The 20 game mark in the NHL season is usually a time when the strengths and weaknesses of a club have been fully exposed, giving not only team executives but also fans time to ruminate on where their franchise needs to improve.
The LWOS hockey department has done the same, taking a division-by-division snapshot of where each team is at at the quarter pole, and where they are heading as a result.
THE NHL AT THE QUARTER POLE: THE PACIFIC DIVISION
Vancouver Canucks – 7-7-6, 20 Points, 56GF/54GA, 4th in the Pacific Division
Surprises: Ben Hutton. After spending time dominating the college hockey scene, Ben Hutton exploded onto the scene, impressing fans and management alike with his exciting, skating heavy style of play. Hutton fills the much needed role of puck mover on the team, and has added element of mobility to a previously stagnant Canucks blue line. With very little pro experience under his belt, the emergence of Hutton has excited many surrounding the Canucks organisation, and has been no question the year’s biggest surprise.
Disappointments: Radim Vrbata. Coming off a career-best 31 goal campaign in 2014-15, expectations were high for Vrbata coming into the season. A first-time all-star last season, many saw Vrbata as a lock for at least 20-25 goals playing along the Sedin twins on the first line and top power play unit. That has not been the case for the 34-year-old sniper thus far. The Czech forward has just three goals through 19 games (a 16 goal campaign) and has just one goal on the power play (a four goal pace), a steep drop-off from his 12 PPG season in his first year as a Canuck. If the Canucks want to hold onto a playoff spot, they will need a significant step upwards from Vrbata to make that happen.
Outlook: The Canucks are coming off an absolutely disastrous road trip that saw them win just one game for a 1-4-2 record, with points being given up to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils in the process. Their record in overtime overall has been equally atrocious, going 0-for-6 in the 3-on-3 segment, and has resulted in a ridiculous record of 7-7-6. While the forwards and defenders have to take a good chunk of the blame, the majority of responsibility has to be put on the coaching staff and their often incomprehensible personnel decisions in overtime. Aside from their mostly solid goaltending courtesy of Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom, the Canucks are in a tailspin right now, with their weak divisional colleagues being the only reason they currently reside within striking distance of a playoff position.
Prediction: The best the Canucks should realistically hope for is barely making the post-season at this point. Considering the upside of the Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames, two teams struggling currently, there is the possibility that even more competition arises, reinforcing the fact that this will be a tough season playoff-wise for the Canucks. Simply put, do not bet on a post-season berth for this club.
Calgary Flames – 7-12-1, 15 Points, 48GF/74GA, 7th in the Pacific Division
Surprises: David Jones. On a team that many thought, on paper, needed some help with secondary scoring up front, David Jones has stepped up to the plate and given them just that. Through 20 games, Jones has scored a whopping seven goals, tops among all Flames and a 30-goal pace over 82 games. In a time where the production of some higher end players, namely Jiri Hudler, has dropped, it’s nice to have someone come along and supply some nice offensive support.
Disappointments: Dougie Hamilton. In one of the off-season’s biggest moves, Dougie Hamilton was moved from the Boston Bruins to the Flames in exchange for a handful of draft picks. Many considered this move to be brilliant, and thought it would improve the Flames D-core to be among the league’s finest. However, he has not lived up to the high expectations. In 20 games, Hamilton, considered one of the best young two-way defenders in hockey, has just five points on the season. Additionally, his CorsiFor has dropped from 55% to 49%, a significant drop (though, in his defense, one that puts him merely middle of the pack among Flames defenders.) Part of the Flames’ massive drop-off has to do with their immensely flawed blue line, and a rebound from Hamilton would certainly help matters.
Outlook: The Flames are currently a mess on all fronts, with a 21st ranked 48 goals-for and a league-worst 74 goals against. Despite the analytics working against them, many pegged the Flames to improve on their 2014-15 campaign. That has obviously not been the case, and despite being an only-mediocre 5-5-0 over their last ten, it has still been a putrid start for Calgary in 2015-16.
