2021 NHL West Divison preview

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Get ready, folks. We’re getting closer and closer to finally witnessing NHL hockey once again.

With the COVID-19 putting the sport – and, really, the entire world – into a frenzy, the NHL had to make some changes to get things back underway. It started with a 56-game regular season, but then we saw the announcement of four new divisions: the North, East, Central and West. 

And now we’re about to see this all come to fruition when the season kicks off on Jan. 13, 2021. NHL hockey is almost here.

The West Division is hilarious, in a way. You’ve got three of the worst teams in the league today in Anaheim, Los Angeles, and San Jose, two of the most mediocre teams from the past decade in Minnesota and Arizona, and three Stanley Cup contenders today in St. Louis, Colorado, and Vegas.

Like in all divisions, the eight West Division clubs will play against each other exclusively – get ready for a five-game series to end the regular season between Anaheim and Los Angeles. Rivalries will be heightened, new ones will be established and all of us, as hockey fans, can get back to watching the sport we love on a nightly basis.

The West Division shouldn’t disappoint in 2020-21, so let’s break down the eight contenders looking to lead the way:

Anaheim Ducks

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +8000
  • Odds to win division: +1400
  • Notable Arrivals: Kevin Shattenkirk (D), Jamie Drysdale (D)
  • Notable Departures: Michael Del Zotto (D)

Ducks fans know they’re in for a few rough years, and the off-season didn’t do much to change those fears.

In fact, the Ducks were simply one of the quietest teams on the market, making two real roster signings. Kevin Shattenkirk will strengthen the team’s D-core and might even line up with Cam Fowler on Anaheim’s top pairing, but he’s not the impact guy he once was. That’s it. That’s the only real roster signing of note. After that, the only notable arrival was defenseman Jamie Drysdale, who was selected in the first round of the 2020 draft. He’s not a lock to make Anaheim, though, but might simply get a shot because the OHL doesn’t have an active return plan, putting Drysdale in a strange spot potentially.

OK, so then what?

The Ducks have been mediocre for a few years, finishing the 2019-20 season with a 29-33-9 record for sixth in the Pacific Division. In fact, the Ducks didn’t record more than two wins in a row after the opening month of the season, partly because their scoring was such a problem. Adam Henrique led the team with just 43 goals in 71 games and Jakob Silfverberg joined him as the team’s only 20-goal scorers. Ryan Getzlaf is far from the player he once was, Rickard Rakell struggled to produce offense, and the young core of Sam Steel, Troy Terry, and Max Jones didn’t do much to inject life upfront. They’ll need to do much better because the options after that are Hanton Heinen and Sonny Milano, and that shouldn’t offer up much confidence.

On defense, Fowler should be the No. 1 defenseman once again and Shattenkirk will definitely shore up some concerns in the two-way department. Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson can be a reliable second pairing, but this is far from a group to get too excited about. It’s still a better group on the blueline than a year ago, but is that saying much? The Ducks need a big year out of John Gibson in net after a surprisingly poor year from one of the better goaltenders in the division. In the past, Gibson has done a fantastic job of maximizing results behind a flawed defensive core. He’ll need to be significantly better if the Ducks are going to win the Battle of California against fellow struggling neighbors Los Angeles and San Jose.

If you’re a Ducks fan, you’re not too worried about the 2020-21 season. You know you’re in for some pain, but you’re focused on some of the fresh young faces making an impact. Will Drysdale make a mark? Will Trevor Zegras slot into the top six? The team is focused on the future, so adjust your mindset accordingly.

Arizona Coyotes 

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +4000
  • Odds to win division: +900
  • Notable Arrivals: John Hayden (F), Tyler Pitlick (F), Johan Larsson (F), Drake Caggiula (F), Derick Brassard (F)
  • Notable Departures: Michael Grabner (F), Vinnie Hinostroza (F), Taylor Hall (F), Brad Richardson (F), Carl Soderberg (F), Derek Stepan (F)

Well, if you’re a Coyotes fan, get ready for the same old mediocrity.

The Coyotes were in tight against the salary cap – something we never thought was possible for the penny-pinching organization. That meant the Coyotes couldn’t hang on to former NHL MVP Taylor Hall and didn’t really address the elephant in the room – Arizona’s inability to score.

