Clockwise from top left: Vancouver Canucks players Henrik Sedin

Clockwise from top left: Vancouver Canucks players Henrik Sedin

Canucks, California, and Alberta: Predicting the NHL’s Pacific Division for 2014/15

Will Vancouver rebound from the Tortor-error? Will L.A., Anaheim or San Jose reign over California? What about Calgary, Edmonton or Phoenix?



*Originally posted on White Cover Magazine

Hold up, do I still have time?

Perhaps I’m cutting it close, waiting until DAY 1 of the NHL season to toss these half-baked predictions online. Then again, if you’re looking for buckets of copied and pasted analysis and a thousand clicks into content – if you want me to tell you something you already know – then you’ve got Sportsnet, and Puck Daddy, and your own Twitter feed for that.

(Full credit to Canada’s new overlords at Rogers, by the way, for their hockey homepage. If you were hoping for a sort of Trade Deadline-ish frenzy of headlines and last name montages, they’ve got what you’re looking for.)

But why am I wasting space on this introduction?

Like I said, I’m a little late. But here’s my look at the West’s Pacific Division in 2014/15…

The Los Angeles Kings

It’s pretty damn hard to say something negative about the Kings. So, I’ll try…

The Kings just aren’t a regular season team. I think they almost take pride in it – it’s like they enjoy telling you how little they score, how they’re supposed to be an underdog. Darryl Sutter loves to dish out fake praise, whether he’s telling Vancouver’s media his team has no shot against the Canucks, or whether he’s got that Muppet look while he waxes only positive poetic stuff about John Gibson or Patrick Kane.

And yeah, L.A.’s pretty average from Games 1 to 82. Well, average isn’t fair. But in the Western Conference, they could slot anywhere from first to eighth and their playoff odds would stay the same. So beware if you’re putting your fantasy team’s faith in Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Anze Kopitar, or Marian Gaborik. Quite simply, those guys don’t need to rack up the points for Sutter to get his Ws.

But the Kings will be favoured to go deep into the spring, and for good reason. They’ve won two Stanley Cups in three seasons, only falling short in 2013 and even then they were bumped off by the Blackhawks in the Western Conference final.

Every year, they only get better and they lose nobody. And somehow, Anze Kopitar remains the most underrated super-megastar in the league.

Prediction: 2nd in the Pacific; Western Conference champions

**********

The San Jose Sharks

Keep this in mind when you’re reading the passage below: I have no earthly idea what the Sharks’ front office is thinking.

Sure, I can understand why they’d want to shift from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau to Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. But I don’t understand why they had to rip Thornton’s heart out in the process.

It’s like Big Joe is being put through some Hunger Games-ist test of mental and emotional fortitude, and for no reason whatsoever. They took away his Captaincy… and then told him to win it back? And then, I assume they’ll flog him when he doesn’t seem too pumped about the idea?

Only a natural disaster (CLICHE ALERT!) can keep them from making the playoffs in 2015.

But they’ll need an exorcist to beat the Kings once they get there.

Prediction: 1st in the Pacific; Another playoff disappointment and another cannibalistic summer

(Personal Note: Pitch someone in Hollywood a script for Mad Max 2 with the title Cannibalistic Summer…)

***********

The Anaheim Ducks

I’m not sold on Anaheim’s bicep-only body building technique…

Yes, Ryan Kesler’s a massive piece to pick up, especially as a second-line centre playing behind Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. But the Ducks also lost Nick Bonino, Teemu Selanne, and Saku Koivu. Maybe those two elders – I wonder how much business Orange Country IHOPs got off the Ducks last year? – weren’t 70-point players, but they were soldiers that need to be replaced in the ranks.

And while Getzlaf and Perry can carry an offense on their own, Kesler was both the greatest and the worst thing for the Canucks in seasons’ past.

In 2010 and 2011, he was an all-world, Selke-winning Olympian. After that, he was injury-prone and selfish. Sure, Kesler led the Canucks in goals last season and there were games it seemed like he was the only one capable of doing anything, but does that speak to how poor Vancouver was or how isolating Kesler’s aura still is? If you can’t make even your linemates better – if you’re going to spend an entire powerplay slapping your stick above the hashmark, calling for a pass – then I reserve the right to question whether or not you live in a house of mirrors where you’re always impressed with what you see.

Still, I’ll give the Ducks more playoff juice than the Sharks.

Young guys like Devante Smith-Pelley and Emerson Etem are due for a bigger slice of Anaheim’s NHL pie, and Kesler’s obviously a head’s up improvement over Bonino. Cam Fowler also looks to take the next step and Hampus Lindholm’s right behind him.

It also helps that either Frederik Andersen or John Gibson could be the answer in goal.

But what if neither turns out to be? Jonas Hiller was the man of the future once, too.

Prediction: 3rd in Pacific; Western Conference semi-finalist

NOTE: Bonus points to the Ducks for the way they manhandled that first round at this year’s NHL Draft. So, they traded the 24th pick away to Vancouver in the Kesler deal, but then power forward Nick Ritchie slips to them at No. 10? And they got that pick from Ottawa in the Bobby Ryan trade the summer before? And you’re telling me the Ducks won the Presidents’ Trophy after getting rid of Ryan? Genius.

**********

The Vancouver Canucks

They’re deeper than they were last year, even to start.

Henrik and Daniel Sedin started off the TortorEra (or would it be TortorError?) on fire, but they whittled away in January when injuries piled up and Coach John refused to curb their ice time out of pride or spite or… what’s the difference?

Either way, with Chris Higgins, Alex Burrows, Nick Bonino, Linden Vey, Zack Kassian and Brad Richardson filling out the second and third lines in basically any order – and with robot-like scorer Radim Vrbata playing with the Twins – the Canucks are finally rolling out a roster that can come at you in waves. Add to that their fourth line of Shawn Matthias, Derek Dorsett, and Jannik Hansen, and the Canucks are a playoff calibre team.

