The Pacific Division has failed to produce a Stanley Cup winner in the last four years. The vision is now a lot more competitive than previous years, but do any teams in the Pacific Division stand out as Stanley Cup contenders? Read on to find out.
Potential Stanley Cup contenders from the Pacific Division
San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks by my estimation were projected to finish as runner-up in the Pacific Division in 2018-19, but after what can only be described as an absolute fleecing of the Ottawa Senators, they’ve landed perhaps the best defencemen since Bobby Orr.
Erik Karlsson is now a Shark, and the team has been propelled into the conversation with other legitimate contenders in the league.
Karlsson, by any measure, is a generational talent. He has averaged roughly 72 points per season since 2011-12 (excluding the lockout shortened season in 2012-13) and is only a couple of seasons removed from carrying a below average Senators team all the way to the Eastern Conference Final in 2016-17.
The Sharks now have a blue line with both Karlsson and Brent Burns - not to mention Marc Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun - they will strike fear into the hearts of opposing teams in 2018-19.
They are also dangerous up front. Although Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton are in the twilight of their respective careers, the former is still a lethal scoring threat, and the latter is not only one of the best playmakers in the game, but ranks among the best in NHL history.
Forwards Logan Couture and (to a lesser extent) Evander Kane have established themselves as bona fide stars and the team has enough depth to complement their top skaters. They also have a quality goaltending tandem - Martin Jones and Aaron Dell - to mind the net.
The Sharks’ odds of winning the Stanley Cup moved from 20.40* to 15.94* almost immediately after the trade was announced and the number continued to move.
The Sharks are currently the front-runners in the Western Conference to win the Stanley Cup at 10.710* which could be deemed as a bit of an overreaction.
The Sharks odds to claim the Pacific Division title are 3.730* and they have a regular season points total of 101.5. The battle for the Pacific Division crown, which was possibly the least intriguing of the four, has become a lot more interesting.
Vegas Golden Knights
Last year we bore witness to just how unpredictable the National Hockey League really is. We’ve seen Cinderella stories unfold in the past - the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers and 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings come to mind - but in 2016-17 we saw an expansion team come within three wins of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The Vegas Golden Knights - who were listed at 119.28* to win the Stanley Cup in September - shocked the hockey world by winning the Pacific Division and being crowned Western Conference Champions.
Of course, the slipper did not fit, and the Washington Capitals emerged victorious, but the way last season unfolded is a shining example of the uncertainty that is at play in the NHL.
It is important to clarify that while an expansion team accomplishing what the Golden Knights did in 2017-18 was a rare event - and nobody in their right mind would’ve predicted it - this team did not fluke their way to a divisional title and an appearance in the Stanley Cup final.
The battle for the Pacific Division crown, which was possibly the least intriguing of the four, has become a lot more interesting.
Of course, the Golden Knights did overachieve, but if you look under the hood, this team was pretty good.
The Golden Knights managed to stay above water at 5-on-5 in both Corsi For Percentage and Expected Goals For Percentage, and their special teams were nothing to shake a stick at either. While it is likely that some players (such as William Karlsson) may regress in 2018-19, they recently added Max Pacioretty.
Pacioretty is one of the best wingers in the NHL but had a down year in Montreal in 2017-18 after being a 30 goal scorer for the majority of his time with the Canadiens. His quick release should fit in nicely with a run and gun team like the Golden Knights.
The addition of Pacioretty should make up for the loss of James Neal, and their top six forward group should be enough to keep the team in contention for another playoff appearance and possibly even a division title.
It’s unlikely that goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury will be able to replicate the incredible numbers that he posted last season, but he is still a serviceable goaltender.
A week ago, an argument could’ve been made that the Golden Knights were the class of the Pacific Division, however, with the Sharks acquiring Erik Karlsson via trade, things have just gotten a whole lot tougher.
The Golden Knights are currently priced at 4.590* to win the Pacific, and 19.060* to win the Stanley Cup, a far cry from the expectations that oddsmakers and bettors had for the team prior to their inaugural season.
Outsiders who might have a chance
Last season, the Anaheim Ducks were projected to be the top team in the Western Conference based on their regular season points total of 105.5 but the team failed to hit that mark, accumulating 101 points by seasons end.
That had a lot to do with the fact that the Ducks would be without some key contributors who were recovering from injuries, and many bettors were of the opinion that oddsmakers were underestimating the impact that the loss of those players would have on the team.
While bettors who played the under did cash in at the end of the 2017-18 season, it was closer than they had anticipated. This was due - in large part - to the exceptional play of their goaltenders, John Gibson, and to a lesser extent, veteran Ryan Miller.
Gibson’s 5-on-5 Expected Save Percentage was 91.9, one of the lowest in the league, indicating that overall he faced a tough workload. However, Gibson persevered and overperformed the mark by almost a full percentage point - posting a GSAA of 14.09 - which was good for second among goaltenders who played at least 2000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey. Gibson was - and still is - the most important player for the Ducks.
Outside of Gibson, the Ducks do have some quality skaters, however, their 5-on-5 shot metrics leave a lot to be desired. Anaheim ranked 22nd in Expected Goals For Percentage (48.49%) and 20th in Corsi For Percentage (49.2%) but despite this, the Ducks owned the 6th highest 5-on-5 goal differential.