In the past four years, only Conor Garland (22 in 2019-20), Clayton Keller (2017-18), and Radim Vrbata (2016-17) have hit the 20-goal mark and defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the only player to do it twice in the past six years. Since 2009-10, the Coyotes have had players hit the 50-point mark just 16 times, with six of them coming in 2010-11 and 2011-12. In terms of 50-point seasons, Keller (65) and Derek Stepan (56) in 2017-18 being the only players to do so in the past three seasons. Stepan’s out of the picture now, so this forward group is still very much a work in progress.

On defense, it’s the same old, same old. Ekman-Larsson is still the team’s most important member on the back end and Jakob Chychrun has truly come into his own as a prospect. But Alex Goligoski and Niklas Hjalmarsson’s best days are way behind them, and the team just has a generally slow back end as it is. But at least they’re reliable – Arizona had one of the best own-zone units in the league, but they’ve lost some key two-way forwards to draw from such as Hall and Richardson.

Darcy Kuemper in net will once again need to be stellar, but both he and backup Antti Raanta have an extensive history background. Can either be trusted at this point? We know Kuemper can be a top goaltender when he’s healthy, but that’s asking a lot, especially with the group in front of him. 

The Coyotes did not take any steps forward during the off-season, but at least some of the departures were expected. If Arizona is going to make a surprise run this year, they need the back end to continue being strong, but the offense will need to step up in a big way – and quickly.

Colorado Avalanche 

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +650
  • Odds to win division: +180
  • Notable Arrivals: Bowen Byram (D), Devon Toews (D), Brandon Saad (F), Dennis Gilbert (D) 
  • Notable Departures: Nikita Zadorov (D), AJ Greer (F), Vladislav Namestnikov (F), Matt Nieto (F), Michael Hutchinson (G)

Is this Colorado’s year? It very well might be.

The Avalanche turned years of hardship into one of the league’s most premier organizations. Whether it’s Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog upfront or the young defensive stylings of Cale Makar and Samuel Girard, this is a team that’s loaded throughout the lineup – and they only got better. Nikita Zadorov was replaced on the blueline by Devon Toews, Brandon Saad will take Vladislav Namestnikov’s place and there just aren’t really any weak links among skaters. 

In the net, though, there are some concerns. Philipp Grubauer is a shaky starter at best, and while the competition for one of the few starting goalies available on the free-agent market was tough, the Avalanche didn’t really address that concern. But, really, when you have one of the greatest players in the world right now in MacKinnon and a future Norris Trophy winner in Makar in front of you, you don’t necessarily need to steal games, either. Grubauer just needs to stay healthy and not channel the energy that has seen him truly shine at points in recent years.

The Avalanche have often been seen as a one-line team and having MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen manning a group would definitely make that seem true. But Nazem Kadri had a fantastic post-season, Saad is a nice addition in the middle six and Andre Burakovsky turned some heads after leaving Washington last summer. Throw in one of the better defensive forwards last year in Valeri Nichushkin and depth isn’t an issue. 

Same can be said about the defense, where Toews, a top-pairing guy on Long Island, may be closer to a fourth or fifth defender this season. Girard and Makar are two of the brightest young defensive stars right now and Ryan Graves had one heck of a season in a truly breakout year for the 25-year-old. If the Avs can somehow throw in Bowen Byram, Canada’s top defenseman at the World Junior Championship, they could have one of the best groups in the league.

The Avs are currently in their window to win the Stanley Cup just half a decade after becoming one of the NHL’s worst teams. They’ve got the speed, skill and depth to make it work – but the Avs just need everyone to stay healthy and they’ll be a top team in the West.

For what it’s worth, Colorado is my pick to win the Cup.

Los Angeles 

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +8000
  • Odds to win division: +1200
  • Notable Arrivals: Quinton Byfield (F), Alex Turcotte (F), Olli Maatta (D), Lias Andersson (F), Mark Alt (D), Andreas Athanasiou (F) 
  • Notable Departures:  Paul LaDue (D), Joakin Ryan (D), Sheldon Rempal (F)

The Los Angeles Kings aren’t a contender yet, but this off-season can only be described as a success.

