Saturday, December 10, 2016

Playoff Predictions - Pacific Division

     At this point we are now nearly half way through the 2016-17 regular season, and it is time to start looking at which teams we are expecting to see in the Playoffs next spring.  There have been many surprises in the standings league wide so far this season, but nowhere more so than in the Pacific Division.  My predictions based on how the first half of the season has gone are that the three Pacific division playoff slots will go to the Oilers, Ducks, and Sharks.  I believe that the Pacific Division will also take one of the two wild card slots and would expect to see either the Flames or the Canucks take that spot.  The Kings are an outside chance this season, and if they are able to play a significantly better second half of the season they could grab a wild card playoff slot.
      About a month ago the Edmonton Oilers claimed the the top spot in the division, which has been unheard of in recent years.  They have managed to stay in the top three spots in the Pacific ever since.  Presently they are tied for first place again with the Ducks.  Usually in the first half of the season the Kings and Ducks are the teams in close contention for the top placement in the division, but not this season.  The Edmonton Oilers have had a very strong season so far and show little evidence of an early burnout.  Though they have had two tough losses this week, they are still tied for first in the division.  The last time The Oilers made the playoffs was in the 2005-06 season where they lost in the final round to the Hurricanes.  Edmonton has not won a Stanley Cup since the 1989-90 season where they defeated the Bruins in the final round.  New head coach, acquired last season, Todd McClellan has rebuilt the Oilers self image and created a team that plays with a confidence that they have been desperately lacking in the last decade.  As I have previously sated captain Connor McDavid and the newly acquired Milan Lucic have been instrumental not only in improving the play of the team, but also in keeping the confidence and morale of the entire team strong.  The other key player for the Oilers is Goalie Cam Talbot who has so far had a very strong season and made some amazing saves to keep his team at the top of the Pacific.  An injury to any of these three decisive players could put a quick end to the Oilers playoff hopes.
     The Ducks had a rough start to their season for the second year in a row, but like last season they have bounced back well in the last several weeks.  Kessler, Perry and Getzlaf are the keys to the Ducks offensive strategy both finishing off the regular season and for their playoff hopes as well.  The other instrumental player for the Ducks is of course Goal tender Gibson, and to a lesser extent his back-up Bernier.  If any of these players takes a significant injury it could damage or destroy their playoff, or Cup hopes.  Rikard Rakell has also been a dark horse for the Ducks this season who despite injuries has scored 10 goals and made 4 assists in the first half of the season.  Rakell brings a high energy level to his team when he is on the ice and has generated some faster and better play for all of the players he is on the ice with.  That being said if the Ducks keep playing as they have in the last six weeks they should easily make the playoffs, and could potentially make a deep run.
       The Sharks have made the playoffs 11 of the last 12 seasons and are in a good position to return to the playoffs again this season.  As with the Oilers they have claimed the top place in the division on multiple times during the first half of the season.  Presently the Sharks are fourth in the Pacific Division, after suffering a 3-2 loss to the Ducks tonight.  There is a lot of pressure both within the league and within the Sharks organization itself to prove that their trip to the Stanley Cup finals last season was not a fluke.  I believe that they will make the playoffs in 2017, but to make a deep run like they did last year they need to work on their speed and endurance which was their downfall in the final against the Penguins last season. The other important factor is to make sure they avoid further injuries, and get Tomas Hertl healthy again.  They other key players for the Sharks defensively are Goalie Martin Jones, Blueliners Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brett Burns.  For the offensive line up Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture are important to efforts in a deep playoff run.
     Currently the other Pacific Division team in the standings to make the playoffs is the Flames.   They are in third place in the division as of today.  Calgary is a bit of a surprise to see in strong contention because they have not had a good recent history with the post season.  They were barely edged out of the playoffs last season, and made it in by the skin of their teeth in the 2014-15 season.  Before that they had a five year drought where they did not make the playoffs at all between the 2009-10 and 2013-14 seasons.  The Flames have not made it to the finals since their loss to the Lightning in the 2003-04 post season, and have not won the Stanley cup since the 1988-89 Stanley Cup match up against the Canadiens.   The Flames have fought hard to keep in playoff position this season and if they can keep up the pace or even improve on their performance a little bit in the second half of the season they have a good chance of making the post season in 2017.
