NHL 2021-22 Pacific Division season preview: Can anyone topple Vegas?

Mark-Stone

Vegas Golden Knights right wing Mark Stone (61) celebrates after the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Colorado Avalanche in Game 3 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup second-round playoff series Friday, June 4, 2021, in Las Vegas. (John Locher / AP)

The Pacific Division is one of extreme highs and extreme lows.

At the high end are the Vegas Golden Knights, a perennial contender since the day they arrived in the NHL four years ago. The Edmonton Oilers are in a tier below, solidified as a top notch regular season team, but with lots to prove in the post-season.

At the low end are a couple of teams from California in distress, former powerhouses now with back-to-back seasons of misery and no obvious route out of the muck in the immediate future. In the middle are a variety of teams with a wide range of possibilities. The Kings, for instance, made a lot of high-impact additions in their bid to emerge out of a rebuild ASAP. The Flames head into an important season where they plan on being a contender, but have to follow up a disastrous campaign in the North Division. The Seattle Kraken are a wild card because they’re brand new, while the Vancouver Canucks are one because who the heck knows what last year should teach us about them.

This division is popularly labelled as the weakest in the NHL for the coming season and while that may be true, it’s not unreasonable to suggest the Stanley Cup winner could come out of here. Top-heavy would be another way to describe this collection of teams.

Here is your Pacific Division preview, with teams in the order of how I think they could finish.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

2021 season outcome: 40-14-2, Second in West Division, Eliminated by Montreal in third round (4-2)

Notable off-season roster additions: Evgenii Dadonov, Nolan Patrick, Brett Howden, Laurent Brossoit

Notable off-season subtractions: Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Reaves, Cody Glass

The good news: Vegas’ 40 wins were tops in the NHL last season and for the third time in four seasons they reached the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They shared a division with powerhouse Colorado last season — beating them in the playoffs — and now return to a Pacific Division that doesn’t appear to have a challenger of that strength. The Golden Knights were a top-five team on both sides of the puck and there haven’t been any major downgrades to the forward or defensive units. In fact, the addition of Dadonov brings the upside of another 25-goal scorer, though he’ll need a bounce back from a disappointing year in Ottawa.

The bad news: While it still is good news that Robin Lehner is in net (he led them to the conference final in 2020), the fact is that Vegas lost last season’s Vezina Trophy winner. Marc-Andre Fleury was fantastic, squeezed out by the cap picture, and now Vegas’s goalie depth luxury is no more. Lehner is a strong No. 1 in his own right, but if he has to miss any time, Laurent Brossoit won’t give the same cover as Fleury. There’s also the matter of the power play, last year’s 22nd ranked unit that actually got less efficient as the year went along and cratered to a 9.3 per cent success rate in the playoffs. It went 0-for-15 against Montreal and a key reason why Vegas was eliminated. Without any major off-season changes, how does this get better?

EDMONTON OILERS

2021 season outcome: 35-19-2, Second in North Division, Eliminated by Winnipeg in first round (4-0)

Notable off-season roster additions: Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, Derek Ryan, Duncan Keith, Cody Ceci

Notable off-season subtractions: Dominik Kahun, Jujhar Khaira, James Neal, Adam Larsson, Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones

The good news: Well, they have the best player in the world and another one who ranks right up there as well. And when you have two centres like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, you’re starting out ahead of most teams. The Oilers seem to have addressed a couple of lineup weaknesses, too. Derek Ryan is in as the third line centre, a player who will get PK minutes and win faceoffs. Zach Hyman not only gives McDavid a solid complementary winger, it should also remove any need to put McDavid and Draisaitl on the same line, except in specific, late-game situations, so the scoring depth should be greater. They changed over the defence, and no matter what you think of what they gave up for Duncan Keith, it was worth taking a shot on the 38-year-old in a reduced role from his Chicago days. The future is still strong on Edmonton’s blue line — Evan Bouchard will be a factor this season, while Dimitry Samorukov and Philip Broberg aren’t far off — so taking a shot on experience is worth it.

