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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    Chris Neil retires an Ottawa Senators lifer

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    Chris Neil announced his retirement from the NHL on Thursday after 1,206 games, all with the Ottawa Senators franchise.

    “Chris Neil exemplifies the best qualities of both our city and the Senators franchise,” said Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. “His career personified grit, drive and resilience; there was never a day that he was not there for his teammates. Chris earned everything he achieved in the league through his hard work and dedication to the game and he will go down in history as one of the great character players to ever wear the Senators jersey.”

    It won’t be long before the 38-year-old Neil, a 1998 sixth-round pick, gets to put on a Senators jersey again. He’ll participate in this weekend’s Senators alumni game as the city celebrates the NHL 100 Classic at Lansdowne Park against the Montreal Canadiens.

    While Neil had his offensive moments — he finished with 112 career goals and reached double digits in that category five times — he was known as an agitator and one not afraid to drop the gloves. HockeyFights.com has him at over 150 career regular season fights and he leaves the game as the franchise’s all-time leader in penalty minutes with 2,522.

    Neil’s role diminished last season under Guy Boucher and the Senators decided against re-signing him over the summer. After seeking a new gig and turning down a reported PTO offer from the Montreal Canadiens, he chose to hang them up.

    “I miss playing the games. Those are the fun times and that’s what you put all the hard work in for,” Neil said. “For me, I don’t miss the grind of the day-to-day that goes on behind the scenes, but I truly do miss being there with the guys. That’s the fun part. That’s something I’ll always have to look back on.”

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    Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

    Prior’s knack with goalies put to test in Vegas

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    LAS VEGAS (AP) — Dave Prior has a knack for fast-tracking goalies to the NHL.

    The analytical and strategic mind that helped draft and develop 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby in Washington was brought to Vegas with hopes he would not only work with veteran Marc-Andre Fleury but also develop the fledgling franchise’s younger netminders.

    Little did Prior know his expertise would be so thoroughly put to the test during the first two months of the season.

    After Fleury went down with a concussion Oct. 13 and missed the next 25 games, the expansion Golden Knights have enjoyed a historic start thanks in part to four goalies who had seen action in two combined NHL games before this season.

    Malcolm Subban, Maxime Lagace and Oscar Dansk saw most of the action, while Dylan Ferguson spent just over nine minutes between the pipes.

    And though Fleury lost in his 696th career start Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes in his long-anticipated return, Vegas is still in second place in the Pacific Division with 40 points, three behind the Los Angeles Kings.

    ”It’s been a fascinating story for me as a coach because I haven’t been challenged in this way before,” Prior said. ”I don’t think I’ve approached it any different than I have tasks in the past. You’re not usually confronted with replacing one guy after another after another. I had a lot of input into the goaltenders that we signed here and took in the expansion draft.

    ”The goalies didn’t let me down. I steered them in the direction, but they’ve done all the work.”

    The five goalies have a combined .905 save percentage, led by Subban, whose .924 save percentage ranks eighth among all goaltenders with a minimum 10 games played. Among goalies who have played at least four games, Dansk leads the league with a .946 save percentage and Fleury is ninth at .930.

    Prior said the development of his goaltending prospects began with a philosophical approach in training camp. He knew the chemistry was far from what he wanted, but he was also pleased they had bought into the system and that he had earned their trust.

    ”When these opportunities came, it sort of was an opportunity to accelerate the process,” Prior said. ”You don’t usually get to train guys in this environment that are in the minors. I believed they had the upside to become NHL goaltenders. I was just hoping the step they were going to be good enough to make it to No. 1 in the American (Hockey) League first, let alone be thrown into being the guy who had to play in the NHL. They worked really hard and bought in and we managed to survive the loss of Marc-Andre.”

    Without Fleury, the Golden Knights were 16-8-1, including a stellar 7-1-0 against Pacific Division opponents.

    Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said he’s left the goaltenders alone, avoiding interfering with what Prior instilled during training camp.

    ”I don’t know how he does it. He spends a lot of time in video with these guys, more than I’ve seen in the past,” Gallant said. ”He’s just focused on them doing the right things and playing the right way. … He wants to get the best from every goaltender and he gets the best confidence of every goaltender.”

    Prior acknowledged Gallant’s hands-off approach and said it’s made it easier to work with Fleury, develop Subban and teach the younger players.

    ”I still have always gone about my job with the fact that I am the person sort of establishing how we’re going to play,” Prior said. ”When you’re having someone second-guess your approach, it makes it more difficult. I appreciate his hands off. I think if we were failing he may be a little more involved, but the goaltenders have done a good job.”

    PHT Morning Skate: Melnyk denies Senators sale; Kopitar has Hart

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    Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

    • Eugene Melnyk denied rumors that he was selling the Ottawa Senators. “Let me set the record straight. I have no idea how a reporter fabricated a fiction about my selling the team. These stories pop up out of nowhere probably from someone ‘hearing something’.” [Ottawa Sun]

    • A fascinating oral history of the inaugural season of these Senators. [Sportsnet]

    • The KHL initially announced they would be allowing its players to participate in the PyeongChang Olympics, then retracted it. So for now, we still wait to see what will happen. [NBC Olympics]

    • Will the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” hockey team wear new jerseys? That’s still a question that lingers. “There’s a discussion around the [Russia] uniform,” said Roman Rotenberg, the Russian federation’s senior vice president. “It’s been produced already and there are certain technical questions.” [NBC Olympics]

    Anze Kopitar, now healthy, is playing his way into the Hart Trophy discussion. [FanRag Sports]

    Marc-Andre Fleury on facing his old team tonight: “The Cup champs, it’s a good challenge for our team. I’d like to do my part to beat them.” [Post-Gazette]

    • The board game that NHL players love to play on the road? Risk, just like Kramer and Newman. Ukraine not weak! [Sports Illustrated]

    • Read this important story on former NHLer Matt Johnson, who is now homeless and missing. [TSN]

    • How a young girl from Barbados became a huge Florida Panthers fan. [Miami Herald]

    • A really cool graphical look at the history of Indianapolis hockey jerseys. [The Sin Bin]

    • How the PyeongChang Olympics will affect NCAA hockey. [College Hockey News]

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    Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

    The Buzzer: Senators win, Subban from center, Lehtonen notches 300th win

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    Players of the Night: 

    Bobby Ryan, Ottawa Senators: It’s been a struggle for Ryan this season. He came into the game with just as single goal in 21 games but left with two in 22 while also adding an assist to help the Senators avoid a six-game losing streak.

    Tyler Pitlick, Dallas Stars: Pitlick scored twice, bookending Dallas’s five goals in a 5-2 win against the New York Islanders.

    P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators: If you continue reading (and you should) you will see Subban’s goal that came from quite a distance. The defenseman notched two in a ___ win against the Vancouver Canucks, powering the Preds to their ninth win in their past 12 games.

    Highlights of the Night: 

    Brad Marchand fought off Mike Green, and then did this to win in overtime:

    Dylan Larkin. Breakway. Shorthanded. Backhand.

    Blunder of the Night: 

    Yikes, Anders Nilsson. Bravo, P.K.

    Factoids of the Night: 

    Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen killed two birds with one stone on Wednesday:

    Filip Forsberg accomplished an impressive feat for the second time in his career.

    MISC: 

    Scores: 

    Senators 3, Rangers 2

    Stars 5, Islanders 2

    Bruins 3, Red Wings 2 (OT)

    Predators 7, Canucks 1


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck