We are almost 4 weeks into the NHL season now and we are starting to see scenarios play out that people might not have expected at the start of the season.  One of the bigger stories of the season so far is how strong the Pacific Division has been in the first month of the season. The Central Division has dominated the Western Conference for years but so far Colorado, Nashville, and St Louis are the only Central teams that are above 500.

Edmonton, Anaheim, Vegas, Calgary, Arizona and Vancouver all have at least 13 points so far this season.  No other division has more than 4 teams with that many, in a division that nobody thought would be strong the division as a whole has come out strong to start the season.  You see teams like Chicago, Minnesota, and Dallas floundering, and with Winnipeg taking an expected step back after the offseason they had. Now it is still fairly early and there are certain teams that will regress as well as improve.  But there is more of an opportunity than ever for teams in the Pacific to take advantage of.

Now when it comes to which teams are for real and who has the best chance of continuing the pace that they are at, that is still up for discussion.  There are teams that are playing above what they are capable of and will likely regress, and there are teams that are underachieving or just getting poor luck.  I will be taking a look at each Pacific Division team on how they have played so far this season and where I think they will roughly end up come March and April.

Calgary and Vegas still hitting their stride

The Vegas Golden Knights and the Calgary Flames are two teams that most people including myself, predicted to be at the top of the division.  They still have respectful records and remain in playoff spots, but both teams have experienced ups and downs to start this season. Whether it’s having multiple games where they don’t play well or just misfortune, both teams probably haven’t had the starts that they would have envisioned.

The Calgary Flames are currently 6-5-2 and 5-4-1 in their last 10 games, sitting in the first wildcard spot in the West.  Their best players have been their best players so far, but they have had similar issues that they had in the past. Their on-ice shot numbers have been fairly good, but they are currently 27th in 5v5 shooting percentage and they are 25th in 5v5 save percentage.

David Rittich and Cam Talbot have both been up and down and neither of them has established themselves as a starter so far this season.  Calgary’s top line of Gaudreau, Monahan, and Lindholm have been strong so far, controlling 57% of the shot attempts and 55% of the 5v5 goals.  The Tkachuk, Backlund, and Frolik trio have dominated possession-wise in the offensive zone but have been very unlucky in terms of their goal ratio, being outscored 7-4 at 5v5 with an on-ice save percentage of just 78%.

Calgary found themselves in a similar position last season, it took a month or two for them last year to find their game and start to pile up wins.  I do expect Calgary to be among the top 3 teams in the Pacific because they have too much talent and depth. Rittich and Talbot have both shown flashes of being able to perform well and behind Calgary’s defence and system, they should be able to give them enough of a chance to win games.

The Vegas Golden Knights when they are on their game should probably be the best team in the Western Conference.  They have 4 lines deep of speed and skill, they have defensemen that can move the puck and they have strong goaltending.  After their early season drubbing of San Jose in the first 2 games, it appeared to be imminent there was more to come.

It still has been there through their first 13 games as they have still been a great team, but there have been some nights where they just do not look like themselves.  Whether it’s been falling apart against Boston in their third game, or the 6-2 and 6-1 defeats to Philadelphia and Colorado recently. Vegas has had a couple of games where they come out flat and multiple games where they look like the clear best team in the league.

They don’t quite have the same problems as Calgary as Marc-Andre Fleury has been terrific so far in net.  He has a .928 save percentage including 1 shutout while starting 12 of Vegas’ 13 games this season. They will need to manage Fleury’s workload and rely on Malcolm Subban or Garrett Sparks to give them starts, but Fleury has been nothing short of brilliant through the month of October.

Vegas overall has been a top 10 possession team at 5v5 this season and dominates in terms of scoring chances and high danger shots.  But despite that, they are currently 29th in the league in 5v5 shooting percentage.  Mark Stone, Paul Stastny, and Reilly Smith are riding a very high shooting percentage, but guys like William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Max Pacioretty are all shooting at career lows to start the season.

They also have missed Nate Schmidt on the backend as he went down with an injury in Game 1 of the season.  He’s a big part of their blueline and when he and Shea Theodore are in the lineup, Vegas is an extremely hard team to play against.  I’m not worried about either Calgary and Vegas because I believe in their process and their depth on paper. I feel over the next couple of months they will really start to hit their stride and be threats in the West like many predicted.

