On the surface, the West Division can be broken into tiers. You have three teams with clear Stanley Cup hopes in Colorado, St. Louis and Vegas. You have two teams that showed up in the summer return-to-play, but seem caught in the mushy middle with Arizona and Minnesota. And in San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles, you have three California teams that finished at the bottom of the league last season, but who have the hope to turn their fortunes around quickly.
Of course, in a 56-game season one good or bad stretch could wildly change how we view these teams. Presenting a best- and worst-case scenario for each team, here's a preview of the NHL's new West Division.
2019-20 record: 29-33-9, sixth in Pacific
2019-20 finish: Missed playoffs, took Jamie Drysdale in the draft
2019-20 top scorer: Adam Henrique (26G, 17A, 43PTS)
Major off-season additions: Kevin Shattenkirk, Derek Grant, David Backes
Major off-season losses: Michael Del Zotto, Patrick Eaves
Best-case scenario: It begins with John Gibson staying healthy and putting together a performance that, at least for part of the season, brings award buzz. Ryan Miller's return means a more than capable backup is there for when Gibson needs to rest. The defence has to be better, sure, but if the Ducks are going to hit their ceiling the next generation has to start putting up the points. Troy Terry. Sam Steel. Sonny Milano. Max Jones. Perhaps Trevor Zegras? Someone needs to break out.
Worst-case scenario: Running into Colorado, Vegas and St. Louis regularly does little to inspire confidence -- six of Anaheim's first 10 games are against those teams and a bad start could put the Ducks in a horrible position. On the one hand, the worst case would be if Anaheim watched their California rivals improve while they remained in neutral. On the other, they could end up with another great pick out of it. So, the worst case for the Ducks would be to fall down in the order after the draft lottery.
2019-20 record: 33-29-8, fifth in Pacific
2019-20 finish: Beat Nashville 3-1 during play-in round, Lost 4-1 to Colorado in Round 1
2019-20 top scorer: Nick Schmaltz (11G, 34A, 45PTS)
Major off-season additions: Drake Caggiula, Frederik Gauthier, Derick Brassard, Johan Larsson
Major off-season losses: Michael Grabner, Taylor Hall, Brad Richardson, Vincent Hinostroza,
Best-case scenario: After a tough off-season that included trade winds around Oliver Ekman-Larsson, losing Taylor Hall to free agency and fines levied against outgoing management, a new and brighter era emerges. While there was a lot of off-ice negativity, the Coyotes were in the playoff hunt before the pandemic, and then won their play-in round when play returned in the summer. Darcy Kuemper is the real deal and, if healthy, could bring this team a far ways on his own with Vezina calibre play. After two years below 50 points, Clayton Keller ups his scoring rate to his rookie season levels and Phil Kessel re-finds his offensive gears. The team defence is strong enough that an uptick in team offence would be a game-changer. Rick Tocchet, beloved by his players, rallies his group and gets more out of them than we think is possible, and returns the Coyotes to the playoffs for a second straight season.
Worst-case scenario: A downward spiral begins. The Coyotes have trouble competing for a playoff spot in the West Division, but without a first-round pick there's no incentive to trade players away. Nonetheless, with five defencemen set to be UFA this off-season, some selling off is necessary. Even worse for the Coyotes? This market figures to be the most challenging to find trades in so, even if a partner can be found, the return may not be what it was. It's not a great time to be rebuilding, but the Coyotes may be forced down that road soon.
2019-20 record: 42-20-8, second in Central
2019-20 finish: Lost 4-3 to Dallas in Round 2
2019-20 top scorer: Nathan MacKinnon (35G, 58A, 93PTS)
Major off-season additions: Brandon Saad, Devon Toews
Major off-season losses: Michael Hutchinson, Vladislav Namestnikov, Matt Nieto, Colin Wilson, Nikita Zadorov,
Best-case scenario: The Stanley Cup. That's simple. This team has a wide-open window at the moment and recent experience to draw from. In back-to-back seasons the Avs were eliminated in seven games in Round 2 of the playoffs, with a young core that has developed into one of the scariest units in the league. A trade to acquire goaltending depth may be necessary at some point this season, but when Philipp Grubauer was healthy, he was more than up to the task of backstopping this team. Injuries ultimately worked against Colorado last year, but that won't always be the outcome.
