NHL preview: Biggest questions looming over Pacific Division

The Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames lead will duke it out for supremacy in what's shaping up to be an intriguing Pacific Division for the 2022-23 NHL season. (Getty Images)
The Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames lead will duke it out for supremacy in what's shaping up to be an intriguing Pacific Division for the 2022-23 NHL season. (Getty Images)

We're only days away from puck-drop on the 2022-23 NHL season, and with rosters being trimmed every day, squads around the league are beginning to take shape.

The Pacific Division should be one of the most fun to watch in the league this season, as new faces introduce themselves to the Battle of Alberta, and former powerhouses look to make their way back to the playoffs.

Without further ado, here are the biggest questions looming over the Pacific Division.

Can the Flames replace the offensive production lost in the offseason?

You've heard the story so many times already this summer.

The Calgary Flames' offseason began as a nightmare, with superstar Johnny Gaudreau leaving in free agency and Matthew Tkachuk asking out of town in the span of a week and sending the franchise into an uncontrollable downward spiral.

Luckily for Calgary, general manager Brad Treliving came away with an impressive return for Tkachuk, nabbing stars Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar from the Florida Panthers. He followed it up by signing Nazem Kadri to a seven-year contract to set the Flames right back onto the path to contention.

But while the Flames, on paper, look poised to challenge the Colorado Avalanche as the NHL's crown jewel, they'll first have to replace the elite offensive production — Gaudreau's 115 points and Tkachuk's 104 — they got out of their two leading scorers last season.

First of all, a significant chunk of those points should be comfortably restored by Huberdeau, who tied Gaudreau for second in league scoring in 2021-22. While the Panthers' high-octane offence gave the 29-year-old the tools to be at his best, the Flames' structure should be a great fit for him to express himself as freely as he would like.

Kadri should have another great offensive season after a career-high 87 points with the Avalanche last year. While he may not replicate the 28-goal, 59-assist season, he can be counted on to pull his weight in the scoring department as a second-line centre, while doing his best to shut down the opposing team's top line.

The rest of the goals can be sprinkled around this formidable attacking unit, with proven goalscorers like Tyler Toffoli, Elias Lindholm and Andrew Mangiapane pretty much locks to score at least 20 goals each.

There should be little doubt the Flames will be one of the league's highest-scoring teams once again this season.

Do the Oilers finally have dependable goaltending?

Is this the year that the Edmonton Oilers can get some stops in the playoffs? They're really hoping it is.

After three seasons of inconsistent play from veteran Mike Smith, the Oilers have finally revamped their goaltending tandem, signing Jack Campbell to a five-year contract in the offseason and tabbing second-year goalie Stuart Skinner to back him up.

"If both guys are healthy, I'd like to think Jack will play 50 games and Stuart will play 30, give or take three or four games," Oilers general manager Ken Holland said.

Campbell, 30, owned a 31-9-6 record with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, recording a .914 save percentage and a 2.64 goals-against average. Skinner, 23, is 7-6-0 with the Edmonton Oilers, registering a .909 save percentage and a 2.80 goals-against average.

Edmonton's front office has gone to great lengths to surround generational talents Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with the squad they need to make a run at the Stanley Cup. After coming up just shy of their first finals appearance since 2006 last year, there is good reason to believe the Oilers' contention window is wide open.

We'll see if they now have the goaltending to take them that far.

Will Byfield break out for the Kings?

After a season decimated by a fractured ankle suffered in a preseason game, Quinton Byfield will be expected to make the jump this year and make his mark in the Los Angeles Kings' offense.

The 2020 NHL Draft's second-overall pick scored five goals and added five assists in 40 games last season, and went scoreless in two playoff games.

After practicing his efficiency in the faceoff circle and working on his skating this summer, Byfield just might be able to put his impressive skill set together and develop into the impactful player he's projected to become.

"I know I'm a good player and I'll be there eventually," Byfield said. "It's just a little bit of patience and just getting the opportunity as well. I think I've still got a ton more to prove and the next season I think it'll be a lot better."

Byfield is slated to start the season as the third-line centre, behind veterans Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault, and likely flanked by Alex Iafallo and Arthur Kaliyev, another talented youngster poised for a breakout year.

After surprising many with a playoff berth last year, the Kings should be even better this season, and Byfield may have a big say in how high the ceiling is for this team.

Will the Golden Knights' goaltending be good enough?

The Vegas Golden Knights missed the playoffs for the first time in their five-year history last season, and the lights on the Strip aren't shining as bright as usual ahead of the 2022-23 campaign.

After a busy offseason that saw Vegas trade away goalscorer Max Pacioretty and forward Evgenii Dadonov to ease the team's tight cap constraints and sign two-time Stanley Cup winner Phil Kessel, the biggest question facing the Golden Knights lies between the pipes.