Prediction: The Flames currently boast a 7-12-1 record, and sit six points out of a playoff spot. Even in the Pacific division, widely considered the weakest in hockey, the Flames will be hard pressed to make up ground. Barring a major turn-around, don’t go be expecting a second consecutive Flames playoff berth.
San Jose Sharks – 11-8-0, 22 Points, 51GF/47GA, 2nd in the Pacific Division
Surprises: Joel Ward. Stuck behind Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin in Washington, Joel Ward came to the Sharks, where he has a bigger offensive role. Ward has thrived in this capacity thus far, scoring eight goals and 14 points through 19 games, just as many as Joe Thornton and Brent Burns, and more than Patrick Marleau. It was evident that Ward would supply some nice secondary scoring for the club, but he has exceeded expectations so far this season.
Disappointments: Patrick Marleau. After a dissapointing 2014-15 that saw Patrick Marleau score just 57 points, he’s started the 2015-16 campaign in even worse fashion. With just 11 points in 19 games, Marleau is on pace for just 47 points, what would be his lowest total since 2001-02 when he scored 44 in 79 games. His slow start has sparked the trade rumors once again, and it may not be long before Marleau finds himself by some younger members of the Sharks.
Outlook: With an 11-8-0 record under their belt through 19 games, the San Jose Sharks have gotten off to a solid start in a below-average Pacific division. Just two points behind the division leading Los Angeles Kings, the rebound season is off to a good start in San Jose, as they’ve established strong playoff positioning early.
Prediction: It’s hard to make up ground in today’s National Hockey League, and that works greatly in the Sharks’ favor. With an early points advantage over the Canucks, Coyotes, Ducks and the two Alberta teams, the club has early footing that could be of great importance later in the season.
Arizona Coyotes – 9-8-1, 19 points, 50 GF/54GA, 3rd in the Pacific Division
Surprises: Max Domi. Drafted 12th overall in the 2013 entry draft, many were surprised when he didn’t crack the Coyotes roster last season. Turns out they made the right decision, as Domi has exploded out of the gate with eight goals and eight assists in 18 games. He leads his team in goal scoring, is second on his team in points (behind Martin Hanzal’s 17 points), and is first in goals among rookies. He’s a strong candidate for the Calder trophy, especially with Connor McDavid missing significant time.
Disappointments: Antoine Vermette. Vermette scored 35 points in 63 games for the Coyotes last season, and 45 points in 82 games the year prior. After being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks at last year’s trade deadline, and help them win a Stanley Cup, Vermette signed with the Coyotes again during free agency. It was considered a win for everyone. However, Vermette has struggled this season, posting a measly two assists, and no goals, through 12 games.
Outlook: Arizona has taken the league by surprise, they’re playing like a playoff contender, after being last in the Western Conference just last season. Mike Smith is playing like his old self, and the youth injection of players like Max Domi and Anthony Duclair has done wonders, and Martin Hanzal and Mikkel Boedker are on pace for career years. Despite being atop the division at times, this is still a team that’s going through a rebuild. However, the strong start has fans excited for what’s to come from the Coyotes in the near future.
Prediction: The Coyotes will likely cool off sooner or later. While it’s possible they could be this year’s version of the Calgary Flames, don’t count on it. They’ll cool off and find themselves out of the playoff picture by the trade deadline.
Edmonton Oilers – 6-12-1, 13 points, 50 GF/62GA, 7th in the Pacific Division
Surprises: Leon Draisaitl. After initially not making the team out of training camp, Draisaitl earned himself a call-up, and has been on a tear since. In nine games, he’s only been held scoreless twice, while having five multi-point nights. With McDavid sidelined, he should see plenty of ice-time in the Oilers top six, along with plenty of powerplay time. His 14 points ties him for second in scoring on the team with fellow centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but Draisaitl did it in half as many games.
Disappointments: Cam Talbot. Edmonton was hoping he’d be the answer in net they’ve been seeking, but that hasn’t been the case yet. In 11 starts, Talbot has three wins, eight losses, a 3.09 GAA, and a .890 sv% — a far cry from his numbers last year. Part of this is due to the defence in front of him — the Oilers defence is nowhere close to the New York Rangers. His play has the Oilers giving more and more starts to Anders Nilsson, so Talbot will need to be better to win back the net, and give his team some more wins that they desperately need.
