May 7, 2011 :: 1:25pm ET Jumbo Flavor
After a decade of underachievement, Joe Thornton and the San Jose
Sharks may finally get to the Promised Land.
LOS ANGELES, CA -- Though there's plenty
of work to be done before the Stanley Cup is to be raised, the San
Jose Sharks emerged as the favorite to advance to the Finals after a
come from behind overtime win in Game 3 against the Detroit Red Wings.
The stranglehold The Teal put on the series was accomplished on the
scoresheet courtesy of Devin Setoguchi, who crafted a rare playoff hat
trick that's likely the final dagger in the Winged Wheel playoff hopes
this season. The Wings avoided the embarrasment the Washington
Capitals went through, and won Game 4 last night as they hope
replicate the Boston Bruins' rise from the ashes last season -- but
don't kid yourself, from Ken Holland on down to Mike Modano, they're
checking tee times for next week.
I've watched the Sharks closely both live and on DVR since mid-April,
and a dozen more times over the seven month regular season. For the
most part there were no surprises, a mid season funk that begat a huge
close that yielded another Pacific Division title. At the end of the
day, their consistent drafting and development got the best of the
likes of Phoenix and Los Angeles and had them nestled safely into the
second seed in the West behind the out-of-sight Vancouver Canucks as
the playoffs started.
They were arguably better in goal when
Antti Niemi fell into their laps in the off season; their defense was
smart and mobile but lacked size other than the Swedish monster,
Douglas Murray. Their forwards are arguably as deep as any in the NHL
and as LA Kings GM Dean Lombardi notes, "guys like Joe Pavelski and
Ryane Clowe seem a lot faster when they make the right play with the
I've always been a fan of their coach Todd McLellan, another great
move by GM Doug Wilson, due to Todd's pedigree (won as an assistant
with Detroit) and his smart, tough approach to the game and his
honesty with his players.
But there was always something missing in the South Bay. It didn't
matter if it was Ron Wilson, Darryl Sutter or even McLellan manning
the bench, when the calendar turned to April, the Sharks drown. There
was always plenty of time for Bay Area residents to travel to AT&T
Park to watch the Giants (because nobody's going to Oakland to watch
the A's, are they) in May and June because there was never any hockey
to compete with their leisure time.
Whether it was a goalie not coming up with the big save or a center
getting punched in the face by Ryan Getzlaf in an elimination game in
2008, the Sharks always had an excuse. Ok, let's be real, they choked.
That's where the real story of these school of Sharks lie, the
emergence of a player whose legacy is littered with far more questions
than answers, team captain Joe Thornton.
Early in the Los Angeles series, we established a Joe Thornton meter
to display another year of playoff ineffectiveness to the masses. For
two and a third games, it appeared that his 11th playoff year would be
no different than the previous 10. The Sharks had split their first
two games at home against an Anze Kopitar-less Kings team and were on
the verge of collapse. In a rally that will be remembered as a season
saver, San Jose got up off the beach and rallied to the second largest
in-game comeback in Stanley Cup playoff history. While the Kings
extended the series to six games, you got the inkling that this is a
different season when the Sharks won their third game of the series in
overtime for the clincher. The scorer wasn't among the usual suspects;
not the fleet Patrick Marleau beating the defense on a breakaway,
wasn't a wicked wrister from Dany Heatley or the savvy Pavelski
finishing off an odd man rush. It was Thornton's opportunistic net
presence off a scramble that clinched the series and eliminated some
of skeletons from their collective closet in the process. Thornton's
celebration, already part of the NHL's "History Will be Made" TV ad
campaign, that gliding down enemy ice on his back was likely more
relief than celebration.
And maybe that's been the missing link all
this time, the proverbial chip on shoulders of a team whose usually
sag at this time of year. Maybe it's the time for the nice guys in the
locker room to be done with, as evidenced by our choice for the Calder
Trophy, Logan Couture.
At the end of the Kings series, the precocious rookie took it upon
himself to question the sportsmanship of Kings Coach Terry Murray when
the LA head man didn't join the ceremonial handshake. Maybe this team
needs an edginess about it to win the final eight needed to raise the
trophy. In the victorious post game press conference late Wednesday,
McLellan was clear that this year's model of the Sharks indeed have
very different dorsals.
