Despite everything that has been going on, the NHL returns this week with the first games starting on Wednesday, Jan. 13th. In this period of uncertainty, there are a lot of new changes in play for this exclusive season. There are only 56 games and teams will only play everyone in their division eight, nine or 10 times. Only the top four teams from each division will make the playoffs this year.
This specific preview focuses on the West division, which covers the teams on the West Coast/Western United States. Those teams are the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues and the Vegas Golden Knights. They will play each other eight times each this season.
This division has the fewest teams invited to the NHL bubble, primarily in Edmonton, for the playoffs last season, but that does not fully define every team in this division. Some teams were invited for play-in rounds while others were so good that they got to play in round-robin games for seeding. I think that it’s time to jump right in and find out who is who in the division.
Colorado Avalanche (First):
For the first time since the Joe Sakic-led teams of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the Avalanche are elite cup contenders. Years of being both trash and mediocre will finally be swept away in an aggressive landslide as MVP finalist Nathan MacKinnon will lead one of the best first lines in the league with the scoring prowess of Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. This trio can score and is easily the forward line that opponents look out for when scouting the Avalanche. Nazem Kadri also impressed in his debut season last year, and can work alongside Andre Burakovsky, new acquisition Brandon Saad and Tyson Jost to create a dominant second line as well.
The Avalanche not only have an aggressive attacking core, but they also have a rough-and-tough defensive core that is led by Calder winner Cale Makar. The man’s young career is just starting to blossom into something special, and he will find himself in Norris conversations one day with some of the elites of the game. He is also learning the game from former first overall pick Erik Johnson, as they try to create one of the best first defensive lines in the league. In addition, Bowen Byram, another first round pick, should be debuting during the season and he can become Makar’s line buddy within the next two years. Behind the net, Pavel Francouz and Philipp Grubauer are a decent tandem that will rotate trying to save pucks from the net every single game. The Avalanche have both talent and depth, which makes them dangerous for anyone in their path. They will plow to a Cup run after last year’s second round exit, and if you are not prepared, you might be caught in the snow.
Vegas Golden Knights (Second):
Is it safe to call the Golden Knights the best expansion team ever in any sport? They have made the playoffs every season in a 31-team league, are consistently contending for something, and starting a rivalry with the Sharks. Vegas seems to get better with age apparently, Mark Stone has erupted into a franchise forward with a dazzling playoff performance to remember. William Karlsson continues to take control like he did in Vegas’ inaugural season when he led the team in points and goals. Those two and either William Carrier or Max Pacioretty will create a first line that will have almost little competition and score with pure beauties into the net. Beyond them though, there is also Ryan Reaves, Reilly Smith, Tomas Nosek, Jonathan Marchessault, Cody Glass and more. The Golden Knights have quite a bit of golden depth to go with their potential first line, and that depth can serve them handy down the road when they bravely go into battle.
On defense, the squadron lost Nate Schmidt to Vancouver and Derek Engelland to retirement, but also acquired Alex Pietrangelo on a seven-year deal to help shore up their losses at a hefty price. He will immediately propel to the first line alongside Shea Theodore to create a solid blue line. The second line is just as cool and electric as Alec Martinez and Brayden McNabb are both depth players that provide options to defend and score. The Golden Knights even got to keep their depth at goalie as Robin Lehner got an extension and Marc-Andre Fleury continued to pick up wins. Those two were a tandem in the playoffs last season and are just another example of why the Golden Knights have been a good expansion team. The amount of depth at each position gives the Knights an edge over other competitors that projects them to go further than their division rivals. If there is no hubris on this team this season, then the Golden Knights can go deep this season.
St. Louis Blues (Third):
The Blues took care of business winning the Central Division last year, but if their first-round loss proved anything, their chances at getting another cup might be closing, even if they make it back to the playoffs. Ryan O’Reilly is now the captain and has a tumultuous first-line partner in Vladimir Tarasenko, who is not a fan of O’Reilly’s captaincy. Nonetheless, they will lead the first line with the help of either Jaden Schwartz, David Perron or even free agency acquisition Mike Hoffman. The Blues have some choices to make with regards to who starts and who does not, and have Brayden Schenn, Oskar Sundqvist, Tyler Bozak and Kyle Clifford to work with. The Blues have depth, but aside from O’Reilly and Tarasenko, are unsure who else will start, which is not a major concern now, but could lead to the franchise singing the blues if not mended soon.
