Treading Water in the Pacific
October 31, 2016 | 7:32pm ET
LOS ANGELES, CA -- We're a few of weeks into the NHL season and both
Southern California teams have started as expected, primarily due to
absence of pivotal players via contractual issues and injuries.
Another team, cast by many in a favoriteís role in the Western
Conference, looked far more like an underdog than a powerhouse when
visiting the Golden State as they attempt to integrate their asset
from one of the biggest trades in recent memory.
On the Anaheim Ducks:
The good news for the Ducks is that help is not far away; both Rickard
Rakell and Hampus Lindholm are days away from taking their first turns
on the ice.
Rakell looks healed sufficiently enough to suit up against the
arch-rival Kings this Tuesday in this seasonís first episode of the
Freeway Faceoff, his presence can only help another slow offensive
start of season by Anaheim. Lindholm will follow a few days later once
he clears the customary immigration process now that heís inked a deal
that should keep him in the OC for the next six seasons.
Without their best defenseman and an emerging top six forward, the
Ducks have predictably been an up-and-down team, taking it on the chin
feathers on a season opening five-game roadtrip (1-3-1) and rallying
once they returned to the Pacific Time Zone.
There are number of developing themes surrounding the Ducks, making
them an intriguing watch this season, hereís my takes on a few given
very early returns:
- The second term of Randy Carlyle at the Ponda has only
produced one significant change -- his approach to the media has
softened and heís actually injected some humor into his debriefs. In
his time away from the bench after leaving Toronto, he did his
homework about the personality needed to be successful in 21st century
coaching. The days of the taskmaster are coming to an end, not only in
the NHL, but in all professional sports. As a new generation of player
(and what players they are) enters of the NHL, they simply cannot be
managed in the same way that worked a decade ago.
- Itís great to have a kinder, gentler Carlyle this time
around, but thatís the only appreciable change I see in the way the
team is managed or the strategy implemented to win. One of the
criticisms of Bruce Boudreau after he was shown the door was that he
didnít utilize his top two threats Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry
enough. Though Bruce had the horses, when it came to crunch time, he
never rode them long or hard enough and that was sure to change with
the new/old sheriff Carlyle coming to town.
The reality is that Getzlafís usage is less in the early going than
his average time-on-ice last season and while Perryís has increased,
heís only 15th in TOI for right wingers overall. The team does not
appear to be more difficult to play against (Lindholmís absence
impactful there) and errors of omission and commission are signatures
in their early season losses.
- The Lindholm deal combined with Simon Depres move to LTIR
(appearances that a promising career could be sidelined indefinitely)
gives some short-term clarity to the Ducks blueline situation. Even
with Depresí absence, the Ducks are stocked on defense and due to
daily cap ceiling navigation, some nights the player who some think
will soon be their best defenseman, Shea Theodore is getting shuttled
to their AHL affiliate in San Diego (it softens the blow when you can
hit the Pacific Beach joints post-game).
- Ducks GM Bob Murray stated that the Lindholm signing makes
his team whole and heís committed to keep this group together for one
more chance at a Stanley Cup championship. If you assume, as I do,
that the Edmonton Oilers hot start is a mirage since they lack a true
top-pair defense (their youngsters may emerge, but this season thereís
not a 1 or 2D in the bunch), the Ducks are firmly in the conversation
with other Western contenders.
As it pertains to Fowler, itís doubtful that he will change addresses
in 2016. Trades of significant consequences pulled inside the seasonís
first quarter, but when you look at Anaheimís depth chart and line
combinations even when you add Lindholm and Rakell back into the mix,
the same glaring need appears.
- Over the summer, Murrayís self-stated Job 1 was to get a left
shot -- a left winger that would supplement and mesh with Getzlaf and
Perry -- instead he added the likes of Mason Raymond and Jared Boll.
Given the talent that Getzlaf and Perry possess, itís been one of the
greater hockey mysteries why Murray canít find the right type of
player to create consistent production alongside them.
Maybe itís Nick Ritchie, but maybe it was Pat Maroon and maybe it was
David Perron and maybe it was Jamie McGinn, too. So when the calendar
turns to 2017 and the offense is still sputtering with Ritchie and
Andrew Cogliano as its top two left wings, thatís the time when I
think Murray will have no choice to move Fowler.
If youíre a player in the room, itís great that your GM believes in
your group to keep it intact but if you have the opportunity to make
your group better by bolstering an area of weakness on the depth
chart, you wave goodbye to friends and catch up with them over the
summer. This team was short a forward when they were bounced by the
Predators in May and given the lack of playoff production by its best
two players, the need for a legitimate scoring threat on left wing far
exceeds keeping Fowler.
So despite comments otherwise, I feel that when the trade deadline
buzzer sounds on March 1, 2017, Cam Fowler will no longer be a Duck
and the team will be more of a threat to emerge from the West.
