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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    Draisaitl on signing with Oilers: ‘We have something really special’

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    As a restricted free agent, Leon Draisaitl only had so much say regarding his future with the Edmonton Oilers, especially since teams rarely send offer sheets around in the NHL.

    Even so, Draisaitl could have opted for a “bridge” deal; instead, he signed for the maximum of eight years for a whopping $68 million on Wednesday.

    Some would probably grumble but understand if Draisaitl explained his rational by pointing at one of those big checks or at a calculator. Instead, the promising young forward explained that he believes that the Oilers have a bright future, and he wants to be a part of it.

    In case you’re wondering, additional details have surfaced regarding the year-to-year breakdown of Draisaitl’s deal. TVA’s Renaud Lavoie also reports that Draisaitl has a no-movement clause, thus making it that much more likely that he’ll get his wish to stick with the Oilers:

    Of course, with Draisaitl and Connor McDavid combining for a $21M cap hit beginning in 2018-19, the bigger question is not whether they will stay, but who the Oilers will manage to keep in the fold.

    Still, that’s for GM Peter Chiarelli & Co. to decide. For Draisaitl, this is a great moment, and he might even be able to back up that big contract with big results on the ice.

    Cullen explains why he chose Wild over Penguins

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    If you check out a bio on Matt Cullen, you’ll notice that he’s from Minnesota. It doesn’t take a leak, then, to explain why Cullen signed a one-year deal with the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday.

    As Cullen explained to Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “this is a family decision.” As he goes deeper into his logic, even especially sore Pittsburgh Penguins fans should probably understand Cullen’s perspective.

    “Minnesota is home and it’s a special place for me,” Cullen said. “It’s not easy to say goodbye and it’s not easy to walk away [from Pittsburgh]. I’m confident in the decision we’re making and it’s the right thing for our family. But at the same time, it’s not an easy one.

    Now, to be fair, Cullen also told Russo that he believes the Wild are a “hungry” team that might have been the West’s best in 2016-17. It’s not like he’s roughing it, and surely the $1 million (and $700K in performance bonuses that Wild GM Chuck Fletcher hopes Cullen collects) didn’t hurt, either.

    Still, such a decision makes extra sense for a 40-year-old who’s played for eight different NHL teams during his impressive career. Russo’s story about Cullen attending his kids games and seeing his brothers is worth a read just for those warm and fuzzy feelings we often forget about in crunching the numbers and pondering which teams might be big-time contenders in 2017-18.

    This isn’t to say that getting a fourth Stanley Cup ring wouldn’t be appealing to Cullen, but perhaps he’ll get his family time and win big, too?

    There’s also the familiarity that comes with playing three fairly recent seasons with the Wild, so Cullen’s choice seems like it checks a lot of the boxes.

    In other positive Wild news, Russo reports that Eric Staal is feeling 100 percent after suffering a concussion during the playoffs.

    Tuesday was Wild day at PHT, but perhaps this feels more like Wild week?

    Bovada gives McDavid higher odds than Crosby to win Hart in 2017-18

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    In handing Connor McDavid an eight-year, $100 million extension, the Edmonton Oilers essentially are paying the 20-year-old star based on the assumption that he’ll provide MVP-quality play.

    At least one Vegas oddsmaker agrees, as Bovada tabbed McDavid as the favorite to win the Hart Trophy, edging Sidney Crosby.

    That’s interesting, yet it might be even more interesting to note where other players fall in the rankings. Auston Matthews coming in third is particularly intriguing.

    Who are some of the more interesting choices? The 20/1 range seems appealing, as Carey Price is one of the few goalies with the notoriety to push for such honors while John Tavares has the skill and financial motivation to produce the best work of his career next season.

    Anyway, entertain yourself with those odds, via Bovada: (Quick note: Bovada originally had Artemi Panarin listed as still playing with Chicago. PHT went ahead and fixed that in the bit below.)

