A Deep Dive Into the NHL’s Pacific DivisionStephen Dunn/Getty Images
The Pacific Division had a weird 2013-14 season. The three California teams were excellent. The two Alberta teams were awful. The Coyotes and Canucks were stuck in the middle. By the end of things, the division featured the eventual Stanley Cup winner, plus a team that missed winning the Presidents’ Trophy by a single point. But it also had two of the league’s four worst teams and was the only division to send just three teams to the postseason.
That made it hard to get a consensus heading into this year. The general thinking seemed to be that the California teams would still be good, of course, unless the Sharks imploded. The Alberta teams would still be bad, obviously, unless the Oilers finally improved. The Canucks and/or Coyotes were on the way up, or maybe heading for a crash-and-burn, and it was all somehow Radim Vrbata’s fault.
Halfway through the season, the picture isn’t all that much clearer. So let’s take a deeper look into a division that may (or may not) be among the NHL’s best.
Let’s start at the top: Are the Anaheim Ducks the NHL’s best team?
The standings say they might be. They’ve spent most of the season holding down first place overall and currently sit tied for first. So if you’re one of the “you are what your record says you are” crowd, you know all you need to know and can pretty much skip down to the next section.
Of course, sometimes a win-loss record can deceive, and there’s plenty of reason to think that’s the case with the Ducks. You’re probably familiar with the case by now: They’re not an especially good possession team, their plus-7 goals differential suggests they’re closer to .500 than to the league’s elite, and their ridiculous 21-0-6 record in one-goal games — that’s right, zero regulation losses in 27 one-goal contests — is the sort of thing that can’t possibly be sustainable.1
Or can it? There’s an argument out there that the Ducks keep coming out on top of tight games because they just know how to win. It’s an old-school narrative, and stats guys will roll their eyes, but it’s hard to watch this team and not start to wonder if there must be something going on beyond mere coincidence. Coaching? Veteran savvy? Big-game experience? Blessings of good fortune from Saint Teemu?
You may not believe it, but the Ducks themselves sure seem to. And at some point, that alone might start to make a difference.
The Canucks looked good early; can they still catch Anaheim?
No, they can’t. That probably sounds too definitive, but it reflects the reality that the Canucks are already 11 points back, which is a lot to make up unless the Ducks suddenly collapse. And while that scenario isn’t impossible, it seems unlikely that the Canucks would be the team to take advantage.
A better angle might be whether the Canucks can even make the playoffs. That question would have seemed silly even a month ago, after Vancouver’s hot start had them in the running for first place in the conference. But they’ve been fading lately, and their fall has revealed some significant flaws. They’re not a great possession team. Their goaltending, led by high-priced free agent Ryan Miller, has been mildly disappointing. Their two franchise players, the Sedin twins, are well on the wrong side of 30 and don’t put up the sort of numbers they used to.
Add it all up and lately the team has been inspiring articles in the local media with headlines like “Are the Canucks bad?” That’s not exactly what you want to see from a division title contender.
The good news is that the answer is probably no, the Canucks aren’t bad; they’re just not as good as they looked early on. And while that hot start may have been a mirage, it still banked enough points that they’re in decent shape to at least hold on to a wild card. After all, the teams they need to beat out aren’t exactly scary; we’re basically talking about shaky Central teams like the Stars, Avalanche, and Wild, plus one Pacific team we’ll get to right now.
Speaking of fading Canadian teams, is there hope for the Flames?
The Flames were the league’s best story over the first few months, going from a consensus preseason pick to among the league’s worst teams to fighting for first place in the division. They made that happen, the narrative went, with a big dose of hard work, grit, and heart.
They also made it happen with plenty of luck, and that good fortune has mostly deserted them lately. Stats fans were waiting patiently for the Flames to sputter, and they have, dropping out of a playoff spot and down to fifth in the division.
All that said, the Flames haven’t dropped all that far — they’re just two points back of a wild card. They’d probably only need to catch the Canucks to claw back into the playoffs, and with almost 40 games to go, that’s far from impossible.
