How Gretzky trade changed the hockey landscape in LA

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On the 23rd anniversary of the Wayne Gretzky sale trade, it’s only natural to take a look back at the trade’s importance on the league. Stephen Brunt wrote a good book about the entire deal in “Gretzky’s Tears” and Peter Pocklington was able to get his side of the story to the public in an even better effort: “I’d Trade Him Again: On Gretzky, Politics, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Deal.” Plenty has been made of what the trade meant for Sunbelt hockey, the Edmonton Oilers, and Canadian hockey as a whole. But what gets lost in the mix is the immeasurable impact Gretzky’s trade had on the local Southern California market. Outsiders understand that it was a big trade—but people don’t quite understand how it completely shifted sports landscape of the entire region.

The obvious, immediate impact was at the box office. From his first game of Gretzky’s first season in Los Angeles, attendance at the Forum skyrocketed to levels that only Bruce McNall had dreamed of. Gretzky was the biggest name in a game that was still a regional sport in the United States. People may not have known about offsides, line-changes, or icing—but they knew about Wayne Gretzky. Instantly, he put the Kings on equal footing with Magic and the Lakers, Gibson and the Dodgers, USC football, UCLA basketball, and whoever the Raiders/Rams were trotting out onto the field. The team had a marquee name—more importantly, they had the only name in hockey that could transcend all sports and entertainment.

The old, recycled joke from comedian Alan Thicke captured the lack of interest in the pre-Gretzky era pretty well:

“What time does the Kings game start?”

“Depends, what time can you get there?”

Might not be the greatest joke from Kirk Cameron’s on-screen Dad, but it was painfully true. But everything changed when the Kings had their own superstar to grab the sports headlines away from the teams that dominated the LA sports landscape at the time: Lakers and Dodgers.

In the year before he arrived, the Kings averaged only 11,667 fans per game. In his first year, attendance shot up 27% to 14,667 fans per game. In the six consecutive playoff appearances for the Kings after Gretzky arrived, there wasn’t an empty seat for even a single game. The attendance peaked in 1991-92 when the Kings sold out every single game of their 40 game schedule. Not bad for a team that was used to playing to two-thirds capacity in the mid-1980s.

The Kings finished the 1987-88 season with a 30-42-8 record that was good for 18th in the 21 team NHL. In the year before Gretzky’s arrival, the Kings were 5th in the league in scoring—but dead last in defensive. Gretzky was expected to bring more than just a boatload of points; he was expected to bring wins.

Just important as the success in the stands, was the success on the ice. In the three seasons before Gretzky arrived in LA, the Kings had averaged 64 points per season. In the three seasons after he arrived, they averaged 89 points (including the second best record in franchise history in 1990-91). The Kings went from a near .500 team at home to one of the more difficult places to play. Did the fans show up because they won? Or did they win became more people showed up? Most likely it was a little bit of both.

Both the success at the box office and on the ice can still be seen at Staples Center today. There’s an entire generation of fans who are buying season tickets today because their parents jumped on the bandwagon when Gretzky came to town. John Hoven from the fantastic Kings blog Mayor’s Manor shows that the new fans have provided the gift that keeps on giving:

“In the years that followed the Kings found record attendance and Wayne Gretzky continued to re-write the NHL record book. However, his most significant impact on the hockey landscape is probably just now starting to be felt, some 20+ years later. Over the last few years, more and more California-born (and trained) players have been taken at the NHL Draft, including four last year and five this summer. Just another example of Gretzky giving back to the game of hockey, long after he’s retired.”

As time goes on and success continues to elude the Kings, many of the fans can still look back to the Gretzky era for their fondest memories. Gann Matsuda of Frozen Royalty is a perfect example:

“Looking back to before I started writing about the Kings and the NHL, I was a fan of The Great One and had been since his days with the Oilers. I remember back in those days that whenever the Kings and Oilers were on TV, I would make sure to get home and watch so I could marvel at his extraordinary skill—talent that we had not seen before. And after Gretzky was traded to the Kings, I rarely missed a game on television.

I was in attendance at the Great Western Forum on March 23, 1994, when Gretzky broke Gordie Howe’s career NHL goal-scoring record against the Vancouver Canucks. I remember leaping to my feet, arms raised high over my head, cheering loudly along with everyone else. What a great memory that was.

