February 25, 2009
The Flock no Longer Reins in
[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- It's funny how
things change over the course of a hockey year.
Last February, there were no games of
consequence being played at Staples Center. The Los Angeles Kings were
on their way to a 71 point season and the second overall pick in the
entry draft. Coach Marc Crawford was a bad fit for the young team and
fans were subjected to the likes of Scott Thornton, Ladislav Nagy and
Brian Willsie every night.
The days of Andy Murray and their
memorable playoff run against Detroit and Colorado were ancient
history. Though GM Dean Lombardi didn't admit it, he was under the gun
to find a path to success for the 2008-09 season and when he appointed
Terry Murray as the man who would give him that last best shot I
wasn't feeling the love. Murray had been away from head coaching for
years and the sound bite hockey fans remember best was a when he
called his Philadelphia Flyers team "chokers" in the Finals against
the Detroit Red Wings.
All in all, it smelled like another
excruciating long season in downtown Los Angeles.
About 50 miles south, the Anaheim Ducks were looking to correct the
wrongs of a season where they failed to defend a Stanley Cup
championship. Last season was doomed from the start as the Ducks
suffered the longest hangover in Stanley Cup history. They played a
majority of the first half of the season without Scott Niedermayer and
Teemu Selanne, two players who had earned the right (unlike Mats
Sundin) to take an extended window to decide if they wanted to lace up
the skates one more time.
It became an increasing game of chicken
for then-GM Brian Burke as Selanne wouldn’t return until Niedermayer
came back and Scott was dealing with the reality that he had
accomplished everything he had set out to do when he became the Devils
first overall pick in 1991. Although they earned 102 points last
season, they never found their championship chemistry and were an easy
first round elimination at the hands of the Dallas Stars. As this
season started, both former hesitant veterans decided to come to camp
with renewed vigor, Chris Pronger's game hadn't deteriorated and Ryan
Getzlaf and Corey Perry were blooming into stars. They were set in net
with veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere and young Jonas Hiller and most
included the Ducks in a contending group with San Jose and Detroit.
But that's why they play the games.
The Ducks couldn't have started off the season worse, losing their
first four and giving up seventeen goals in the process. They righted
the ship immediately and ripped off a 9-1-1 streak that had their fans
convinced that the bad taste of not defending their championship had
rooted in the team’s collective mouth long enough. But since a 5-2
home win against St. Louis on November 9, the Ducks have played one
game under .500 (18-19-4). They’ve hit significant land mines along
the way, a season ending knee injury to key Francois Beauchmin here, a
17 game absence by Selanne (quadriceps injury) there and an
ineffective second line center (Brendan Morrison) right in the middle.
Although Ryan Getzlaf is the best watch
of any player in Southern California and Corey Perry is the guy you
love to hate unless he’s on your team, the rest of the roster has done
little other than provide mediocre play.
Through 56 games, they’ve surrendered as
many goals as they scored (156) and surprisingly, Coach Randy Carlyle
has supplanted the Cup winning netminder Giguere with Hiller. Veterans
like Rob Niedermayer and George Parros have found themselves scratched
in favor of youngsters like Andrew Ebbett and Drew Miller (since
returned to their Iowa AHL affiliate). Second year man Bobby Ryan has
finally shaken off the stigma of being drafted second to Sidney Crosby
and exploded in during the first week of the new year. He presently
stands second on the team in goals scored and had vindicated any
questions of deserving the selection as second overall pick.
Despite the fact that the Ducks play
.500 hockey on the road, a must for any contending team, they’ve lost
their intimidation and domination on their home ice of Honda Center.
In a last ditch effort to build some consistency in his team, Carlyle
called off practice last week in favor of a team-building event at a
Calgary billiards parlor. You think at this point in their careers
that Scott Niedermayer and Pronger need to shoot eight ball and drink
Labatt’s to get their game together?
But Carlyle knows that the pressure
surrounding this team is building as the talk gets louder about
missing the post season.
"The bottom line is we have to focus on
one thing at a time," he said. "We can’t worry about what other things
are going on around us. All we can focus on and control is how well we
play and the points we get."
Carlyle has instilled his old strategy
of pointing his finger at the media for the cause of the stirring;
it’s worked in the past, why not do it again? The blame for the team’s
mediocre performance has extended to his office door, as criticism of
Ryan’s occasional move to the fourth line along with his refusal to
take an underperforming Morrison off the second line persist.
So instead of talk about who the team might add for a playoff run, the
trade clouds that normally surround a non-contending team have
gathered around the team that resides just miles from the beach. A
major contributor to this unaccustomed talk is the roster that has
thirteen; count 'em 13 free agents (both restricted and unrestricted)
awaiting contracts in the summer.
