Training Camp Battles: Pacific Division

With training camps starting late this week or early next, we at Pro Hockey Talk couldn’t help but wonder: what are the biggest position battles going in? To give you the most specific answers possible, we asked team bloggers to give their take. After all, these men and women follow their teams almost as much as general managers, so they would know better than us.

(Actually, some of them might watch their teams more closely than GMs, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Previous entry: Northeast Division

Current Entry: Pacific Division

luboducks.jpgAnaheim Ducks

Contributor: Earl Sleek from Battle of California.

For the Anaheim Ducks, the biggest questions that will be resolved during training camp will revolve around the defense. Which six players will man the blueline on opening night, and how well can they realistically perform? Lubomir Visnovsky, Toni Lydman, and Andy Sutton appear safely penciled in the top six, but beyond that it’s a mixed bag of possibility. Sheldon Brookbank played a consistent game for Anaheim last year, Luca Sbisa seems ready for full-time NHL action, Brett Festerling and Brendan Mikkelson have gotten a fair taste of NHL action, Danny Syvret was brought in for depth, Mark Mitera is another year older, Cam Fowler keeps impressing observers, Jake Newton and Mat Clark had solid outings in the recent rookie tournament, and there’s even rumors that the Ducks will sign Paul Mara. (Editor’s note: it seems like it might happen, but isn’t official yet as far as I know.) There’s a load of individual gambles being taken, it seems, but that’s probably a good thing — so long as a couple of them pan out, it could mean the Ducks are in good shape.

I could venture some guesses as to who takes these available jobs in training camp, but it’s not going to be based on very much personal observation, because most of these defensemen played most of last season outside Anaheim. Brookbank played 66 games for the Ducks last season, Festerling played 42, Mikkelson played 28, Visnovsky played 16, Sbisa played 8, and that’s it — there will be a lot of new faces this coming season for sure. Hopefully Anaheim’s training camp and preseason will give the coaching staff ample opportunity to figure out what the best mix will be. I know I’m anxious to see the outcome.

Thumbnail image for jamesneal18.jpgDallas Stars

Contributor: Brandon Bibb from Defending Big D. (Note: this post follows the format of the e-mail, so it’s a little bit different)

Which position battles on the Stars’ depth chart:

* Are most crucial to the team’s success.

Without question, left wing. James Neal, who presently remains unsigned with the opening of training camp nigh upon us, scored 24 goals before the Olympic break in February. After the Olympic break, he only scored three goals. And he’s got Jamie Benn pushing him for a spot on the top line right behind him.

And lest we forget Jonathan Cheechoo, who’s gone from being a key piece going back the other way in the Dany Heatley trade to a non-roster training camp invitee in the span of 12 months. Fairly certain he’ll have something to prove. He’s got a really chance to give the Stars the kind of player they thought they were getting when they signed Fabio. I mean, Fabian Brunnstrom (also affectionately known over at DBD as “Bunny”).

* Are under the greatest amount of competition.

Even with the departure of Mike Modano, there’s still plenty of competition down the middle for the Stars. That will remain so after Joe Nieuwendyk told Mike Ribeiro that he won’t be moved any time soon.

Obviously, Brad Richards is going to be the top center. And you have to figure Ribeiro will be a solid #2. But down the line, you’ve got Steve Ott, Toby Petersen, and Tom Wandell fighting for ice time. Whoever loses out on that 4th center position is still versatile enough to plug into a wing position, obviously.

But Wandell surprised some people with his play last year and was one of the key cogs in the penalty kill before he went down in Vancouver with a season ending knee injury. If he can get back to that level for training camp, it’ll be interesting to see how he competes with Petersen.

* Qualify as the Stars’ biggest weaknesses (or strengths, if your team has an excessive amount of offensive defensemen/defensive forwards/etc.)

No question, it’s on the blue line as Stephane Robidas is probably considered the number one defenseman on this team. Not disrespect to Robidas as he’s the kind of player whose work ethic could be a benefit to any of the other dressing rooms in the NHL. Not to mention, he’s got the most resilient face in the league. But when he’s your # 1 guy on defense, you’ve got serious depth issues. And for the cash-strapped Stars, that issue won’t be resolved until the team gets sold and a new owner uses the extra salary and gobs of cap space to trade for a true # 1 defenseman.

