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NHL West Division Preview

As I introduced in my North Division Preview, the National Hockey League realigned divisions for this season to minimize travel during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. With the seven Canadian teams forming the North, the remaining 24 franchises in the United States were divided into three divisions of eight, with teams playing their seven divisional opponents eight times each.

The West has a wide range of talent, from Stanley Cup contenders to teams in the middle of rebuilds. As I break down the division, I will be classifying teams by tier, in addition to ranking them from eight to one.

Tier 3: The California Trio

Each team in California looks to be headed toward a needed rebuild, or already in the middle of one. I don’t see any of these three teams competing for a Stanley Cup this season, and their priority should be finding players they can build around moving forward.

8. Los Angeles Kings

It feels like much longer than six years since the Kings last won a Stanley Cup in 2014. A team that was attempting to become a dynasty just a few years back is now in a full rebuild, focused on the future. Los Angeles has been a seller at the trade deadline each of the past couple seasons, headlined by their decision to send Alec Martinez, who scored the Stanley Cup clinching double-overtime goal against the New York Rangers in 2014, to the Vegas Golden Knights. Some of the familiar faces like Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick remain, but most are past their primes and do not produce at the level of years past.

Don’t be surprised if another familiar face finds himself on his way out of Los Angeles come the trade deadline this season, as the Kings look to add draft picks to accelerate their rebuild. Drafting Quinton Byfield second overall this past summer is a nice place to start, and their prospect pool is deep, but adding assets makes sense at this point in time. Soon enough, the Kings will be back to sending assets, like picks and prospects, out to add to the NHL roster, but for now, expect a rough year in Hollywood.

Player to Watch: Jeff Carter

Carter would be my best bet for a big name to be on the trade block come the deadline. I doubt Kopitar or Doughty would be on the move, given their value to the Kings and their contracts. Injured for a large portion of last season, I think Carter could bounce back and be appealing to teams looking to add scoring depth. With two years remaining on his contract, a strong first half from Carter could net a nice crop of picks, prospects, or both for Los Angeles.

7. Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks are another team fully into a rebuild, as is reflected by the fact that Ryan Getzlaf is the only player remaining from their Stanley Cup winning roster in 2007. Having no other young players from that roster shows a changing of the guard is coming for the Ducks. Unfortunately, the new crop of talent isn’t NHL ready at this point. However, a group of prospects, led by World Junior Championships MVP Trevor Zegras, is coming, and coming quickly.

The good news for the Ducks is that they do have a solid group of defensemen and a high-end goalie who could be part of the bright future. John Gibson is talented enough to be considered one of the best netminders in the world when he has a quality team in front of him. The trio of Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson could certainly be the top three defensemen for a playoff team. Fowler, who I expect to be the next captain after Getzlaf, is signed for the long haul, but Manson and Lindholm each have two years until free agency. Trading one, or both, would signal that the Ducks are further away from winning than their fans would like to think. Keeping them around shows the front office thinks they are close to winning. Anaheim will be interesting to watch this year to see what their future holds.

Player to Watch: Hampus Lindholm

This is a similar situation to Carter with the Kings. However, there is one reason that Lindholm will be much, much more valuable should he hit the trade market- he is only 26 years old. A 26-year-old top-four defenseman will always be one of the most valuable assets in hockey. Teams looking to win now would salivate over the opportunity to add a player like this. His salary cap hit of just over $5 million is also quite reasonable, given his age and production. Keep an eye on Lindholm this year, because if he has a strong first half, the Ducks may have no choice but to trade him for a massive return.

6. San Jose Sharks

Although I classify the Sharks in the same tier as the Ducks and Kings, I think they are clearly the best of the three. They are a team that is in the middle of contending and a rebuild, which is a really tough spot to be in. Having the caliber of players San Jose does, especially on defense, makes it hard not to want to win now. But looking at their forward group and goaltending, while also factoring in their abysmal 2019-20 season, it looks like the Sharks would be best fit to go into a rebuild.

San Jose will be able to stay competitive with their current roster, especially now that Logan Couture is healthy after missing significant time last year. Their defense group is more than solid, although they are an older group, and they have some elite talent up front, with Couture, Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier leading the way. The biggest question for the Sharks is in goal, where Martin Jones returns alongside the newly acquired Devan Dubnyk. Jones has struggled over the past few seasons and Dubnyk is coming off a year where he dealt with family struggles and lost his starting job with the Minnesota Wild.