On the Los Angeles Kings:
Like the Ducks, the Kings are treading water in the Pacific in the
early days of the seasons. Unlike the Ducks, thereís no immediate help
coming over the next wave like Lindholm and Rakell.
Their ship has taken two big hits (and possibly more with Brayden
McNabbís and Andy Andreoffís TBD injury status on a costly two-game
roadtrip to St. Louis and Chicago) from the blindside.
First Marian Gaborik, who look motivated and speedy in the World Cup
had an errant puck derail the start of what I felt would have been
(and still could be) a productive season. While the Gaborik is
impactful given the depth chart on the forward wall (plenty more that
in a few), a dagger was delivered only 20 minutes into the season when
Jonathan Quick went down with a serious groin injury. The best guess
at this point is that Quick is gone for another three months (and
because of his goaltending style and nature of injury, any estimate is
a pure guess), the Kings will have to tread Pacific waters with a
combination of Peter Budaj, Jeff Zatkoff and possibly their newest PTO
reclamation project, Anders Lindback.
- Without question, Quickís injury is a dagger to this team,
but it remains to be seen how deep it cuts. The Kings have survived a
0-3 false start to recover to 4-5-0 in their usual fashion. Theyíll
never run you out of the building, but you can run them out either --
hanging around games is what they do best. One of the pillars this
team is built on is strong goaltending and with that pillar
significantly weakened, this teamís championship core will be
leveraged even higher.
In order for the Kings to ďhang aroundĒ through the length of Quickís
absence, the Kings will need quality from Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter
and Tyler Toffoli because the likelihood of winning games as Darryl
Sutter prefers (itís a 3-2 league, yo) will be increasingly difficult
with goaltenders whose save percentages donít travel north of .910. If
they canít get big seasons from their core, the season is at risk of
mirroring what the Montreal Canadiens experienced last season (no
Price, no wins).
- If Quickís absence is within the 50 games estimate that a
three-month absence correlates to, the season isnít lost with solid
performances from its core. Coming into the season and before the rash
of injuries hit, Los Angeles appeared to be a grade below San Jose in
the division and if they get adequate net minding, a three seed or
more likely wild card berth is still there for the taking but only if
they can find additional offense from a forward depth chart that is
far more plugger than scorer.
- Coach Darryl Sutter has circled the wagons when it comes to
managing around the Gaborik absence. Through necessity, heís split up
Thatís 70ís Line (2014 playoff darlings Carter, Toffoli and Tanner
Pearson) and moved Toffoli alongside Kopitar, a benefit of the strong
start by Pearson, a player who has the potential and motivation (heís
in a contract year) to put up quality second line forward points.
Where this team will have issues is with Sutterís insistence on using
players in roles that havenít been merited by performance or
- The usage of Dwight King and Devin Setoguchi in the top-six
is an experiment that hasnít worked. King, a player held in high
esteem by Sutter for his high hockey IQ, is the type of player who
wonít hurt you because he understands his role but simply doesnít
possess the tools to be a top-six forward. Setoguchi is the Kings
feel-good story this season, signed to a professional tryout contract
and turning it into an NHL contract after his off-ice challenges is a
win for both him and the organization regardless of how his season
Like King, Sutter likes the intangibles Setoguchi brings both on and
off the ice, heís an Alberta native which always scores points with
the coach but as a one zone player (doesnít play special teams, not a
strong defender), he canít simply continue to take top six minutes if
he canít put the puck in the net.
- And thatís where a bigger issue lies with this team, one that
goes beyond a 20 game absence of a forward or longer absence by a
Vezina candidate. If the Kings lead the League in anything, itís
probably stubbornness by its management to change to where this League
is trending; they believe that what has won in the past, will win in
the short-term future and by doing so theyíve missed opportunities to
find out if their next tier of prospects can succeed at the NHL level.
- Knowing the season would be a challenge after Quick when down
the runway after the first period in San Jose, it presented an
opportunity for a legitimate apprenticeship for two forwards who are
ready to take the next step -- Michael Mersch and Adrian Kempe. Though
Mersch has been productive at the AHL level, there are doubts about
his ability to skate at the NHL level and if his game is well-rounded
enough to succeed. Kempe, the one ďuntouchableĒ in the system, showed
well in the preseason and his ability to play center and wing could
provide Sutter with far more flexibility is his lineup.
Itís understandable that the Kings donít want to rush Kempe but when
the current solution is a non-productive King and Setoguchi on the top
six, what harm would have it been to give both players a 10 game run
with the big club? Upon Gaborikís return, the lesser of the two
performers would be sent back to the AHL and regardless of who it is,
you have a quarter-season evaluation at the NHL level.
