2019 saw the rise of some young, skilled rebuilding teams while simultaneously showcasing the fall of some Western Conference powerhouses. Lets take a look at how the 2020 season could unfold for the Pacific Division.
The Arizona Coyotes have been attempting to get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season. They were almost able to do this last season, finishing with a record of 39-35-5 and missing the playoffs by 4 points, but were ultimately decimated by injuries. Only one forward, Clayton Keller, finished the 2019 season with a full 82 games, and they lost starting goaltender Antti Raanta for the whole season by Early December. Thankfully rookie call-up Adin Hill and backup Darcy Kuemper did a formidable job, although they fell just short of reaching the playoffs.
Despite injuries, the Coyotes were tied for the third least amount of goals scored in the 2019 season with 209. Arizona finished the season without having a single 20 goal scorer. General manager John Chayka knew that to push the team over the edge and continue to push for the playoffs they had to acquire a true goal scorer. This prompted the young GM to trade Alex Galchenyuk and defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Phil Kessel, Dane Birks and a 2021 4th round draft pick. Kessel, 31, has been one of the league’s most consistent and deadly goal scorers since entering the NHL in the 2006-07 season. Along with scoring at least 30 goals 6 times in his career, Kessel adds a pedigree of being a two-time Stanley Cup Champion as well and will bring some added leadership to the desert.
Along with Kessel the Coyotes brought in Carl Soderberg and re-signed all of their key players. The biggest test when it comes to Arizona in 2020 will be staying healthy and the performance of Raanta. If Raanta can come back from his season ending injury and play well along with Darcy Kuemper providing solid goaltending, then this team might have what it takes to sneak into the playoffs and challenge for a wildcard spot.
Los Angeles Kings:
Long considered a Pacific Division powerhouse for much of the 2010s, the Los Angeles Kings have fell on hard times and had a rebuilding season in 2019. The Kings finished the 2019 season with a 31-42-9 record, finishing last in the Pacific Division and 30th overall in league standings.
After making the playoffs in 2018 Los Angeles attempted again to continue being a force in the Western Conference signing Ilya Kovalchuk to a 3 year, $18.75 million deal. Unfortunately for the Kings, Kovalchuk did not live up to the hype in the first year of his contract regularly being played on the fourth line and finishing the season with 16 goals and 34 points in 64 games. Granted it was known that interim head coach Willie Desjardins did not gel well with Kovalchuk so hopefully new head coach Todd McLellan will be able to use him more and get more out of him offensively.
The injury bug was not kind to the Kings either limiting starting goaltender Jonathan Quick to just 46 games forcing Jack Campbell and rookie Cal Petersen to start a combined 42 games. Although Quick’s season didn’t go as planned, the Kings got a good look at two goalies who could play more for Los Angeles in the coming years.
The Kings got a good return in their first big move of their rebuild shipping off defenseman Jake Muzzin to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Sean Durzi, Carl Grundstrom and a 1st round pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft (Tobias Bjornfot). I wouldn’t be surprised to see more players moved for both picks and prospects in 2020 as Los Angeles continues onward in their rebuild. Ultimately, the Kings will be competitive and should have a better record than last year if all of their players are healthy, but they’ll likely miss the postseason for a second consecutive year in 2020.
For the first time in over a decade, the Anaheim Ducks are going to have a different look coming opening night. After being sidelined for much of the 2019 season with injuries and poor offensive production, the Ducks decided to buyout the remaining years of longtime Duck Corey Perry’s contract. Aside from Perry, Ryan Kesler’s contract has been an albatross for Anaheim as he’s signed for 3 more years at $6.875 million a year and his injuries in the past two years have severely impacted his offensive production. Kesler, has appeared in under 65 games in the last two years and was unable to score over 10 goals in back to back seasons for the first time in his career.