"We're just trying to win games; I don't think we skated particularly
well," the coach conveyed. "I don't even think we were the better team
in overtime. The game is going to be settled with 18 skaters and two
goaltenders. That's why we didn't think matchups meant that much and a
reflection on a guy like Logan Couture. He has to line up against
Pavel Datsyuk, that's not an easy job. We're tried very hard as a
coaching staff to separate last year's series from this year. It's
completely irrelevant. You need heroes, you need people to stand up."
Cue Jumbo Joe, please.
While the Canucks and Predators are likely to struggle to a deep and
physical outcome of their Western semi-final, a San Jose sweep
presents a great opportunity to be well rested and more importantly,
in a great state of mind to swim a sea they never have.
Pound for pound, San Jose has a huge advantage over the Nashville
roster and the only team remaining that matches up favorably down the
middle with Vancouver. If they stay to form they've displayed so far,
there could be a huge party down Santa Clara Street inside of a month.
In a year of playoff surprises, the greatest one would be if Joe
Thornton wound up to the biggest hero of them all.
All Quiet in the Kingdom
The Los Angeles Kings enter a crucial off-season in the team's
Approximately 300 miles south, the scene at Staples Center at the end
of the Kings' first round Game 6 loss to the Sharks was permeated with
déjà vu. Almost a year to the day, the Los Angeles Kings, a decided
underdog left it all on the ice in their first round series against a
superior opponent. They fought lack of depth along the forward wall
for a myriad of reasons to extend a series further than most experts
thought. This season, it was the San Jose Sharks that stood in the
opposing locker room and threw bouquets to the vanquished like the
Vancouver Canucks did 12 months prior.
Last year Henrik Sedin was the author, this year Joe Thornton was the
guy making statements like, "the Kings aren't a seven seed. They're a
very tough team with a goalie that can beat you every night."
Those words today provide little solace to the fans that trudged into
the streets of downtown Los Angeles after witnessing three consecutive
home playoff losses, two in overtime.
"If only Kopitar was there, we would have won in six," was a common
refrain, referencing the season ending injury suffered by the Kings'
MVP two weeks before the post season started and dooming their playoff
journey before it started. During the course of the past two weeks
heroes were found; Jonathan Quick's performance 51 save performance in
Game 5 cemented Coach Terry Murray's faith in him as the number one
goalie. The late season establishment of rookie Kyle Clifford, Brad
Richardson and Wayne Simmonds as a unit provided surprise production
throughout and won an elimination Game 5 in San Jose with a dominant
first 20 minutes. Justin Williams shrugged off a shoulder dislocation
to show GM Dean Lombardi's decision to extend him was the right move
while Dustin Brown led by example, not hitting the score sheet but
hitting everything in sight that wore teal.
But in the end, as it usually plays out, superior skill won the war if
not individual battles. As it was with Vancouver, the cold, hard fact
is the better team emerged to continue the sixteen win journey that
captures the Stanley Cup. The Sharks were the far more poised team;
they made the winning plays every time during the extra session and
killed off a five minute major power play with a Game 7 crapshoot
staring them in their collective face.
In his post game reflection, Kings Coach Terry Murray, while lamenting
his team's lack of poise throughout (an unforgivable surrender of a
4-0 lead in Game 3 at home, a whopping 28 giveaways in the decider)
sees better things coming, "it was a very successful year, I like the
direction it's heading."
But was it really? Depends on who you ask.
As someone who watched this team toil for 88 games, we'll come down
somewhere in the middle. In the big picture, Murray has delivered what
Lombardi has asked him; establish a disciplined mindset to a team that
was near the bottom in goals against when he arrived three years ago.
The Kings wound up as the fifth best regular season defensive team in
the league and this regime has done something no other could in recent
history, develop a number one goaltender in Quick and a reliable young
backup in Jonathan Bernier. Those who think the lack of progression in
the playoffs could cost Murray his job are sadly mistaken. Comparing
his record to that of coaching god Dave Tippett over the last two
seasons shows only 7 less regular season points and one more playoff
victory. When they drop the puck in Europe in October, the league's
eldest coach will man his position behind the Los Angeles bench.
Does Murray have further work to do? Indeed he does, the first and
probably second order of business is to fix the power play. Since
November, fans have been yelling for the scalp of Jamie Kompon, the
assistant coach anointed with the responsibility of the extra man
strategy. Early and late returns suggest that Kompon should be dusting
off his resume this summer as the Kings plummeted to the bottom third
on the power play as the season closed. While Kopitar's absence was a
prime factor to the team's late free fall on the power play rankings,
the lack of creativity and productivity even with Kopitar healthy
signals a change needs to be made. Although Murray is fiercely loyal,
in his quiet time during the off season, he's got to seriously
contemplate relieving Kompon of the responsibility at minimum if not
his job in total.