Of course, there were many others, including the amazing Stanley Cup run in 1993 where he put the team on his back and almost willed the Kings to their first championship.”

But most obviously, the biggest change to the hockey landscape in Southern California was the addition of another team. Before Gretzky arrived, hockey fans were usually transplants that had two choices: the Kings or the team from their old hometown. Often times, they chose the latter. With the buzz Gretzky created in the media, the success the Kings achieved on the ice, and McNall’s willingness to open his market (for a one-time cash grab), the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were born. Fans in Orange County and the Inland Empire suddenly had a much closer option to satisfy their hockey fix. Ticket prices had exploded as demand increased for the Kings—there were a segment of season ticket holders who jumped at the chance to cut down on their tickets prices and drive time.

It’s been a divided region ever since. Hard to believe that a region that had a hard time supporting a single team for two decades was able to add a whole new franchise only four years after his arrival.

The biggest loser in the NHL Draft Lottery? Probably the Vegas Golden Knights

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It’s somewhat fitting that the Colorado Avalanche, coming off of a season where they were one of the worst NHL teams in recent memory, found another way to lose on Saturday night when they dropped all the way down to the No. 4 overall pick in the NHL Draft Lottery. For a team that needs a ton of help across the board, that is a huge loss.

But they still probably weren’t the biggest losers in the lottery.

That honor has to go to the team that hasn’t even played a game in the NHL yet, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

Entering the lottery with the same odds for the first pick as the third-worst team in the league (10.3 percent) Vegas ended up dropping down to the No. 6 overall pick thanks to the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers (probably the biggest winners in the lottery, even without getting the No. 1 overall pick), and Dallas Stars all making huge moves into the top-three.

This could not have possibly played out worse for George McPhee and his new front office in Vegas.

These people are trying to start a team from scratch. From literally nothing. The only player they have right now is Reid Duke and while the expansion draft rules are supposedly going to give them more talent to pick from than previous expansion teams, they are still facing a long building process. Even if they do have a decent amount of talent to pick from, they are not going to find a franchise building block among those selections.

Their best chance of landing that player is always going to be in the draft. Their starting point is going to be the No. 6 overall pick.

That is a painfully tough draw for a number of reasons.

First, if you look at the NHL’s recent expansion teams going back to 1990 this is the lowest first pick any of the past 10 expansion teams have had when they entered the league.

  • San Jose Sharks — No. 2 overall in 1991
  • Tampa Bay Lightning — No. 1 overall in 1992
  • Ottawa Senators — No. 2 overall in 1992
  • Anaheim Ducks — No. 4 overall in 1993
  • Florida Panthers — No. 5 overall in 1993
  • Nashville Predators — No. 2 overall in 1998
  • Atlanta Thrashers — No. 1 overall in 1999
  • Minnesota Wild — No. 3 overall in 2000
  • Columbus Blue Jackets — No. 4 overall in 2000
  • Vegas Golden Knights — No. 6 overall in 2017

Only one of those teams picked outside of the top-four (Florida in 1993, and that was in a year with two expansion teams when the other one picked fourth).

When you look at the recent history of No. 6 overall picks it’s not hard to see why this would be a tough starting point for a franchise. Historically, there is a big difference between even the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in terms of value, and that gap only gets larger with each pick that follows.

Just for a point of reference, here is every No. 6 overall pick since 2000: Scott Hartnell, Mikko Koivu, Scottie Upshall, Milan Michalek, Al Montoya, Gilbert Brule, Derick Brassard, Sam Gagner, Nikita Filatov, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Brett Connolly, Mika Zibanejad, Hampus Lindholm, Sean Monahan, Jake Virtanen, Pavel Zacha, Matthew Tkachuk.

Overall, it’s a good list. The point isn’t that you can’t get a great player at No. 6 overall because there are a lot of really good players on there. But there are also some misses, and other than maybe Ekman-Larsson there really isn’t anyone that you look at say, “this is a player you can build a franchise around.”

Just because Vegas is an expansion doesn’t mean they should have been guaranteed the top pick (or even the No. 2 pick). It is a lottery system and it all just depends on how lucky your team is when it comes time to draw the ping pong balls.