As for the defense, Justin Faulk is now the head defenseman as Pietrangelo left in free agency. Not to fear though, the Blues got their replacement in Torey Krug, who will work with Faulk on the first line while Colton Parayko stays on the second line. The Blues have three blue liners that can shut down the opposition quite well, which will leave the opportunities open for the Blues to score on their opponents and find the high note. Jordan Binnington, meanwhile, will be the main goalie behind the crease as he looks to improve from last season’s debacle and return to his Winnington form from his rookie season. Binnington will take most of the shots, but also has either Jon Gillies or Ville Husso to back him up. The Blues have a reasonable amount of depth, and their talent levels should be enough to return to the playoffs, where they will meet up with tough competition in their efforts to have a deep run like 2019.
Arizona Coyotes (Fourth):
Are the Coyotes a dark horse team? Maybe, but do they have a mixture of talent and veterans that puts them ahead of others? Yes. After having the most interesting offseason in recent history, excluding Taylor Hall leaving for Buffalo, the Coyotes are partially back. Clayton Keller is continually defining himself as the right wing of the future, and the loss of Derek Stepan means that Christian Dvorak will be the franchise center. Those two could be on the list for top duos in the league in a few years with the right experience. That is why Phil Kessel, a Cup winner and member of the HBK line, is around as the veteran who can teach the younger players the ways of the game. That includes players such as Nick Schmaltz, Tyler Pitlick and John Hayden among others, and with enough time, the young core will be developed for better days ahead.
On defense, Oliver Ekman-Larsson had an interesting offseason himself, but he is still here, and so is Niklas Hjalmarsson, his likely linemate. In addition, there is also Alex Goligoski and Jakob Chychurn to take over a second line. If the defense meshes well, then the Coyotes will be fine for contention. Darcy Kuemper had a solid few games last season and will likely start in the crease for most contests. Should Kuemper fail like he did the last two games against Colorado, then Antti Raanta should be revved up and ready to go. The pairing is decent, and time will tell who the Coyotes should keep when free agency arrives. If things go well, the Coyotes are only a few years away from being serious contenders, if not, the Coyotes are in serious trouble.
San Jose Sharks (Fifth):
The Sharks were a disaster last season, which is concerning because they had too much talent to not have this situation happen to them for at least another five years. Joe Thornton left the team in free agency after 14 seasons, but Patrick Marleau is back to educate the younger masses on the team again. Marleau’s third stint is going to be more of a veteran role, which is fine, because the Sharks will rely on the leadership and abilities of Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane and Timo Meier to take charge and lead the scoring attack for the Sharks. Outside of them, the Sharks do have questions up front, which leaves a concerning hole for who fills out the top six and/or who handles the bottom six. Without that answer, the Sharks could be on the outside looking in.
The defense has not changed that much, with Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns leading the first line as usual. Their third option is Marc-Edouard Vlasic, but after those three, there is a bunch of talent that needs time to develop. Luckily, the experience of Karlsson, Burns and Vlasic will come in handy for the younger defensemen, which is why the Sharks could have a decently jaw-clenching defense by season’s end. Behind the crease, Devan Dubnyk enters the fray to work alongside Martin Jones in the crease. Dubnyk is more consistent than Jones, so it is possible that he could get more starts than Jones, but that can only be the case if Dubnyk returns to All-Star form, otherwise, Jones will get most of the starts. The Sharks have a small group of talent but will watch from afar due to the lack of talent afterwards. Regardless, the Sharks should be fighting for a playoff spot for most of the season.
Minnesota Wild (Sixth):
The Wild saw the end of one era when Mikko Koivu left in free agency, but the Wild are currently in the end of another era. After seasons of doing enough to make the playoffs in and out, the Wild might be playing more towards the bottom of the division. Up front, they do have Zach Parise for four more years, but he is aging and is starting to decline. The Wild also have Mats Zuccarello, Nick Bjugstad, Nick Bonino, Kevin Fiala and more, but some of those guys are developing while others are declining. That slightly unhealthy mix might lead to a major downfall in the coming years for the Wild. Marco Rossi was drafted to be a prolific scorer, but injuries are going to slow his progression into that elite talent. Regardless, the Wild should be decent up front; up back though, things get interesting. Ryan Suter, who also has four years left on his deal, and newly named captain Jared Spurgeon are the most likely first line that the Wild will rely on. Suter has been more consistent than Parise over the years, but he is also aging and might decline soon.