With the impending reality that the
salary cap could lower next season, players due for a raise like the
underrated Samuel Pahlsson and undervalued Beauchmin are likely to be
wearing different colors next year. With rebuilding still a word no
one wants to utter in Orange County, GM Bob Murray’s only and best
move is to start the revamping of the roster now and not when he
finishes out of the top eight in the West come April.
The schedule won’t be friendly to the
Ducks as the season draws to a close, they played up to five games
more than some of their pursuers, as the deadline draws closer so will
the teams with games in hand. With about 25 games remaining, the
opening day script has been flipped. The Kings appear to have hit
their stride, while the Ducks, presently tenth overall in the West,
will probably miss the playoffs.
Terry Murray and the Kings struggled for the entire first half to find
their rhythm and chemistry and were saved from relegation to
non-contender status by a funky schedule that had them home for the
majority of the first three months of the season. The first 25 games
established that Lombardi’s selection of Drew Doughty as the second
pick was a great one. Doughty has been a workhorse since day one and
looks to be a central figure in this franchise for the next decade.
They won their risky wager on young and
mostly unproven goaltending; the Kings enter the home stretch with the
tandem of Jonathan Quick and Erik Ersberg between the pipes, a fact
only known by the two goalies parents and most Kings’ fans. With Matt
Greene and Jarret Stoll providing physicality on the backline and
acumen in the faceoff circle respectively, Los Angeles significantly
reduced their goals against. While improving their defensive game was
Job 1 on Day 1 for Murray, he struggled mightily trying to find the
right line combinations along the forward wall and the Kings just
couldn’t score for the first half of the season. Lombardi was probably
squirming over his draft day deal that sent Mike Cammalleri to Calgary
where he’s in the midst of a 40 plus goal season as his charges were
starving for red lights.
The Kings sat 13th in the West when they
went out on a five game road trip that held this season’s destiny.
With a modicum of success in visiting rinks and having to tour eastern
Canada and U.S. (including stops at division leaders Washington and
New Jersey), it didn’t look good. But as the Kings arrive back from
New York, they find themselves in the midst of a playoff run,
something that no member of the Kings organization would have believed
as late as December.
Both Anze Kopitar and Patrick O'Sullivan have revived their games to
match the season long consistency of Alexander Frolov and Dustin
Brown. Quick has become the number one goaltender by default because
Murray won’t go on record saying he is. But it’s two lesser known
players that have made the difference in this team over the past few
weeks. Michal Handzus, who suffered through an awful 2007-’08 season,
has come all the way back from a torn ACL two years ago to anchor the
stopper line and mentor youngster Wayne Simmonds, a 20 year old who
steady play belies his rookie status. After only tallying 21 points
last year, Handzus is one of the hottest Kings during their recent
stretch. And what about this late season run that has them on the
heels of Minnesota, Columbus and Vancouver? The tipping point came
when a forgotten and overshadowed former first round pick came back oh
Jack Johnson left the Kings line up after just two games, suffering a
torn labrum against Anaheim. With Doughty providing his aforementioned
brilliance, most fans were happy to substitute the rookie for the
second year man. With the Kings hovering just out of serious playoff
contention, the lack of pressure around the team worked to Johnson’s
benefit as Murray and the organization never rushed him back to the
ice. Although questions surrounded his ultimate return to the lineup,
patience was indeed a virtue and after 41 games, Johnson stepped back
on the ice for the shootout loss in Dallas. Although he hasn’t done
much on the score sheet, his 20 minutes a night displaced weaker
defensemen like Denis Gauthier and Peter Harrold to forge a tough top
four with Greene, Doughty and waiver find Kyle Quincey. With Doughty
providing the offensive flair that Johnson had expected to bring, the
former third overall pick can attend to getting his defensive zone
play up to par rather than worrying about rushing the puck and
The Kings became serious about the post-season when they went into
Washington and New Jersey and beat both teams at their own game. They
outscored the Capitals while locking down the Devils, a feat that
hasn’t been seen in consecutive road games in recent Los Angeles
"This has been the best road trip I've
ever been on," Brown exclaimed after a shootout win closed the trip, a
crucial win because it was a game that good teams win, beating a dead
Islanders team in front of a quite house.
After Johnson’s shootout goal sealed the
deal in the final step of the trip, he expressed the new found team
confidence that success brings.
"This is what we need and now it's what
we’re coming to expect," he said. "We're getting great goaltending and
pretty balanced scoring. The Kings now come into games expecting to
The tipping point may have come last
Wednesday in a Kings 4-3 victory at Anaheim that gave the Kings the
season series. While the Kings showed resiliency to win late after the
Ducks came from two goals down, Scott Niedermayer uncharacteristically
opened the door by committing two fouls behind the Kings’ net in an
entanglement with LA rookie netminder Jonathan Quick. In a past time,
a championship season, the Anaheim captain would have never exercised
such poor decision making but that play is a microcosm of Anaheim
Though the Kings still have a monster road schedule in their final 25
games including a brutal six game trip in mid-March, they’ve become a
better watch than the Ducks as they’re coming of age in front of Kings
Murray went on record with me in
December saying that his expectations for the season were playoffs and
nothing less and after this run, they were reinforced.