The bad news: While GM Ken Holland was able to make some changes among his skaters, ideally he would have been able to bring in another goaltender as well. Mike Smith had a great 2021 season, but he’s 39 years old and found that success after two seasons where he looked to be in steep decline. And what if Smith can’t replicate last season’s success? Mikko Koskinen isn’t the answer. Poor goaltending has sunk many teams before and you can see how it could happen here. There’s also a chance this defence doesn’t fit the bill — Cody Ceci and Keith are wild cards somewhat and how will Tyson Barrie do without contract year motivation? Edmonton will have to play through heavy expectations this season and nothing will really be a measure of this team until they get back to the playoffs and show what they’ve got.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

2021 season outcome: 23-29-4, Seventh in North Division, Missed playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland, Jaroslav Halak, Jason Dickinson, Tucker Poolman, Vasily Podkolzin

Notable off-season subtractions: Nate Schmidt, Alexander Edler, Antoine Roussel, Jake Virtanen, Braden Holtby

The good news: Throw last year out. That record up top? Don’t think twice about it. Why, you ask? The Canucks have made significant changes in the off-season, but they were also faced with a three-and-a-half week COVID shutdown that affected everyone on the roster and had to return to an incredibly condensed schedule and a 7-11-1 finish. Elias Pettersson is back healthy, which will make a huge difference on its own. On top of that, Conor Garland is going to be a fun and impactful player in the lineup and Vasily Podkolzin — as a rookie — brings strength and scoring upside as well. Especially if Nils Hoglander keeps progressing the Canucks are going to have a heck of a collection of top-nine forwards. Matchup nightmares all over. And in net, there is every reason to be optimistic about Thatcher Demko’s rise and potential for stardom. His first 15 starts were a little bumpy last season, but his next 20 came with a .922 save rate. A year removed from “Bubble Demko” he has that elite upside and even if he doesn’t quite get there, Demko’s baseline is still pretty solid.

The bad news: The blue line could be an issue here. Travis Hamonic is still not with the team and that means they’re down a top-four defenceman at the moment. Oliver Ekman-Larrson comes with a very high price tag that will be part of any discussion about his play this season — and just what does he have left anyway? Olli Juolevi hasn’t taken the strides at camp that were hoped and Tucker Poolman comes to town after a struggle of a year with the Jets. This was a porous unit last season — no team allowed more scoring chances against at 5-on-5 than the Canucks, per Natural Stat Trick.

SEATTLE KRAKEN

2021 season outcome: N/A

Notable off-season roster additions: See the full list here.

Notable off-season subtractions: Tyler Pitlick, Kurtis MacDermid, Vitek Vanecek (I guess)

The good news: Well, the last time we saw an expansion team introduced, it went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. So there’s that bit of history. But can these Kraken really live up to the standard set by Vegas? We can’t even look at their roster and immediately dismiss the possibility because that’s exactly how Vegas was being viewed in their first season. The Kraken could surprise. They may not have an alpha, franchise scorer, but they have weapons in Jaden Schwartz, Jordan Eberle and Yanni Gourde (currently injured) that added up could amount to something. Colin Blackwell looked strong in a small sample with the Rangers, Mason Appleton showed flashes in Winnipeg where opportunities for impact minutes were few and Joonas Donskoi has always had good underlying numbers. Can they get a breakout from any of those players, or some other wild card? The blue line has size, experience and puck-moving ability, while Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger make for an intriguing tandem. And, heck, if it doesn’t come together in Year 1, the Kraken have some pretty good trade pieces they could move at the deadline to set up better days.

The bad news: Centre is setting up to be a weakness here and when you look at how that will match up against Edmonton, Vancouver and, yes, even Los Angeles, the Kraken will be behind the eight ball in an important position. And while centre isn’t a strength of Vegas’ either, the Kraken don’t have the established stars on the blue line that the Golden Knights do. The Kraken will not be able to escape being compared to the most recent expansion team at every turn, but it’s almost assured they’ll fall well short of that marker. Other than Vegas, only one other NHL expansion team has had a points percentage better than .500 in their first season — the 1925 Pittsburgh Pirates.