Last season's tandem is currently slated to miss most, if not all, of the upcoming campaign, as Robin Lehner recovers from hip surgery and Laurent Brossoit sits out with an undisclosed ailment. The Golden Knights will turn to 25-year-old Logan Thompson to start after he finished last season as their No. 1 option. Thompson went 10-5-3 in 2021-22, registering a .914 save percentage and a 2.68 goals-against average.

General manager Kelly McCrimmon scrambled to find a suitable backup, acquiring Adin Hill from the San Jose Sharks on Aug. 29. Hill owned a 10-11-1 record with a 2.66 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage last season.

While Thompson showed some flashes as a good NHL netminder last year, will he and Hill be reliable enough to get a talented Vegas team back in the playoffs?

Can the Canucks' defense continue its upward trend?

One of the biggest changes seen in the Vancouver Canucks after Bruce Boudreau took over behind the bench midway through last season was the play on the defensive side of the puck, as the team went from allowing 3.16 goals per game to 2.67, the fifth-best mark in the NHL.

The 2021-22 season saw the emergence of Thatcher Demko as a reliable starter for the Canucks, but Boudreau will hope his defensive unit can keep his netminder from facing too many shots on a nightly basis.

Superstar Quinn Hughes and veteran Oliver Ekman-Larsson carry the puck in transition and supplement the offense, while the likes of Tyler Myers and Luke Schenn play a more physical brand of hockey in their own end. The Canucks can also look forward to the development of rookie defensemen Jack Rathbone and local product Kyle Burroughs to potentially supply a sort of X-factor on the back end.

Vancouver will need some its offensive stars - notably Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser - to step it up this season, but the Canucks can only be so good unless they prove they can shut it down behind their own blue line.

Can the Sharks get their offense going?

The San Jose Sharks scored the third-fewest goals in the NHL last season with 214, and counted only four players with more than 15 tallies on the year.

Apart from Timo Meier's career-best season with 35 goals and 41 assists, and Tomas Hertl's steady 64-point campaign, the Sharks had little to write home about on the scoring front.

To make matters worse, San Jose traded away Brent Burns, one of the NHL's top point-producers from the blue line, even at 37 years-old.

The Sharks will turn to Logan Couture for an improvement on his relatively timid 56-point 2021-22 campaign, while younger forwards Kevin Labanc and offseason acquisition Oskar Lindblom will be expected to pitch in their fair share of goals.

William Eklund, the seventh-overall pick of the 2021 NHL Draft, could get a decent shot at cracking the lineup for his first full NHL season, after recording four assists in nine games at the start of last season.

The Sharks are not expected to compete for a playoff spot as they continue their transition away from the older, more expensive players that carried them to the top of the Western Conference last decade.

What will Klingberg bring to the Ducks?

The Anaheim Ducks made an unexpected splash this offseason when they signed top free agent defenseman John Klingberg to a one-year, $7 million contract in late July.

The 29-year-old is better known for his offensive output than his defensive prowess, scoring six goals and registering 41 assists in 74 games last season with the Dallas Stars.

His impact on the Ducks may be felt most on the power play, where he scored 20 of his 47 points last season. Anaheim boasted the 14th-best power play in the NHL in 2021-22, with defenseman Cam Fowler leading in points with 18.

The addition of Klingberg could mean the Ducks can now count on two dangerous power-play units, each run by a talented and experienced blueliner. With highly-skilled forwards like Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry, and dynamic D-man Jamie Drysdale also patrolling the point, Anaheim may be lethal on the man-advantage once the new season gets underway.

Klingberg will also reinforce the Ducks' right side, which counts only two other right-shot defensemen - Kevin Shattenkirk and Drysdale - on the current roster.

Is the Kraken's Beniers the favourite for the Calder Trophy?

The Seattle Kraken's inaugural season went about as expected, with the team finishing near the bottom of the NHL standings.

Lacking top-end talent on offense, the Kraken only managed to score 216 goals, fourth-worst in the league. Jared McCann led the team with 50 points in 74 games.

Enter Matty Beniers.

Beniers, Seattle's selection with the second-overall pick of the 2021 draft, is the future face of the franchise, and may well kick off his promising career as a full-time NHLer this season.

In his first audition with the Kraken at the tail end of last season, the 19-year-old showed flashes of his elite potential, scoring three goals and notching six assists in 10 games. He had spent the majority of the season with the University of Michigan, where we he led a star-studded Wolverines team with 43 points in 37 games.

The dynamic, high-pace playmaker is expected to take the league by storm, and should find himself on the ballot for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie at the end of the season.

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