Even though many of the veteran players on the Ducks have struggled, Anaheim has an exceptional amount of young talent for this team to build around in the coming future. Between Ondrej Kase, Troy Terry, Daniel Sprong, Max Jones and Maxime Comtois, the Ducks have a lot of firepower when it comes to upcoming forward prospects. Couple that with Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rakell and Adam Henrique, it provides a nice blend of veteran leadership and skilled, cheap youth. Anaheim also has one of the league’s better goaltenders in John Gibson who stole a number of games last season gathering a 26-22-8 record with a 2.84 GAA and .917% save percentage.
Unfortunately, I think that 2020 will be a semi-rebuilding year for the Ducks as their young players continue to play more and gain more development. Even if Gibson plays exceptional, I think it will take a lot to get the Ducks back into the playoffs this upcoming season.
San Jose Sharks:
Rounding out my predictions for the California teams is the San Jose Sharks. A team that not only has year in and year out been a regular season powerhouse, but has had multiple deep runs in the playoffs within the last decade. The Sharks have done very well for themselves aside from winning the Stanley Cup, but I think 2020 will be one of their greatest tests in a long time. After signing Erik Karlsson to a monster 8 year, $88 million contract, the Sharks were forced to move on from captain Joe Pavelski. Although longtime Sharks player Joe Thornton has still not re-signed, it seems likely he ultimately will before the start of the season on a 1 year contract as he did heading into 2019.
General manager Doug Wilson has worked some magic in shaping the 2020 Sharks’ roster as he re-signed all of his other free agents including getting Kevin Labanc to re-sign to a 1 year, $1 million contract after tallying over 50 points in the 2019 season. Along with this he re-signed Timo Meier to a very team friendly deal at an annual average value of $6 million for 4 years.
On paper, San Jose is one of the best teams in the Pacific Divsion, Western Conference and the entirety of the league. If they can stay healthy and continue to play at the high level they have for years, they should be a lock for the playoffs, along with being a serious contender for the Stanley Cup.
The Vancouver Canucks are slowly building towards being perennial playoff contenders again and 2020 could be the year they challenge for a wildcard spot. Last season saw the emergence of rookie sensation Elias Pettersson as he scored 28 goals and 66 points in 71 games and took home the Calder Memorial Trophy for rookie of the year. General manager Jim Benning also added some firepower to the roster’s offense by acquiring J.T Miller from the Tampa Bay Lightning. With Miller, Pettersson, Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser, the Canucks have a solid top group of forwards.
Benning didn’t stop at the forwards adding defenseman Tyler Myers to a 5 year, $30 million contract to boost the Canucks’ blueline. I’m very excited to see a full season of Quinn Hughes on the backend as well.
One of the players to watch on the Canucks roster this year will be netminder Thatcher Demko. The departure of Anders Nilsson to the Ottawa Senators indicated that the tandem between the pipes for the Canucks this season will be Jacob Markstorm and Demko. Demko did get a small sample size in 2019 collecting a 4-3-1 record with a 2.81 GAA and .913% save percentage, but should get more starts in this upcoming season. Demko is perceived to be the starter of the future in Vancouver and could take a serious step in his development in 2020.
Even though I think the Canucks will continue to take steps in the right direction, I think they will end up ultimately competing for a wildcard spot, but finishing outside of the playoffs again.
It’s crazy to think that a team that has multiple 100 point players could miss the playoffs. Alas, that team is the Edmonton Oilers. Thankfully for Oilers’ fans general manager Peter Chiarelli has been fired and replaced with ex-Detroit Red Wings general manager Peter Holland. However, the problem with Edmonton is that outside of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers don’t have much secondary support. Thankfully Holland was able to shed the Milan Lucic contract taking back James Neal from the Calgary Flames. Neal may have put his best years behind him, but he certainly has more upside than Lucic does offensively and could produce well if playing with either of Edmonton’s three big stars. Regardless, McDavid and Draisaitl cannot do all of the heavy lifting in terms of scoring and will need secondary support if they hope of getting back to the playoffs.
