Heading into the 2017-18 season, there’s a lot of optimism surrounding the Anaheim Ducks, a solid amount still going to the San Jose Sharks, and a pile of doom and gloom for the Los Angeles Kings.
Some of this comes down to crummy luck, but here’s an observation: it’s highly likely that the three California teams will finish very close in the standings.
Let’s consider the state of each team.
To go even deeper, check out PHT’s detailed preview for the Pacific Division.
Waddling through injuries
My goodness are the Anaheim Ducks banged up right now.
The OC Register’s Eric Stephens reports that Ryan Getzlaf won’t play in the Ducks’ season-opening game against the Arizona Coyotes. With John Gibson doubtful, it all adds to a troubling situation. Resounding workhorse Ryan Kesler could be gone for quite some time. Kesler is on IR with wildly underrated defenseman Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Patrick Eaves, and Ryan Miller. Woof.
It’s a testament to what GM Bob Murray’s built that the Ducks still have a fighting chance, as young players like Rickard Rakell bring something to the table.
Still, even well-stocked teams can only withstand so many injuries. Anaheim might just pay the price for its deep playoff run in 2016-17, not to mention the emphasis on aging, physical forwards in the well-compensated duo of Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
In an NHL with injuries turned off like a video game, the Ducks would be one of the NHL’s deepest teams.
Sharks getting sleepy?
Even in losing 5-3 to the Philadelphia Flyers last night, the Sharks put on a pretty good show. When those top-end players are clicking, they’re still pretty special.
That said, consider how old those guys are. Joe Thornton might be the next Jaromir Jagr in aging like hockey-themed wine, but he could also slip at 38. Joe Pavelski, somehow, is 33 already. With a shaky year or two in Minnesota in mind, many might be surprised that Brent Burns is 32. Paul Martin is 36 and Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a high-mileage 30. Even younger cornerstones Logan Couture (28) and Martin Jones (27) aren’t necessarily spring chickens. Joel Ward is 36 and even a supporting guy like Jannik Hansen is 31. This is an old group despite allowing Patrick Marleau to leave for a three-year term.
(Yes, Marleau was great last night, but the Sharks still made the difficult-but-necessary choice there.)
Although there’s skill in players such as Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier, being a regular contender has generally limited the Sharks’ ability to surround those aging veterans with a ton of talent.
A slip is coming, and the drop could be sharp. The Sharks just have to hope that it doesn’t come now.
Reports of Kings’ demise exaggerated?
Look, there’s no doubt that the Kings’ salary cap situation is … appalling.
In the long-term, GM Rob Blake has a mess on his hands that Ron Hextall might have winced at early in the Flyers rebuild. Even in 2017-18, there are some problems.
Still, it’s easy to get swept into excessive pessimism and forget that it wasn’t all bad for the Kings; it’s also possible that their luck might go up a tick.
Don’t forget that the Kings still dominated puck possession in 2016-17. Also don’t forget that, even at their best, the Kings tended to struggle during the regular season. Los Angeles ranked third in the Pacific during its two championship seasons; the Darryl Sutter Kings won two Stanley Cups and zero division titles.
Anze Kopitar’s contract looks scary, yet a 2017-18 rebound is far from unreasonable. They can still revv up “That ’70s Line” with Jeff Carter, Tanner Pearson, and Tyler Toffoli (or at least elements of that). Perhaps system tweaks will allow Drew Doughty to be the fantasy-friendly scorer many dreamed of?
Now, again, there’s some negative stuff. Even beyond predictably depressing updates about Marian Gaborik, the Kings’ defense looks to be without Alec Martinez for some time.
With the Central Division looming as a threat to take as many as five of the West’s eight playoff spots (for all we know), the Pacific Division could come down to the Edmonton Oilers and two other teams.
Don’t be surprised if one or more of those positions become, well, a battle of California. And don’t count the Kings out altogether in that joust, either.