Whether it’s the official signings of top prospects Quinton Byfield and Alex Turcotte, the depth from Lias Andersson and Andreas Athanasiou, or the potential for high minutes from Olli Maatta, the Kings definitely found some value this off-season. That doesn’t mean that Kings are close to any form of success – this is still a very lousy hockey club, but at least they’ve got one of the best prospect bases to build from and some other pieces that will continue to make the Kings worth watching in some capacity.

Byfield and Turcotte aren’t locks to make the Kings, but they’re definitely highly valued – especially after strong efforts for Canada and USA at the World Junior Championship, respectively. The Kings should also get some help from rookie of the year candidate Gabe Vilardi, who had a triumphant return to pro hockey after injuries plagued the early portion of his career. Samuel Fagemo is another good scoring winger that should add some help on the third line with veterans Jeff Carter and Blake Lizotte and there’s still hope that Andersson will turn his career around after a rough stint with the New York Rangers.

The defense is going to be a bit of a wild west. Drew Doughty isn’t worth $11 million a season any more and has seen his game drop by quite a margin the last few seasons. Perhaps Maatta finds some chemistry with him like he did with Slater Koekkoek in Chicago, but that’s a first pairing that leaves a lot to be desired. The team has some nice young pieces behind that, though, including rookies Tobias Bjornfot and Mikey Anderson, who should be able to contribute offensively from the point. Sean Walker was a revelation last year and, at points, was one of the Kings’ best defenders. Throw in Matt Roy and you’ve got a speedy, reliable option in the Kings’ end, and while there’s some nice pieces there, it’s still not a group to get overly excited about. But, again, that’s OK. The Kings are still rebuilding.

The one player to really watch is backup goaltender Cal Petersen. Jonathan Quick is coming off of a pair of brutal seasons in net and Petersen is a fresh young face coming off consecutive runs as one of the best in the AHL. Quick’s contract, at $5.8 million for the next three seasons, is going to be impossible to move, but he’ll be able to mentor Petersen at the very least. Since this is still a transition year for the Kings, Petersen could be given a bunch of starts in order to see if he’s the real deal long-term. 

There’s some youth in this team that will make things exciting for Kings fans, but you have to temper your expectations. You know what you’re getting out of Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, but now you’ve got an influx of new blood joining a core that knows a thing or two about winning a Stanley Cup. The Kings likely won’t need to wait much longer to be a contender, but this simply isn’t the year for that.

March 8, 2020; Anaheim, California, USA; Minnesota Wild right wing Mats Zuccarello (36) moves the puck against the Anaheim Ducks during the third period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Wild 

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +5000
  • Odds to win division: +1000
  • Notable Arrivals: Marcus Johansson (F), Nick Bjugstad (F), Kirill Kaprizov (F), Cam Talbot (G), Marco Rossi (F), Andrew Hammond (G)
  • Notable Departures: Eric Staal (F), Ryan Donato (F), Devan Dubnyk (G), Luke Kunin (F), Mikko Koivu (F), Alex Galchenyuk (F)

Remember the part above about Arizona being mediocre? Just copy and paste that section for Minnesota, too.

Since the Wild made it to the Western Conference finals in 2003 (the team’s first foray into the post-season), Minnesota has won just one playoff series, a first-round affair against St. Louis in 2015 before getting swept by the Chicago Blackhawks. Since then, it’s been a rough go for a team that hasn’t found a way to attract stars into the fold and has been hurt by poor contract management to aging veterans.

Will there be some success this year? Probably not, but there have been some positive changes. In comes a new starting goaltender, Cam Talbot, who was actually one of the better goalies in the second half of the 2019-20 season.  Marcus Johansson is now the team’s No. 1 center after taking over for Eric Staal – not really an upgrade, but Johansson is a solid player in his own right. 

But the real reason to get excited is the arrival of Kirill Kaprizov, the team’s highly sought after prospect that spent the past half-decade proving himself to be one of the best all-around players in the KHL. Kaprizov, 23, was taken in the fifth round by the Wild in 2015 despite being a hard-hitting, slick-skating forward with future star potential. Kaprizov now has six years of KHL action under his belt coming off of a career-high 33-goal, 62-point season to make his mark as one of the league’s best forwards. In fact, he’s led the KHL in scoring the past two seasons, and the Wild desperately needs a goal-scorer to, you know, score some goals. Kevin Fiala will be a fantastic setup man for Kaprizov, but there’s still the potential for Kaprizov to have a rocky first year in the league – and that’s fine.

