Analysis: NHL's Pacific Division


Analysis: NHL's Pacific Division

Its the quarter point of the NHL regular season, and the Pacific Division is as tight as ever...except for Anaheim.

At the start of the year it would have been logical to think that the division would be a two-team race between the Sharks and Kings. San Jose and Los Angeles improved their rosters on paper in the offseason with some key acquisitions, while Phoenix and Dallas lost big name free agents and Anaheim was stagnant.

So far, that hasnt been the case. While the Ducks have faltered badly, the Stars and Coyotes are right in the thick of the race with the Sharks and Kings. On Wednesday morning, all of two points separated the first from the fourth spot, and it changes on a nightly basis.

RELATED: NHL standings

Heres a brief look at where each of the four other Pacific Division teams stands.

Anahiem Ducks (6-13-4, 16 points)
The Anaheim Ducks started the year with three wins in their first four games including sweeping a home-and-home with the Sharks. Since then? Anaheim is 3-11-4 and mired in last place in the Pacific. They have lost five in a row, and are tied with the Islanders for worst goal differential in the NHL (-26).

Just about everything has gone wrong for the Ducks since mid-October. Jonas Hiller, returning from missing the second half of last season with vertigo, has been terrible, with a 3.32 goals-against average and .897 save percentage. Last years MVP Corey Perry has 10 goals, but Ryan Getzlaf has just four. Bobby Ryans name is being mentioned in several trade rumors, and there is also talk that head coach Randy Carlyle could be on his way out.

The stats tell the story. The Ducks have just 2.13 goals per game (29th), while surrendering 3.17 per game (26th). This isnt the way Teemu Selanne envisioned his final season.

Dallas Stars (14-9-1, 29 points)
The Stars were one of the bigger surprises in the NHL when they stormed out to an 11-3-0 start, despite losing Brad Richards to the Rangers in the offseason. That came to a screeching halt when all of a sudden they couldnt find the scoreboard and lost five in a row, ending with the 4-1 loss to San Jose on home ice on Nov. 19. Theyve rebounded since then, going 3-1-1 in their last five.

Dallas has dealt with a few injuries on its roller coaster ride. Starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen is out for up to a month with a groin injury never good for a goaltender and journeyman Andrew Raycroft is now in the spotlight. Captain Brenden Morrow has also been out recently with an upper body injury, but could return on Thursday night.

Jamie Benn leads Dallas with 23 points, while Loui Eriksson is their top scorer with 10 goals.

Phoenix Coyotes (13-7-3, 29 points)
Like the Stars, the Coyotes lost perhaps their best player in the offseason when Ilya Bryzgalov went to Philadelphia. No matter. Mike Smith has 12 wins, a 2.35 goals-against average and is fifth in the NHL with a .935 save percentage. The Coyotes are once again in the middle of the race when it would have been easy to write them off especially after watching them lose 6-3 on opening night in San Jose.

Phoenix has something in common with the Sharks, as they have been one of the NHLs best road teams. The Coyotes went into Chicago on Thursday and skated out with an impressive 4-1 win over the Blackhawks, improving to 7-3-1 away from Arena.

The Coyotes defense is anchored by one of the most underrated players in the league in Keith Yandle, while Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney (21 points apiece) lead the offense. Phoenix could get a small boost from the return of Kyle Turris, who finally signed with the club after a contract dispute. Turris could debut as early as Thursday night.

One big reason for Phoenixs success? Staying out of the penalty box. The Coyotes have just 8.2 penalty minutes per game, the fewest in the NHL, and own the fourth best penalty kill in the league (89.0 percent). That being said, they would like to improve on their 28th ranked power play (12.0 pecent).

Los Angeles Kings (12-8-4, 28 points)
The Kings have improved since getting off to a so-so start, after being a popular pick in the offseason to unseat the Sharks at the top of the Pacific Division. That could certainly still happen, of course, as the Kings star players are all starting to find their games.

On offense, the dynamic Anze Kopitar is still the primary threat with 24 points. Right behind him, though, is Mike Richards, who already has nine goals since the start of the month, tying him with Jonathan Toews for the most in November. Richards is looking every bit like the player Dean Lombardi thought he was acquiring from Philadelphia in that blockbuster trade this summer.

Drew Doughty has just seven points in 19 games, less than what hes used to, but that may be a case of an abbreviated training camp for the star defenseman whose contract dispute cost him to miss most of training camp.

Jonathan Quicks four shutouts, including Monday against the Sharks, lead the NHL.

Sharks have bevy of young defensemen to replace Schlemko

Sharks have bevy of young defensemen to replace Schlemko

CHICAGO – If there were a best-case scenario for the Sharks regarding the expansion draft, it probably would have been the Vegas Golden Knights selecting Mikkel Boedker, and the three years and $12 million remaining on his contract.

Instead, the Golden Knights swiped David Schlemko. While the 30-year-old was a nice third pair defenseman in his only year with the Sharks, it was probably the second-best case from San Jose’s perspective. The team should be able to fill the vacancy internally without too much difficulty. Schlemko had two goals and 18 points in 62 games last season, and has three years left on his contract at $2.1 million annually.

“I think it’s worked out well for all parties involved,” said general manager Doug Wilson. “You go into expansion, you know you’re going to lose a player. David came in and played well for us. We signed him as a free agent, so we didn’t have to give up an asset to get him. So, we think we moved through the expansion phase with the good young players coming in that are ready to play and compete for that spot. That’s probably as good as we could have expected to come out of expansion, in that position.”

If there are no other major moves on the Sharks’ blue line this offseason, the spot to play alongside Brenden Dillon will be there for the taking in training camp. There’s no reason, of course, to break up the top four of Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Justin Braun, and Brent Burns-Paul Martin.

