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Oilers look to pass Ducks for Pacific Division supremacy

McDavid, Draisaitl aiming for Edmonton's first regular-season title since '86-87

by Lisa Dillman @reallisa / NHL.com Staff Writer

If last season were any indication, it could be another tight race between the Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers for supremacy in the Pacific Division.

The Ducks have finished atop the division for the past five seasons and held off a serious challenge by the Oilers in 2016-17, winning by two points (105-103). 

"This is a tough league and there's no free ones," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. "[Whoever wins is] going to have to earn it. "

Working against the Ducks will be the prolonged absence of center Ryan Kesler, a Selke Trophy finalist as the best defensive forward in the NHL last season. Kesler had hip surgery June 8, and the hope is he returns by Christmas. 

There is plenty of optimism in Alberta, starting with the Oilers, who improved last season by 33 points, and presumably the best is yet to come from center Connor McDavid, the reigning Hart Trophy winner as NHL MVP, and forward Leon Draisaitl. Edmonton is looking to win a division title for the first time since 1987, when it played in the Smythe Division and was led by center Wayne Gretzky.

The Calgary Flames continued their search for answers in goal, revamping the position by bringing in Mike Smith, and reportedly filled another need, bolstering their top-nine forward group by agreeing to a one-year contract with 45-year-old Jaromir Jagr on Monday.

The Los Angeles Kings feature a new look behind the bench, with coach John Stevens replacing Darryl Sutter. But many of the same pieces remain from the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup championship teams, including defenseman Drew Doughty, center Anze Kopitar and goaltender Jonathan Quick.

 

[RELATED: Lightning favored to win Atlantic Division| Penguins remain team to beat in Metro]

 

The San Jose Sharks will be pressed to continue their regular-season consistency. They have missed the playoffs once since the 2002-03 season (2015) and will rely heavily on their usual suspects, including forwards Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Joe Thornton, Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Brent Burns, and shut-down defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

The Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes each are in the midst of ambitious rebuilds, proceeding at varying paces. All eyes at the start will be on the League's 31st team, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights and the face of the franchise, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who won three Stanley Cup championships with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Here is a look at how the Pacific Division could play out for the 2017-18 season:

 

Team to beat: The Oilers look to take a big step forward after coming within one win of reaching the 2017 Western Conference Final, when they lost to the Ducks in Game 7 of the second round. McDavid, who had 100 points (30 goals, 70 points) to win the NHL scoring title in his second NHL season, is only getting better, and goaltender Cam Talbot deftly handled a sizable workload, going 44-22-8 in a League-leading 73 starts.

Video: The guys discuss McDavid's impact on the Oilers

Dark horse: The rebuild accelerated for the Coyotes when they acquired a No. 1 center (Derek Stepan) and No. 1 goaltender (Antti Raanta) in a trade from the New York Rangers on June 23 for defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and the No. 7 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. Arizona is attempting to get back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Stock rising: Tomas Hertl, Sharks. Departures create opportunities. Hertl might end up benefiting the most from the departure of forward Patrick Marleau, who signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 2. Hertl, 23, could fill Marleau's spot on what has been the most set power-play unit in the League over the past five seasons. Injuries limited Hertl to 49 games in 2016-17, when he had 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists), but now he has the chance to play important minutes.

Video: SJS@VAN: Hertl buries rebound to open scoring in 1st

Player to watch: Mike Smith, Flames. The goaltending merry-go-round keeps spinning in Calgary. The Flames acquired Smith in a trade from the Coyotes on June 17 for goalie Chad Johnson, defenseman prospect Brandon Hickey and a conditional third-round pick. The burning question: Can a 35-year-old who was 19-26-9 with a 2.92 goals-against average and .914 save percentage last season be the answer?

Video: CGY@VAN: Smith makes save in close after turnover

Rookie to watch: Clayton Keller, Coyotes. Fans received a sneak preview when the 19-year-old forward had two assists in three games for Arizona at the end of last season. Keller, the No. 7 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, had a stellar preseason with eight points (three goals, five assists) in four games, and the Coyotes are showing faith in putting him on a line with Stepan and Max Domi.

The new guy: Thomas Vanek, Canucks. After spending the first seven seasons of his NHL career with the Buffalo Sabres, Vanek has turned into a man on the move. The Canucks are his fourth team in the past three seasons. But the 33-year-old forward can score (15 goals in 48 games for the Detroit Red Wings last season before being traded to the Florida Panthers on March 1) and can provide the Canucks what they need -- scoring and someone who might find chemistry playing with center Henrik Sedin and forward Daniel Sedin.

Video: Thomas Vanek signs a one-year deal with Canucks

Who will make the playoffs: Just a slight reshuffling from last season: Edmonton, Anaheim and Calgary get in again, with Los Angeles making a return after failing to qualify in 2016-17.

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