Can they do it? Probably not. Their underlying numbers are still poor, and on paper there’s just not enough talent here to make a real push. They could always go out and try to add pieces at the deadline, but the organization wants to build patiently, and sacrificing the future to make a run today seems unwise. That leaves them needing another dose of good luck, or the second-half collapse of a rival, or maybe both.
The Flames were a great story. It would be nice to see it continue, but don’t get your hopes up.
And what about the San Jose Sharks?
I’m pretty sure that’s not an option.
Fine, but don’t expect much insight. To this day, I have no idea what the Sharks are. On paper, they should be a very good team. And on many nights, that’s exactly what they look like. They’ve already beaten the Ducks three times, and they won nine of 10 in late November and early December. But as soon as you start to get onboard with the Sharks, something embarrassing inevitably happens. They lost to the Blues by a final of 7-2 twice in the last few weeks. They’ve lost to the Sabres twice, and to the Coyotes, and even to the Oilers.
So they’re a tough team to figure out. And that’s not new — it dates back to the offseason, when GM Doug Wilson seemed to vow to blow the team up and start over and then barely made any changes at all beyond stripping Joe Thornton of his captaincy. No team had a more bizarre offseason, and it made the Sharks one of the harder teams to project heading into opening night.
Just over halfway through the season, the Sharks have won just two more games than they’ve lost and have a negative goals differential, all of which screams “mediocre.” Head coach Todd McLellan could be on the way out. And while they’ve moved into second place in the division, they’re still barely holding on to a playoff spot. They’re not good.
But then you look over that roster again. They’re deep down the middle, they have a ton of young talent, they’ve got a great coach and a smart GM, and their goaltender is a recent Cup winner. They’ve got a stud defenseman, a nice mix of role players, and their veteran franchise player is a former MVP and future Hall of Famer. They should be a Cup contender.
And if they can squeeze into the playoffs, maybe they could be. After all, everyone will be waiting for their inevitable postseason implosion. Does the “Nobody Believes In Us” concept apply to hockey? In a way, they’d be a pretty attractive playoff dark horse.
If they even make it. Like I said, with these guys I really have no idea.
Uh, did you just casually slip in a reference to Joe Thornton as a future Hall of Famer?
I sure did. Thornton has a Hart, an Art Ross, three postseason All-Star picks, an Olympic gold medal, and is going to finish his career with something like 1,300 or 1,400 points. He’s averaged almost a point a game over his career despite playing in the lowest-scoring era ever.
And yet people think he’s some sort of debatable call. He’s not. He’s a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. This has nothing to do with the rest of this post, but this argument drives me crazy.
Now I’m angry. Quick, ask me about something funny to lighten the mood.
How about those Oilers?
Much better. The Oilers have become the league’s running punch line, thanks to yet another miserable season that has them sitting in last place overall. They’ve already fired their coach, they’ve started trading veterans for draft picks, and at this point the only questions left for long-suffering Oilers fans are whether they’ll get to draft future megastar Connor McDavid and how many members of the organization will keep their jobs when it’s all over.
So the Oilers are a mess, and we went into detail about why just a few weeks ago. But here’s the thing: While they’re certainly bad, they may not be quite as awful as they’ve been made out to be. They’ve got the league’s worst PDO at 97 percent, which would indicate that they deserve a better fate than they’ve had. That goes only so far, though; PDO is often looked at as a stand-in for team luck, but it’s heavily influenced by goaltending, and that’s what’s been killing the Oilers for years. Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth were supposed to be the answer, but so far they’ve been a mess.
You can do an awful lot of things right and still watch your season get ruined by weak goaltending (just ask the Wild). That’s not to say the Oilers have done all that much right, but they’re a surprisingly average possession team, so it’s not like they’re getting dominated out there.
Is that any consolation to Oilers fans? Of course not, and the calls to just blow this whole thing up and start over will get louder as the season wears on. Something has to give when your team is a disaster, even if it may not be quite as big a disaster as you’d think.
What about the division’s other McDavid contender?
That would be the Coyotes, who’ve been the conference’s second-worst team for most of the season. They’re not quite Oilers-bad, but they’re close, and it’s not out of the question that they could be solidly in the race for the league basement by the end of the year.
