides with Arizona and Vancouver having breakout seasons and Anaheim seemingly having a bounce-back season themselves. Beyond those three teams improving from last year along with the Oilers, it seems the Flames and Sharks are underachieving expectations early on, and both teams have the talent to heat up and climb their way back up the standings.

What does this mean for the Oilers? There won’t be any squeaking into the playoffs in this division. It’s going to be a battle. We’ve only had two games against Pacific opponents this year, Vancouver and Los Angeles right at the start of the season, so those within-the-division games down the road will be huge. Since only one team in the Pacific seems to be a non-playoff contender (again, I won’t write off San Jose just yet) all of these games become four-point games without much room for error.