* Any other interesting battles that come to mind.

In season’s past, James Neal and Jamie Benn made such big impacts in training camp that the Stars had no choice but to move them up to the big club. I think the odds of that happening this year aren’t as good.

Still, keep an eye on Danish defenseman Phillip Larsen. During the Traverse City Tournament this week, he was clearly one of the best defensemen, if not the best defenseman, that the Stars had going for them up in Michigan. Mark Stepneski of ESPN Dallas made the trip up north and had this to say about Larsen after the Stars beat the Blues 4-1:

“He looked in command while running the Stars power play from the point. I thought he got targeted with some physical play in both games and never backed down. I think he caught the eyes of a lot of people on Sunday. He was that good.”

Larsen’s only has one season of SEL experience under his belt. But as Patrick Iversen pointed out the other day, he’s the kind of guy who could really push Matt Niskanen and give him a run for his money for his roster spot.

Besides the blue line, also keep on eye on the backup goaltender position. While I think this position is relatively secure in the hands of veteran Andrew Raycroft, whom the Stars signed in the offseason, it wouldn’t surprise me if Richard Bachman or Tyler Beskorowany push him a little bit for the job.

After the jump, The Royal Half shares the LA Kings battles, Five for Howling discusses the Coyotes and Fear the Fin snags the Shark bait.


Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for jonathanberniergoalie.jpgLos Angeles Kings

Contributor: “Chris Kontos” from The Royal Half.

After a successful 101 point season and making it into the playoffs for the first time in 8 years, the Los Angeles Kings head into training camp with only one major position battle… who the heck is going to score besides Anze Kopitar and Ryan Smyth?

You can talk about which rookie is going to make which bottom 2 lines  … or the fact that Goalie WunderkidTM Jon Bernier is going to steal the #1 goalie spot from American GoofballTM, Jon Quick … but the real battle heading into training camp for the Kings is secondary scoring. When healthy last year, the 1st line of Anze Kopitar, Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams was among the league’s best. But beyond that … yikes. After Kopitar’s 81 points, Sophomore Phenom, Drew Doughty, was second in scoring with 59 points. So unless Coach Murray plans to double shift Doughty at the #1 defense pair as well as 2nd line center … the Kings secondary scoring is in rough shape.

The real problem is that the Kings have a decent 1st line, and 2 really-really good 3rd lines. Many teams would love to have Jarret Stoll or Michal Handzus center their 3rd lines… but the Kings problem is that they have both. Neither one is a true 2nd line center and the only other choice is Brad Richardson, a guy who had a career year last season … with 27 points. Sure there is a chance that rookies Brayden Schenn or Andrei Loktionov may sneak into that 2nd line center spot… but even then their wingers are going to be Dustin Brown and Scott Parse. Not exactly a 2nd line on par with the league’s best.

Apparently the Kings attempted to make a move for a high scoring left wing during the summer that could have helped with secondary scoring, but instead got Alexei Ponikarovsky … a guy who made Sydney Crosby yearn for the days of Petr Sykora at his side. Maybe with the defense corps that GM Dean Lombardi has built, the Los Angeles Kings won’t need much scoring and can win a bunch of 2-1 games. But until the Kings can make some sort of upgrade via trade (since no player of any substance seems to want to sign as a free agent in Los Angeles) the coaches and management will have to look their fans in the eyes with a straight face and say “yes, we do think Scott Parse is a legitimate 2nd line winger.”

bryzgalovandtheyotes.jpgPhoenix Coyotes

Contributor: Travis Hair from Five for Howling.

For the Coyotes, the biggest position battle will be on defense. The team currently only has 5 NHL defensemen ready to play with Ed Jovanovski, Adrian Aucoin, Keith Yandle, Sami Lepisto and Derek Morris ready to go. Kurt Sauer is still out indefinitely with some neurological/balance issue that can’t seem to get fixed so there’s a spot open and a backup slot as well. There are a lot of talented kids looking to break in with first round picks Oliver Ekman-Larsson Brandon Gormly and Chris Summers along with Maxim Goncharov all looking good in rookie camp. The team also invited Shane Hnidy just in case the kids can’t fill the gap. This could be the weak spot if no one steps up big to fill the skates and minutes of Zbynek Michalek who left for a payday in Pittsburgh over the summer.