LOS ANGELES KINGS

2021 season outcome: 21-28-7, Sixth in West Division, Missed playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: Phillip Danault, Viktor Arvidsson, Alexander Edler

Notable off-season subtractions: Kurtis MacDermid

The good news: They seem primed to launch out of the rebuild and that it’s just a matter of how much thrust there is to it in 2021-22. The Kings aren’t just waiting around for their drafted prospects to have an impact either. The off-season was spent adding some quality NHLers. Phillip Danault will complement Anze Kopitar nicely and gives the Kings two elite shutdown centres. Viktor Arvidsson gets a fresh start out of Nashville, where he was one of the league’s most underrated goal scorers for a few years until struggling for the past two. He has 30-goal upside, which would be a welcome addition to last year’s 27th-ranked offence. Alexander Edler was signed to a one-year deal and brings another veteran to the blue line and he could embrace a somewhat smaller role. In net, Cal Petersen took over the top job from Jonathan Quick last season and served the team well — if he takes a step up in Year 2 as the starter, it could act as another upgrade to this roster. And then there’s the potential for some impactful young players. Alex Turcotte and Arthur Kaliyev could get shots and Quinton Byfield was in line to get a look too, until he was sidelined indefinitely with a fractured ankle. Whenever the kids get their opportunity, they won’t need to step into big-minute, productive roles right away, and will instead be surrounded by a fair number of veterans to do the heavy lifting.

The bad news: Emerging from a rebuild is never a sure thing and it’s certainly possible that Arvidsson just isn’t a high-upside goal scorer anymore, or that the defence corps just isn’t good enough to elevate this team into the playoffs. While some work has been done to address the team’s overall defence, the fact remains that the Kings allowed the third-most scoring chance and high danger opportunities at 5-on-5 last season, which puts a strain on the goalies. While they are likely to improve in that regard, they have an awfully long way to go. Petersen does bring a lot of promise, but his play did regress as last season went along — from April 1 to the end of the season he had an .894 save percentage and 2-11-1 record in 16 appearances. Dustin Brown had a bounce back season of sorts with 17 goals and 31 points in 49 games, but he’ll turn 37 years old in November so continued production is far from a guarantee.

CALGARY FLAMES

2021 season outcome: 26-27-3, Fifth in North Division, Missed playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: Blake Coleman, Tyler Pitlick, Brad Richardson, Nikita Zadorov, Daniel Vladar

Notable off-season subtractions: Mark Giordano, Derek Ryan, Josh Leivo

The good news: Is the “good” here that just about everything that could have gone wrong for the Flames last season, did? Remember, in the 2019-20 season the Flames performed as Canada’s second-best team from December through the March pause. There was lots of reason to be optimistic heading into the shortened 2021 season, especially with Jacob Markstrom in net, but it fell flat. It’s near impossible to get the most out of a team when its top players are under-performing. Johnny Gaudreau was inconsistent, Matthew Tkachuk took a step back and Sean Monahan was nowhere near his usual self due to injury. Monahan is now healthy, while Tkachuk and Gaudreau are in contract years that could bring a higher level of motivation. And then there are the good stories from last season. Elias Lindholm was solid and Andrew Mangiapane looked like a rising asset on both sides of the puck, and a potential Selke candidate to watch moving forward. In training camp, Oliver Kylington has been turning heads, and we’re left to wonder if he might start reaching some of his draft year potential. Blake Coleman brings Stanley Cup winning pedigree and a style that should fit well with Darryl Sutter hockey. So the hope is that last season was the worst version of the Flames and that there’s nowhere to go but up now.

The bad news: The Flames are at a crossroads here. Just what is their path to being a contender? The futures of Gaudreau and Tkachuk are still very much in the air — Gaudreau because he could leave of his own volition and will be a trade candidate leading up to the deadline as long as he’s without a contract and the Flames are a bubble team or worse. And Tkachuk, who lost momentum as a future team captain last season, will be an RFA next summer, and also the player who would bring the greatest return in trade if the Flames decide a pivot is necessary. If last season is closer to what the Flames actually are than just a mirage from an unusual season for everyone, then some sort of re-tool will be necessary. Marc Bergevin saw the Canadiens through a re-tool on the fly a few years back and it mostly seems to have worked for them — will Flames GM Brad Treliving have to face a similar fact, and, if it comes to that, would he even be the one to see them through it?

