NHL 2022-23 Pacific Division Preview: Battle of Alberta has fresh appeal

Ryan Leslie and Eric Francis discuss why Tyler Toffoli would be a natural fit on the Flames top line due to the departure of Matthew Tkachuk, how Dillon Dube is turning heads on and off the ice wit his work ethic.

The Pacific Division gave hockey fans plenty to salivate over during the 2021-22 campaign and the excitement only ramped up in the post-season, highlighted by a wild Battle of Alberta playoff series that preceded an off-season those in Calgary are still processing.

Will the Oilers be able to build off a trip to the Western Conference final? Can Vegas bounce back after missing the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and what improvements will Seattle make in its sophomore season? Vancouver and two of the three California teams have positive momentum heading into the year, but how will 2022-23 unfold?

With pre-season underway and opening week just around the corner, here’s a look at the eight teams vying for the Pacific Division title.

ANAHEIM DUCKS

2021-22 season outcome: 31-37-14, seventh in Pacific Division, missed playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: John Klingberg, Ryan Strome, Frank Vatrano, Dmitry Kulikov, Olli Juolevi

Notable off-season subtractions: Ryan Getzlaf, Sam Steel, Sonny Milano, Zach Aston-Reese, Andrej Sustr, Vinni Lettieri

The good news: This Ducks team made some clear improvements in the summer at both ends of the ice. Replacing retired captain Ryan Getzlaf with Ryan Strome who’s coming off a career high 21 goals, plus adding another former Ranger in Frank Vatrano strengthens a burgeoning top-six. Vatrano made a noticeable impact during New York’s run to the East final this past spring. Overall, the forward group boasts many promising youngsters, including 37-goal man Troy Terry, puck magician Trevor Zegras and potential Calder Trophy hopeful Mason McTavish. John Klingberg was among the most coveted free agents and Anaheim lured him to their roster. From a long-term point of view the team also appears in good standing. GM Pat Verbeek has three second-round picks and an extra third-round selection in 2023 to potentially utilize.

The bad news: The team will need more out of a goalie tandem that allowed the 10th-most goals against in 2021-22. John Gibson hasn’t finished any of the past three seasons with a sub-2.98 GAA or save percentage above .904. Gibson had previously averaged a .922 save percentage and 2.32 GAA across 210 appearances between 2015 and 2019. Anthony Stolarz is coming off a career-high 28 games played but did not win two consecutive starts after the turn of the calendar. Klingberg only signed a one-year deal with a modified trade clause that kicks in after Jan. 1, per CapFriendly, so there remains some long-term uncertainty on the blue-line; the team traded Hamus Lindholm to Boston before the 2022 trade deadline.

CALGARY FLAMES

2021-22 season outcome: 50-21-11, first in Pacific Division, beat Stars in seven games, eliminated by Edmonton in five games

Notable off-season roster additions: Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, MacKenzie Weegar, Cody Eakin (PTO), Michael Stone (PTO), Sonny Milano (PTO)

Notable off-season subtractions: Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau, Calle Jarnkrok

The good news: Brad Treliving made the most of essentially the worst-case scenario for any GM and fan base – your two best players and franchise cornerstones leave town in dramatic fashion within 10 days of one another when one takes less money than you offered him to join a new team in free agency and the other requests a trade. Treliving essentially managed to replace Johnny Gaudreau (115 points, second in league scoring, fourth in Hart Trophy voting) with Jonathan Huberdeau (also had 115 points, same age as Gaudreau, fifth in Hart Trophy voting) and Matthew Tkachuk (coming off career high in points, received Selke votes) with Nazem Kadri (coming off career high in points, received same number of Selke votes as Tkachuk). The Flames also added MacKenzie Weegar, who should be a boon to Calgary’s already-staunch back end as one of 14 defencemen to receive multiple Norris votes last season. The same goalie tandem that allowed the third fewest goals in 2021-22 returns led by Vezina runner-up Jacob Markstrom.