If things don’t improve, Gibson will have his work cut out for him in 2018-19 and forecasts are not exactly optimistic. For example, Emmanuel Perry of Corsica Hockey has the Ducks projected to accumulate 92 points, which is in line with my estimation.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, stellar goaltending can take a team further than expected, and aside from the aforementioned Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks, the Pacific Division is rather weak, so it’s not unreasonable to think that the Ducks can squeak into the postseason.
With their regular season points total currently standing pat at 96.5 points, the Ducks are projected by oddsmakers and bettors alike to be a bubble team. Anaheim’s odds of winning the Pacific Division are 7.360* and the teams odds of winning the Stanley Cup are 23.440*, but bettors may want to look elsewhere for a dark horse as there are other teams in the Western Conference that, in my opinion, have a better shot at a exceeding expectations.
Los Angeles Kings
Los Angeles overperformed their 5-on-5 Expected Goals For Percentage in 2017-18 by roughly 4.5% and a lot of that can be attributed to the exceptional play of their starting goaltender, Jonathan Quick.
Pacioretty is one of the best wingers in the NHL but had a down year in Montreal in 2017-18 after being a 30 goal scorer for the majority of his time with the Canadiens.
Quick posted an 11.53 GSAA at 5-on-5, exceeding expectations based on the shot quality he faced by 0.8 percent. The Kings are counting on Quick to continue to outdo himself again in 2018-19.
The club did make a notable edition to their forward group this summer, however, adding Ilya Kovalchuk after he decided to return from the KHL in Russia. Kovalchuk is 35 years old, but was one of the most prolific scorers in the game before bolting to the KHL and leaving the New Jersey Devils and their fanbase in disarray.
Even at 35 though, Kovalchuk should be able to compete at a high level. The Kings will also see center Jeff Carter return to action after missing all but 27 games in 2017-18. Along with Kovalchuk, Carter will provide the Kings with some much needed fire power and possibly keep the club from falling back down to earth.
At Pinnacle, the Kings are currently listed at 28.010* to win the Stanley Cup which seems like a fair price for a team with an aging core and which is average by most measures.
Connor McDavid is the best player in the world, and as hockey insider Bob Mckenzie put it - and I’m paraphrasing - each year the Edmonton Oilers fail to make the playoffs with McDavid at the helm is a crime against the hockey world.
The Oilers will likely win more games this year based on nothing more than good fortune, after being shunned by the hockey gods in that regard last season, but the organization did absolutely nothing to improve the team over the summer and it’ll be up to McDavid to carry the team to the playoffs. McDavid is totally capable of doing so, but it’s still a tall order to fill.
A bounce back season from goaltender Cam Talbot would certainly help matters, as would an improvement to the Oilers special teams - which were abysmal to say the least - but the team’s fate rests on whether or not a bag of magic beans will grow into a beanstock that they can use to climb back into the playoff conversation.
The Oilers regular season points total is sitting at 91.5, and forecasters, including myself, have them projected to finish anywhere from two to four points below that mark. Edmonton’s Stanley Cup odds (31.010*) are somewhat peculiar.
I suspect that there is a little bit of risk management incorporated into the number, after all, they were the team that many fans and pundits picked to win it all in 2017-18.
Is there value in outsider odds?
The Flames are an interesting team due to the fact that they were very competitive in 2017-2018 but had a lot of trouble scoring goals. Stalked with talent, both at the forward and defense positions, the Flames posted a 5-on-5 Expected Goals For Percentage of 52.15 yet only managed an actual Goals For Percentage of 48.15%.
On the powerplay, the Flames also scored far fewer goals than they were expected to. Calgary ranked third in 5-on-5 Corsi For Percentage (53.02%) as well, and actually attempted more 5-on-5 shots per 60 minutes than any other team, albeit by a small margin.
The team parted ways with their head coach, and gained a new one in Bill Peters. They also added sniper James Neal to the club via free agency. Neal should pitch in about 25 goals if he plays up to the standard that he has in the past but he is capable of more.
Outside of Gibson, the Ducks do have some quality skaters, however, their 5-on-5 shot metrics leave a lot to be desired
The team also made a blockbuster deal with the Carolina Hurricanes, sending defensemen Dougie Hamilton, Michael Ferland and highly touted prospect Adam Fox to Raleigh in exchange for forward Elias Lindholm and defensemen Noah Hanifin.
Although there were rumours that Hamilton didn’t quite fit in with his teammates off the ice, the Flames likely got worse on the ice. That is not a knock on Hanifin and Lindholm, though, as both are fine players in their own right.
Goaltender Mike Smith surprised many in the hockey world in his first season with the Flames, but at 36 years old, it’s tough to say whether he’ll be able to sustain that level of play - and unfortunately - the Flames current backup options are not pretty.
It might be wise for the team to try and add a more proven player at the position to help Smith before it’s too late.
The Flames current regular season point total is sitting at 93.5 - which is close to my projection of 92 points - and their Stanley Cup odds are 34.010*. By my estimation, Calgary offers more value than their provincial rivals do. In other words, as it stands right now, they’re the better half of the Battle of Alberta.
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