SAN JOSE SHARKS

2021 season outcome: 21-28-7, Sixth in West Division, Missed playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: Nick Bonino, Andrew Cogliano, James Reimer, Adin Hill, William Eklund

Notable off-season subtractions: Ryan Donato, Martin Jones, Evander Kane (at least for now)

The good news: While it has been a bad couple of years for the Sharks, there’s still upside to this roster. Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns … that sounds like a pretty good start. Even if not all of those players are at the peak of their powers anymore, if surrounded by good support players there should be enough to compete. And they do seem to be surrounded by a capable cast. Nick Bonino was added in the off-season, Kevin Labanc is a still-emerging scorer and William Eklund would bring new blood — the seventh overall pick from the 2021 draft has explosive potential. Local reports have also indicated that some players weren’t happy about Evander Kane’s place on the team and, perhaps, that’s a factor in Hertl’s reticence to re-sign. Kane will not start the season with the team due to various league investigations around him, so if locker room chemistry was a factor in holding them back, it will be interesting to see how the team responds to this out of the gate.

The bad news: On the one hand, goaltending has been a serious issue for the Sharks dating back a couple of seasons — when they ranked 30th or 31st in 5-on-5 save percentage three years in a row — and they return in 2021-22 with a new tandem. But the bad news? Do James Reimer and Adin Hill inspire a lot of confidence that the situation will be markedly improved? Eh, not really. On the blue line, Burns seems to be in an age-related decline that he might never return from and while Karlsson is healthy right now, it’s been a few years since he’s been elite. Same goes for Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The Sharks have $26.5 million in cap space invested in those three players for the next four seasons so if the blue line isn’t going to get better, it’s going to be difficult to build around them. If the Sharks get off to another bad start, it’ll be hard for them to not start thinking about some sort of rebuild. They may be forced into a trade decision on pending UFA Hertl, among others.

ANAHEIM DUCKS

2021 season outcome: 17-30-9, Eighth in West Division, Missed playoffs

Notable off-season roster additions: None

Notable off-season subtractions: Danton Heinen, Ryan Miller

The good news: It can only get better from here. It’s been a bad few years for the Ducks, who haven’t won a playoff game since 2017, with worsening regular season performances in every year since. But let’s be optimistic here. The Ducks have had pretty good success at the draft table in Bob Murray’s time as GM and some of the most recent picks are beginning to blossom. Maxime Comtois (2017 second-rounder) led the Ducks in goals and points last season. Trevor Zegras (ninth overall in 2019), was up and down between the AHL and NHL, and will be one of the top Calder Trophy favourites this season. Jamie Drysdale (sixth overall in 2020) has immense offensive upside that is so needed on this team and he should be given every opportunity to show it. Isac Lundeström (23rd overall in 2018) has shown signs of growth. Max Jones and Sam Steel, a couple of 2016 first-rounders, need to start showing they can produce enough to play key roles for the Ducks when the team is ready to return to the playoffs. The Ducks were the second-worst team in the league last season, but should be further along in their rebuild than some other teams that will be bottoming out this season.

The bad news: A couple of players who should be leading this offence by now — Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg — are coming off downright poor seasons, which makes it even hard to trade them. Rakell is a pending UFA now and his future here is uncertain. Ryan Getzlaf is no longer the bonafide 1A centre he has been his whole career and should only be leaned on in a support role now. Some past choices on this once-great defence group have proven questionable — how much better could the Ducks be with Shea Theodore for example? Even John Gibson — dependable with his play, but less so with his health — has had back-to-back subpar seasons. Anaheim had the worst offence in the league last season and the only way it gets better is if more than a few of the kids really step up. That’s a lot to ask. You can hope for small improvements here that give hope for the long run, but a huge step forward just doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

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