Which teams stand out from the rabble in the Pacific playoff race?


Vegas Golden Knights left wing Max Pacioretty, left, celebrates with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) after the team's win over the Philadelphia Flyers in an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, in Las Vegas. (John Locher / AP)

The craziest thing happening in the NHL this year might be the entirety of the Pacific Division. The Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks are about what everyone expected them to be, but the San Jose Sharks have been an unmitigated disaster considering their expectations, and then there’s the big story.

Who’s leading the Pacific Division today? It might change three or four times during the day, since five teams are separated by two points. The rapidly accelerating game of musical chairs in the Pacific is further complicated by the Winnipeg Jets and surging Chicago Blackhawks in the Central, threatening to chomp down on one of the two wild-card spots in the West. So it wouldn’t be surprising if one of those five teams were squeezed out entirely come playoff time.

With such thin margins for the playoffs, home ice and the division crown, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see where things will end up over the final 30 or so games of the season as the Calgary Flames, Arizona Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks, Vegas Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers continue to make changes either to their lineups or behind the bench.

Looking at those five teams from the data perspective, who stands out among the rabble?

Hilariously, the team that is clearly the cream of the crop in that division is the one that decided to fire their coach this week, with Gerard Gallant being shown the taxi door for the second time in four seasons despite pretty stellar results everywhere he’s gone. Peter DeBoer is walking into about as good of a situation as a coach could ask for, with a dominant team that hasn’t gotten the results its deserved.

A slight shakeup might help the Golden Knights achieve what they need, but honestly, they have the makings up a Cup contending team anyway if they can get some goaltending down the stretch. You can never count on luck to reverse at the right time, but the Golden Knights are easily the best team in the division, and by the end of the season it would be very surprising if they aren’t the team on top.

After the Golden Knights, the prospects of competitive teams get a little thin, though the total numbers may be a little misleading for at least one team.

Since moving on from Bill Peters after the unearthed incidents of both physical altercations with players and race-driven verbal abuse, it seems like the Flames have caught their breath a little bit and are playing significantly better. At the time Peters was fired, the Flames had among the worst numbers of any team in the league at even strength. But since Geoff Ward took over they’ve controlled 56.5 per cent of the inner-slot shots and 55.6 per cent of slot passes, massive improvements that have brought the season-long totals into the positives.

The Flames are still highly exploitable off the rush defensively, an area that the Colorado Avalanche exposed last season and bled them dry in a series shorter than anyone predicted, but they’re still winning the shot-quality and quantity battles more often than not under new coaching, looking similar to the dominant even-strength team that they were last season.

Combine that serious uptick in performance with some quality goaltending from both David Rittich and Cam Talbot and you’ve got a team on the rise ready to do damage.

Speaking of being exploitable off the rush, the Pacific Division boasts both the best rush team in the NHL in the Golden Knights, and the absolute worst in the Canucks. What started as a very promising season has unraveled for the most part in Vancouver, with weaknesses being exposed as the season has gone on.

There are great pieces on the Canucks, and if it were illegal to cross the blue line with control of the puck they might still be posting pretty excellent numbers since they outpace teams off the cycle and the forecheck, but they struggle mightily to attack off the rush, and give up more off the rush than anyone else in the league.

That’s a deadly combination that makes things really tough on their goaltenders, and has led to a huge drop in their overall differentials at 5-vs-5. That extreme weakness in one of the most important areas of the game could easily bite into the Canucks’ chances down the stretch, but they’re still winning games so why not ride the wave? That’s a market that could desperately use some playoff hockey.

Vancouver looks like the team that’s most likely to fall out, but the Coyotes and Oilers aren’t looking immune to disaster either. The Coyotes are only above water in one area — rush chances. That’s an important one, but they’re getting obliterated off the cycle, and they haven’t been able to control slot passes at all. Taylor Hall should bring a big positive impact for them, but I’m not sure if its enough to stand above the crowd.

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Like the Coyotes, the Oilers are only controlling more than 50 per cent in one stat here: rush passes. That’s largely due to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but if you were going to pick one area to outplay the competition, it would probably be the actual chances that get on net, not the passes off the rush.

The upshot for the Oilers is that while they’re in the red in most areas, they’re not nearly as deep in the red as Arizona and Vancouver, and they happen to have two of the best players in the world lighting it up for them up front, which can iron over a lot of wrinkles.

In the end for the Oilers, it’s probably going to come down to goaltending and if Mikko Koskinen can recover from the struggles he’s endured of late, because Mike Smith is not reliable.

Vegas and Calgary look like locks, but the other three are so up in the air it’s hard to decipher which has the best chance. Edmonton’s star power makes it an attractive bet, but it really needs to add some depth at the wing position at or near the deadline. Arizona has been coming up aces all season long despite playing relatively terribly, and the Canucks are winning despite being in free fall across the board at evens. Nothing in this division makes much sense.

It would be interesting though to see a repeat of the Thomas Vanek situation in Long Island with an even quicker turnaround. Hall being the prize addition for any team to pluck from the Devils, only to possibly hit the market again if the Coyotes fall off. That would make for an entertaining trade deadline day.


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