At the forward positions, there isn’t as much competition. The Coyotes filled a weakness in center depth by signing Eric Belanger which will increase competition for a prospect like Kyle Turris to break into the lineup. Wingers Mikkel Boedker and Viktor Tikhonov will also need to have a great camp as the majority of the forward positions are locked up with 10 not moving and the other 2 tentatively taken. Basically, they need to show that they can put in the work and make plays at the NHL level because bringing them up to sit in the press box more nights than not won’t help anyone.

In goal there is no competition. Ilya Bryzgalov with Jason LaBarbara giving him a breather once in a while.

youngsharksferrandfrazen.jpgSan Jose Sharks

Contributor: Mr. Plank from Fear the Fin.

The Sharks come into camp with seven NHL defenseman under contract, making a battle for a spot much more difficult for players such as Derek Joslin, Matt Irwin, and Mike Moore (the three likely candidates looking to make the team straight out camp). In the event one of them impresses the coaching staff, it’s a possibility they start the year in San Jose, but with the number of bodies already available at that position, I’d put it down as an unlikely occurrence. A call-up during the middle of the year seems like the most likely route, and will definitely occur if any one of the Sharks current blueliners go down for a substantial amount of time with an injury.

At forward, it’s an entirely different story. San Jose boasts a top-six cast that won’t be challenged by any of the prospects looking to make the team, but the lower two lines definitely have a large amount of openings that are up for grabs. Jamie McGinn, Logan Couture, Torrey Mitchell, and Scott Nichol are all but locks to make the opening night lineup, meaning there are two forward slots who could be filled by any one of the numerous prospects in the system.

Benn Ferriero, who was a standout player in the AHL, likely has a leg up considering he started the year in San Jose last season. His ability to add scoring pop would be a welcome addition to the third line of McGinn and Couture, especially when one considers they played on the same line together with the Worcester Sharks– the chemistry is already there. Frazer McLaren, who also saw 23 games in San Jose during 09-10, would serve the enforcer role admirably, something that the Sharks lack considering Jody Shelley’s and Brad Staubitz’s departures. After that you run into players general manager Doug Wilson has touted as individuals to look out for– Cam MacIntyre, Tommy Wingels, and others have all been mentioned throughout the offseason. It will definitely be the most competitive position on the ice, and there’s a distinct chance a dark horse rolls out of nowhere and surprises a lot of people (Benn Ferriero last season interestingly enough).

All in all, keep a keen eye on the forward group during training camp. It’s the one with the most spots available and, as is usually the case in matters such as these, should provide for some excellent competition.

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    ‘A wave of nerves’ — Brian Boyle returns to practice following leukemia diagnosis

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    Brian Boyle was back on the ice with his New Jersey Devils teammates on Sunday after getting all cleared to participate in practice following his Chronic Myeloid Leukemia diagnosis last month.

    “I got the news yesterday … and a wave of nerves came over me,” Boyle told reporters following the skate. “But it’s exciting to get back on a routine and work towards a goal. I’ve got a lot of work to do, as evidence by that practice.

    “Parts of it were not too bad. I was a lot better than I thought in some areas. Some of the battles. Just like hands and feet working together that are a little fatigued. The speed of it. Even just the practice — I’ve been kind of by myself for a month. It was an adjustment. Even throughout the practice I felt better, but still a bit of a ways to go.”

    The Devils signed Boyle to a two-year, $5.5 million contract this summer. Despite the diagnosis, Boyle was determined to try not to miss any games in the upcoming season.  New Jersey is eight games into its season and has been one of the big surprises early on with a 6-2 record and 31 goals already scored.

    Boyle, 32, has yet to play a game for his new team, and it remains to be seen exactly when he’ll get into the lineup, with the club announcing there is no timetable yet for his return. The Devils last played on Friday against the San Jose Sharks and are in the midst of a week-long break in their schedule.