     The Canucks are presently in sixth position in the Pacific Division with a slightly less than 50% win loss record at 12-13-2.  The Canucks have missed the post season in 3 of the last 10 seasons, most recently last season where they finished the season in 6th place in the division.  The Canucks have played in the final round for the Stanley Cup three times in franchise history 1982, 1984, and most recently in 2011.  Unfortunately they have never managed to win a Cup.   They started out this season very strong  and held the top slot in the division for a few weeks early on.  They have a strong team and have played some remarkable games in this first half of the season, so while they are not currently in playoff position they can not be entirely counted out.  They would need to play more consistently well and make sure everyone was on their game every game going into the second half of the season to push into playoff position.  As with any other team they also need to avoid any further major injuries as well.
     The other big shock in the Pacific Division standings this season is the Kings.  As things stand this week they are not in playoff position.  Historically the Kings have a strong playoff performance, when they make the post season.  However, four of the last ten seasons they have missed the playoffs.  Last season they were unexpectedly eliminated by the Sharks in the first round.  They spent the remainder of the off-season preparing to make a strong comeback in the 2016-17 season.  Unfortunately in the season opener against the Sharks Goalie Jonathan Quick was injured and has remained out for the entire first half of the season with no timeline for his return.   The Kings Goal tender problems did not end there, back-up Jeff Zatkoff was injured as well in his second game of the season causing the Kings to call up Peter Budaj from the Reign.  Budaj has done remarkably well this season, but can not be compared to Quick.  The Kings also lost Anze Kopitar for several games due to injury, as well as defensman Braden McNabb who is still out on injured reserve.  Even with all of these injuries the Kings are only just barely out of playoff position in 5th place in the division.  The Kings currently have a record of  13-11-2.  This is actually a much better position than many experts expected with Quick out indefinitely.  At just about half way through the regular season the Kings are not completely out of playoff contention, they could still make a comeback.  In order to do so however they are going to have to step up and play much more consistently than they have so far.  They need to provide more support in front of the net for Budaj or Zatkoff as neither has the presence in net that they are used to in Quick.  The offensive lines also need to show a better performance, they have often not played well together as a unit this season.  The biggest key for the Kings other than avoiding injuries is to play a strong first period in every game.  They have struggled this year to come back from behind and have been weak in the early minutes of the game frequently, making many more games into a come from behind situation than they should be.
     The Arizona Coyotes are the weakest link in the Pacific division so far this season with a record of 8-13-5.  They Coyotes are another of the pacific division teams who has never won a Stanley Cup, and this does not look to be their year again.  They have only made the playoffs in three of the last ten seasons, and currently have a four year playoff drought.  The strongest players on the Coyotes have been captain Sane Doan, and Max Domi on offence, and defensively Oliver Ekman-Larsson.  Goalies Louis Domingue and Mike Smith both have only 4 wins each and the Coyotes are currently in a 6 game losing streak.  Their streak is not likely to break soon as they are playing the Predators tomorrow and are not at all favored to win, especially since they are 0-4 in their last four appearances against Nashville.  Unless they are able to make a complete turnaround in the second half of the season, or at least two other teams in the division completely flame out I do not think it is likely that they will make the playoffs this season.
     As it stands now the pacific division teams that would make the playoffs if they started next week would be the Oilers, the Ducks, the Flames, and the Sharks.  The Sharks would be in one of the Western Conference's two wild card slots.  Right now the Kings would be in the second wild card slot beating out the Central Division fourth place Jets who have a record of 13-14-3 to the Kings 13-11-2.  I would not count on the Pacific Division holding onto both wild card slots in the Western Conference however, so if the Kings want a slot in the playoffs they need to improve their position in the second half  of the season.  Of the teams in the three pacific division slots, the Flames are in the most precarious position with a record of 15-13-2, with 30 games played.  They have played  more games so far this season than the Sharks or the Ducks who both have equal or better win loss records right now.  The Canucks have played three fewer games this season so far, and are only 3 wins behind them in the standings.  The Kings have played four fewer games and are only two wins behind the Flames.  So if the  two or more of Sharks, Canucks, or Kings have a stronger record in the second half of the season they could easily push the Flames out of the post season once again.

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