Edmonton and Vancouver’s hot starts

Out of all the surprises of the Pacific Division so far, the start that Edmonton and Vancouver have both had to the season must be high on that list.  Both teams were in similar boats the past couple seasons as both have exciting young cores but have struggled to put a good enough team around them to be successful.  But with Edmonton and Vancouver getting off to hot starts, both teams have surprised a lot of people in the early going. While there have been positive and encouraging signs for both teams thus far, there have also been some red flags that could play a role in how sustainable their success will be.

The Edmonton Oilers are currently sitting atop of the Division with 17 points, and they have had many positives go right for them so far.  James Neal has been a great story for the Oilers since coming over for Milan Lucic in the summer. He just got his 10th goal of the season Sunday afternoon in his 12th game after having just 7 goals all of last season.  Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have also been superhuman offensively, as both are tied for 2nd in the league with 21 points each through 12 games.  Their special teams have seen huge improvements from previous years as they are currently 1st in the NHL on the Powerplay and 5th on the Penalty Kill.

As good as those things have been for Edmonton, they will need to fix other areas of there game.  Let’s go over the red flags in their game that have many people skeptical of their success. First off, their 5v5 numbers have not been great this year, so far this season they have only controlled 48.05% of the shot attempts, 47.00% of the scoring chances and have been outscored 24-21 (46.67%) on the season.  After their top 4 or 5 scorers, it drops right off with 10 players not having a goal yet. They are relying way too much on a 33% Powerplay as well as hoping their top players continue to shoot the lights out and carry them offensively. It’s been great watching McDavid and Draisaitl dominate offensively and the Oilers having a great start.  But if there are any teams that are candidates to fall off, Edmonton would probably be one of those teams. 

After some scrutinized offseason moves, many people were unsure what to think of the Canucks going into the 2019-20 season.  But after a 6-3-1 start to the season, things are looking up in Vancouver. As critical as most people were of the Tyler Myers contract including myself, he has had a good start to the season playing with Alex Edler on Vancouver’s top pairing. 

 JT Miller has been fantastic since coming over in a trade from Tampa and he has fit right in on Vancouver’s top line with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.  After a brief cameo last season for the Canucks, Quinn Hughes also looks to be poised for a huge rookie season as he has turned many heads in the early stages of the year.   I do have a few concerns with them playing Edler and Myers as much as they are, considering their age and recent career history, but they are making it work right now. 

Both the Oilers and Canucks have been great stories so far this season, but they still have holes in their rosters.  I expect at least some regression from both teams as the season goes on but if I had to pick one team that’s most likely to continue their success, I would lean more towards Vancouver.  Vancouver has been a better 5v5 team, their scoring is more spread out than Edmonton’s and I have more confidence in Vancouver’s goaltending.

Jacob Markstrom has quietly been one of the best goaltenders in the NHL since the start of last season and looks to be finally coming into his own.  Thatcher Demko is also a promising young goaltender that can come in and give his team a chance to win. Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen have both had very good starts to the season for Edmonton.  They could very well continue this throughout the year, but with both of their age and career history, I’m not as confident that it will continue long term.

Coyotes on the rise

They are not going to get a ton of coverage being out in Arizona, but the Coyotes have looked really good to start this season.  They are really starting to make me a believer in them with their play the more I watch them. They have really been strong at 5v5 so far this season as they are top 10 in shot attempt share (51.76%), scoring chances (52.18%) and goal share (58.06%).

Darcy Kuemper has been lights out in net, with a .934 SV% through 7 games played.  Antti Raanta has also been great in the 3 games he’s played, winning 2 of his 3 starts while posting a .922 SV%.  Their defence has been great, led by Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Jason Demers on their top pairing playing 22-24 minutes a night.  With their goaltending and defence, they have currently allowed the fewest goals in the NHL and are 2nd behind Boston in goals against per game.

One area that they would probably like to improve is scoring more, as they are 22nd in goals for and middle of the pack in goals per game.  While they have struggled at times to score, a lot of that has to do with just terrible luck for a few of their players.  Clayton Keller, Phil Kessel and Derek Stepan have been dominant as a line. Below is their 5v5 numbers when that line has been on the ice.