"We're shooting to make the playoffs,"
Murray said. "We know you have to play very well to get yourself in
there. Guys are responding. There's a great locker room in there. They
care for each other and it's carried onto the ice."
Patrick O’Sullivan, the talented two way
player that struggled the most in the midst of the ever changing line
combinations summarizes the team’s attitude for the final rush.
"We've talked about playoffs since day
one of the season," he said. "There's not a single guy in our dressing
room or our organization who believes that we don't have a chance to
get in. We're playing very consistent hockey right now, and if we
continue to do that, we're going to give ourselves a chance every
night, and that's all we can ask for."
THREE IS THE CHARM
One week removed from the NHL trade deadline, the drums are beating
with respect to market movement of talent. As contenders turn to
pretenders (presently eight but sure to grow), talk has increased in
volume and tenor about who will be changing sweaters by the March 4
deadline. While you'll hear rumors of many players with new potential
destinations, we'll focus on the three most likely to his the bricks.
1. Jay Bouwmeester - FLA. He's next year’s lottery winner. On
track to become the youngest unrestricted free agent in NHL history,
the 25 year old offensive force has made it clear that this is his
last season in South Florida.
The defenseman’s public statements put
GM Jacques Martin and first year coach Peter DeBoer in a dilemma. The
Panthers are far more competitive than most experts thought; they’re
on the cusp of a playoff spot due to smart coaching and hard playing.
You can count them out of a playoff spot if they deal him before the
deadline, so why not get a prospect and a pick from a contender. The
other side of the coin is keeping him and hoping for a substantial
(for them it would be two) playoff run that would convince the player
to sign up for the program that’s been instituted by the current
When Lubomir Visnovsky went down with a
bad shoulder that ended his season, the void that’s been created in
the Oilers’ offense could be filled with Bouwmeester. If Kevin Lowe
played it right, he might be able to lose Dustin Penner’s contract in
such an exchange as Florida is devoid of any physical presence. With
Brian Burke sure to clear a lot of dead weight before the summer, the
lure of playing in Toronto with a big money contract and in front of a
capacity crowd every night, sure looks appealing to me. Florida had
best get while the getting is good.
2. Scott Niedermayer - ANA. The Ducks are the Jekyll and Hyde
of the Western Conference, some nights they still have their 2007
Stanley Cup form but most nights they’re at their underachieving best.
Almost unnoticed, there has a been a changing of the guard on this
team. Hiller has supplanted Giguere in the net and although the four
time Cup winner Niedermayer wears the “C”, this team is now all about
24-year-old All-Star Ryan Getzlaf.
Both the captain and Pronger’s name has
surfaced as trade bait with the Ducks rapidly advancing towards a
rebuild. With one year remaining on Pronger’s deal and it very
unlikely that Scott Niedermayer signs another deal over the summer, a
couple of Atlantic division teams, specifically the Devils or Rangers,
could use his superior decision making ability and power play
If you’re a Devils fan, while you know
your team is strong along the forward wall and in the net, you’ve come
to the realization that you can’t challenge the Bruins with Johnny
Oduya as your most productive defenseman. If you’re a rooter of the
cross town rival Broadway Blueshirts, you should be jamming the
Madison Square Garden switchboard pleading for Glen Sather to acquire
a four time Stanley Cup winner and defensive wizard rather than a
loser that’s been banished from the NHL.
3. Nik Antropov - TOR. The entire Leafs roster is there for the
taking but if you know anything about Brian Burke, you know that an
underperforming Russian former first round pick is not the kind of
player he keeps around. Don’t take it from me, here’s the quote from
"From my take, at this point, I don't
see any reason to put a new contract offer on the table here," Burke
said. "I think that this might be time for a change of scenery for Nik
Antropov. But I will sit down with him in the next week or so, but I
have a harder time with that because I don't think Nik's play has
merited that discussion to this point."
Keith Tkachuk, St. Louis – He projects out as a 25 goal scorer and
still plays a physical game around the net but his terrible track
record in the post season wouldn’t make me a buyer.
Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta – One year remaining on a deal that will pay
him $7.5 million, it’s more likely that he’s number one with a bullet
Olli Jokinen, Phoenix – He’s been traded before, he’ll be traded once
more. With the Coyotes fading from contention, he’s the most viable
asset to deal. They can’t trade away Shane Doan, he’s the heart and
soul and their good young talent is untouchable. The Finn won’t get
you a first rounder but a contender should see value in him as a
second line forward.
Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL
Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles
Correspondent for The 4th Period Magazine and a Columnist
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ain't so, Joe