With that said, neither Jamie Kompon or Scotty Bowman could make this
power play better unless a bigger issue is addressed in the off
season. Notwithstanding a marginal season at best from Jack Johnson
and Drew Doughty failing to live up to huge expectations off a Norris
candidacy season (for the most part an unfair assessment in my eyes),
from the blue line back the Kings are as solid as any in the uber-competitive
NHL's Western Conference. Given the improvement that department, you
can scheme better defensively, draft wisely between the pipes but
every so often you need to score a goal to win a game.
Lombardi often praised the character of his team during his the last
two seasons. His concern for the chemistry of the youngest team in the
playoffs prevented him from dealing for a much needed Heatley two
seasons ago and it's reflected in his drafting since arriving at the
corner of 11th and Figueroa. But when the good soldiers like Brad
Richardson wind up with a minus-4 rating in your elimination game,
it's a call to arms that while integrity is essential for the guy
who's dating your sister, it's ok to have a sniper who doesn't come
back defensively for every shift on the squad. Lombardi need only look
up to rafters at Staples Center and see the number 20 that symbolizes
a career in which Luc Robitaille never was a candidate for the Selke
Trophy. Defensive misgivings are overlooked when you score over 600
Late in the season, an NHL source told me that the Kings need to shift
away from their current modus operandi and address the two glaring
deficiencies, skill and more importantly speed along the forward wall.
"I don't know what they're thinking by having guys like (Alexei)
Ponikarovsky, (Michal) Handzus and (Dustin) Penner in the lineup," the
source said, "those days of big, physical, slow players are long
While the former two have likely (and most say hopefully) seen their
last game in Los Angeles, the Kings will demand that Penner come to
camp in far better shape. While they may be unable to change his
on-ice demeanor, the recently married Penner knows his family's
security is at stake as he's at the end of a five year deal. Contract
years do have an effect on one's conditioning, you know. Even its most
talented forward Kopitar is a power forward with slightly above
average but not blazing speed.
In a league that sees Nathan Gerbe (all 5-foot-5 of him) excel in the
playoffs, the source goes on to say that there is that type of player
in the Kings system and his name is not Brayden Schenn: "I've seen
Brandon Kozun and Justin Azevedo; they have the skill and speed to
play at this level. They shouldn't be messing around with players like
Ponikarovsky, Handzus and (enforcer Kevin) Westgarth, bring the kids
up and let them go."
So while the fans can be brightened by the fact that there are some
flyers (not the Philadelphia kind, mind you) in the system that others
think are ready to deploy, it's the biggest fish in the development
pond that is the key to the team's fate over the next 12 months.
A somewhat great debate developed as Brayden Schenn's junior season
drew to a close. His season was not unlike the big team, up and down.
He started in Los Angeles, was mostly ineffective in eight games, went
back to juniors where to no one's surprise he dominated and then ended
up with the team's AHL's affiliate in Manchester. When Kopitar went
down and the team in need of a center, Lombardi resisted and
rightfully so, to recall Schenn and plug him in the lineup. The
organization went to the extreme course of trying to recall John
Zeiler, a player who hadn't played a minute in the NHL this season, to
shore up the pivot. While Zeiler's mandatory trip thru re-entry
waivers eventually prevented the move, it showed the big picture focus
of the front office. Though some argued long and loud for the fifth
overall pick of the 2009 Entry Draft to be in the mix, the burning the
first year of an entry level deal in exchange for a short losing
effort is inarguably bad business. Business aside, if the organization
is leveraging next year's success on Schenn morphing into Logan
Couture, they may be preparing themselves for a third consecutive
first round playoff ouster. In his limited time in Los Angeles,
Schenn's game doesn't scream out at you like Kopitar's did the first
time I saw him. Yes, he dominated in juniors but he wasn't explosive
in camp or early season contests. Talking to sources around the
league, most say that Schenn can be a number two center in the league
for a decade. I'm not sure that clock starts ticking next year,
especially when his cap hit is north of $3 million.
Assuming Ponikarovsky and Handzus departures, the Kings can use that
$7.5 million to re-sign roommates Drew Doughty and Wayne Simmonds.