But – and you’ve heard this before – they play in the West, and the West is incredible.

They’ll be up against it to place anywhere in the top eight and could easily fall to 10th or 12th, even with a strong season.

Still, with the pressure off new starting goaltender Ryan Miller – Eddie Lack showed last year that he can easily play 15-25 games and put up an all-star-worthy save percentage – and with a coach who seems willing to coach and not dictate Libya, the Canucks will either make the postseason or they’ll just miss them and get a solid pick in the supposedly stacked 2015 NHL Draft.

Prediction: 5th in Pacific; Emotionally recovery from the ‘Dementor’ that was last season

**********

The Edmonton Oilers

Every year, they scare me… because every year, they could do something.

And I fear that day, because I just know useless team president Kevin Lowe will take credit for Edmonton’s eventual turnaround. The dude had three straight No. 1 picks from 2010 to 2012, a Top 10 pick in 2013, and a third overall pick in 2014, and he doesn’t seem to understand you have to suck to ‘earn’ those selections.

Still, I’ve got them pencilled in to place above Vancouver. It’s a bold prediction but, then again, neither of them will win the Cup this year, so I guess it’s a bold call without any risk attached. I can’t see myself eating my words when Henrik Sedin or [Insert Edmonton Captain Here] hoists the Cup next June.

Reasons for my betrayal:

  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the best young playmaker in the game. If he can stay healthy, everything will change in Edmonton.
  • Taylor Hall was sixth in the NHL with 1.07 points-per-game in 2013-14. Did you know that? You’ll notice it soon. And Jordan Eberle is a sure-handed offensive star, as well. So basically, Edmonton’s top three forwards are better than Vancouver’s top three forwards, and that’s worth something.
  • Ben Scrivens and Victor Fasth give the Oilers maybe the best goaltending they’ve had since their run to the Cup Final in 2006. And there’s nothing wrong with a tandem – it takes the pressure off the incumbent and gives the usurper something to play for.
  • Ryan Smyth is gone… once they stop crying for sentimental reasons, Edmontonians should rejoice… BECAUSE RYAN SMYTH IS GONE!! Those young kids should be thrilled to take hold of their own team their own way, and finally. It’s time for the Nuge, Hall, and Eberle to define their own generation, instead of having to carry the old guys weighing down the wagon. It’s like when your parents leave your birthday party and your best friend has a cracked beed already waiting for you.

Prediction: 4th in Pacific; As close to the playoffs as they’ve been since Chris Pronger played for them

**********

The Arizona Coyotes

Arizona. The Coyotes. This franchise is the slow drip of sadness.

Every year they’ve either won or surprised you by just not being terrible; it’s been like watching a fighter stave off some sort of fatal infection – like seeing Rocky on wobbly knees throwing punches up at Apollo Creed, or like when you’re trying to run in your dreams and your legs just… don’t… want to work. The Coyotes have been dogged (pun intended) by ownership issues for as long as you remember them existing. Their team has been terrible – on paper – which you would expect, since no all-stars are going to voluntarily sign up for a team that may not be around next year, or the next year, or the NEXT year.

The Coyotes have been treading water forever, not really building a team but just trying to sustain one. And you know what? They’ve been pulling it off. The effort’s been freaking impressive and inspiring, really. They’ve taken misfit toys like Mike Smith and Antoine Vermette and a slew of European-sounding people like Martin Hanzal and Mikkel Boedker and they’ve fused them with all-world defencemen like Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle, and of course the ageless Shane Doan, put them under the thumb of wonder coach Dave Tippett, and they come out of the oven every year like hockey’s version of the Oakland Athletics.

But this isn’t their year. Not even close. We may have finally heard the coyotes’ last howl.

Seattle, I hope you’re ready.

Prediction: 7th in Pacific; Return Washington State’s calls

**********

The Calgary Flames

I’ve gotta hand it to Calgary, because I would love to be a Flames fan right now.

Having taken an infuriatingly long time to move on from Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff (who had to retire just to leave), having used up the wisdom of nearly every Sutter at their disposal, the Flames have been mercilessly and unintentionally thrown into the void… and they’re making their way back.

They’re finding things to grab onto, making sure they don’t wallow in their almost-accomplishments of a time long gone like the Oilers have been doing since they day after they lost to Carolina in the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals.

Last year, Calgary made a huge step (or three) at the NHL Draft, selecting Sean Monahan, Emile Poirier, and Morgan Klimchuk in the first round. (Should they have taken Hunter Shinkaruk? Probably, but that’s okay.) Then this year, they locked down Sam Bennett with the fourth overall pick to go along with Hobey Baker runaway winner Johnny Gaudreau. Captain Mark Giordano just might be the most underrated defenceman in the National Hockey League (along with Marc-Edouard Vlasic in San Jose) and new goalie Jonas Hiller should plug some holes where there were many in 2014.

In the East, they could surprise and make the playoffs. But the Flames aren’t very good, at least not compared to the rest of the West.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t have their fun and crush some dreams along the way. Maybe they can just spend 82 games making life hell for Anaheim, San Jose, L.A. and, of course, Vancouver. They can take the top-down dominance of the Pacific division and just go all Grand Theft Auto on it – stealing cars, running over pedestrians, and trying to get to five stars before the helicopter takes you down. But don’t worry, because you’ll just re-spawn at the hospital.

(I’m talking about a video game by the way, in case you read those last two sentences in horror.)

Wouldn’t that be fun to watch, if you were a Flames fan?

Like I said, I wish I didn’t hate this team with every fibre of my being.

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