For its 20th birthday, the Pacific Division got a few new playmates as the NHL's geographic realignment meant out with the East and in with the new. After jettisoning the Dallas Stars, the Pacific added former Northwest Divisioners Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton to its existing tenants: Phoenix, Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Jose. As the season gets under way, here are a few storylines worth following among the NHL's West-coast contingent.
1) Will Jonas Hiller stay a Duck?
This is sort of an aside to the more obvious storyline in Anaheim: Teemu's "last season." Hiller has never known any other home since the Ducks signed him as a free agent in 2007, but there are plenty of places that would welcome him with open arms. With Victor Fasth proving to be a more than capable 1A goaltender and white-hot prospect John Gibson waiting in the wings, one has to wonder if Hiller wouldn't be the perfect expendable asset to help GM Bob Murray fill some gaps in the reigning Pacific Division Champs. Hiller's stock isn't quite where it was before his bizarre, vertigo-shortened 2010-11 campaign, but he has still proven he can be a dependable backstop and could probably challenge for a starting job with any number of organizations. There’s no immediate pressure for Murray to make a move, nor is there any guarantee he will, but Hiller represents a very playable chip if the Ducks need some pieces later in the season.
2) Can Brian Burke and "the kids" make this more than a rebuilding year for Calgary?
Jay Feaster is still pulling the strings in Calgary, but the Flames certainly didn't bring in Brian Burke as window dressing. Burke has a knack for crafting competitive hockey organizations, something the Flames could desperately use after being stripped bare and sold for parts last season. The long-time faces of the organization are gone in Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, but the faces of the future are not only in the system, but on the Flames' opening day roster. Calgary first-rounders Sven Baertschi (13th overall, 2011) and Sean Monahan (6th overall, 2013) will be given every chance to contribute on a squad that lacks firepower up front and depth down the middle. Joining those two in the forward ranks will be recently acquired center Joe Colborne, a hulking playmaker and former first-round pick of the Boston Bruins who has struggled to make a full-time leap to the NHL. This troika gives Burke a solid framework at forward from which to architect the new Flames franchise; of course, this all assumes Burke & Co. can get along. Then again, if the offense begins to misfire, Calgary can always fall back on No. 1 goaltender Karri Ramo.
3) Can Edmonton as a whole be greater than the sum of its parts?
This may well be the burning question in Edmonton until the Oilers manage to live up to their superhuman potential on paper. For the first time in recent memory, the Oilers have enough depth to actually grow a first-round pick rather than slotting in another 18-year-old on opening night. GM Craig MacTavishi brought in a bit more veteran leadership in newly appointed captain Andrew Ference, and finally managed to land a decent return for talented, young Magnus Paajarvi, netting an immediate top-six contributor in David Perron. Despite losing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (shoulder) and Sam Gagner (jaw) indefinitely, the Oilers played their way to a respectable 5-2-1 record in the pre-season. The same patchwork forward group that played those exhibitions staked the Oilers to a 4-2 lead on opening night against Winnipeg, led by rookie center Mark Arcabello and last-minute pickup Luke Gazdic. But in the disappointing, albeit characteristic, Edmonton fashion as of late, the Oilers watched that two-goal lead turn into a 5-4 deficit and a Jets win, once again shining the spotlight on Edmonton’s biggest issue: consistency. For all the offensive flair and the youthful exuberance the Oilers possess, there has rarely been that willingness to play in all three zones for 60 minutes. They have proven they can run-and-gun with the best the NHL has to offer, but is that as valuable as being able to win tight games? For new bench boss Dallas Eakins and the rest of the Edmonton brass, that’s the goal and ultimately the end game for this carefully hand-crafted hockey machine – make the Oilers an all-situations, all-occasions threat. These things don’t happen overnight, but the kids in Edmonton have already had to grow up ahead of schedule – time to show they’ve learned something.
