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October 31, 2016 | 7:32pm ET
Treading Water in the Pacific

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 favorite’s 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 season’s 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 he’s 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, here’s 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 he’s 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.

- It’s great to have a kinder, gentler Carlyle this time around, but that’s 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 didn’t 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 Getzlaf’s usage is less in the early going than his average time-on-ice last season and while Perry’s has increased, he’s only 15th in TOI for right wingers overall. The team does not appear to be more difficult to play against (Lindholm’s 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 Depres’ 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 he’s 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 there’s not a 1 or 2D in the bunch), the Ducks are firmly in the conversation with other Western contenders.

As it pertains to Fowler, it’s doubtful that he will change addresses in 2016. Trades of significant consequences pulled inside the season’s first quarter, but when you look at Anaheim’s depth chart and line combinations even when you add Lindholm and Rakell back into the mix, the same glaring need appears.

- Over the summer, Murray’s 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, it’s been one of the greater hockey mysteries why Murray can’t find the right type of player to create consistent production alongside them.

Maybe it’s 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, that’s the time when I think Murray will have no choice to move Fowler.

If you’re a player in the room, it’s 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, there’s no immediate help coming over the next wave like Lindholm and Rakell.

Their ship has taken two big hits (and possibly more with Brayden McNabb’s and Andy Andreoff’s 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, Quick’s 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. They’ll 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 team’s championship core will be leveraged even higher.

In order for the Kings to “hang around” through the length of Quick’s absence, the Kings will need quality from Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli because the likelihood of winning games as Darryl Sutter prefers (it’s a 3-2 league, yo) will be increasingly difficult with goaltenders whose save percentages don’t travel north of .910. If they can’t 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 Quick’s absence is within the 50 games estimate that a three-month absence correlates to, the season isn’t 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, he’s split up That’s 70’s 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 (he’s in a contract year) to put up quality second line forward points. Where this team will have issues is with Sutter’s insistence on using players in roles that haven’t been merited by performance or production.

- The usage of Dwight King and Devin Setoguchi in the top-six is an experiment that hasn’t worked. King, a player held in high esteem by Sutter for his high hockey IQ, is the type of player who won’t hurt you because he understands his role but simply doesn’t 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 turns out.

Like King, Sutter likes the intangibles Setoguchi brings both on and off the ice, he’s an Alberta native which always scores points with the coach but as a one zone player (doesn’t play special teams, not a strong defender), he can’t simply continue to take top six minutes if he can’t put the puck in the net.

- And that’s 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, it’s 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 they’ve 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 “untouchable” 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.

It’s understandable that the Kings don’t 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 Gaborik’s 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, “he’s this generation’s Denis Potvin”). If a player could single-handedly carry a team to a title, Doughty is one. While you can throw darts at Sutter’s 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 Lombardi’s 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. That’s all well and good, but when you add Michael Latta, Zach Trotman (both in AHL), Teddy Purcell, Tom Gilbert, Setoguchi and Zatkoff, the word “depth” could be haunting him all season. The multiple season excuse of “the cap has tied our hands” doesn’t 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, it’s the normal course of doing business.

Only three weeks into the season Tuesday’s 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 hasn’t produced results. I’m still a buyer on the Preds, having picked them to emerge from the West this season, but watching them roll through California this week, it’s 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 Laviolette’s system gets clicking, they’ll be exciting and win a bunch of games, but they’ll do it without the intimidation factor they possessed when Shea Weber’s skates hit the ice every night.

And yes, Weber’s performance placed in the context of the Canadiens early season success doesn’t help, but the stance that Weber was being carried by Roman Josi and Ryan Suter before him in Nashville doesn’t 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), it’s 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 season’s 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, Johansen’s deal was back loaded and he’s 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 NHL contract.

So far, his season has mirrored his team -- underperforming with minimal contribution to the team’s offense, he’s 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 can’t do is replicate his 14 goal campaign of last season, if he’s a $ 6 million player he has to produce at least 25 goals, which was his approximate production in last year’s 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.




Oct. 12, 2016 Back at the Barn

May 31, 2016 C-Less in L.A.

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