Dylan DeMelo would figure to have the inside track on the job, but there are others like Tim Heed and Joakim Ryan, each of whom signed two-year contract extensions on June 17. They served as the AHL Barracuda’s top defense pair for most of the season.

The 24-year-old Ryan, a sixth round pick in 2012, posted 10 goals and 49 points in 65 games last season in the AHL. He was recalled once by the Sharks but did not play. Heed, 26, is an offensive defenseman that tallied 14 goals and 56 points in 55 games with the Barracuda and played in one game with the Sharks on Jan. 11 in Calgary. Ryan is a left-handed shot; Heed, like Schlemko and DeMelo, shoots right.

Regarding Ryan, Wilson said: “He’s right on track. He’s the type of guy that – if you look around the league at the number of young defensemen that are making an impact – he thinks and plays the game the right way.”

“Watching [Ryan and Heed] play together, I would say they were arguably the best defense pair in the AHL last year.”

There are other defensemen to monitor, too. The Sharks signed soon-to-be 25-year-old Czech Radim Simek to a one-year contract on May 23, beating out several of other NHL teams to acquire his services. 

“He’s a puck-moving guy,” Wilson said. “He’s got a little bite to him, too. Not tall, but thick and strong. We think he’s a guy that has the skill set to step right in and play. We’ll see how much time it takes him to adjust to the smaller rink.”

And don’t forget about Jeremy Roy, either. The first pick of the second round in the deep 2015 draft (31st overall), Roy is expected to join the organization next season, likely starting his pro career with the Barracuda after recovering from a significant knee injury that ended his junior season in late October.

“He had a major repair, but he’s back healthy,” Wilson said. “We’ll see him this summer, and he’s a puck-moving guy. … Injuries you can’t control, but we have high expectations for Jeremy.”

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Vegas shipped Schlemko to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday for a fifth round pick in the 2019 draft.

Sharks prepare for 2017 NHL Draft with eight picks in hand

Sharks prepare for 2017 NHL Draft with eight picks in hand

CHICAGO – The glass-half-full observer looks at Sharks’ recent draft record and sees some late round picks that could be on the cusp of making the NHL on a full time basis. 

Defenseman Joakim Ryan (7th round, 2012), center Danny O’Regan (5th round, 2012) and forward Kevin Labanc (6th round, 2014) have all exceeded expectations so far. Dylan DeMelo (6th round, 2011) could also be included in that group.

The glass-half-empty observer, though, sees that the Sharks have traded away a pair of recent first rounders that didn’t pan out. Nikolay Goldobin (27th overall, 2014) was dealt to Vancouver in late February for Jannik Hansen and a fourth round pick, while Mirco Mueller (18th overall, 2013) is off to New Jersey for a pair of picks in this year’s draft.

It’s all part of the uncertainty of selecting what are mostly teenagers in the annual NHL Entry Draft, which takes place at Chicago’s United Center this weekend. The Sharks’ first pick during Friday night’s first round sits at 19th overall, and they have seven more selections on Saturday when rounds two-through-seven take place.

Doug Wilson is used to picking in the mid-to-late first round, as the Sharks have missed the playoffs just once under his 14-year watch.

“I think we always take the best player available,” he said. “I think it’s a good draft. … We feel pretty comfortable at 19 we’ll get a pretty good player.”

The Sharks have never selected 19th, and Wilson left open the possibility that they could move up or down.

“People move up and down all the time. We’ve got a history of doing that so teams do reach out to us,” he said.

The Sharks moved up to pick Mueller in 2013, sending a second round pick to Detroit to jump ahead two places in a deal that now looks regrettable. The next year, they moved down seven spots before selecting Goldobin.

Less than a week ago, the Sharks didn’t have any picks in the second, third or fourth rounds. But in dealing Mueller (and a fifth rounder this year) to the Devils, they acquired second and fourth round picks from New Jersey (49 and 123 overall). They also have a pair of sixth round picks and three in the seventh round.

While this year’s draft isn’t thought to be especially strong, Wilson still expects there to be some good players available after the first round. Getting some assets in exchange for Mueller, who had been passed over in the organization, was critical.

“I think it was important for us to fill in the grid like we did. I think it’s a good draft,” Wilson said. “Realistically, it’s probably not a Connor McDavid-Auston Matthews type draft, but there are some very good players in this draft that will go on and have very good careers.”

As for losing Mueller and Goldobin recently, the general manager seemed to say that that those are the breaks when you’re a team doesn’t make one of the first few selections.

“First of all, you’ve got to clarify where we pick and have picked. You’re not talking about top five picks or lottery picks, so often – and this is not to take away from Mirco and Goldie, because they’re really good players and good kids – you move players when you’re trying to win or trying to make things happen,” he said. 

“Historically, our scouts have done an outstanding job, one of the best records for a scouting staff in the league, since 2003 in particular. But, you can’t be afraid to be bold and move things.”

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Although the Sharks have never made a pick in the 19th overall spot, they’ve been around it. Players include Tomas Hertl (17th overall, 2012), Marcel Goc (20th overall, 2001) and Marco Sturm (21st overall, 1996). 

Some notable players around the league taken 19th overall include Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay, 2012), Oscar Klefbom (Edmonton, 2011), Nick Bjugstad (Florida, 2010), Chris Kreider (Rangers, 2009), Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim, 2003) and Keith Tkachuk (Winnipeg, 1990).

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The Sharks will hold their annual development camp from July 3-7 at their practice facility. It includes a scrimmage at SAP Center on Thursday, July 6.