Meanwhile, Matt Dumba has the chance to propel onto the first line if he has a breakout season or the other two defenders decline. After them, there is a mix of young and old that the Wild will need to balance, whether that is Matt Bartkowski or Dakota Mermis or others. The goalie situation is also interesting now that Dubnyk is gone. His loss leaves the door open for both Alex Stalock and Cam Talbot to provide veteran backup before Kaapo Kahkonen takes over this team eventually. Chances are, by season’s end, the Wild could have three goalies they could rely on to make the necessary saves that will drive everyone wild. The Wild’s contention window has been shut, but it is hard to tell if the Wild are rebuilding, especially with the large contracts of Parise and Suter preventing the franchise from doing a major rebuild over the next four seasons.
Los Angeles Kings (Seventh):
The Kings have fallen from their days on the throne, and even I am uncertain about when they will return there. The front lines are an interesting mix that baffles me over what happened to the veterans rather than look forward to the prospects on the way. Dustin Brown has fallen a long way since losing his captaincy while Anze Kopitar continues to just climb the Kings’ leaderboards. Those are some of the remaining pieces from their cup runs alongside Jeff Carter, which gives the Kings three veterans that can educate the younger players such as Adrian Kempe and Alex Turcotte on how to win and how to contend. Quinton Byfield was drafted second overall and has the potential to be the next franchise player for the Kings. Even if he does not debut this season, he will within the next two seasons.
Drew Doughty continues to lead the defense with his elite playmaking skills and new acquisition Olli Maatta will likely be his line partner. Together those two can take charge and possibly dethrone some of the kings of the division with their game plans. The Kings need depth beyond them, but Doughty and Maatta could also help the younger players develop with the right methods and skills. Jonathan Quick continues to handle the crease, but he is starting to age, and the Kings need a new goalie to replace him when the time comes for Quick to retire. The Kings have Calvin Petersen as the backup for now, and he will handle the rest of the games that Quick does not start, which creates a possible tandem for the next two years. The Kings appear to be rebuilding but have yet to let their veterans go yet to prove that they are, and as a result, they will deal with this disappointment for at least a few more seasons.
Anaheim Ducks (Eighth):
The Ducks are both toast and roast. Since their days where they consistently competed for the Western Conference, they have fallen a long way and Ryan Getzlaf has seen all of it. The longest tenured Duck has also had to work with a new line partner in Jakob Silfverberg after the departure of Corey Perry last season. Especially with Ryan Kesler absent, the forward situation is fluxed after those two. Along with Adam Henrique, the Ducks need talent so that they could contend in the future, but time is needed to figure out who those players are going to be. It could be Rikard Rakell, Sam Steel or others, but it is hard to tell right now who that could be. That is concerning, especially when Getzlaf leaves, as madness could ensue, and the team would be sitting Ducks in terms of where they finish every season.
As for the defense, Josh Manson and Cam Fowler will lead the defense out and their third option belongs to Hampus Lindholm. Outside of them, the Ducks need some help on defense. Kevin Shattenkirk is a start, but after him, who else can step up and defend the ice aggressively? Perhaps someone could have a breakout season, but that will come down to their playing time and, more importantly, the emergence of their skills. As for the goalie position, the three options are John Gibson, Ryan Miller, and Anthony Stolarz with Gibson likely to start most of the contests. He needs his all-star form back if he is going to be remembered as a franchise goalie, or Stolarz and Miller will take over. The Ducks are in a bad place right now, they are trying to rebuild for a better future, but have yet to see any results. There might not be results coming this season, but perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Due to the nature of this season’s playoffs, the divisional/first round only will be listed for the playoff predictions.
Avalanche sweep Coyotes
Golden Knights beat Blues in seven
So, this is how I think the West Division is going to end up. The results in this division might be the most straightforward, but if 2020 taught us anything, it is that anything can change, and nothing should be taken as a given. Some teams are going to disappoint while others will be surprises, but either way, there will be new chapters in their extensive history. Let the showdowns begin.