Shot Attempts: 113-74 (60.43 CF%)

Shots on Goal: 63-36 (63.64 SF%)

Scoring Chances: 56-32 (63.64 SCF%)

High Danger Shot Attempts: 25-12 (67.57 HDCF%)

However, they have just 2 5v5 goals this season as a line and have an on-ice shooting percentage of just 3.17%.  There is enough offensive skill and talent on that line that it should not stay that low. Once the dam breaks and they start to find their scoring touch, then Arizona could be an even tougher team to beat.  Arizona has been a very good story through the first month of the season and I with the way that they’re playing, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are right in the playoff mix all season.

Problems in California

All three Californian teams have had similar yet different seasons in the first few weeks.  Each team has looked much different from the previous season in good ways and bad.

The San Jose Sharks were another team that most people thought would be one of the stronger clubs in the Pacific Division.  Any team that has the luxury of having one of Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns on the ice for 50 of the 60 minutes would have a good chance of winning more games than they lose.  However, it just hasn’t been the case so far this season as the Sharks don’t look like the dominant 5v5 juggernaut that they were last season.

San Jose at 5v5

2018-2019

Shot Attempts (54.87%).  Shots on Goal (54.26%). Scoring Chances (54.35%).  Goal Share (50.93%).

2019-2020 so far

Shot Attempts (49.34%).  Shots on Goal (47.01%). Scoring Chances (44.69%).  Goal Share (35.85%).

Nothing seems to be clicking for San Jose right now, after getting lit up in the first 2 games of the season against Vegas they haven’t found their game.  They’re not playing fast; they’re giving up a lot of scoring chances and a number of their players have had slow starts to the season.  

It also doesn’t help that they are second-last in 5v5 save percentage, Martin Jones and Aaron Dell are both below .900 in save percentage and haven’t played up to par in net.  I still believe that they have the team to snap out of this, but it’s going to be tough to dig themselves out of the hole that they have created.

The Los Angeles Kings have also had a poor start to the season as they are currently last in the division.  However, unlike San Jose, the Kings have actually looked surprisingly good. Ignoring the 5-1 rout to Minnesota a couple of days ago, they are playing with a lot more speed and pace under Todd McLellan and new additions upfront like rookie Blake Lizotte have added more speed to their forward group.

They currently have a 53.58% Shot share and an expected goal share of 54.89%.  According to The Point Hockey, their 16.7 slot shots per game rank 1st in the league and they are tied for 3rd in inner slot shots with 8.3 per game.  I know some people might say they outshoot teams because there almost always trailing.  However, if you adjust for when every team is tied or leading, they still come out as a top 10 possession team.  Despite this, they currently have a 43.10% goal share and have the worst PDO in the league at 0.946. There are potentially two reasons for this:

One, they can not get a save this season, Jonathan Quick is having the worst season of his career so far and the Kings are dead last in 5v5 on-ice save percentage.

Two, while they have been playing much better, they just don’t have the finishing talent in their forward group.  Anze Kopitar and Tyler Toffoli can still score and produce offensively, but guys like Brown, Kovalchuk and Carter are way passed their prime and after that, they don’t have any proven offensive players.  I think LA has been much more enjoyable to watch then in years past, but I just don’t see the depth to be able to compete in the Western Conference.

Anaheim has also looked better this season under new coach Dallas Eakins.  Other than last nights beat down at the hands of Vegas on the second of a back to back, Anaheim was showing positive signs in their overall play, including a 5-2 win over the Central division-leading Avalanche.  In the last two seasons they were such a mess at 5v5, getting caved in and relying on John Gibson to win games for them almost every night.  

They are still relying on John Gibson and they aren’t one of the best teams in the league, but it hasn’t been as often and at least there is more of a system and strategy in place.  Then again, Anaheim is still clearly in a transition period, with a lot of young players on the team this season that they need to rely on, it’s going to be challenging for them to compete all season.  I think the Ducks have had a good start to the season, but I don’t see them making the playoffs with so many other teams on the rise and looking to push.

 

All stats and info found from

http://www.naturalstattrick.com/

https://www.nhl.com/en

https://www.thepointhockey.com/statistics/

https://www.dailyfaceoff.com/