4) Drew Doughty versus Slava Voynov for the title of LA’s top offensive defenseman
It wasn’t that long ago that Drew Doughty was a surefire Norris candidate and Slava Voynov was being thrown around as a piece of Dean Lombardi’s package to reel in – drumroll – Dustin Penner. Well, times have changed just a tad. While Doughty has struggled to regain the form that made him a finalist for the Norris in 2010, Voynov has enjoyed a meteoric rise from a part-time NHLer to one of the league’s premier young puck-movers. Doughty still has the better two-way game, complete with a healthy amount of snarl noticeable absent from Voynov. But the Kings are chalk full of complementary shutdown defenseman, so getting mean isn’t necessarily Voynov’s job – his M.O. is to contribute offensively from the back end. Look no further than Voynov’s team-leading 13 points last post-season for validation of his ability to do just that. This is a place where some friendly internal competition could really benefit the Kings – a competitor like Doughty wants nothing more than to get his game back on top, while Voynov now has to prove that his playoff performance and the subsequent six-year extension were not by chance.
5) Who will emerge as Phoenix's top six defensemen?
It's no surprise for a Don Maloney/Dave Tippett organization to have depth at the back end. The 'Yotes have such a glut of talent, however, that there is a serious logjam on the blue line. Oliver Ekman-Larsson figures to be in the Norris discussion for the better part of the next decade-plus, so there's little question as to where he fits in this equation. Keith Yandle certainly belongs in Phoenix's top 4, but with the immergence of OEL and the level of talent waiting in the wings, Yandle has quickly become prime trade bait in the past season. He's slated to start the season with the Coyotes, but no doubt Maloney will be fielding offers from the numerous teams that would covet Yandle's services on the blueline. Behind Yandle and OEL sit a trio of veteran defensemen in Zbynek Michalek, Derek Morris and Rostislav Klesla. All three are proven NHLers, but Morris and Klesla are both in the final year of their contracts and present very attractive rental options for teams looking to improve at the deadline. The final few spots are up for grabs between David Schlemko, Chris Summers, Michael Stone and David Rundblad, with highly-touted prospects Brandon Gormley and Connor Murphy waiting in Portland. Schlemko has proven himself as a reliable lower pairing puck-mover, but his maturity is the only thing keeping him ahead of offensive dmen Murphy and Rundblad on the depth chart. The same can be said for Stone and Summers, a pair of shutdown defensemen with enough big-league experience to hold down the fort until Gormley is NHL-ready. The big question for Tippett will be how he handles the playing time among the nine defenseman currently on the Coyotes' roster -- none of those nine owns a two-way contract, meaning any player sent down to the AHL would have to clear waivers first. What's riskier: placing a young defenseman on waivers to get him more minutes in the AHL, or keeping a growing player in the press box and letting his game stagnate?
6) Will Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton cement their legacies with San Jose or officially pass the baton?
Patrick Marleau not sporting teal? Seems completely foreign, but fans learn to deal with such things. Marleau and captain Joe Thornton are a pair of 34-year-olds in the final year of their contracts, with heir apparents Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski more than ready to take the reins. The Sharks would be noticeably thinner up front without Marleau and Jumbo Joe, but they would also be $13.9 million heavier in the pocketbook (roughly 1/5 of the cap) with a very forward-heavy UFA class on deck next off-season. Marleau has a history of turning it up in contract years and Joe Thornton is, well, Joe Thornton -- the question then becomes one of Doug Wilson's blueprint going forward. Does he intend to lock up one or both of San Jose’s franchise cornerstones, or could No. 12 or No. 19 be available at the deadline?
7) Who is going to win the Cory Schneider trade?
Vancouver GM Mike Gillis certainly has his detractors in the wake of the draft-day deal that sent Cory Schneider to New Jersey for the 9th overall pick in this year's draft -- needless to say, Gillis will have to make them eat some serious crow if he hopes to dispel the notion that he got completely fleeced by Devils' GM Lou Lamoriello. With Bo Horvat shipped back to London, Gillis can forget about getting any immediate return from that "high pick." That puts the pressure solely on the shoulders of one Roberto Luongo, "sucky" contract and all. Perhaps the arrival of John Tortorella will instill a new sense of confidence and ownership in Luongo, who was the consummate professional in handling his demotion from starter to 1A at the hands of Alain Vigneault. But if Luongo stumbles, rest assured the Vancouver media will have no problem thrusting a big, accusatory finger right in Gillis' face. Lost a bit in this drama is now-promoted Eddie Lack, who may be given the same opportunity Schneider seized if the Canucks lose faith in Luongo.