The Anaheim Ducks dropped their home-opening game of the 2015-16 NHL season to the Pacific Division-rival Vancouver Canucks in a shootout Monday, Oct. 12. With a regulation loss to the San Jose Sharks Saturday and the crosstown-rival Los Angeles Kings dropping two games by at least three goals each, Southern California is winless in four games.
These teams were expected to contend with each other to capture the Pacific Division crown and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals. Were those expectations too high?
To answer this thoughtfully, we must examine the losses to determine what is endemic or epidemic. There are 80 games for regression to the mean, the law of averages or whatever term you prefer to take place.
The Kings are not going to keep giving up four or more goals every game. They are also not going to score just one in every game. That does not mean there might not be identifiable patterns or other weaknesses developing.
Los Angeles can identify repeated defensive lapses and a lack of chemistry on the top line with new arrival Milan Lucic. The former may indicate a pattern that could be exploited by other teams. The latter is probably going to develop throughout the 2015-16 NHL season.
Anaheim can identify a lack of secondary scoring and scoring in general as problems so far. There is every reason to believe the top line will continue to be among the best in the 2015-16 NHL season, but how much can the three-peat Pacific Division champions count on the lines of the aging Ryan Kesler and Shawn Horcoff for scoring?
Time will tell, but looking up at most of the Pacific Division was not where either of these teams expected themselves. It is also not where they will be at the end of the 2015-16 NHL season.
San Jose has been impressive, but also was to begin each of the last three seasons when the Ducks won the Pacific Division. The Arizona Coyotes have not looked like the team that would compete for the top pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft. Vancouver has not looked like a team in decline or a rebuild or even a transition. The Calgary Flames laid one egg and won their other game.
The point is those trends are two games long. Over the course of the 2015-16 NHL season, those teams will become who they are.
For the Coyotes, that means terrible. Even if Mike Smith returns to form (entirely possible) and Dave Tippett gets more out of this club than anyone expects (entirely likely) and their young talent is ahead of schedule, they will not make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
For the Canucks, it means a team at least in transition from the declining core that failed into a younger one that may not. Ryan Miller and the Sedins will still probably be their best players, but no longer by enough of a margin to compensate for the substandard supporting talent that is still developing.
For the Flames and the Sharks, that means battling for which team finishes the 2015-16 NHL season with a guaranteed berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs and which must contend with a deep Central Division for a wild card. However, either could be capable of challenging for the Pacific Division title if the Kings and Ducks do not get their acts together before the end of October.
Still for all the off-season improvements Calgary made to its plucky lineup that made the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs, it does not seem likely to be able to contend with both Anaheim and Los Angeles. At best, it catches the latter if the distractions and changes cause too long a stumble.
However, the Los Angeles Times acknowledged there is urgency for the Ducks Saturday because they have a lot of money committed to players in their thirties. The Kings have fewer older players now and less long-term money committed, but instead face the prospect of losing players to free agency.
Another reason is that a true challenger could be emerging ahead of schedule: San Jose is deep at forward and looks to have solved its blue-line problems, upgraded in net and on the penalty kill without diminishing its deadly power play and has played two 60-minute games—something it sadly lacked often under previous leadership.
If Martin Jones lives up to potential on the 2015-16 NHL season as he has so far (46 straight saves and a shutout streak of 118:11), the Sharks are already a Stanley Cup contender. With only four players older than new captain Joe Pavelski (who turned 31 years this summer) and nine younger than new alternate Logan Couture (26 last spring), they are only going to get harder to contend with.
In other words, Los Angeles and Anaheim better not put themselves in the hole early in the 2015-16 NHL season or they may not have a chance at the Pacific Division title. Having at least home-ice advantage could be vital to surviving the formidable Western Conference in the Stanley Cup playoffs.