We move out West, which is probably the most top-heavy of the new-fangled, COVID-adjusted divisions this season. There are three genuine contenders here...and then a whole lot of trash. Colorado, Vegas, and St. Louis will feast on the chum on offer in this intra-division only schedule, and the race for the three of them will be to see who doesn’t have to play one of the other two in the first round of the playoffs. Meanwhile. Arizona and Minnesota will try to Jenga their way to the last playoff spot to be a ritual killing for one of the top three, while the California teams move one year forward in their respective rebuilds/teardowns. Just like the society around you, this division has no middle class.
COVID Response: Fair number of layoffs and furloughs, like an obedient sports organization these days. The Ducks will not have fans at the Honda Center, despite Orange County’s desperation to be a reverse-Austin, a red dot in a liberal sea.
Staying Away: No one.
Oh, He’s Here Now: There’s a couple signings on the fringes, but what Ducks fans will really be focusing on this season is the debut of Trevor Zegras. Zegras just finished being the best player on the champion U.S. team at the World Juniors, and the 9th overall pick from 2019 looks poised to finally answer the question of who is going to take over for Ryan Getzlaf’s No. 1 center spot now that Getzlaf has been deadbeat dadding it for at least five years. That’s far more enticing for the leather-jacketed faithful in Anaheim than whether or not Kevin Shattenkirk can still score from the blue line.
Where’d He Go? Ondrej Kase was dealt at last year’s deadline, but other than him the Ducks only lost flotsam from the previous roster.
What To Expect: A ton of kids. The Ducks have been rolling out rookies and neophytes for a couple seasons now, hoping to move on from the Getzlaf-Perry generation of eating each other’s feces. But none of the kids they’ve rolled out at forward have flashed being inspirational, at least not yet. Zegras certainly looks like he might change that, and the Ducks will be praying that one or more of Sam Steel, Nick Ritchie, Max Jones, or Max Comtois (which sounds like a sex act) can finally be more than just “a guy.” How did this team end up with two Maxes?
The blue line is still sneaky good without ever really going anywhere, and Hampus Lindholm is approaching the end of his zenith. They’ll still get good goaltending from John Gibson and Ryan Miller, But unless Zegras starts crushing skulls from Day 1, this outfit still looks like it’ll be bum-fighting with the Kings and Sharks. Of the three though, they’re the most likely to surprise.
COVID Response: One of the few teams that will try to have fans, with a max of 3,400 people who thought this was a bingo game or a biker rally wandering through the doors to start. Other than that, not much.
Staying Away: Nope.
Oh, He’s Here Now: No one you’ve ever heard of, because having players you’ve ever heard of is not something the Coyotes are terribly interested in. That’s what happens when you let a complete scheister of a GM run your team for years. If any organization was going to be fooled into drinking bleach as a whole to fight COVID, it was this one.
Where’d He Go? Derek Stepan was sent off into the woods of Ottawa to live out his final days in peace. Do you care about Carl Soderberg? You do not. Taylor Hall got a couple months to check out the scene last season, and thought goddamn Buffalo was a better option for him. Which tells you just about everything you need to know.
What To Expect: A handful of stories with headlines like, “Are the Coyotes for real?” or “Here come the Coyotes” and you won’t be able to identify for the life of you what the fuck they’re based on, other than maybe goaltending. The Coyotes don’t return anyone who had more than 45 points last year, and moreover they don’t look like having anyone who might ascend to over 45 points either. They boast a bevy of young players that Coyotes observers will insist could develop into things, and that everyone else who accidentally flipped on a Coyotes game while looking for an Avalanche one wouldn’t even be able to identify if they rode a horse through their backyard naked and on fire. For years we’ve heard stories out of the desert that Clayton Keller or Christian Dvorak or Christian Fischer (oh your time has come…) or some other dipshit is poised to make the Yotes relevant for the first time ever, and it never happens. Even Oliver Ekman-Larsson is old now, as is the rest of the blue line, aside from Jakob Chychrun and his misspelled first name and being another who’s had a couple years of being billed as “the shit” in the future who hasn’t done much.
The one thing Arizona always seems to produce is goaltending, as Darcy Kuemper was just the latest to have a revival there. Should he stay at that level, along with Antti Raanta as backup/1A, the Yotes can probably stay in enough games to float around the last playoff spot to fool someone into thinking there’s real progress here. There won’t be.
COVID Response: The Avs have a pretty stocked “unfit to participate” list, with five players being held out so far. But other than that, nothing major. There will be no fans at Ball Arena. And yes, it’s Ball Arena. The building will tase itself and die, if current trends hold true.
Staying Away: All the players that were held out of camp, except for Erik Johnson, are back with the team, so no one now.
