American Thanksgiving is a key marker in the NHL season. Generally, if you’re sitting in a playoff spot at this point, you end up making it to the big show come spring. Since the 2004-05 lockout, roughly 75 percent of teams that were in the playoffs at American Thanksgiving went on to clinch playoff berths.
At this point last year, the Oilers had a 10-10-1 record, which had them sitting 10th in the Western Conference, three points out of a playoff spot. The Flames, Sharks, and Ducks occupied the top three spots in the Pacific Division, the Predators, Jets, and Wild were the top three in the Central Division, and the Stars and Avalanche were the wild card teams. Only Anaheim and Minnesota would miss the playoffs of those eight teams, as the Golden Knights and Blues rose up and took their spots.
Looking back to 2016-17 when the Oilers last made the playoffs, the team sat at the top of the Pacific with a 12-8-1 record on Thanksgiving. Six of the other seven teams that occupied spots on that day also went on to clinch playoff berths in the spring. The only one that didn’t was the L.A. Kings, who barely missed out, as the Flames, who sat just four points behind them at the time, ended up getting in.
This certainly doesn’t mean the Oilers are guaranteed to make a playoff spot. There’s a lot of hockey left to be played and a lot can happen. Still, this is a great position to be in. You’d much rather be defending a lead at the top of the division than chasing other teams down the stretch.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what we’ve learned about the Pacific Division after two months of play.
1. Edmonton Oilers
17-9-3 (37 points) / Goals For: 91 (8th of 31) / Goals Against: 84 (16th of 31)
Here we are. Over two months into the season and the Oilers are still on top of the Pacific Division. The team has 37 points through 29 games, putting them on pace to put up 104 points in the standings, which would be roughly where they were at when they made the playoffs in 2016-17.
The Oilers are thriving this year mostly because of incredible play from Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, strong defence and goaltending, and dominant special teams. The team looks different this year than in previous seasons. There’s more fight and more resiliency from this group than in the past. It seems Dave Tippett has found a way to get the most out of the roster, allowing the stars to take over games while also putting depth players in positions to contribute.
Sooner rather than later, though, Ken Holland should be looking to add more quality depth to the lineup in the form of another third-line centre and/or top-six winger. A couple of additions could push the Oilers over the top.
2. Arizona Coyotes
15-9-4 (34 points) / Goals For: 78 (20th of 31) / Goals Against: 67 (3rd of 31)
Finally at full strength after an injury-plagues year in 2018-19, the Coyotes are enjoying a breakout season. Their stringent defence and elite goaltending have made them one of the toughest teams in the Western Conference as they currently sit second behind the Oilers in the Pacific Division.
The best thing the Coyotes do is keep the puck out of the net. They’re third in the league in goals-against thanks to a system that suppresses high-quality chances and goaltenders who stop pretty much everything else that comes their way. Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta have combined for a .931 save percentage thus far, putting them in a tie with Boston’s Jaroslav Halak and Tuukka Rask as the best duo in the league. If their offence ever comes around, they could be Edmonton’s biggest threat in the division.
3. Vegas Golden Knights
14-11-4 (32 points) / Goals For: 87 (13th of 31) / Goals Against: 82 (13th of 31)
This was my pre-season pick to finish at the top of the Pacific Division. The Golden Knights have gotten off to a slower-than-expected start, but, given their underlying numbers, it seems better times might be around the corner.
The Golden Knights have a very deep roster up front with a lot of offensive depth yet they rank in the middle of the pack in terms of goals for. They’re in the top third of the league in shots on goal and are in the bottom third in shooting percentage. Generally, this ends up balancing out and the team starts to score more goals. I wouldn’t expect the team to shoot at 8.8 percent all year, and I would guess that Max Pacioretty and Jonathan Marchessault will score on more than 8.6 and 5.3 percent of their shots when it’s all said and done.
Vegas also got off to a slow start last year, so we could see them rise as the season goes along.