The bad news: That’s a huge change to the core of the team, so it would be natural for chemistry to be an issue early in the season. Treliving still needs to sign Weegar, a pending 2023 UFA, to a contract extension. The Flames were eliminated by Edmonton following an intense five-game second-round series. Will the bold off-season changes allow them to keep pace with their rising provincial rival? Markstrom allowed nearly five goals per game to the Oilers in that series.

EDMONTON OILERS

2021-22 season outcome: 49-27-6, second in Pacific Division, beat Kings in seven games, beat Flames in five games, swept by Avalanche in Western Conference Final

Notable off-season roster additions: Jack Campbell, Mattias Janmark, Ryan Murray, Calvin Pickard, Jake Virtanen (PTO)

Notable off-season subtractions: Zack Kassian, Derick Brassard, Mikko Koskinen

The good news: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are the best one-two punch in hockey, and they appear to be getting better. Janmark was a quality depth addition up front. Kane, who led the 2022 playoffs in goals and enjoyed a stretch of 19 goals in 19 games from mid April to late May, was re-signed. He’s one of three Oilers forwards with legitimate 40-goal potential based off how well he performed in an Oilers uniform.

The bad news: The forward group is still considered top-heavy and the team could run into cap issues. Is it fair or reasonable to expect McDavid and Draisaitl to continue producing at the elite rate they have been, and if they go cold at any point will there be enough supplementary scoring? Is Campbell the answer between the pipes? The former Maple Leafs netminder’s GAA rose and his save percentage dropped from the previous season and he’s coming off his highest workload at the NHL level – Campbell appeared in 49 games last season compared to 48 over the previous two seasons combined. If Campbell struggles, it could fall on 23-year-old Stuart Skinner’s shoulders.

LOS ANGELES KINGS

2021-22 season outcome: 43-31-8, third in Pacific Division, eliminated by Edmonton in Round 1 in seven games

Notable off-season roster additions: Kevin Fiala

Notable off-season subtractions: Dustin Brown, Olli Maatta, Andreas Athanasiou

The good news: The Kings are a team on the rise after ending a three-year playoff drought and pushing the Oilers to the brink in the opening round. Drew Doughty only suited up for 36 games due to injuries but he proved he’s still capable logging quality top-pair minutes and leading a power play. Between Doughty’s return and the thought recent top-five draft picks Quinton Byfield and Alex Turcotte could break through at the NHL level, the Kings remain in a good spot. Free agent signing Kevin Fiala is coming off a career-high 33 goals and 85 points and joins a forward group that prioritizes a 200-foot game and boasts centre depth.

The bad news: They could have trouble keeping pace with the rest of the division in the offensive zone. Anze Kopitar is the team’s oldest forward and was the most productive player with 67 points in 81 games. No other Kings player hit the 55-point mark and relying on a handful of young, unproven players to provide key scoring is risky. There could be lots of pressure on Cal Petersen with Jonathan Quick entering the final year on his contract.

SAN JOSE SHARKS

2021-22 season outcome: 32-37-13, seventh in Pacific Division, missed playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: Steven Lorentz, Oskar Lindblom, Luke Kunin, Aaron Dell, Matthew Benning, Evgeny Svechnikov, Markus Nutivaara

Notable off-season subtractions: Brent Burns, Adin Hill

The good news: First-year Sharks GM Mike Grier seems to have a clear vision for the team and was relatively bold in the off-season. There’s not much pressure to make the playoffs despite the fact they haven’t been there in three years. Brent Burns, the 2017 Norris winner and longtime fan favourite, was traded to Carolina and Grier brought in a bunch of new faces to hopefully generate chemistry with those left over from the 2021-22 roster. What they lack in high-end talent they make up for in depth.

The bad news: The aging defence corps leaves much to be desired, especially without Burns who ranks first in points among all active blueliners. Two-time Norris winner Erik Karlsson is second on that list but his performance has declined in recent seasons along with the team’s. San Jose allowed the 12th-most goals against last year and are expected to be in the bottom third of the league again with James Reimer and Kaapo Kahkonen the primary netminders.