Oh, He’s Here Now: Brandon Saad was dealt from Chicago, and he’ll form what could be a hellish checking line alongside Nazem Kadri and Gabriel ThreeYaksAndADog. Devon Toews left the Islanders, as all fun players do, to give them even more mobility on defense. Rookie Bowen Byram arrives fresh from the World Juniors to add even more to the blue line, and at this point it’s getting unfair.
Where’d He Go? Because of all that speed and talent on defense, the Avs were perfectly happy to let dunderclod Nikita Zadorov go in exchange for Saad. Other than that, no one really of note.
What To Expect: Now here’s a team worth talking about. If it wasn’t for both of their goalies getting hurt in the playoffs last year, along with Landeskog, they almost certainly would have saved us the indignity and torture of having to watch the Stars for another two rounds. This is perhaps the league’s most loaded team with no worse than its second-best player in Nathan MacKinnon. They have depth at forward, but the real feature of this team will be its blue line. With Cale Makar, Byram, Toews, and Sam Girard this team can play faster than just about anyone in the league, with all of them able to skate themselves out of trouble and start the offense (and if Byram and Makar play together, we’ll have the pleasure of calling that pairing “BB8”). Phillip Grubauer in net was more than solid enough last year for the Avs to go far before getting hurt, especially if they’re pouring in five a game. This is definitely a team that is in “All Systems Go” mode.
Los Angeles Kings
COVID Response: The Kings had five players held out of Saturday’s scrimmage due to protocols. There will not be fans at Staples Center.
Staying Away: No one.
Oh, He’s Here Now: For a team in full rebuild, there isn’t much point in signing or trading for name guys, and the Kings most certainly followed that to a tee. The additions that people will notice are through the organization, as much like their crosstown counterparts in Anaheim the Kings will be focused on some rookies. Quinton Byfield arrives from the World Juniors just like Zegras, and just like Zegras he tore that tournament apart (at least until he ran into the only other good team Canada played in the form of the U.S.). The Kings will also roll out Gabe Vilardi, who’s showing up on a lot of Calder Trophy contender lists. If that’s not enough, Alex Turcotte was poised to make the team from the opening whistle but a leg injury is going to keep him out for a week or two, and he’s another who could siphon some Rookie of the Year votes. Kale Clague is another kid on the blue line who might be worth the price of admission someday soon.
Where’d He Go? The Kings didn’t really lose anyone of note, because when you finish dead-ass last you probably didn’t have that many players of note to begin with.
What To Expect: So many kids. The Kings could boast six or seven or more players on a nightly basis who are 23 or younger. And in Byfield, Turcotte, and Vilardi they’re hoping to debut the core of the next great Kings team. If Clague and/or another kid can start to make noise on the back end, the roadmap will suddenly be pretty clear for Figueroa St. Hockey Club. It will also mean some pretty long nights as everyone learns their lessons. While Anze Kopitar is still producing, Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty will drag their slowing asses around the ice for the nostalgia crowd, and Jonathan Quick will continue to ask everyone if they’d like to see his rings when it’s pointed out he hasn’t been good in three years. But that doesn’t really matter for the Kings, who will judge this season on the progress the kiddies make. Which makes them interesting if not galvanizing. If those rookies rip it from the start they could open some eyes, but more likely their time is next season and after.
COVID response: Nothing to report, which describes the entire Wild existence.
Staying Away: We’re not sure, can’t remember any of their players.
Oh, He’s Here Now: Nick Bjugstad arrived via trade to continue the long-standing Wild tradition of hoping that acquiring former Minnesota Gophers will distract their fanbase from the Wild being boring and irrelevant ever since they were introduced into the league. Other than that, rookie Kirill Kaprizov is tipped to be something pretty spicy...until the ennui of living and playing in Minnesota kills his joie de vivre, as it has every Wild player..
Where’d He Go? Mikko Koivu, longtime captain, high-tailed it for Ohio. Eric Staal moved on to Buffalo. Devan Dubnyk is in San Jose...or wherever San Jose is actually going to play this year.
What To Expect: This might be one of the more nondescript Wild rosters in recent memory, which is really saying something. It’s not that they’re bad, or good, they’re just not anything. They’re just there. And this team promises to be no different. Dubnyk made them compete for a playoff spot at times, and Alex Stalock and Cam And Magic Talbot will struggle to do the same. There’s not really a lot of scoring here, but there’s a decent enough defense to weigh against that to keep everything firmly inert. They can probably beat the Kings, Ducks, Sharks, and Coyotes enough to hang around the 4th spot for 56 games, but they’re miles off of Vegas, St. Louis, and Colorado. They’re also miles from the future the Kings and Ducks might have. They’re just your coworker whose name you can never remember, and you’re not ever sure what department he works in, but you promise yourself you’re going to find out. And then you never do.
