February 25, 2009
The Flock no Longer Reins in So. Cal

[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 so quietly.

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 providing offense.

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 history.

"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 win."

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 post-Cup play

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 fan’s eyes.

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 regime.

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 proficiency

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 the GM:

"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."

Bye bye.

Honorable mentions:

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 next season.

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.

Dennis 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 for TheFourthPeriod.com.
 
  Archives:
Jan. 29, 2009 Can't Stop the Brawling
Jan. 07, 2009 Phoenix to Ashes
Dec. 19, 2008 Don't Get Me Started!
Dec. 04, 2008 An American in the Prairies
Nov. 22, 2008 Maybe the Q is part of the A
Nov. 01, 2008 The Plot Thickens
Oct. 27, 2008 Pinging Away
Oct. 16, 2008 West Coast Bias
Sept. 30, 2008 Life is a Spectrum
Sept. 26, 2008 My kind of town
Sept. 10, 2008 Say it ain't so, Joe


 

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