    2017 – 2018 – Who will win the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player?
    Connor McDavid (EDM)                         3/2
    Sidney Crosby (PIT)                              5/2
    Auston Matthews (TOR)                         17/2
    Alex Ovechkin (WAS)                            9/1
    Patrick Kane (CHI)                                 14/1
    Vladimir Tarasenko (STL)                       15/1
    Evgeni Malkin (PIT)                                16/1
    Carey Price (MON)                                 20/1
    John Tavares (NYI)                                20/1
    Jamie Benn (DAL)                                 25/1
    Steven Stamkos (TB)                             25/1
    Erik Karlsson (OTT)                               33/1
    Nikita Kucherov (TB)                              33/1
    Jack Eichel (BUF)                                  50/1
    Ryan Getzlaf (ANA)                               50/1
    Patrik Laine (WPG)                                50/1
    Brad Marchand (BOS)                            50/1
    Tyler Seguin (DAL)                                50/1
    Nicklas Backstrom (WAS)                      60/1
    Brent Burns (SJ)                                    60/1
    Braden Holtby (WAS)                            60/1
    Phil Kessel (PIT)                                    60/1
    Artemi Panarin (CBJ)                              60/1
    Joe Pavelski (SJ)                                  60/1

    Oilers cap situation is scary, and not just because of Draisaitl, McDavid

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    The Edmonton Oilers pulled the trigger – and likely made teams with big RFA headaches like the Boston Bruins grimace – in signing Leon Draisaitl to a massive eight-year, $68 million contract on Wednesday.

    You have to do a little stretching to call it a good deal, although credit Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshysnki with some reasonably stated optimism.

    Either way, the per-year cap bill for Connor McDavid and Draisaitl is $21 million once McDavid’s extension kicks in starting in 2018-19; that’s the same combined cost that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane receive … and those two got those paydays after they won three Stanley Cups for the Chicago Blackhawks.

    Now, if the Oilers struggle in the near future, plenty of people will heap blame on McDavid and/or Draisaitl. Really, though, the true scapegoats should be a management team with more strikeouts than homers.

    (As usual, Cap Friendly was a key resource in studying Edmonton’s salary structure.)

    Bloated supporting cast

    There are some frightening contracts on the books in Edmonton, especially if a few situations work out unfavorably.

    At 29, there’s severe risk of regression with Milan Lucic, even if he enjoys a more stable second season with Edmonton. He carries a $6M cap hit through 2022-23, so he’ll be on the books for all but two years of Draisaitl’s new deal.

    Kris Russell costs $4.167M during a four-year stretch, and even now, he has plenty of critics. Those complaints may only get louder if, at 30, he also starts to slip from his already debatable spot.

    Andrej Sekera‘s been a useful blueliner, yet there’s some concern that time won’t treat him kindly. He’s dealing with injuries heading into 2017-18, and at 31, there’s always the risk that his best days are behind him. Not great for a guy carrying a $5.5M cap hit through 2020-21.

    One can’t help but wonder if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might be an odd man out once the shackles of the salary cap really tighten. Just consider how much Edmonton is spending on a limited number of players, and you wonder if the 24-year-old will be deemed too pricey at his $6M clip.

    Yeah, not ideal.

    It’s not all bad

    Now, let’s be fair.

    RNH could easily grow into being well worth that $6M. Draisaitl may also justify his hefty price tag. McDavid honestly cut the Oilers a relative deal by taking $12.5M instead of the maximum.

    The Oilers also have two quality, 24-year-old defensemen locked up to team-friendly deals: Oscar Klefbom ($4.167M through 2022-23) and Adam Larsson ($4.167M through 2020-21). They need every bargain they can get, and those two figure to fit the bill.

    Crucial future negotiations

    GM Peter Chiarelli’s had a questionable history of getting good deals. He’ll need to get together soon, or the Oilers will really struggle to surround their core with helpful support.

    Cam Talbot is a brilliant bargain at the strangely familiar cap hit of $4.167M, but that value only lasts through 2018-19. After that, he’s eligible to become a UFA, and could be massively expensive if he produces two more strong seasons.

    The bright side is that the Oilers aren’t locked into an expensive goalie, so they can look for deals. That isn’t as sunny a situation if you don’t trust management to have much success in the bargain bin.

    Talbot isn’t the only upcoming expiring contract. The Oilers have serious questions to answer with Darnell Nurse and Ryan Strome. Also, will they need to let Lucic-like winger Patrick Maroon go? Even with mild relief in Mark Fayne‘s money coming off the books, the Oilers might regret this buffet when the bills start piling up next summer.

    ***

    Look, the truth is that management is likely to be propped up by the top-end in Edmonton, particularly in the case of McDavid’s otherworldly skills. As much as that Draisaitl deal looks like an overpay – possibly a massive one – there’s a chance that he lives up to that $8.5M, too.

    It’s not just about those stars, though.

    The Pittsburgh Penguins gained new life by complimenting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with the likes of Phil Kessel. The Blackhawks have struggled once they couldn’t afford as much help for Kane and Toews.

    You have to mix your premium items with bargains, and one wonders if the Oilers will be able to spot sufficient value beyond the no-brainer top guys. Their recent history in that area certainly leaves a lot to be desired.