Pacific Division predictions

Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) battles for a loose puck with Vancouver Canucks defensemen Tucker Poolman (5) Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) battles for a loose puck with Vancouver Canucks defensemen Tucker Poolman (5) Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports /
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Right now the Pacific Division is still slated to one of the NHL’s weakest. There’s maybe two good teams, one subpar team, and a motley crew of rebuilding and awful teams after that. This is my predictions for how things are going to play out by the end of the season.

No doubt there will be disagreement in the comments section, but – newsflash – I’m not writing with the objective of pleasing everyone. I know, it’s shocking, but I only write what I believe and you’re free to agree or not.

So, let’s get started with the Team I’m predicting to win the Pacific Division:

1.  Edmonton Oilers

Call me biased if you want, but name another team in the division that’s better than the Oilers top to bottom. There isn’t one.

Their top six is led by the McDrai duo, who are doing their best Gretzky-Messier impressions by finishing one-two in league scoring in the early going. Those two are supplemented by star players Zach Hyman and now long term minted pest extraordinaire Evander Kane, back for a second tour of duty.

The Oilers didn’t rest on their laurels, either, as far as the top six goes, as with emergence of Ryan Mcleod this season as a regular threat on the third line they’ve been able to move “The Nuge” back to the top six where he belongs, and he’s certainly rewarded the team with 13 points in 12 games in the early going. He’s playing alongside Mcdavid and Hyman for a pretty potent first line.

Mighty Mouse Kailer Yamamoto rounds out the top six, and although he’s struggling in the early going with only three assists in 11 games, he cracked the 20 goal mark for the first time in his career last season, so expect him to turn that around at some point this season, he’s too talented and he’s surrounded by the Deutschland Dangler Leon Draisaitl and the aforementioned Kane to form a fantastic second line to throw over the boards, so he’ll start scoring again in short order, you can bet on it.

The bottom six is full of depth and for the first time in quite some time, the Oilers aren’t icing AHL quality players in the bottom six. Warren Foegele-Mcleod-Bison King Jesse Puljujarvi are a third line that, while it hasn’t scored a lot in the early going, has a sniper on it (Mcleod), a physical player with hands capable of providing secondary offence (Foegele) and a player providing good defensive play who also has some hands (Bison King).

The fourth line right now is centered by rookie Dylan Holloway, 2020’s first rounder. He has two assists in eight games, I expect we may see a mini offensive outburst late in the season. On his wings are two veterans, Derek Ryan (faceoff pro and three points in 12 games) and Devin Shore (can play both center and wing, has one assist in 11 games). Ryan is the only one who is producing at a regular clip in the early going, but expect that to pick up later on in the season.

Defensively in the top four the Oilers have a largely unaltered corps from last season. Nurse-Ceci still anchor the first pairing, are playing the toughs and both are proving they can chip in offensively as well, as Nurse has three goals and 8 points in 12 games in the early going while Ceci is even off to a solid start in this department as well as he’s got 1-2-3 in 12 games, pretty good for a stay at home guy.

Brett Kulak has moved into the second pairing to mentor and mop up after Evan Bouchard defensively. Kulak has two assists in the early going along with a +6, about what you’d expect from a stay at home guy. Bouchard claims he’s struggling, and I suppose from a goal scoring perspective he is, but five assists in 12 games is still pretty good for a blueliner – although it’s worth noting that he’s currently tied for worst +/- on the team as well, with -4. Bouchard is still a tender 23 years old and is only in his second season as a regular NHLer, so a few growing pains are to be expected. He’ll turn things around, bet on it. Kulak is the perfect mentor for him defensively.

The bottom pairing of the D corps is where it got interesting for the Oilers this season. Philip Broberg did not win a roster spot as expected, although we later found out he was playing injured so it’s no wonder he didn’t make it. Veteran port sider Ryan Murray surprisingly beat out Broberg and Finn Markus Niemelainen to start the season, but he’s since been playing a lot less as of late, probably due to the fact that he’s the other player tied with Bouchard for worst +/- on the team with -4.

Combine this with the fact he’s put up a mere one assist in those seven games and it’s no wonder he’s riding the pine right now – you’d expect better from a veteran of 439 NHL games. If Murray doesn’t turn it around he’ll find himself on the waiver wire sooner rather than later – the Oilers could certainly use the cap space.

Niemelainen has since come on the scene after spending part of last season with the Oilers as an injury fill-in from the minors. Niemelainen is a bruising stay at home type of d-man, the type common at the bottom of D corps in NHL days of yore. He’s only 30 games into his NHL career, but is proving to be worth the third round pick he was drafted at in 2016 (a sign the Oilers drafting has certainly turned around). He hasn’t produced offence right now but two things are clearly in his favour – his +/- has improved to even from -5 last year and he’s second on the team in hits with 33 in 10 games.

No wonder they’re playing him over Murray right now – I would too if I was head coach Jay Woodcroft.

On the right side is Tyson Barrie – exiled as a regular from top four by being supplanted by first Ceci and then Bouchard last season, he’s still valued as a veteran presence by Holland which is why they didn’t get rid of him despite his $4.5 million cap hit for this season and next.

Barrie is the first unit PP QB and it shows in his stats – he has 1-6-7 in 12 games this season so far and has clearly taken to heart the lessons assistant coach Dave Manson taught him defensively as he has a +4 in the early going. All but one of those points have come on the PP.

Barrie has still spelled off Bouchard in the top four when Bouchard has been at his darkest moments in the early going and Woodcroft has put Bouchard on the bottom pairing again temporarily. Guess it was a good thing they didn’t trade him.

In goal is where it gets interesting for the Oilers as they had to replace both their goalies from last season – we later found out Mike Smith was dealing with four different injuries last season and those injuries are keeping him out of the game for good – he’s spending the last year of his contract on LTIR giving the Oilers some critical $2.2 million in LTIR cap space for this season.

Mikko Koskinen bolted for the Swiss league the day after the playoffs ended for the Oilers.

In their place is the $5 million in Jack Campbell that we rescued from the Maple Laffs in toxic TO. His stats are pretty ugly in the early going – 4.2 GAA and .874 sv% but he does have a 5-3 record in the early going and has publicly said he hasn’t played his best hockey so far, so hopefully he improves upon those numbers as the season goes on.

Backing him up will be rookie Tom Sellick I mean Stuart Skinner. Only NHL player I know whose moustache has it’s own Twitter account. He’s shown promise early in the season but of course you can hardly forecast a career based on a mere four starts, but so far so good with 2.10 GAA and a .944 sv% – both numbers which I expect to regress a bit as the season progresses as even the best goalies in the league don’t put up those kinds of numbers.

Only time will tell if this duo is up to the task of helping the Oilers take their next step as a franchise – at the very least we did get younger which was necessary to start this season. Campbell is only 30 while Skinner is only 24, a far cry from the 40 year old Mike Smith and the 30-something Mikko Koskinen.

If the Oilers have a weakness I see it was their PK, which at this point in time is a woeful 27th in the league. The PP is right around where you’d expect it – second in the league right now – but the PK has got to improve if the Oilers are to do any damage in the postseason.

That and the unknowns around the goaltending are the biggest issues right now. I have every faith the players who are slumping right now will find their games, so that’s not an issue for me.

I think they’ll go as far as their goaltenders will take them.