Pacific Preview: The California Teams

It’s been a great summer. Few would argue the statement that the Seattle Kraken team hitting the ice this fall will look different than the inaugural roster did, but the question is will they be better? An injection of talented youth, adjustments to the coaching staff, and a couple key trades and signings lead most folks to predict a better standings result than 2021-22, but do the Kraken have a shot at their first post-season berth?

One of the most likely places Seattle could find teams to overtake is sunny California. With three clubs whose fortunes have been mixed the past few years (LA Kings, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks), any two could finish below the Kraken if the chips fall right. The Kings made the playoffs, and even made a series of it when they took the Edmonton Oilers to seven games. The Ducks and Sharks were on the outside looking in, and like our Kraken, will look to jump up the standings starting in October.

L.A. Kings

One wonders if Los Angeles might even have beaten the Oilers if their number one defenseman, Drew Doughty, had been available. But staying healthy is a part of it all and the Kings’ aging roster is a reason they were on the playoff bubble last season, and why they might slide down the divisional standings in 2022-23. Looking at their scoring, one can see how close they were to a much worse record.

When goaltender Jonathan Quick retires, he should step off the ice and directly into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He’ll likely have 42,000 career saves by the end of next season, two Stanley Cup rings, A Conn Smythe trophy and two William H. Jennings. But age catches up with us all, and just like Doughty last year, regular season wear and tear could mean Quick, who turns 37 in January, finds himself on the injured list. Anže Kopitar just turned 35 on Wednesday (happy belated Anže) as well.

The point is, the elite core that saw the Kings capture two Stanley Cups in a three year period is on its way out, and it’s unlikely the next batch will be quite as good nor as well ordered from coaching: Head coach Todd McLellan is notorious for not quite getting his teams to the promised land, and the Kraken, who face the Kings three times this season, should be gunning for their spot.

San Jose Sharks

If the Kings are closing on rebuild territory, the Sharks are building a golf course there. As we’ve gone through the Pacific Division, the teams up until now all had a positive goal differential. Even if L.A.’s was tight, it was enough to get them to the postseason. That wasn’t the case in San Jose last year, with the Kraken slightly outscoring the Sharks, on average.

The problem isn’t that San Jose is, or certainly should be, rebuilding. The problem is that they’re doing it in cap hell. Four Sharks players (Thomas Hertl, Logan Couture, Erik Karlsson, and Marc-Eduard Vlasic) take up 42% of their available cap. The average age of those players is 32, and the average term left on those deals is five years. And this is AFTER the departure of Brent Burns (and Evander Kane).

The Sharks were a perennial contender over the past decade, and one understands the desire to keep the band together when pundits always seemed to be saying “this is the Sharks’ year” but where they are now will not be an easy hole to climb out of. Quite simply put, Seattle should be better than the current Sharks roster and general manager Ron Francis also has the flexibility to make his team even more superior, while the Sharks may have trouble giving away some of the contracts listed above.

Anaheim Ducks

They’re not mighty, they’re just regular Ducks, but they look poised to move up the NHL standings this season. In spite of finishing above only the Kraken in the Pacific division standings, Anaheim’s young prospects made the highlight reels multiple times last season, and they’ve got another impact player on the way in Mason Mcdav… McTavish. Just look at the hand eye on display here:

Adding McTavish into the mix with Troy Terry and one of EA’s NHL ‘23 cover players, Trevor Zegras, is going to help the Ducks get better. John Klingberg was perhaps the most sought after defensive free agent, and he chose to go to Anaheim. He joins a blue line with the steady Cam Fowler, journeyman Kevin Shattenkirk, and the up and coming Jamie Drysdale. With John Gibson in the net behind them, the team certainly looks poised to improve both the numbers below:

The Ducks’ weakness, in this writer’s opinion, is coaching. Historically, Dallas Eakins’ coached NHL teams lose three out of every five games they play. The upside, is that he has never been out-coached in the playoffs, but the reason for that is he has never once come close. He had a similar crop of offensive talent in a young Edmonton Oilers team and did little to nothing with it. Eakins is the Ducks’ Achilles heel and if they don’t make a change this season (or at least by January) the Kraken may have a shot at surpassing them.

If the Kraken are going to go the route of finishing amongst the top-3 in the Pacific, they’ll likely need to beat all three of these clubs, and others as well. Divisional games will be extremely important this year, because everything suggests there will be a logjam in the standings and a good team could easily miss out. There is one other route to a playoff spot however, the Wild Card. We’ll take a look at that option next time.