Each team has players jockeying for important assignments this pre-season. How will each competition play out? We conclude with the Pacific Division.
The position battle blog series concludes with the Pacific Division. This entry comes with more clarity than the others, as we’re deep into the pre-season now and have a stronger sense of who’s playing with whom.
Time for the Pacific.
ANAHEIM DUCKS: Who is the first-line right winger?
It’s been about a decade since we even had to ask that question, as Corey Perry was cemented onto Ryan Getzlaf’s right side. But Ducks coach Randy Carlyle juggled things while Perry endured a down season last year. When Patrick Eaves arrived in a trade, he slotted onto the No. 1 right wing spot and ripped off 11 goals in 20 games. That Anaheim re-signed Eaves, 33 and injury-prone, for three seasons at a $3.15-million cap hit suggests it still has big plans for him. But can he repeat a career year? Before he sniped 32 goals last season, he hadn’t even notched 20 since his rookie campaign.
Bet on: Perry. He took the gig back when Eaves got hurt in the playoffs, and Eaves is hobbled again with a new lower-body injury right now. He hasn’t suited up yet this pre-season, so Perry has reunited with Getzlaf by default. Trusted Ducks beat reporter Eric Stephens has also indicated Eaves could get a try on the left wing with Getzlaf and Perry upon returning. Ryan Kesler’s hip surgery has forced top left winger Rickard Rakell into the No. 2 center slot.
ARIZONA COYOTES: Who centers the second line?
The Coyotes’ roster has been extremely fluid all summer. For one, they’ve added so many parts, from Derek Stepan to Niklas Hjalmarsson to Jason Demers, that we’ve had to wait and see where each new face slots in. Secondly, their roster is infused with so much youth that forecasting the lines means predicting which guys make the team.
Clayton Keller, who we rank as hockey’s No. 1 overall prospect, was always looking good to make the Desert Dogs, but because they have plenty of centers, it doesn’t appear Keller will play his natural position. He’s currently ticketed for what looks like an exciting first-line assignment as the ring winger with Stepan down the middle and Max Domi on the left side. The No. 2 center battle comes down to Christian Dvorak and Dylan Strome. Dvorak already has a solid rookie campaign under his belt, having amassed 15 goals and 33 points last season. And while he’s a second-round pick, he’s nonetheless a very good prospect. He bloomed in his final year of junior with OHL London, lighting it up with Matthew Tkachuk and Mitch Marner. Strome, though, is the guy who’s supposed to become Arizona’s No. 1 center someday, the player chosen directly after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel in the 2015 draft. Strome’s skating woes have slowed his path to the NHL, so he’s not even a lock to make the team. If he does, though, it appears he’ll get the first shot at second-line center duty given he has the higher offensive ceiling than Dvorak.
Bet on: Strome. Now that he’s AHL eligible, he could just as easily wind up sent down, but he’s shown signs of life in the pre-season. At this point the Coyotes want excuses to keep him, not send him down, right? He’s 20, and he’s the only guy picked in the top 10 of the 2015 draft class not to get an extended NHL look yet. It’s time. Maybe Coyotes skating coach Dawn Braid will help him just as she helped John Tavares.
CALGARY FLAMES: Do they have an actual first-line right winger?
Hey, Patrick Maroon has flourished as a banger-turned-scorer on Connor McDavid’s line in Edmonton. So why can’t big, strong Micheal Ferland work on the right side with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan? Ferland has the first-line job at the moment. He scored 15 goals while playing just 11:34 per game last season, so, like Maroon, he’s shown he’s more than just a blunt instrument. But does that mean he’s the ideal fit to play with greyhounds Gaudreau and Monahan? In a perfect world, shouldn’t GM Brad Treliving consider pursuing an upgrade? Jaromir Jagr still doesn’t have a team. He plans to reveal where he’s playing by Oct. 5 (based on the source, is it the KHL? ), but any NHL team signing him would’ve done so already in hopes of getting him in shape and letting him find chemistry with teammates. It’s a shame, as he’d be an ideal fit on that first line. If he could hang with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau…
Bet on: Status quo for now. Ferland has the role. But don’t be surprised if Treliving searches for upgrades during the season and approaching the trade deadline. We know the Vegas Golden Knights will dangle pending UFA right winger James Neal in the winter, right? He’d be an interesting fit.
EDMONTON OILERS: Who gets the dream right wing spot with McDavid?