- The better news for Los Angeles is that every night Drew
Doughty proves why he deserved that Norris Trophy and showing
all-around talent of a generational player (one scout to me on last
Kings home stand, ďheís this generationís Denis PotvinĒ). If a player
could single-handedly carry a team to a title, Doughty is one. While
you can throw darts at Sutterís line combinations, his usage of
Doughty has been smart, keeping him under 28 minutes, a wise decision
since the Kings will likely not separate themselves with the playoff
pretenders this season and will allow Sutter to ratchet up his minutes
for a playoff push.
Nic Dowd looks to have emerged in another area of concern at season
starts, third line center. Dowd has forged a nice partnership with
Dustin Brown and made him a productive player in the early the early
going. Brown, needlessly stripped of the captaincy in the offseason,
has put his lone focus on playing and producing. Though Sutter
continues to be stingy with offensive opportunities for him (usage on
second unit power play and overtime is spotty at best), if he
continues on this track the Kings will have another producer.
- Quick question: Anyone figure out why you sign Trevor Lewis
for $2 million per for 4 years and to play him on the fourth line? If
the Kings wind up out of the playoffs this season, a contributing
factor will be General Manager Dean Lombardiís off-season moves that
at this juncture have not improved the team. He stuck with tried and
true in the depth positions, choosing to bring Lewis back for above
market value and keeping King, Kyle Clifford and Jordan Nolan (another
player clearly not a Sutter favorite) on the roster. Thatís all well
and good, but when you add Michael Latta, Zach Trotman (both in AHL),
Teddy Purcell, Tom Gilbert, Setoguchi and Zatkoff, the word ďdepthĒ
could be haunting him all season. The multiple season excuse of ďthe
cap has tied our handsĒ doesnít carry the validity it once did given
more than half the league is within $2 million of the cap ceiling.
Having to manage to the cap ceiling is no longer a consequence of
winning a Stanley Cup, itís the normal course of doing business.
Only three weeks into the season Tuesdayís game between the Ducks and
Kings stands to be one of the least inconsequential games in recent
history of the Freeway Faceoff but it may be one of the most telling
given the present state of the teams.
On the Nashville Predators:
The Predators are a team dealing with an organizational seismic shift
with the arrival of P.K. Subban and unlike the Montreal Canadiens, his
assimilation into the lineup hasnít produced results. Iím still a
buyer on the Preds, having picked them to emerge from the West this
season, but watching them roll through California this week, itís
noticeable that this team is a very different vintage and are far from
the cohesive unit that took the San Jose Sharks the distance in the
West final last Spring.
They still have an abundance of talent, Subban will only at to the
team speed and once coach Peter Lavioletteís system gets clicking,
theyíll be exciting and win a bunch of games, but theyíll do it
without the intimidation factor they possessed when Shea Weberís
skates hit the ice every night.
And yes, Weberís performance placed in the context of the Canadiens
early season success doesnít help, but the stance that Weber was being
carried by Roman Josi and Ryan Suter before him in Nashville doesnít
seem to be a real as once thought. The Predators were below par as
their 0-2-1 record evidences (a no-show 6-0 L to the Ducks, a 3-2 OT
loss in which Pekka Rinne earned the one point with a 44 save
performance and a far too soft 4-1 loss in San Jose), itís clear the
days of opposing forwards going to the slot fearing impunity from
Weber no longer exist. While the game seems to be evolving daily to
one where speed and skill dominates, Weber was the once source of
physicality on the roster and in these early days, it appears to be a
component of their game that made it a winning formula.
The Subban-Weber comparison/evaluation will be a season-long theme and
every mediocre-to-poor performance by Rinne will give a louder voice
to those who think he is incapable of taking Nashville four rounds
this season. But in reality, the season may be leveraged on a third
character in the Predators locker room, its No.1 center Ryan Johansen.
Johansen, who played his way out of Ohio in exchange for Seth Jones,
is in the midst of a far more pivotal season than Subban and Rinne,
who are nestled into lucrative long-term deals. He is scheduled to be
an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent at seasonís end coming
off a $12 million, three-year deal signed prior to his trade to the
Predators. Though the $4 million cap hit for a No.1 center is to the
benefit of the team, Johansenís deal was back loaded and heís earning
$ 6 million this season and both him and his agent Kurt Overhardt will
sure not want a reduction in that base salary coming into his third
So far, his season has mirrored his team -- underperforming with
minimal contribution to the teamís offense, heís yet to score and his
4 assists have all come on the powerplay. Given the talent on this
team, Johansen has every opportunity to draw close to his career high
of 71 points this season but what he canít do is replicate his 14 goal
campaign of last season, if heís a $ 6 million player he has to
produce at least 25 goals, which was his approximate production in
last yearís post season run (4 goals in 14 games).
I stopped in with my buddy Simon Tsalikis on TSN Radio 690 Montreal
last week to chat about the opening days of the NHL season.
Give it a list.
Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.