San Jose (Or Wherever) Sharks
COVID Response: The Sharks might be the most affected, in that it’s still not a lock they’ll be playing in San Jose. They had to move their training camp to Arizona, they’ll start the season with eight games on the road, but they have not been given the go-ahead to return to SAP Center in February due to the rules of Santa Clara County. Both Oakland and Las Vegas have been mentioned as possibilities, but nothing is in the works yet.
Staying Away: In one sense, the whole team.
Oh, He’s Here Now: Devan Dubnyk came in free agency to replace Martin Jones, who spent the past two seasons being a performance art interpretation of a fish on a beach for a month. But Jones has outplayed Dubnyk in camp, so they might be doing this dance again. Other than that, like their California brethren it might be a plethora of guys barely old enough to drink, which is fine as none of these doofuses should be going to bars anyway.
Where’d He Go? Longtime stalwart Joe Thornton left after 15 years, to somehow be on the top line in Toronto where he’ll need an oxygen tank to keep up with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
What To Expect: Hoo boy. If the Predators are a team that missed its window, the Sharks are the team that tried to jump through it, hit the wall, and are currently tumbling down the stairs. Most of the holdovers are either over 30 or approaching it. Brent Burns has been sneaky-awful for a couple seasons, and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic died in 2017. Maybe if they unearth multiple youngsters who hit the ground running it can get better, but this is a team that probably needs to sink some more before it rises again. The season may come down to whether or not they can move along Logan Couture, Evander Kane, or Tomas Hertl. They can’t dream of moving Burns’s or Vlasic’s or Erik Karlsson’s bloated contracts. They might be stuck here for a while, wherever here is.
St. Louis Blues
COVID Response: Their heart was probably in the right place by inviting frontline workers to their home opener, but you can’t help but notice the irony.
Staying Away: No one due to COVID, though Vladimir Tarasenko will be out to start the season with more shoulder problems. Alex Steen basically retired, but will be on LTIR as well, which is what cleared the cap space for Mike Hoffman.
Oh, He’s Here Now: Mike Hoffman signed late, just before camp opened, and still needs the Blues to clear some LTIR space to fit him in. Torey Krug arrived from Boston, sans any defensive instincts as is his way, to replace…
Where’d He Go? Captain Alex Pietrangelo took the money and ran to Vegas. Jake Allen and the years long drama he had in Missouri is now over, as he’ll be backing up Carey Price in Montreal.
What To Expect: Missing Tarasenko is still a big deal, though the Blues are used to it as he missed nearly all of last year too. Hoffman makes up some of the goal-scoring that the Blues lose, but he’s not the all-around player Tarasenko can be. Pietrangelo could be a big miss, but the Blues are also stocked to not feel it as much as some might think with Justin Faulk, Colton Parayko, Vince Dunn, and Krug around. Faulk struggled to adjust outside of the run-n-gun ways of Carolina last year in his first season with the Blues, but should have more license with greater responsibility in Pietrangelo’s absence. In fact, all of the top four can be defensively challenged at times (Krug can be defensively helpless), so the Blues will have to score and hope Jordan Binnington goes on a heater in net. They only have question marks behind Binnington, and in this very condensed season backup goalies have to play and have to be good. The Blues are still deep at forward, and another step forward from the likes of Jordan Kyrou (don’t make it sad…) and Robert Thomas could lessen the loss of Tarasenko even more. Maybe a half-step behind the Knights or Avs, but solidly in the playoffs in this division and carrying that label of “team no one wants to play.”.
Las Vegas Golden Knights
COVID Response: The Knights had four unnamed players test positive in November, but their camp has so far gone off without an interruption. The Knights will not start the season with fans in attendance, so there won’t be the normal community-theater-gone-plaid pregame show. Also had their share of layoffs and furloughs recently.
Staying Away: No one.
Oh, He’s Here Now: Alex Pietrangelo defected from St. Louis for a Brinks truck. Robin Lehner signed on full-time after being acquired at the deadline last season.
Where’d He Go? Nate Schmidt, a yearly contender for most underrated player, was traded to Vancouver to open up space for Pietrangelo. Paul Stastny was sent back to Winnipeg, from where he came, to think about what he didn’t do.
What To Expect: More of the same, which is a very fast, very exciting, very annoying team that hovers around the top of the division even though you’re sure they’re not THAT good. They’re also starting to age, just a bit. Their original reclamation heroes of Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault are both approaching or over 30. Max Pacioretty is over 30 as well. So’s Alec Martinez. So’s Pietrangelo. In a season where there will be a game every other day basically, it’s the older guys who might feel it more. The Knights will need bigger contributions from some of their kids like Cody Glass or Dylan Coghlan or Jack Dugan, to name a few. This looks destined for an Avs-Knights OK Corral reenactment in the second round. If the Knights aren’t careful and they don’t get a new contributor or two and the season takes its toll on some of their players on the wrong side of the aging curve, they might not make it there. Still, this is comfortably a playoff team and only needs a bounce or two to compete with the Avs for the top spot in the West.