Especially when you factor in the fantasy hockey interest, there was arguably no position battle more scrutinized this summer than “Who plays right wing with McDavid?” Leon Draisaitl obviously flourished doing so, but the Oilers would love for him to become a star No. 2 center and play Evgeni Malkin to McDavid’s Sidney Crosby. The Jordan Eberle trade meant Ryan Strome and Jussi Jokinen would get consideration, with prospect Jesse Puljujarvi in the mix, too.
Bet on: Strome, of course, as he’s currently pencilled into that role, with Draisaitl at center. Jokinen can play right wing but typically plays left wing and has looked good doing so on line 3 with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Strome has a chance at a career year, but coach Todd McLellan will wield a quick hook should the chemistry not work. We could easily see Draisaitl back there or Jokinen getting a try. Puljujarvi is the dream choice for the long-term spot on line 1, of course. And we can’t forget about intriguing, speedy prospect Kailer Yamamoto, who has excelled this pre-season and outplayed Puljujarvi according to some.
LOS ANGELES KINGS: Who plays left wing on the Anze Kopitar line?
The Kings signed Mike Cammalleri to inject their goal-starved lineup with offense. It’s debatable whether Cammalleri, 35 and perpetually banged up, can deliver, but he’s spent training camp and the pre-season skating with Kopitar and Dustin Brown. Cammalleri could eventually have competition, though, as Marian Gaborik can play either wing. Watch out for Adrian Kempe, too. He first has to just make the Kings altogether, so he likely won’t slide right onto a scoring line, but Kempe possesses the one element L.A. needs more than anything: speed.
Bet on: Cammalleri. When Gaborik returns from his knee surgery, he can just as easily slide to the right wing, bumping Dustin Brown off the line. Kempe is an intriguing name to watch, but his year is a success if he can merely crack the top nine and chip in 30 points.
SAN JOSE SHARKS: Who plays left wing on the Joe Thornton line?
No fewer than eight players got a try with Thornton down the middle and Joe Pavelski on the right wing last season. Tomas Hertl, who has enjoyed some success with those two, still appears locked into a No. 3 center role, meaning coach Pete DeBoer must keep looking for that top-line left winger. Mikkel Boedker and Jannik Hansen would bring nice speed. Timo Meier has the size and prospect pedigree to blossom on Thornton’s wing. Melker Karlsson has enjoyed a few stints on that line, too. Little Danny O’Regan would bring some offensive creativity. Who on Earth has the edge? This is a tough position battle to handicap.
Bet on: Boedker. There was some talk earlier this summer of Meier getting the assignment, but he’s ticked to play with Hertl. Boedker appears first in line. But considering he’s never been a great finisher, don’t be surprised if O’Regan or someone like Kevin Labanc sees some time on that line in an experiment later this season.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Who plays with the Sedins?
It’s a yearly tradition to speculate on who skates with the twins. Loui Eriksson was supposed to be that guy after Vancouver brought him in on a massive contract last season, but he flopped. By year’s end, Markus Granlund had struck some solid chemistry with Daniel and Henrik. The team’s most talented goal scorer, though, may be up-and-coming college prospect Brock Boeser, who is currently getting a chance to skate with the Sedins.
Bet on: Boeser. It’s one thing for a ho-hum prospect like Granlund to earn minutes on a major scoring line. It’s another for a blue-chipper like Boeser to do what he was always projected to do. Once Boeser gets his shot, it’s unlikely he gets bumped out of a scoring role. He’s set up to have a nice rookie year. He’s a Calder Trophy threat.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS: What is the top defensive pair?
Here’s a fun one to prognosticate. The Golden Knights loaded up on so many similarly skilled blueliners in the expansion draft that any combination of bodies is believable. Jason Garrison and Brayden McNabb have played on top pairs before. Colin Miller, Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt are the best puck movers of the group.
Bet on: McNabb and Theodore, and not just because they’re the current pairing. I’ve projected them as the No. 1 pair since early July, because (a) McNabb has the most recent top-pair experience, having played with Drew Doughty in L.A. and (b) Theodore has the highest ceiling of any blueliner on the team, easily. He was a first-rounder and highly regarded prospect for several seasons in Anaheim. He would likely have made the NHL full time a year or two ago had he not played for a team with amazing defensive depth. Theodore will be intriguing to watch as the Golden Knights’ power play quarterback this season. He may get too much responsibility too fast, and he’ll make some mistakes, sure, but there should be plenty of highlights too.