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Pacific Division Review: Can anybody challenge Golden Knights?

Pacific Division Review

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JUNE 10: Mark Stone #61 of the Vegas Golden Knights celebrates after a goal by Max Pacioretty #67 during the third period against the Colorado Avalanche in Game Six of the Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena on June 10, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/NHLI via Getty Images)

NHLI via Getty Images

Throughout this week, PHT will review each of the NHL’s (restored) four divisions. Who’s the favorite, who’s rising, and who’s in decline? How did the offseason affect the outlook? Today, PHT reviews the Pacific Division. Read about the Central Division here, the Atlantic Division here and the Metropolitan in this post.

Current Division Favorite: Vegas Golden Knights

There is not a division in the NHL where there seems to be such a sizable gap between the clear division favorite and the rest of the pack.

It is difficult to compare last year’s performances to this year because of the divisional alignment and unbalanced schedules, but of the teams in the Pacific Division this season only one of them (Edmonton) finished the 2021-22 season within 10 points of Vegas’ point total. The next closest team? Calgary 27 points back.

The Golden Knights not only have the best roster in the division, one that has been in the Conference Final/Semifinals in three of its first four years in the league (including this past season), but the rest of the division is just all stuck in various levels of mediocrity or rebuilding. Anaheim is stuck in neutral, Los Angeles has a bright future but is probably not ready for that jump, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton are total wild cards, and Seattle is an expansion team.

It would be a shock and major upset if Vegas does not win this division and win it easily.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

Biggest Offseason Move: Canucks add Ekman-Larsson, Garland; Golden Knights trade Fleury

It is hard to choose one over the other because both are significant.

Let’s start with the Canucks’ additions of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland from the Arizona Coyotes. The Ekman-Larsson portion of the trade is by far the riskiest because of his contract and declining play the past two seasons. Is that just a blip on the radar made worse by playing for a struggling team getting ready to start a rebuild? Or is it the sign of a veteran player that has already played his best hockey and is now going to eat a significant chunk of the Canucks’ salary cap space for the next few years? The Canucks better hope it is the former. But hope is not always the best plan.

The Garland portion of the deal seems like a far more certain (and potentially productive) addition. He has already proven to be one of the more efficient goal scorers in the NHL during 5-on-5 play, is in the prime of his career, and adds some much-needed forward depth to a team that has been way too top heavy.

[Related: What is the Vancouver Canucks’ potential this season?]

Elsewhere in the division, the Golden Knights parted ways with the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, Marc-Andre Fleury, trading him to the Chicago Blackhawks in a salary cap clearing trade. They received one minor league player that they have already waived. That leaves the Golden Knights’ net in the hands of Robin Lehner, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Lehner is a bonafide No. 1 goalie as well. It does, however, weaken what was a major strength for the Golden Knights as they go from having two outstanding goalies to just one outstanding goalie.

Pacific Division Team On The Rise: Los Angeles Kings

The Kings might not be ready to make a major jump toward Stanley Cup contention this season, but they should be there in the not too distant future.

They have the best farm system in the NHL with Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte, Tobias Bjornfot, and Arthur Kaliyev leading the way. They also still have one of the best two-way players in the NHL in Anze Kopitar leading the roster and made a couple of significant additions this offseason by signing Phillip Danault in free agency (giving them an outstanding 1-2 punch at center with Kopitar) and trading for Viktor Arvidsson from the Nashville Predators.

In most other divisions you would probably look at this team as being a year or two away from the playoffs. But in this division? With these teams around them? And with the additions of Danault and Arvidsson? They might have a chance this season.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Teams with the best five-year window]

Pacific Division Team On The Decline: San Jose Sharks

The Sharks have missed the playoffs two years in a row and it is difficult to imagine that streak ending this season even in this division. There are some bad contracts here, an aging core that has lost a lot of its punch, not enough young difference makers on the horizon, and still major questions in goal. For the better part of the past 20 years the Sharks have been one of the league’s top teams and a consistent contender. Eventually though everybody needs to rebuild at some point.

Questions for Oilers, Flames, Kraken

There are still some serious depth issues around them even after the re-signing of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and addition of Zach Hyman, while the defense and goaltending is a series of question marks that only seem to have poor answers. McDavid and Draisaitl are in the prime of their careers and the best offensive players in the league. This team should be a contender. The fact it is not is a damning indictment of the job the current and previous front office has done.

  • Elsewhere in Alberta, the big question the Flames have to answer revolves around the future of star forward Johnny Gaudreau.

He is entering the final year of his contract, is still the Flames’ most dynamic offensive player, and has seemingly had his future with the team in question for years now. Can they work out a deal? Does he hit the trade block if things start poorly?

[Related: Anaheim Ducks look like team stuck in neutral]

  • Does Seattle have enough to be competitive in this division at the start? Or will it be looking back at the expansion draft as a series of missed opportunities that could have produced a better team at the start with more assets to deal from?

Even if Seattle had made different moves in the expansion draft nobody should have reasonably expected them to repeat the Golden Knights’ success from four years ago but the rest of the division is flawed enough that things could get interesting here.

  • Then we have the Anaheim Ducks. An NHL roster right now that is not anywhere near good enough and no clear direction on where they are going as a team.

Will this be the year they really start a rebuild? Or will they do something to improve the short-term outlook in a meaningful way? Like, say, a Jack Eichel way? They need to do something because the status quo is just going to further the current mediocrity they have been playing through.