Another beam of light could be the inclusion of Marco Rossi, coming off of a strong effort with Austria at the World Junior Championship. There’s not much for Rossi to accomplish in the OHL after a 120-point season, and there may not even be an OHL for him to go back to, anyway. Rossi isn’t a big kid at 5-foot-9 and there would definitely be some reservations in buying him deep in the lineup, so the Wild need to be certain Rossi will be a solid contributor out of the gate – it’s not crazy to think he’ll be the No. 2 center this year. 

Once again, Minnesota has a defensive group to be excited about. Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter make up a reliable top pairing and Jonas Brodin and Mathew Dumba have an edge and a skillset that makes matching them against top lines an easy thing to do. The real eye-opener last year, though, was the tremendous play of Carson Soucy and Brad Hunt on the third pairing. If that’s your final line, that’s quite something. So the Wild are set on the blueline, but you need a way to put pucks in the net. I’m just not too confident Minnesota can achieve that in any meaningful way this year.

San Jose Sharks 

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +6000
  • Odds to win division: +1000
  • Notable Arrivals: Devan Dubnyk (G), Ryan Donato (F), Kurtis Gabriel (F), Matt Nieto (F), Patrick Marleau (F)  
  • Notable Departures: Joe Thornton (F), Aaron Dell (F), Brandon Davidson (D), Jonny Brodzinski (F), Melker Karlsson (F)

You’ve likely noticed a theme with the California-based teams – they aren’t very good, and San Jose is definitely going to be tough to watch in 2020-21.

Whether it’s one of the league’s worst goaltending duos of Devan Dubnyk and Martin Jones, or a lack of offensive depth, this is a team that looks to have an identity crisis coming this year. The one bonus is the defense, again, should be fine with Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Erik Karlsson, even if none of them are currently at their peak performance. In busts, they can be a dominant group, and we’ll get to potentially see some elevated ice time for youngsters Radim Simek and Mario Ferraro, too. 

But that offense.. that’s not a group to be thrilled about. The Sharks finished 28th in goals-for-per-game a year ago with just 2.57, which, actually, somehow beat out their Californian brethren. The Sharks didn’t do much to address that concern during the off-season and, frankly, the loss of Joe Thornton – one of the greatest players to ever play for the franchise – could have a noticeable effect on the leadership side of things. A real wild-card here is whether Ryan Donato can emulate the offense that made him a top younger player in his early days or whether he’ll go back to being a disenchanting depth guy like he was before leaving Minnesota.

Speaking of the goaltending, Jones was, statistically one of the worst goaltenders in the NHL last season and Dubnyk, through injuries and an overall decline in performance at the age of 34, isn’t the same guy he was during his prime in Minnesota. But Tomas Hertl is a better centerman than what Donato was used to in Minnesota, so maybe that’s what Donato needs to become a valuable secondary scorer for the Sharks. And the Sharks will definitely need that: the line of Evander Kane, Logan Couture and Timo Meier is solid, but it’s a bit of rough spectrum after that.

Like Anaheim and Los Angeles, the goal for the Sharks is just to get through this season and continue building towards the future. The Sharks don’t have a ton of great prospects behind Ryan Merkley and Ozzy Wiesblatt, but it’s a group that’s improving each year and, with a bit of tweaking, could surprise down the line. The Sharks just aren’t that close right now.

Kyper & Mac preview the West

St. Louis Blues 

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +2000
  • Odds to win division: +450
  • Notable Arrivals: Torey Krug (D), Kyle Clifford (F), Mike Hoffman (F)   
  • Notable Departures: Jake Allen (G), Derrick Pouliot (D), Alex Pietrangelo (D), Jordan Nolan (F), Alex Steen (F)

It’s never easy to repeat as champions in the NHL.  There’s a reason why the Pittsburgh Penguins are the only team of the salary cap era to win consecutive titles in 2016-17, with Detroit last doing it in 1997-98.

But, are the Blues capable of going for another one this year? They’ll have to do so without long-time captain Alex Pietrangelo, who left the only team he has ever suited up for to sign with Vegas over the off-season. Torey Krug is a solid replacement, but is the team in better shape than they were a season? I’m not too sure about that, but I also don’t think they’re much worse, either.