4. San Jose Sharks
15-12-1 (31 points) / Goals For: 82 (18th of 31) / Goals Against: 91 (25th of 31)
After a miserable start to the season, the Sharks completely turned things around in November. One month ago today, San Jose was mired in a five-game losing streak and they sat with a 4-10-1 record. Since then, they’ve gone 11-2 and occupy the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
One of the strangest things in the NHL this season is how San Jose’s turnaround coincides with Radim Simek, an undrafted defenceman, being in the lineup. He was injured for the first month of the season and finally made his 2019-20 debut on Nov. 5, and, since he returned to the lineup, San Jose put up that aforementioned 11-2 stretch. Is a guy who plays 17:19 per game really that important? Or did the Sharks just figure things out after a slow start?
Regardless, it looks like the Sharks are back for good. Their goaltending might still be a mess, but they’re scoring a lot of goals to compensate for it.
5. Vancouver Canucks
13-11-4 (30 points) / Goals For: 92 (7th of 31) / Goals Against: 84 (16th of 31)
The Canucks got off to a hot start to the season in October but have started to slow down as time has gone along. When I looked at the division last month, they had a 9-3-2 record. Since then, they’ve won just four games.
Injuries for the Canucks piled up in November as depth plays like Brandon Sutter, Jay Beagle, and Micheal Ferland have missed major time, making the team easier to play against. At full strength, the Canucks have a nice blend of high-quality talent and gritty depth, meaning they can score goals and they can defend. But without their defensively-oriented players, their defensive play has cratered. They’re still scoring goals, but they can’t keep the puck out of the net.
The Canucks will look better once they’re healthy, but there isn’t much room for error in this division.
6. Calgary Flames
13-12-4 (30 points) / Goals For: 73 (26th of 31) / Goals Against: 86 (22nd of 31)
The Flames have been the league’s biggest disappointment this season. After finishing at the top of the Western Conference last year, the Flames have fallen flat and currently sit on the outside looking in. Everything went right for these guys last year, and now, nothing is working.
Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are slumping, as both of Calgary’s top forwards have just 21 points through 29 games. The depth scoring that made the Flames so good last year is also nowhere to be found. Mikael Backlund, Sam Bennett, Michael Frolik, and Mark Jankowski, who are supposed to make up one of the best depth scoring groups in the league, have combined for 10 goals so far. Milan Lucic also hasn’t scored yet for them.
The Flames have good underlying numbers and logic might suggest they’ll turn things around, but maybe the team that lost to an eighth seed in the first round last year was the real Calgary Flames all along.
7. Anaheim Ducks
12-12-4 (28 points) / Goals For: 75 (22nd of 31) / Goals Against: 84 (16th of 31)
The Ducks continue to remain in the picture, though they’re slowly but surely sliding out as time goes along.
The one thing Anaheim really had going for them was their defence and goaltending, but even that hasn’t been great this year, as the Ducks and their .909 team save percentage have them in the middle of the pack in terms of goals against. Given that this .500 play is what we’ve seen from Anaheim at full strength, it’s hard to imagine them suddenly turning things around and climbing up the ladder.
8. Los Angeles Kings
11-15-2 (24 points) / Goals For: 72 (27th of 31) / Goals Against: 93 (27th of 31)
Los Angeles was dead last in the division last year, they are right now, and they will be at the end of the season. There isn’t much else to say here other than it’ll be interesting to see who they opt to trade away at the deadline as they try to tank as hard as the Detroit Red Wings are currently.
What does it all mean?
While American Thanksgiving generally gives you a very good idea of who will and who won’t ultimately make the playoffs, the Pacific Division this year is incredibly hard to predict.
We have teams like Calgary and Vegas who are underachieving and could rebound, a team in San Jose who got off to a brutal start and climbed all the way back up after an amazing run, a team in Vancouver who did the opposite, and two young breakout teams in Arizona and Edmonton that nobody expected sitting at the top of all of it.
A lot can and will change between now and the playoffs. A lot will also come down to what teams do at the trade deadline. The Oilers have put themselves in a great position thanks to their strong start, but there’s still plenty of work to be done. If Calgary or Vegas, or, hell, both, have a heel turn like San Jose did, things are going to get really difficult.
The division is going to be a grind, and Ken Holland can push the team over the top with some additions to the roster. There might be something special here. I think it’s worth investing in.