    Their next game is this Friday against Ottawa, which should give Boyle a few days of practice — opportunities to continue to improve on his conditioning — before the Devils play two games in two nights next weekend.

    Meanwhile, the Devils placed goalie Cory Schneider on injured reserve two days ago, after he was hurt the previous night.

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    Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

    Report: Golden Knights’ Subban ‘probably out weeks’ after injury versus Blues

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    The Golden Knights won again on Saturday, but lost goalie Malcolm Subban to an injury in the third period.

    Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant, as is often the case immediately following a game in which an injury occurs, didn’t have an update on Subban’s condition. He called it a lower-body injury, and said he would know more by Sunday.

    However, John Shannon of Sportsnet, citing a team source, reported that Subban will undergo an MRI on Sunday and is “probably out weeks.”

    That isn’t good news at all for a Vegas team already without Marc-Andre Fleury, who is still on injured reserve after suffering a concussion.

    The 23-year-old Subban, who was picked off waivers by Vegas following his training camp with the Bruins, had a promising start to the season since joining the Golden Knights. Since the injury to Fleury, Subban has played in three games, winning two of those and allowing six goals on 94 shots against. He allowed only one goal on 38 shots last night before leaving the game.

    Oscar Dansk came off the bench last night when Subban was hurt, and stopped 10 of 11 shots faced as the Golden Knights picked up the overtime victory, despite getting outshot 49-22.

    But any lengthy injury to Subban would really test the depth of the Golden Knights goaltending. Fleury has already been out for just over week. The 23-year-old Dansk made his NHL debut last night, and Vegas doesn’t have Calvin Pickard anymore, after he was traded to Toronto a few weeks ago. Maxime Lagace is still down with the AHL Chicago Wolves.

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    Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

     

    Connor McDavid is great, but he can’t do it all for the Oilers

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    At the start of the 2017-18 season the Edmonton Oilers had the second best odds to win the Stanley Cup. Even with the NHL’s reigning MVP and scoring champion and even after a wildly successful season that saw them come within a single game of the Western Conference Finals it still seemed to be a little too much, a little too fast.

    First, for as good as the Oilers were last season a lot of it was dependent on Connor McDavid putting the team on his back and carrying them as far as he could. They also played Cam Talbot a ridiculous number of games and still don’t have anybody behind him that can be counted on to give him any kind of a consistent break. Add those two factors to a team that still doesn’t have a lot of depth and there are some reasons to maybe want to pump the brakes on the Stanley Cup talk.

    It is still early in the season, but so far we are starting to see that play out on the ice.

    After their loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday the Oilers are now just 2-5-0 on the season and have the second-worst record in the Western Conference.

    McDavid is doing what McDavid always does.

    He is in year three of his career and is still a human highlight reel every single time he touches the ice. His speed is unmatched. His creativity is off the charts. He is, at times, an unstoppable force and is once again the single biggest factor driving the Oilers offense.

    Right now he is the only factor driving the Oilers’ offense.

    With eight points so far this season that means he has either scored or assisted on more than 57 percent of the team’s goals.

    He has been on the ice for nine of them, which is more than 65 percent.

    Through the first seven games of the season the Oilers have scored only five goals this season when McDavid has not been on the ice. That is not a trend that can continue if the Oilers are going to have any hopes of getting out of this early season slump, let alone competing for a Stanley Cup. There is no one single player in the NHL that can make that much of a consistent impact without some secondary help.

    The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup runs were not just about superstars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane. They were also about the complementary players and secondary scoring options that could step up and fill the back of the net when the top tier guys had their inevitable stretches where they would get shut down (and there always comes a time when the top players get shut down for a stretch. Sometimes in the playoffs, too).

    Right now the Oilers do not have those secondary options, and if the offense is not coming from Connor McDavid, it is not coming from anybody.

    To be fair, they have only had Leon Draisaitl, their second-most important offensive player, for only three games this season. But even a return from him is not a guarantee to be enough based on the makeup of the rest of the roster.