Outlook: Hard to believe that after winning four draft lotteries, the Oilers are in last place yet again. This was supposed to be the year they started to turn things around, but Edmonton fans might have to wait another year for that to happen. This team is going to have a tough time winning until they fix their defence – an issue that’s been plaguing them for years. Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse look like promising young defenders, but Edmonton still needs another top four defenceman (possibly two) before they are good enough to be a playoff team.
Prediction: Considering how strong the Western Conference is, it’s hard to imagine the Oilers surpassing more than a few teams in the standings. They should put up more wins as the season goes on, but don’t expect them to make a strong playoff push this year.
Los Angeles Kings – 12-6-0, 24 points, 46 GF / 38 GA, 1ST in the Pacific Division
Surprises: Tanner Pearson. Last season Pearson was on “The 70’s Line” with Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli where he was producing well before getting injured. This season Milan Lucic took his spot on the second line and many felt Pearson’s numbers would drop being on the third line. However, Pearson has been able to generate offense, notching 3 goals and 8 assists this seasons to put him 5th in team scoring, ahead of veterans Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik.
Disappointments: Speaking of Gaborik, he’s easily been the biggest disappointment for the Kings this season. As of today Gaborik has 2 goals and 2 assists in 18 games. Gaborik has moved around the lineup while he’s been trying to find his game, but for now he’s back playing with Kopitar hoping they can find the same chemistry they had in the 2014 playoffs. Nick Shore continues to disappoint Kings fans as well. Not that big things were expected from the second year center, but 2 points in 18 games this season, coupled with his team worst -7, has made many fans wonder if Jordan Weal should be getting more playing time.
Outlook: The Kings are looking good but not great right now. Kopitar, Brown and Gaborik all need to be producing more. The second line has been playing great, and off-season addition Milan Lucic has been a great fit for the team, getting to the front of the net better than any King in recent memory. With Drew Doughty anchoring the blueline and Jonathan Quick playing decent in net the Kings look like a playoff team right now.
Prediction: Given the relative weakness of the Pacific Division, it’s realistic to think the Kings can win their first division title since 1991. From there you never know what the Kings can do in the playoffs, but if Kopitar doesn’t start producing better it’s hard to see the Kings making another Stanley Cup run. Western Conference Finals would be a more realistic prediction with how the team is playing right now.
Anaheim Ducks – 7-9-4, 18 points, 38 GF / 50 GA, 5th in the Pacific Division
Surprises: Frederik Anderson. Throughout the Anaheim Duck’s early season struggles there has been one bright spot, and that’s in net. Andersen has been the best player on the Ducks to start this season. Even in losses Andersen has kept the Ducks close. Twice this season Andersen has lost games where he only gave up one goal. He had a couple bad games recently, but overall his play this season has been strong.
Disappointments: Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler. Getzlaf is the leader of the Ducks and a top center in the league most seasons. This year, however, Getzlaf and the Ducks can’t seem to find the back of the net. The only goal the Ducks’ captain has this year was an empty netter gifted to him by Kesler. Kesler has not lived up to the big contract the Ducks gave him in the off-season and with a team worst -9 it doesn’t appear he’s playing as well defensively as the Ducks would like right now.
Outlook: The Ducks have won six of their last ten games and have started to turn things around after their horrific start. Playing in the worst division in the NHL should benefit the Ducks the rest of the season as surprise teams like the Coyotes start to fall off. It would be foolish to assume the Ducks aren’t going to right their ship at some point and climb into a playoff spot with all the talent they have.
Prediction: With their improved play, and the fact that Getzlaf will eventually start producing, its a given that the Duck will be battling for the top three spots in the Pacific, and they should get into the playoffs. Until they Ducks current leadership proves they can win the big games in the the playoffs it’s hard to pick them to beyond the divisional playoffs though.