But for a team that is starting from scratch, ending up with the No. 6 overall pick in a draft class that is not regarded as particularly a deep one (at least compared to some recent years) is a really tough draw when it comes to starting your team.

If they end up finishing the worst record in the league, as most expansion teams tend to do, they could easily end up picking fourth in 2018.

Just ask the Avalanche what that is like.

WATCH LIVE: Game 3 for Predators-Blues, Ducks-Oilers

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The St. Louis Blues handed the Nashville Predators their first loss of the postseason on Friday night, and will be looking to get the upper hand in their second-round series.

Later, the Edmonton Oilers look to take a commanding 3-0 series lead on the Anaheim Ducks when their series shifts to Edmonton.

Both games will be televised on the NBC Networks as well as online via our Live Stream.

Here is all of the information you need for Sunday’s games.

Nashville Predators vs. St. Louis Blues

Time: 3:00 p.m. ET

Network: NBC (Stream Online Here)

Announcers: Kenny Albert, Pierre McGuire

Anaheim Ducks vs. Edmonton Oilers

Time: 7:00 p.m. ET

Network: NBCSN (Stream Online Here)

Announcers: Chris Cuthbert, Joe Micheletti

The Penguins are finding a new way to win, but can they keep doing it?

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Through their first seven playoff games the results for the Pittsburgh Penguins are matching what they did one year ago on their way to the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup.

A lot of goals. A lot of wins.

The manner in which they are reaching those results could not be more different.

When the Penguins went through the playoffs a year ago they did it by bludgeoning their opponents with a dominating possession game that kept every other team pinned in their own end for extended shifts. They overwhelmed teams with speed, they came at them in waves, and they essentially played shut down defense by playing offense. They kept the puck 200 feet away from their net, and ended up outshooting their opponents on average by a commanding 35-28 margin. It was a truly dominant performance, and the type we have come to expect from every Stanley Cup winner over the past decade. The play on the ice almost always matched the result.

It hasn’t always been as convincing this postseason.

While the Penguins are still winning, it hasn’t always been as convincing of a performance. They have had stretches where they have been pinned in their own zone, forcing them to spend more time defending. They have spent significant periods of time chasing the play, particularly early in games. They are being outshot on average by a 37-30 margin, while those 37 shots against are two more per game than any other team in the playoffs.

Some of this change should have been expected.

From the moment it was revealed that defenseman Kris Letang would not be available in the playoffs it was obvious the Penguins were going to have some trouble exiting their zone.

Letang is arguably their most important player and they were never going to be able to replace the 28-29 minutes he can play in the playoffs with anybody else on the roster. There are only two or three other players in the world at his position that can do the things he does and control the pace of the game the way he does. It is a massive loss, and even though the defense doesn’t really have any glaring weaknesses, they are clearly lacking that go-to No. 1 guy, and maybe even a No. 2 guy. It’s basically a bunch of second-and third-pairing defensemen pieced together trying to make it work.

There was always going to be an adjustment that needed to be made.

So how are the Penguins making it work?

The first — and perhaps biggest — key is that Marc-Andre Fleury has, to this point, been able to remove the doubts that have always followed him around come playoff time. Outside of two games in Columbus in the first-round he has been a rock in net in place of the injured Matt Murray and held off the early onslaught of shots he has faced in almost every game so far.

The Penguins will probably argue that the scoring chances against haven’t always been as lopsided as the total shots and shot attempt numbers would indicate, but it has still at times been an exceedingly heavy workload, and even a little slip in any of those games could have sent them in a completely different direction.

When you break their games down on a period-by-period level the difference is striking.