Player to Watch: Patrick Marleau

Unfortunately for the Sharks, and their fans, there isn’t a player I expect to breakout and show that they are the future star of the franchise. Their main core is established players that NHL fans know what to expect from, and they don’t look deep enough, as a roster, to make a playoff run. For me, the biggest part of the Sharks season will be Marleau’s quest to become the NHL’s all-time leader in games played. He opens the season needing to play 45 games to go from 5th on the list to passing Gordie Howe for most all time.

Tier 2: The Playoff Contenders

These next two teams, in my opinion, will be competing for the 4th and final playoff spot in the West. I don’t see either as a legitimate threat to win a playoff series, given they would be facing a divisional opponent in round one.

5. Arizona Coyotes

Arizona took a nice step forward last year, defeating the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers before losing to the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It looked like something to build upon in the desert. Unfortunately for Coyotes fans, the offseason moves signaled a different direction. Taylor Hall left in free agency, there was speculation that captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson would be traded (he was not, yet), and Derek Stepan was moved to Ottawa in what seemed like a salary dump.

As promising as last season was, that may be the ceiling for this year’s team. A borderline playoff team that will need great goaltending to earn the 4th seed in this division- and that still may not be enough, as their skaters lack depth and high-end talent. Darcy Kuemper was, statistically, one of the best goaltenders in the league last season, although his sample size was smaller than others as he battled injury. Anti Raanta played well in Kuemper’s absence, and the duo will be asked to steal games for Arizona at times this year. They just don’t look to have the offense that is generally needed to be successful. Expect lots of competitive, low-scoring games from the Coyotes this year.

Player to Watch: Darcy Kuemper

There was speculation, at times, this offseason that Kuemper could be traded in an effort to cut salary in Arizona. Based on his recent performance, and the fact that his contract has 2 years remaining with a $4.5 million cap hit, he could be an interesting add for teams needing an upgrade between the pipes. The deep free agent market this offseason likely watered down the trade market, but if an injury comes up or a team sees a need to upgrade prior to making a run at the Stanley Cup (keep an eye on Colorado), Kuemper should net a nice package of picks and/or prospects for the Coyotes.

4. Minnesota Wild

The Wild seem to be in the same place they have been for years- a good team likely to be on the lower end of the playoff seedings, but without a great chance to win a Stanley Cup. They are good but not great. I do expect they will make the playoffs, specifically because they have more talent at forward and on defense than Arizona. However, I think the 4th seed in the West is their ceiling this season.

The Wild are, in a way, the opposite of the Coyotes. The Wild have a much stronger group of skaters, but are weaker in goal. There isn’t elite talent in the forward group, but they have solid depth. Zach Parise, Jordan Greenway, Kevin Fiala, Marcus Johansson and company should be able to hold their own offensively. The strength of this team is on defense; the top four of newly-named captain Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba is one of the best groups in the league, in my eyes. They can drive offense and also play well in their own zone, which will help Minnesota this year. The Wild will need to play well in front of their goaltending tandem of Alex Stalock and Cam Talbot. Neither is a bad goalie, but neither is great- they won’t be the reason for losses, but don’t expect either to steal many games this year.

Player to Watch: Kevin Fiala

Last season, Fiala tied his career-high in goals (23) and set a career-high in points (54) in a shortened schedule. Many have him on their short list of breakout candidates heading into this season, expecting him to build off of last year’s success. If he can become a consistent scorer, the Wild offense would get a much-needed boost. I could certainly see Fiala pushing toward a 45-point season (in 56 games), and if he really explodes, a point-per-game pace would not be out of the question.

Tier 1: Stanley Cup Hopefuls

The top of this division is going to be fun to watch this year, as there are three teams that have a real chance to win a Stanley Cup. Of course, I think some have a better chance than others, but it would not be a surprise to see any of these three teams at least making it to the Stanley Cup Final, if not hoisting the Cup come summer.

3. Vegas Golden Knights

Even within the group of Stanley Cup contenders in the West, I think there is a very clear pecking order between the three teams. Vegas, on paper, looks like the third best team in the division. They have a strong goaltending duo, although I believe they would be smart to roll out Robin Lehner as a true number one with Marc-André Fleury serving as his backup. Shea Theodore and recently-signed Alex Pietrangelo are two of the top 10-12 defensemen in the NHL, and their forward group is deep with one of the best all-around players in the league in Mark Stone.

I think Vegas will find the loss of Nate Schmidt, who was traded to Vancouver to create the needed salary cap space to sign Pietrangelo, to be significant. Pietrangelo is better than Schmidt, but not being able to keep Schmidt takes away some of their depth on defense. I also think that while they are deep offensively, Vegas lacks a game-breaking centerman to compete with players on other top teams. Will the Golden Knights be good? Yes. Would it surprise me if they won the division? No, but they are not my pick to do so.