The main core is back. The Blues should have no issue relying once more on the services of forwards Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron, Jaden Schwatz and Brayden Schenn, as well as defensemen Colton Parayko and Justin Faulk. The secondary scoring and depth defensive options are some of the best in the league, with the deep St. Louis lineup not having many true weaknesses. 

But, of course, not everything is perfect for the Bluenotes.

Star forward Vladimir Tarasenko missed most of the regular season last year with an injury suffered in October and re-dislocated the same shoulder during the Stanley Cup finals last year – a season after requiring surgery following the 2017-18 campaign. Now he’s back on the sidelines again until at least the start of March. At this point, can the Blues have any realistic hope of getting Tarasenko back on a full-time basis again? That’s tough to say.

The most obvious replacement for Tarasenko in the short-term is Mike Hoffman. Prior to the start of training camp, Hoffman had signed a tryout contract, with the understanding that he’d sign a proper deal after the Blues could officially get Tarasenko’s (long-term injury) and Alex Steen’s (retirement) contracts off of the books to clear space. Hoffman had 70 points two years ago and was on pace to match that again last year in Florida, so he was one heck of a get in a market where mid-priced goal-scorers were actually struggling to find work this year. If the Blues can make it work, having another 30-goal scorer to replace Tarasenko.

The last question is in the crease. Will we see the Jordan Binnington that took the Blues to a Cup two years ago, or the one that was a very average starter last season? He won’t have Jake Allen behind him this time, and Ville Husso definitely isn’t up to par with what Allen showed last year as one of the league’s best backups. That could be the difference for the Blues, who’ll have to spend a lot of nights playing against goaltenders like Robin Lehner, John Gibson and Darcy Kuemper. Binnington, at worst, is better than a few of the other starters in the division, but the Blues need him to be big again.

St. Louis shouldn’t have an issue being a contender in the division, but is it enough to beat the likes of Vegas and Colorado? It’s going to be a tight three-way race to the top, but they’ve got the experience to know how to handle pressure. I like their odds of winning the division.

Vegas Golden Knights

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +700
  • Odds to win division: +200
  • Notable Arrivals: Tomas Jurco (F), Carl Dahlstrom (D), Alex Pietrangelo (D) 
  • Notable Departures:  Paul Stastny (F), Brandon Pirri (F), Jon Merrill (D), Nick Cousins (F), Nate Schmidt (D), Jaycob Megna (D), Deryk Engelland (D)

Can you believe we’re already in the fourth year of Vegas’ existence in the NHL? And they’ve been a top contender each year, too!

But are they actually a better team than they were last season when they lost to the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference finals? Even after signing prized UFA Alex Pietrangelo, I don’t think so.

Take a look at the notable arrivals and departures above. Pietrangelo is a great addition, but was it worth it at the cost of losing Nate Schmidt, a top-pair defender, or Paul Statsny, a top two center? That’s the price you have to make sometimes, but now there’s some depth issues in the lineup. And if Max Pacioretty gets moved, then what?

It’s starting to sound like the Golden Knights are a bit of a mess, but that’s not close to the truth. In fact, Vegas once again is a favorite to win the Stanley Cup thanks to a group led by Pacioretty, Pietrangelo, Mark Stone, William Karlsson and Shea Theodore. At every position, the Golden Knights have at least one big-name player that can be a difference-maker, and they’re not really showing any signs of slowing down. 

A full season of Robin Lehner at the helm will be a nice addition to a team that got three good years from Marc-Andre Fleury, but didn’t have a second goaltender to rely on. Now, with both in the mix, the Golden Knights will have one of the best goaltending duos in the league. Mix in the defense core in front, led by Pietrangelo and Theodore, and the Golden Knights can rely on their second half to keep things competitive night in and night out.

Vegas struggled to penetrate the rock-solid defenseman that the Stars employed during the post-season, but you’d have to wonder if Vegas’ quick, score-at-all-costs style would have been better suited against Tampa Bay had they moved on. But with a Stanley Cup final appearance and another run in the conference finals, Vegas has had tastes of success, but just keeps falling short. There’s some tough competition in the division this year, but if we’ve learned anything about Vegas, it’s that they know how to surprise.

Check out our other division previews from Steven Ellis

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