That’s especially true if they become a seller in the weeks leading up to the deadline. Unlike the Oilers, who at this point are basically a collection of talented young players who would be tough to deal mixed with guys nobody else would want, the Coyotes have some attractive veteran assets that could be in play.
The most obvious candidate to move would be captain Shane Doan, who’s been with the franchise his entire 19-year career. He’s physical and can still score a bit, meaning he’s exactly the sort of veteran that teams love to overpay for at this time of year. He’s also been out of the first round only once in his career, so you wonder if he’d be open to a deal to a contender. The team has emphatically denied that Doan wants out, but if the right suitor appeared, it could make sense for everyone involved to make a move.
And then there’s defenseman Keith Yandle, who could be the best player available if the Coyotes decided to move him. He’s fairly young (28), cheap (a reasonable $5.25 million cap hit through next year), and good (he’s a two-time All-Star). All of that would normally add up to him staying put, but if the Coyotes wanted to really jump-start a rebuild, he’d be the kind of bargaining chip that could bring an impressive return. As one example, Elliotte Friedman recently reported that a Yandle-for–Ryan O’Reilly rumor has been making its way around the league.
Wait, aren’t we leaving one team out? Black and silver uniforms, crusty coach, won a big shiny trophy last year …
That does ring a bell. Oh right, the Los Angeles Kings. They’ve been an easy team to overlook this year. They’re barely holding on to a playoff spot and have lost more games than they’ve won. Right now, they just don’t look like a Cup contender.
That “right now” is key, because we’ve all seen this movie before. In 2012, the Kings limped into the playoffs as a no. 8 seed, then went on an unprecedented run to win the Stanley Cup. Last year, they were the conference’s sixth-best team before winning it all yet again. So, no matter how shaky they look this year, nobody’s going to rule out another surprise run.
Of course, those two titles were a surprise only if you base your analysis on the standings. Fans who looked deeper realized that those Kings teams were among the league’s best in terms of possession,2 which tends to be an excellent predictor of playoff success. So how do the Kings look this year? Heading into last night, they were sitting as the league’s third-best team. Here we go again.
Those two title runs had one other thing in common: Both years, the Kings aggressively went after offensive help leading up to the deadline. In 2012 it was Jeff Carter and last year it was Marian Gaborik. Both players were acquired from Columbus, and you have to assume the league will step in to prevent any further Kings-Jackets deals in the same way the commissioner of your fantasy football league would start vetoing lopsided trades to keep it fair, but there are still 28 other teams to work with. Offense isn’t as big an issue this time around — the Kings rank 11th in goals per game — but that doesn’t mean that GM Dean Lombardi won’t be aggressive yet again.
After all that, let’s get back to the question that started all this: Is the Pacific Division really all that good?
It doesn’t seem that way, does it? Heading into last night’s action, there were 11 teams in the league with double-digit positive goal differentials. Every division had at least three, except the Pacific, which didn’t have any.
That’s a case of cherry-picking one stat out of many, of course, but it illustrates the lack of a dominant Pacific team right now. I’d argue that the only truly scary team in the division is the Kings, although most people would probably also include the Ducks. After that, everyone else ranges from vulnerable to downright terrible.
A lot can happen between now and the rest of the season, of course. Maybe one of the also-ran teams gets hot. Or maybe the Ducks keep winning one-goal games, win the Presidents’ Trophy, and make me look silly. There’s really no way to know.
So, what are the predictions for the rest of the way?
I just said there’s no way to …
Too bad. These types of posts need predictions. It’s the law.
You’re aware that I’m not good at this, right?
Exactly. We want to know what to bet against.
Fair enough. Here are my picks for the second half and beyond:
• The Ducks come back to earth in tight games but still win the division.
• The Sharks finish fourth, then upset the Ducks in a seven-game classic when Thornton scores the game winner, because why the hell not?
• The Canucks hold on for a playoff spot,3 but don’t scare anyone.
• The Coyotes trade Yandle but keep Doan.
• The Oilers get a little better, the Flames get a lot worse, and neither wins the draft lottery.
• The Kings win two rounds to escape the division, but lose to the Central winner in the conference final.
• I change my mind on every single one of these after I send this post to my editor but before it is actually published.