Sorry, California. And good luck, Connor McDavid.
This isn’t your father or grandfather’s NHL expansion era following a season in which the Pacific Division was turned upside down by the league’s two newest franchises.
The Stanley Cup resides in Las Vegas. And the Seattle Kraken made a giant leap from their inaugural season growing pains by falling one win short of reaching what would’ve been an all-expansion Western Conference Final matchup against the Golden Knights.
And there’s little indication of Vegas or Seattle experiencing a dropoff this year in a division that features a large gap between the top five and bottom three.
“We’re excited heading into the season. So are 31 other teams,” Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “But I think we’ve got reason to have faith in our group and trust in the players that we have. We’re going to put our best foot forward.”
Seattle coach Dave Hakstol was more tempered in his outlook, especially given how the Kraken’s 100-point season translated into a fourth-place finish in the Pacific, enough to secure the first of the West’s two wild-card spots.
“Look up and down, and it’s as competitive or more competitive than it was last year,” Hakstol said. “You don’t just naturally pick up where you left off. You have to work to get back to that point, and I’m confident our group will do that.”
In Edmonton, McDavid and the Oilers are still smarting from being eliminated by Vegas in a six-game, second-round playoff series, a loss that came a year after reaching the West final.
“Definitely good lessons learned,” McDavid said.
Added teammate Leon Draisaitl: “We had two disappointing endings to our season, and we learned from it. There’s a reason we didn’t move on. There’s a reason we didn’t win. But we’re definitely not far away.”
The Oilers most certainly appear to be much closer than their two Canadian division rivals in Calgary and Vancouver.
The Flames finished ninth in the West, unable to overcome the offseason departures of Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau, while appearing to stagnate under the hardline coaching style of Darryl Sutter, who has been replaced by Ryan Huska.
With the exception of the Los Angeles Kings, who maintain a talented mix of veterans and youngsters, the NHL’s two other California teams, Anaheim and San Jose, are in various stages of rebuilding.
Sharks coach David Quinn dismissed the projections, despite facing the reality of opening the season minus defenseman Erik Karlsson ( traded to Pittsburgh this summer) and forward Timo Meier, who was dealt to New Jersey before the deadline last season.
“I know what the outside hockey world thinks of where we’re going to finish this year,” Quinn said. “I would caution everybody because I really feel good about our group.”
ON THE RISE
Determining teams on the rise is a tough chore in a division in which the top four teams finished with 100 or more points, with not much drastically changing over the summer.
The Flames have a chance to improve after an unsettled season that included forward Jonathan Huberdeau struggling in his first year in Calgary.
“I think mentally, this summer was huge to get the confidence back,” said Huberdeau, whose 15 goals and 55 points were the 11th-year player’s fewest in a full season since 2014-15. “You can feel the energy around here. Coaching staff is great. ... They’re going to demand a lot out of us. We’re going to push each other.”
In question down the road is what new Flames GM Craig Conroy does at the trade deadline with a roster featuring eight players on expiring contracts.
The Anaheim Ducks have a new coach in Greg Cronin and too much young talent to take a step back after finishing last in the overall standings in a season their 4.1 goals per outing allowed was the NHL’s worst since 1995-96.
ON THE DECLINE
The Kings added forward Pierre-Luc Dubois to an already deep and talented forward group. But the question is if that will be enough to offset questions in goal after the Kings lost Joonas Korpisalo, who signed with Ottawa
L.A. is counting on the tandem of returning co-starter Pheonix Copley and offseason free-agent addition Cam Talbot. Copley had a 24-6-3 record in 37 games last year after previously combining to go 16-9-3 in 31 appearances over his four previous seasons.
Are the Canucks in regression entering their first full season under coach Rick Tocchet? The Canucks can’t get much worse following a year in which they opened 0-5-2 and endured a 5-15-1 midseason slump, can they?
ON THE HOT SEAT
Oilers GM Ken Holland made it no secret at the NHL draft that he’s in it to win it entering the final year of his contract. And that places an emphasis on Edmonton coach Jay Woodcroft to build on what was a spotty first full season behind the bench.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Edmonton, Vegas, Seattle, Calgary, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Vancouver, San Jose.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and AP Sports Writers Mark Anderson, Tim Booth and Josh Dubow and The Canadian Presss contributed.
AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl
John Wawrow, The Associated Press