Worst-case scenario: If Grubauer goes down again and no more depth is found in the crease, the Avs would again be in a difficult spot that could lead to playoff disappointment. While their window is open, at the moment this seems like more than a one-shot thing and that the Avs should be contending for multiple seasons. While the Avs have plenty of projected cap space again next summer, there are more important contracts to get done. Captain Gabriel Landeskog is a pending UFA, as is trade pickup Brandon Saad. Ian Cole is such an important piece on the back end, but as the cap crunches and younger players push up, does he have a future with the team? Grubauer's deal is also up, so there is no clear plan forward in net yet. The worst thing for Colorado would seem to be another early post-season exit and a couple key players testing the market, leading to more uncertainty this team has had since the Matt Duchene trade.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
2019-20 record: 29-35-6, seventh in Pacific
2019-20 finish: Missed playoffs, chose Quinton Byfield second overall in draft
2019-20 top scorer: Anze Kopitar (21G, 41A, 62PTS)
Major off-season additions: Olli Maatta, Quinton Byfield, Andreas Athanasiou
Major off-season losses: Ben Hutton, Joakim Ryan
Best-case scenario: The most important thing for the Kings this season is to see development from their youngest players -- which is hopefully enough to contend for the playoffs. All eyes will be on second-overall pick Byfield, who was the highest-drafted King since Drew Doughty. But more than him, Gabe Vilardi, who had seven points in 10 games last season could work his way up the lineup and infuse a level of offence that has been lacking. If the Kings are to challenge for the playoffs, their key veterans have to perform as well. Anze Kopitar is the rock up front, and Doughty on the back end -- they may have to make awards pushes to rise the Kings to a playoff level. Jonathan Quick is still around, but maybe more interesting for LA fans is what Cal Petersen can do in net. If Vegas, St. Louis and Colorado are believed to be playoff locks in this division, LA would just be happy to make a push for that fourth spot.
Worst-case scenario: Really just spinning tires would be the worst thing here. While getting to the playoffs is a heck of a climb, this is very much a division of haves and have-nots, and if the Kings finish at the bottom of the have-nots again, it would indicate they are further from recovering than perhaps they'd like. The Kings seemed to be turning a corner late last season, finishing 11-8-1 in their last 20 games, which was middle of the league. If that was a mirage and the Kings are again a bottom-feeder, it would certainly be discouraging.
2019-20 record: 35-27-7, sixth in Central
2019-20 finish: Eliminated 3-1 by Vancouver during play-in round
2019-20 top scorer: Kevin Fiala (23G, 31A, 54PTS)
Major off-season additions: Nick Bonino, Cam Talbot, Macus Johansson, Nick Bjugstad
Major off-season losses: Alex Galchenyuk, J.T. Brown, Mikko Koivu, Eric Staal, Devan Dubnyk
Best-case scenario: A Kevin Fiala season-long breakout. Kaapo Kahkonen, the AHL's best goaltender last season, arrives and immediately takes flight in the NHL -- and Cam Talbot shows as well as he did at the end of last season. Matt Dumba, healthy, rebounds from a down season for high-impact production. The whole blue line is strong enough to make the goaltenders' lives easier. Kirill Kaprizov makes a Calder Trophy push. The Wild aren't usually among the more exciting teams, but there is a path to that in 2021. Minnesota would love to claim one of the four playoff spots in this division, upset one round, and continue to build from there.
Worst-case scenario: The ride is bumpier for their younger players and veterans such as Ryan Suter, Zach Parise and more show decline. The Wild have been competitive, but not near good enough for a while and a continuation of that would not be the preferred outcome here. Still, another playoff qualification followed by a fifth straight Round 1 elimination (technically a play-in elimination this past summer), wouldn't be the worst thing in the world considering there is a little youth movement going on here. No, the worst outcome would be to just miss out on the playoffs, thus robbing the young players of post-season experience, and get stuck with a mid-first round pick to wait on.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
2019-20 record: 29-36-5, eighth in Pacific
2019-20 finish: Missed playoffs, watched Tim Stuetzle go to Ottawa third overall to complete Erik Karlsson trade
2019-20 top scorer: Timo Meier (22G, 27A, 49PTS)
Major off-season additions: Patrick Marleau, Devan Dubnyk, Ryan Donato,
Major off-season losses: Joe Thornton, Aaron Dell
Best-case scenario: Last season was just the second time in 15 years the Sharks missed the playoffs, and it's not as though they experienced a lot of turnover. For better or worse, this year's team returns, again, more or less the same, with some subtle tweaks made to hopefully put them back on track. But more than those changes, the Sharks have long been great at transition from one core generation to the next, and it's time to do it again now. Joe Pavelski left a year ago and Logan Couture certainly needs to bounce back from a 39-point season. But now it's more about to what level Timo Meier can jump to as a goal scorer, or to what heights Kevin Labanc can play at. If they hit, the Sharks absolutely have the roster to make a push for the playoffs and shock everyone with a quick turnaround.
