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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 puck."

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 rebuilding project.

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 goals, eh?

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 gone."

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 next season.

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 wooing needed.

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.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com. You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.


 

 

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Apr. 05, 2011 Purple Rain
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