Player to Watch: Alex Pietrangelo

Anytime a player signs a 7-year, $61.6 million contract in free agency, the spotlight and the pressure will be on them. He was brought in to help Vegas win a Stanley Cup, and high-salary players, in a salary cap league, have to play well. If he doesn’t perform, the Golden Knights won’t win the West or have a chance at the Stanley Cup. If he plays well, the sky is the limit in Vegas.

2. St. Louis Blues

The Blues are a year removed from their Stanley Cup run in 2019 and look like a team that will be in contention for another title this summer. This is a deep and talented team from top to bottom, with solid goaltending and great coaching. I want to emphasize the last two parts of that statement. Jordan Binnington burst onto the scene in January of 2019, leading St. Louis to a Stanley Cup, but seemed to struggle at times last season, especially during the playoffs in the Edmonton bubble. I am expecting a big bounce back year from Binnington, and the Blues need it after trading their backup, Jake Allen, to Montréal to clear cap space. I also think Craig Berube, the head coach of the Blues, will be a big part of their success. He preaches a heavy forecheck, playing the game hard, and putting pressure on the opponent. All of these are hallmarks of champions past, and that is how you win come playoff time.

Normally, I would have questions about the defense on a team that lost Pietrangelo in free agency. I don’t have those questions with the Blues because they signed the next best free agent defenseman in Torey Krug. He plays a different style but will fit in nicely on a pair with Colton Parayko. Krug will also add a new element of offense from the back end, especially on the power play. St. Louis also made a great move bringing in Mike Hoffman, who signed a 1 year, $4 million contract this week. Signing the second-best free agent forward on the market for such a modest price is outstanding. He will provide even more scoring depth for the Blues, especially once Vladimir Tarasenko is activated from injured reserve later in the season.

Player to Watch: Colton Parayko

Even though St. Louis signed Krug to “replace” Pietrangelo, Krug is a left shot and will not be replacing Pietrangelo on the right side of the top pair. Parayko will be the one in the spot once held by the former Blues’ captain. Parayko looks to be joined by Krug on the top pair, and I expect them to dominate on both ends of the ice this season. Parayko is 6’ 6” with great reach, but is also a very good skater for his size, and he has shown solid offensive instincts. Krug will be the main source of offense on the blue line, but don’t be surprised if Parayko has a career year offensively while continuing to shut down the opponent’s best players.

1. Colorado Avalanche

From my perspective, this is the best team in the West, and arguably the best team in the NHL heading into the season. They have elite talent both at forward and on defense, their goaltending looks adequate, I will discuss that further shortly, and they have depth throughout their roster. This is the combination front offices look to build as they work toward the Stanley Cup. You need both talent and depth at all positions to win in this league, and the Avalanche have that combination.

The one position that could be a question mark for Colorado is in goal. The duo of Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz is not the best in the league, but they also are in no way, at this point, a liability. However, as the season progresses, it may become apparent that neither can get this team where they want to go, which is the Stanley Cup Final. If the Avalanche see that as the case, their cap space could come in handy.

Currently, the team has a little less than $2 million in salary cap space. However, the NHL salary cap works like an allowance. The team can spend $81.5 million on the roster for the season, but each day a team is under the cap, that space can be used later in the season. For instance, if someone gave you $100 to spend in a week, the quick math would be $20 per day for Monday-Friday. If you only spend $10 each on Monday and Tuesday, you now have $80 to spend Wednesday-Friday, an average of $26.67 per day- the daily “cap” went up. So, every day that Colorado stays under the cap early in the season provides them more cap space to use come the trade deadline. A player like Kuemper in Arizona, who has a salary cap hit of $4.5 million, could be attainable by banking cap space. A player still may need to go to Arizona to make the money work, but that is only possible because Colorado will be saving cap space each day early in the year. This would be a great fit for both Kuemper and the Avalanche, should a deal come to fruition.

Player to Watch: Nathan MacKinnon

Regardless of salary cap space and mid-season additions, the biggest reason the Colorado Avalanche is the best team in the West comes down to one player- MacKinnon. He is the type of game-breaking center I talk about championship teams needing. He can not only win games on his own, he is the type of player that can carry an entire team through a series and more in the playoffs. He is, arguably, the best player in the NHL and the Avalanche will go as far as he carries them, which is why he is my pick for the Hart Trophy (league MVP) this season.

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