Worst-case scenario: Injuries continue to hamper Erik Karlsson. Brent Burns can't regain his production. Marc-Edouard Vlasic continues a decline that was noticeable last season, and the $26.5 million committed to those three for another five seasons becomes a major issue. San Jose's biggest problem last season, though, was in net, and that's where the biggest question remains. GM Doug Wilson's attempt to course correct there resulted in Aaron Dell leaving and Devan Dubnyk coming in -- but the former Wild netminder posted a sub-.900 save percentage himself last season. The Sharks could experience all of the same problems they did last season and struggle to perform again. At least they hold their own first-round pick this time.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
2019-20 record: 42-19-10, first in Central
2019-20 finish: Eliminated 4-2 by Vancouver in Round 1
2019-20 top scorer: Ryan O'Reilly (12G, 49A, 61PTS)
Major off-season additions: Torey Krug, Kyle Clifford, Mike Hoffman
Major off-season losses: Jay Bouwmeester, Troy Brouwer, Alex Pietrangelo, Alex Steen,
Best-case scenario: The way last season ended left the Blues with a bad taste in their mouths, but don't forget that before the pause, St. Louis was the best team in the West and was challenging Boston for the Presidents' Trophy. They did suffer a few key losses, most notably captain Alex Pietrangelo, but seem to have replaced those departures. With Vladimir Tarasenko still on the sidelines, Mike Hoffman's signing could be a big one, and since he's playing for a contract again, no one should be surprised if he puts together a big season. The Blues should be Cup contenders again, and given they're just one season removed from winning it, you could make the case they are the team best built to make it out of this division in the playoffs.
Worst-case scenario: The loss of Pietrangelo proves a bigger deal than it seems and chemistry is slow to develop. A slow start would put the Blues behind in challenging for the division's regular-season crown, but if any of it sticks the Blues could soon find themselves in a tier below Colorado and Vegas. Another first-round elimination would be concerning, and leave the Blues with questions about what to do next with the likes of Jordan Kyrou, Jordan Binnington, Robert Thomas, Vince Dunn and Hoffman all needing new deals. It's not as though they'd dip into a rebuild, but some roster massaging would need to follow.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
2019-20 record: 39-24-8, First in Pacific
2019-20 finish: Eliminated 4-1 by Dallas in conference final
2019-20 top scorer: Max Pacioretty (32G, 34A, 66PTS)
Major off-season additions: Alex Pietrangelo
Major off-season losses: Deryk Engelland, Valentin Zykov, Jon Merrill, Nate Schmidt
Best-case scenario: Between Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Golden Knights have one of the best goalie tandems on paper, which could play a huge role in this season's compressed schedule. Their defence, already strong, was upgraded by bringing in Pietrangelo (even if it meant moving Schmidt out). But it's Shea Theodore who could emerge from that group on a national level. More power-play time and exposure for him could lead to award talk. The Golden Knights started slow last season, but were 15-7-2 in the last two months of regular-season action, which ranked among the top teams. Vegas has made the playoffs in each of its first three seasons, reached the conference finals twice and the Cup final once, so naturally the Stanley Cup is in its sights.
Worst-case scenario: If there's been one concern (however minor) it's how the team chemistry would develop. In Year 1, this was a group of cast-offs playing above their pay grades and exceeding all expectations. Since then, the Golden Knights have made many big trades for the likes of Max Pacioretty or Mark Stone, and free agent signings, including Pietrangelo and Lehner. Now the three highest-paid players on the team arrived after Year 1 and the ensuing cap crunch from this aggressive approach forced them to trade away Schmidt for pennies. Could that happen with other, former core, players? There was something magical about Vegas in the beginning, but now this is a team with big names and the highest of expectations. Some cracks showed at the beginning of last season, and it doesn't seem like anything to worry about. But we've now seen how the seams could start to become undone. An early playoff exit (and certainly a miss) would be a huge disappointment following the successful off-season they had.