    Over the summer the Oilers traded their third-leading scorer (Jordan Eberle) straight up for Ryan Strome, a player that has never had the single-season output that Eberle had a year ago in what was widely considered a down year for him. Strome has two points in seven games.

    A year ago the Oilers had big — and mostly unexpected — seasons from players like Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu as they combined to score 43 goals, each of them setting new career highs. Together, they had a combined shooting percentage of 14.5 percent, a nearly five percent increase over their career averages. That increase in shooting percentage was probably worth an additional 10-12 goals between the two.

    There is no guarantee they can duplicate that success.

    The Oilers are probably not as bad as their early season record indicates, especially when Draisaitl is back. Even so, McDavid is still going to need more help than he is getting from his teammates if the Oilers are going to do anything close to what was expected from them at the start of the season. Whether or not they have the roster around him to do that remains to be seen.

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    The Buzzer: Kopitar keeps Kings rolling; O’Reilly gives Sabres OT win

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    Player of the night: Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings. The Los Angeles Kings continued their impressive start on Saturday night with a 6-4 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, improving their record to a league-best 6-0-1 through their first seven games.

    Anze Kopitar was the star of the night as he finished with two goals, an assist, three shots on goal, a plus-five rating while also winning 68 percent of his faceoffs.

    His second goal of the game, which came with less than three minutes to play in regulation, proved to be the game-winner for the Kings.

    Dustin Brown added an empty net goal (he finished with four points in the win) a minute later.

    Kopitar is coming off of a down year offensively in 2016-17 but already has 11 points (six goals, five assists) so far this season for a Kings team that looks to be vastly improved under new coach John Stevens.

    Highlight of the night. 

    For most of Saturday night it looked like the Buffalo Sabres were on their way to another ugly loss, continuing what has been a miserable start to the season. At one point in the second period they found themselves trailing by a 4-1 margin. But they slowly started to chip away then after Evander Kane scored a late third period goal to tie the game, Ryan O'Reilly ended up winning it in overtime on this beauty of a play to give the Sabres their second win of the season.

    Factoid of the Night.

    The Tampa Bay Lightning have two superstars at forward. They are playing like it. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are the first pair of teammates in more than 15 years to start a season with matching nine-game point streaks. [NHL]

    Misc.

    — Three more assists for Erik Karlsson on Saturday night giving him six on the season. He has played in two games. After major ankle surgery. He is not human.

    Clayton Keller added to his rookie leading goal total with his sixth of the season. He is the one bright spot for the Arizona Coyotes this season as they remain winless after their 4-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

    — With the first two-goal game of his NHL career Tyler Pitlick was the difference for the Dallas Stars in their 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

    Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are both off to tremendous starts for the Boston Bruins. Both players scored a pair of goals for the Bruins on Saturday night in their 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres. Both players already have six goals on the season.

    James Reimer was great for the Florida Panthers, stopping 41 shots in their 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. With Roberto Luongo on injured reserve the Panthers are going to need a couple of big games from Reimer over the next week.

    Mikhail Sergachev looks fantastic for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is now up to eight points on the season.

    Wayne Simmonds was the hero for the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday with a late goal to help lift them to a 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. He is now up to six goals on the season. Claude Giroux scored his fifth goal in the win.

    Logan Couture‘s hat trick was not enough to help the San Jose Sharks in New York on Saturday night against the Islanders. John Tavares had a goal, two assists in the win.

    Scores and recaps

    New York Rangers 4, Nashville Predators 2

    Philadelphia Flyers 2, Edmonton Oilers 1

    Buffalo Sabres 5, Boston Bruins 4

    Tampa Bay Lightning 7, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

    Ottawa Senators 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 3

    New York Islanders 5, San Jose Sharks 3

    Los Angeles Kings 6, Columbus Blue Jackest 4

    Florida Panthers 4, Washington Capitals 1

    Dallas Stars 4, Carolina Hurricanes 3

    Chicago Blackhawks 4, Arizona Coyotes 2

    Minnesota Wild 4, Calgary Flames 2

    Vegas Golden Knights 3, St. Louis Blues 2

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.