Aside from the Lucic for Neal swap, the Oilers made another swap with the Flames exchanging goaltenders Cam Talbot and Mike Smith. Smith, 37, had a successful season with the Flames in 2019 gathering a 23-16-2 record with a 2.72 GAA and .898% save percentage. Although Smith had a good year with Calgary, the goaltender tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Smith makes me nervous heading into the 2020 season. Aside from a small stint with the New York Islanders in the 2010-11 season, this was Koskinen’s first season back in the NHL and he did do a fairly good job. However, I’m not sure why Chiarelli and the Oilers’ organization re-signed him to a 3 year extension with an annual average value of $4.5 million. Despite the successful year, I’m not sure Koskinen played well enough to be given over $4 million a year and commit to him for the next 3 years, but time will tell.
With the overhaul of Chiarelli and replacement of Holland, hopefully things start to change for the Oilers. They have arguably the best player in hockey and unfortunately don’t get to watch him make deep runs year in and year out. Although this is an excellent step in the right direction, I think Edmonton will miss the playoffs again in 2020.
Calgary was red hot throughout the entirety of the 2019 season before fizzling out in the first round of the playoffs. General manager Brad Treliving has not changed much and that seems to be the right plan of action heading into 2020. The Flames were tied for the second highest scoring team last year netting 289 goals and will have all of the tools to be that successful again in this upcoming season. Calgary did ship James Neal off to the Oilers in return for Milan Lucic who could add grit and physicality to the team, perhaps even regaining some offensive ability in a new environment. The only real remaining hurtle to overcome before next season begins is re-signing their 2 remaining free agents Andrew Mangiapane and Matthew Tkachuk. The Flames currently have a bit over $7 million in cap space and should be able to sign both of them without breaking the bank or doing any massive trades.
As for goaltending the Flames traded Mike Smith to the Oilers in return for Cam Talbot along with re-signing David Rittich to a 2 year deal. Talbot, 32, struggled last season with the Oilers and small stint with the Philadelphia Flyers, but could benefit from a change of scenery and sturdy defense. Rittich had a phenomenal year and his extension and raise were well deserved after collecting a 27-9-5 record with a 2.61 GAA and .911% save percentage.
Similar to the situation the Sharks are in, the Flames on paper look to be one of the best teams in the Pacific Division and Western Conference. Barring injury or horrific goaltending, Calgary should be vying for the Pacific Division title and be a lock for the playoffs.
Vegas Golden Knights:
After going on a Cinderella story run in their inaugural season, the Vegas Golden Knights have continued their success in their second year and look to push for another playoff appearance in 2020. General manager George McPhee left no stone unturned in making the Golden Knights an even better team then they were in their inaugural season and he certainly completed his mission. After adding Paul Stastny during last year’s offseason, Vegas traded for Mark Stone at the trade deadline and signed him to a 8 year, $76 million extension. Stone made an immediate impact scoring 5 goals and 11 points in the 18 games he played in Vegas before the start of the playoffs. On top of that during this offseason new general manager Kelly McCrimmon was able to lock up all of the team’s free agents, including William Karlsson, to a team friendly deal.
Vegas did have to shed some players like Erik Haula, Nikita Gusev and Colin Miller to make room for all of these new extensions, but regardless I believe that the Golden Knights have one of the more stacked offenses in the league. Along with that they still have very solid defensemen in Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb.
McCrimmon also locked down the goaltending which could lead to less starts for Marc-Andre Fleury. Vegas traded David Clarkson to the Toronto Maple Leafs in return for goaltender Garret Sparks. He also extended previous backup Malcolm Subban to a 1 year deal worth $850,000. While neither Subban or Sparks had great years in 2019, this creates a nice challenge to see who will be the team’s backup netminder opening night. Both netminders have the chance to bounce back and if Sparks has a resurgence in Vegas then the Clarkson deal looks that much sweeter.
Although losing players from managing the cap, the Golden Knights are one of the best teams in the Pacific Division. If they can receive decent backup goaltending and avoid injuries, Vegas will be one of the teams challenging for the Pacific Division title and be a lock for the playoffs.