With the NHL’s second half of the 2021-22 regular season now underway, it's a good time to examine what has unfolded in the league to this point in the year. We started Sunday by analyzing the Atlantic Division; Monday, we focused on the Central; yesterday, we wrote about the Metropolitan; and today, we’re wrapping things up with the Pacific.
Vegas Golden Knights: Yes, the Golden Knights haven’t dominated the Pacific to the degree many observers expected in the pre-season, but they’ve had two of their top forwards, wingers Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, miss 25 games and 17 games respectively, and still managed to carve out the division’s top record through 45 GP. That’s in part due to a well-balanced offense, a defense corps led by stars Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore, and a solid showing from starting goalie Robin Lehner. And the best is yet to come, as star center Jack Eichel is nearing a return to action, to play his first games as a Golden Knight since he was acquired at the start of November, and that’s as big as any deal Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon will make by the March 21 trade deadline. Vegas is capped out right now, so they’ll need to move around some money to fit Eichel in, but those will be moves McCrimmon will be happy to make to have the 25-year-old in the lineup. The second half of this season will likely be just as good, if not better, for the Golden Knights, and they’ll most likely be the top team in the Pacific once playoffs begin. They’re going to be a tough out for any post-season team.
Los Angeles Kings: The Kings currently are tied with Anaheim for the second-most points in the Pacific, but the fourth-place Flames are only three standings points behind L.A., and Calgary has five games in hand on the Kings. The fifth-place Oilers are six points behind the Kings, and Edmonton has four games in hand on L.A.. All of which is to say that the Kings are not assured of a playoff berth, and likely will be battling for one right through the conclusion of the regular season. They’re not getting much help on offense from their bottom two forward lines, and their defense is not one of the deeper units in the league, so GM Rob Blake may be a buyer at the trade deadline, when CapFriendly.com projects he’ll have more than $8.6 million in cap space to work with. Few people see the Kings going on a deep playoff run this year, but making the playoffs is an achievable goal for the short-term, and L.A.’s modest successes thus far this season have put them in a position where the post-season is reasonable for them to target.
Anaheim Ducks: Give the Ducks credit – while many observers imagined they’d be at or near the bottom of the Pacific, they’ve come together to surprise many people with a strong start this year. Like the Kings, Anaheim may eventually be surpassed in the standings by Calgary and/or Edmonton, but a playoff berth is a realistic goal for them in their final 37 regular-season contests this year. Head coach Dallas Eakins has a team that can be competitive as-is, but new Ducks GM Pat Verbeek currently has more than $11.1 million in cap space, a number that is projected to rise to a whopping $55.7 million at the trade deadline. That’s a whole lot of money to add veteran talent with term on their contract, and/or be a facilitator for other teams to make a trade work under the cap. Either way, the Ducks’ combination of dynamic young talent (Trevor Zegras, Troy Terry, Jamie Drysdale) and experienced hands (Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rackell, John Gibson) is meshing about as well as a rebuilding team could hope for.
Calgary Flames: The Flames were ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, and once they get fully caught up on their number of games played, they should be higher in the Pacific standings, and potentially challenge Vegas for top spot. Secondary scoring hasn’t been easy to get for Calgary, which has only three players with more than 27 points this season. Flames GM Brad Treliving is under the gun to produce positive playoff results, and he’s projected to have $5.5 million in cap space by the trade deadline. Calgary may use that space to bring back former captain Mark Giordano, or they may be a player for current Flyers captain Claude Giroux. Regardless of who they add, the Flames are likely to look different in the home stretch this season. Should they collapse and allow the Oilers to jump them in the standings, you’d have to believe Calgary will make major changes this coming summer. But right now, at least, they look like they’ll be one of the four teams from the Pacific to make the post-season, and from there, they could get out of the first round and push an opponent to their limit in Round 2. The Flames may not yet be a Cup frontrunner, but with the right moves, they could get there this year.
Edmonton Oilers: Few NHL teams have been as disappointing as the Oilers have been thus far this season. Their goaltending has been the pits; their defense corps hasn’t helped their goalies much at all, and despite having two of the world’s top offensive players in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, they’ve at times struggled to put the puck in their opponent’s net. Signing Evander Kane to a contract doesn’t really address their biggest need, and it will be crucial for GM Ken Holland to find a way to open up cap space to allow him to acquire a veteran netminder. But no other GM is going to be charitable to Holland and his financial predicament, so Edmonton may well need to add draft picks and/or prospects/young NHLers to land the depth they so clearly need between the pipes and on their fourth forward line. Missing the playoffs this year would be a monstrous disappointment for Oilers fans and management, but that remains a possibility if they can’t string together a long stretch of winning play. The pressure on them is huge, and the way they react to it will dictate their future in the next couple of years.
San Jose Sharks: The Sharks currently sit sixth in the Pacific, but they’re four points behind Calgary, which has four games in hand on San Jose. They’re also a woeful 3-4-3 in their past 10 games, showing none of the urgency they need to play with if they’re going to challenge for the third or fourth spot in the division. There’s a severe drop-off in offensive production after San Jose’s top two forward lines, and their defense corps (other than Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns) doesn’t chip in much offense, either. Goalie tandem James Reimer and Odin Hill haven’t been terrible, but on this team, they need to be excellent to make up for the Sharks’ challenges on offense. They presently have more than $6 million in cap space (and a projected $30.4 million in space by the trade deadline), so they can be a seller with an eye to longer-term gain. As it stands, though, the regular-season is not likely to include the Sharks, and it may be a challenge for them to finish in the top four in the Pacific next year. The transition between regular-season also-rans and legitimate Cup contenders is a hugely difficult one, and there’s no assurance San Jose can make that tradition anytime soon.
Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks have performed decently enough since firing head coach Travis Green and GM Jim Benning, but it is a measure of how abysmal they were prior to that point that they’re still the second-worst team in the Pacific. New bench boss Bruce Boudreau has instilled confidence in their younger players, but they haven’t received nearly enough offense from veteran players, and that’s why many expect bigger roster changes are coming, either by the trade deadline, or no later than this summer. Canucks fans have suffered as much as just about any NHL fans, but there’s more pain likely ahead as new GM Patrik Allvin sets a new course for them.
Seattle Kraken: The expansion Kraken have had a sobering look at what it means to be the NHL’s newest franchise, and with just 34 points in 46 games, they’re essentially locked into the eighth position in the Pacific. They’ve got all sorts of cap space – currently, GM Ron Francis has |$6.8 million in cap space, a number expected to rise to $34 million by the trade deadline, so they’re a confirmed seller that also can help facilitate a deal between two other teams hurting for cap space. Giordano almost assuredly will be moved out for draft picks and/or prospects, and Francis will listen hard to offers for other veterans who can be part of a playoff run with another team. The Kraken aren’t the Golden Knights, and Francis is going to move slowly but surely to put together a playoff-worthy roster if not next year, than the season following that one.