Inseparable off the ice, their on-ice seasons were curiously parallel
when juxtaposed against their previous year's effort.
Doughty, a finalist for the Norris last season, was in position for a
Duncan Keith contract with further progression this season. Instead,
the London, Ontario native experienced a 32% drop in scoring while
slicing a third off his plus minus rating. Simmonds did likewise,
backing up in goal production from 16 to 14 but the more glaring
statistic is the slide from a team best +22 rating to a -2.
While Doughty is untouchable and Simmonds is a fan favorite, they did
little to leverage their bargaining power for a big money long-term
deal like Jack Johnson received in January. The GM may offer Simmonds
a multi-year deal at a fair raise and with no arbitration rights,
Doughty could be facing a one year deal considering another $11
million comes off the cap when the Smyth and Penner deals (assuming
he's not re-upped) expire following next season. So Lombardi stands to
save a couple more million on the cap with Doughty and Simmonds, he
could save an additional $ 3 million by having Schenn toil in the AHL
If that money scenario plays out, this is where the organization needs
to part from the path it's gone down since Dean Lombardi took the helm
in 2006. He's been masterful in building an infrastructure, from
building out the organization chart to upgrading its practice
facilities. He's instilled a development program that had never been
seen in Los Angeles and has surrounded himself with former and future
(Ron Hextall will soon say yes to a deal) general managers in his
circle. But even a smart hockey guy doesn't necessarily have an eagle
eye for talent and the Kings have had marginal success at the draft
table. Though Doughty was a no brainer and Clifford and Simmonds were
plucked in rounds other than the first, there have been some real
failures. The concluding series crystallizes its biggest whiff as
Logan Couture skated into the next round dressed in teal while the
player selected five picks earlier, Thomas Hickey is completing his
entry level deal with his place in Kings history likely to be its
biggest draft bust. Trevor Lewis, an honest player and a major reason
for the fabulous penalty kill this season, isn't the player that Chris
Stewart and Claude Giroux are, yet both were selected after him in the
2006 draft year.
While you can point at every team's draft failures in hindsight, the
Kings penchant of drafting less skilled, two way players of excellent
character needs to change. While the organizational mindset needs to
change, even if they see my light over the summer, it won't address
the short term needs of an X factor, a clean-up hitter if you will,
that's needed now. This year's NHL's entry draft is sub-par and with
the second best free agent after Brad Richards (who's either going to
New York or Toronto) being Ilya Bryzgalov, the only way the Kings will
significantly improve is if their GM does something he's never done.
Pull a blockbuster trade.
It's not that Dean Lombardi doesn't want to make a big deal; he's
NEVER made one. Critics have pointed that his tough style negates the
positives of Southern California lifestyle and has chased away the
likes of Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa. Dale Tallon stepped up and
paid a premium for Hossa but it got him a Stanley Cup. The $20 million
extra that it would have taken to match New Jersey's offer for the
Russian sniper doesn't really look like that much when Kyle Clifford
is your leading playoff scorer.
Could Curtis Glencross be a nice addition on left wing in the off
season? That's a Lombardi move, but another two-way 20-goal scorer is
not the missing link to the Conference Finals appearance that Doughty
said was the goal this season. Lombardi needs to look at the skilled
teams in the East, be ready to overpay on salary and prospects to
shake loose a Jeff Carter, Alex Semin, or since we're in the business
of rumor and speculation, Evgeni Malkin.
If they don't want to go for a winger, leaving Schenn in the AHL opens
the door for a No. 2 center in the mold of Mike Fisher, another player
Lombardi came runner-up on before dealing for Penner. Jarret Stoll is
truly a perfect third line center, speedy, great in the faceoff circle
and on the penalty kill. Plugging him in between Clifford and Simmonds
makes for an interesting value proposition for next fall. Most
importantly, unless a player has a no-movement clause, there's no
The cap maneuverability is there, no one knows if there's the
willingness. At the trade deadline, Lombardi said that his team's
bounce back response to a losing streak showed him it was time to give
them help by bringing in Penner. Applying that logic and
notwithstanding Penner's performance, the heart his undermanned team
showed against San Jose should be rewarded with a sniper not seen here
since the enigmatic Ziggy Palffy patrolled the ice.
Bringing back to back playoff seasons to Los Angeles is no small feat
given the history of the franchise, but now it's essential to have a
deep run in the 2011-12 season in order to keep this regime in place
and the only realistic move is a big one.