SEATTLE KRAKEN

2021-22 season outcome: 27-49-6, eighth in Pacific Division, missed playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: Shane Wright, Andre Burakovsky, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Justin Schultz, Martin Jones

Notable off-season subtractions: Victor Rask

The good news: Matthew Beniers looks like a blue-chip prospect and after nine points in his brief 10-game stint late last season there’s growing buzz around the 2021 second-overall pick’s ceiling. GM Ron Francis also improved the forward unit by signing Andre Burakovsky and trading for Oliver Bjorkstrand, both of whom are likely to slot into the top six and potentially on the top line with Beniers. Rookie Shane Wright fell to Seattle at No. 4 in the 2022 NHL Draft after being the projected No. 1 pick and could be an x-factor. Seattle’s outlook at forward is more optimistic than many teams – not bad considering the franchise is entering just its second season.

The bad news: There could be sophomore struggles looming after the Kraken’s inaugural season saw them finish as a bottom-five team in shots and goals allowed. Martin Jones was signed to challenge Philipp Grubauer, who is aiming to bounce back from a poor first year in Seattle. There’s a dearth of talent under 25 on defence. Justin Schultz could help a power-play that capitalized on less than 15 per cent of its opportunities. The team also ranked 31st on the penalty kill. Special teams must improve drastically overall.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

2021-22 season outcome: 40-30-12, fifth in Pacific Division, missed playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: Ilya Mikheyev, Andrei Kuzmenko, Curtis Lazar, Danny DeKeyser (PTO)

Notable off-season subtractions: Brad Richardson, Juho Lammikko

The good news: Vancouver will begin the season with Bruce Boudreau on the bench. The Canucks went 32-15-10 after Boudreau replaced Travis Green, missing the playoffs by just five points following an ugly 8-15-2 start. GM Patrik Allvin locked up J.T. Miller to an eight-year deal, eliminating that potential distraction, and brought in Mikheyev who’s coming off an impressive season with the Maple Leafs scoring 21 goals in 53 games. Thatcher Demko is trending in the right direction as he enters his prime years. The 26-year-old’s GAA has gone down in three consecutive seasons and he’s coming off a career-high 33 wins and 61 starts. Demko’s confidence can allow Quinn Hughes and the defence to play with more freedom.

The bad news: Boudreau’s win percentage worsened in his second season with both the Capitals and Wild (it went up in his second year with the Ducks). Miller, Hughes, Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat are all coming off career highs in points and/or goals, which will be difficult to sustain year-over-year. There’s a relative lack a depth between the pipes and that’s always a concern over a long season.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

2021-22 season outcome: 43-31-8, fourth in Pacific Division, missed playoffs for first time in franchise history

Notable off-season roster additions: Phil Kessel, Adin Hill

Notable off-season subtractions: Max Pacioretty, Mattias Janmark, Byron Froese, Michael Hutchinson, Dylan Coghlan

The good news: Jack Eichel is ready for his first full season with the Golden Knights. The star centre played 34 games last season but didn’t quite regain the form he had when he was healthy in Buffalo. The addition of Phil Kessel at just $1.5 million could prove valuable if he can bounce back from a career low eight-goal season in 2021-22. The team also has a new voice on the bench with Bruce Cassidy the new head coach. Cassidy, whose worst win percentage with the Bruins was .652, is just two years removed from winning the Jack Adams as coach of the year.

The bad news: Injuries are already a concern to begin the season. The average age of the defence corps stayed intact but is just shy of 30 years old and starting netminder Robin Lehner won’t play this year, leaving the team with the uninspiring trio of Laurent Brossoit, Logan Thompson and Adin Hill. Forward Nolan Patrick is also expected to miss the entire season and Mark Stone began training camp in a non-contact jersey. It’ll be tough replacing Evgenii Dadonov’s 20 goals and Max Pacioretty’s near point-per-game production from a season ago. Cap woes resulted in the team dealing those two forwards and all they got in return was Shea Weber’s contract – not the first time they’ve made notable salary-dump deals. One silver lining is some of their salary problems will go away once players are officially moved to LTIR.

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