  • In the first period this postseason the Penguins have been outshot by a 93-48(!) margin. That is astonishing. It is almost a 2:1 disadvantage. And despite that, they have only been outscored by a 5-3 margin and have only trailed coming out of the first period in two of the seven games. They are basically scrambling for the first 20 minutes and taking punch after punch, holding on for as long as they can.
  • The second period is where they tend to turn things around. Quickly. After getting dominated in the first period on the shot chart, the Penguins own a 90-82 shot edge in the second period of games and a commanding 15-6 edge on the scoreboard. This is actually a continuation of what they did a year ago when the second period was when they started to distance themselves from teams. It’s the period of the long line change, and they can use their speed to cause havoc. What’s most amazing is about this is how quickly they have been able to strike in the second period. They have already scored six goals in the first three minutes of the second period this postseason, including five within the first 1:15. In three of those games those early goals were breaking scoreless ties after they had been dominated for much of the first period. That has to be demoralizing for an opponent to fail to capitalize on their early chances, then come right out and find themselves in a deficit on the scoreboard.
  • The third period is basically just finishing the job they started in the second period. The shots are a little closer (they have been outshot 81-71) and they own an 11-6 goal advantage.

Basically, the Penguins have gone from being a team that does the initial attacking offensively and sustaining it for 60 minutes to being more of a counter-punching team.

It works because their goaltender has allowed them to stay in games to get an opportunity to punch back, and because they have the type of high-end talent on their roster to make teams pay for their mistakes.

As big of a loss as Letang has been for the defense, the one thing this Penguins team has going for it is an incredibly deep group of forwards that, when healthy, is probably better than the team that won the Stanley Cup a year ago (the only change is swapping Jake Guentzel, currently the NHL’s leading goal-scorer this postseason with seven, in for Eric Fehr). When you have players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel up front you don’t need a ton of chances. They are going to be able to convert a higher percentage of their shots into goals.

Look, it’s not an ideal way to play, and it’s probably not the way they want to be approaching this. They don’t want to be a team that has to defend and they probably don’t want to give up 38 shots per game and start slow every single night. Just because it’s working now doesn’t mean it’s always going to work in the future. All it takes is a couple of those early shots in the first period to end up in their own net and things can get quickly turned upside down. But as long as Fleury can keep them in games long enough for them to wait for that one mistake to open the floodgates the other way, they are going to have a chance.

It’s not conventional based on what we have seen in the NHL in recent years. It is not what we have seen from the Penguins when they are at their best. But for right now it is working.

Kevin Shattenkirk is having a rough postseason for the Capitals so far

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Facing a 2-0 series deficit it is fair to say that things have not gone the Washington Capitals’ way so far in their second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

They have failed to capitalize on some of their opportunities and starting goaltender Braden Holtby has been off of his game so much that he ended up getting benched on Saturday.

Another issue that needs to be corrected: Kevin Shattenkirk, their prized in-season acquisition before the NHL trade deadline, has had a particularly rough postseason and seemed to bottom out in the Capitals’ 6-2 Game 2 loss on Saturday night.

Along with losing a race to a loose puck to Matt Cullen, allowing the 40-year-old center to open the scoring in the second period with a shorthanded goal, Shattenkirk also took a costly delay of game penalty early in the third period that helped set up Phil Kessel‘s second goal of the game to give the Penguins a 4-1 lead.

Overall this postseason Shattenkirk has zero goals, three assists, and is a minus-seven in eight games.

On Sunday, coach Barry Trotz acknowledged that Shattenkirk needs to be better saying, via CSN Mid-Atlantic’s Tarik El-Bashir, “That’s not good enough for what we need in that third pairing right now,” and adding that his minus-seven rating is “hard to recover from.”

There is obviously a ton of pressure on the Capitals as a team to perform this postseason in an effort to erase all of the sour memories from past postseason appearances.

But there is also a lot of pressure on a player like Shattenkirk individually. Not only was his arrival in Washington supposed to be one of the final pieces for a team that has finished with the league’s best record two years in a row and is still searching for that elusive championship, but as a free agent after the season he is also being watched closely by 30 other general managers around the league.

Whether it is fair or not (it isn’t always fair), playoff performances can — and do — have a huge impact in what teams do in the offseason. Sometimes it is justified, sometimes it is an overreaction to a small sample size of games. But it does seem to matter.

Shattenkirk is an outstanding player, and he has a lengthy track record of success in the NHL to prove it. He is a significantly better player than he has demonstrated over the past couple of weeks, and especially over the past two games. But right now his performance can not be doing himself any favors when it comes to the summer. He has another level he can get to and for both the sake of his team and his quest into free agency this summer he probably needs to find it pretty quickly.