Drew Doughty

Bulletin-board material: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup

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This is the fifth edition of this column, and if you look back (2013, 20142015, 2016), we’ve rarely been wrong. Cry all you want in the comments section, but there’s no way your team is winning it all.

Ottawa Senators: The worst team to make the playoffs. Which makes it even funnier that their owner chose this year to “bet” on the Sens to win the Cup. Good ol’ Eugene Melnyk, the master of unreasonable expectations. Fact: the Sens were the only team to make the playoffs with a negative goal differential. They play a gimmicky system that severely limits their offense, and they play it because they’re not good enough to take on legitimately good teams straight up.

St. Louis Blues: According to the odds makers, the longest shots of the bunch. Bovada has the Blues at 33/1, and frankly, that might be generous. Even GM Doug Armstrong doesn’t think his players can win. Why else would he have traded Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington at the deadline? That’s not a move contenders make. Sure, the Blues won a few games down the stretch, but only because Jake Allen went on an unsustainable run. The Blues had their chance last year. Their window has closed.

Toronto Maple Leafs: A.k.a. last year’s Dallas Stars. The Leafs may have a dynamic offense, but they’re still terrible defensively. Only two teams, Buffalo and Arizona, surrendered more shots this season, and that’s no formula for success in the postseason. Don’t worry, Leafs fans, you’ll still have fun just being there in the playoffs. But until management finds a way to add another top-4 defenseman – preferably one that can help protect a freakin’ lead — there’s no hope of winning it all.

Nashville Predators: The definition of mediocre. The Preds are 11th in goals for, 15th in goals against, 16th on the power play, and 15th on the PK. Despite all the preseason hype, this team just never got rolling. It would play well for a week, then awful for a week, then well, then awful, and you get the point. Oh, and by the way, is it fair to question whether Ryan Johansen is truly a No.1 center, the kind the Preds thought they were getting when they traded Seth Jones to Columbus? After just 14 goals in 82 games, we think it’s more than fair. Bottom line: Johansen better start showing a little heart. Otherwise, those “soft” and “lazy” labels won’t be going anywhere.

New York Rangers: Granted, they had a better-than-expected regular season. But the Blueshirts still have the same Achilles’ heel: there’s just no way they can make a deep run with that defense. Other than Ryan McDonagh and maybe Brady Skjei, who is trustworthy back there? Who can make a positive contribution on a consistent basis? Who doesn’t need to be sheltered? Who still has gas left in the tank? You’re struggling to answer, and for good reason. The Rangers finished the season in an 8-9-4 tailspin. Even if Henrik Lundqvist is good, they’re gonna find it tough to make a run. And Lundqvist has not been good.

San Jose Sharks: Pete DeBoer would have you believe that this year’s Sharks are even better than last year’s group that went to the Stanley Cup Final. Of course, he said that at the All-Star break, before the Sharks’ season-ending slide that cost them first place in the Pacific Division. Add injuries to Joe Thornton and Logan Couture to the equation and the Sharks look like a team that peaked too early this season, one with an aging roster that’s going to have trouble matching the pace and intensity of the playoffs. In other words, what they looked like against the Penguins.

Edmonton Oilers: All it took was four first overall picks and the Oilers are back, baby! Way to go, guys. We thought you’d never make it. It’s funny to hear all the great things Peter Chiarelli’s done as GM in Edmonton, when in reality winning the draft lottery and getting Connor McDavid is the sole reason the playoff drought is over. (OK fine, maybe a bit of Cam Talbot too.) The problem is, a team needs strength everywhere to win the Cup, and the Oilers still have a blue line with no hint of a true No. 1 defenseman. Imagine a team winning it all with a top four of Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Andrej Sekera, and Kris Russell. You can’t imagine it, because it’s too ridiculous to even try.

Calgary Flames: The other team from Alberta that won’t be winning the Cup. To be fair, the Flames do have a good collection of skaters, both up front and on the back end. They’re probably a better overall team than the Oilers. Except they’ve got one, big problem: Brian Elliott cannot be trusted, and everyone knows it. One day he’s unbeatable, full of swagger and confidence, the next he’s in the depths of a horrendous slump, questioning everything. It’s way beyond the typical highs and lows that come with being a goalie. When Elliott loses his rhythm, he really loses his rhythm. And that’s not the kind of goalie who’s going to win you 16 stressful games.

Boston Bruins: The big problem with the B’s is their depth. Their third and fourth lines don’t produce enough – or anything, really — and whoever ends up on the bottom pairing, you know they’re going to be a liability. On top of all that, Zdeno Chara is 40 damn years old, and he’s still being tasked with No. 1 d-man responsibilities. That’s too much to ask of the NHL’s oldest defenseman, especially in a league that’s never been faster. The Atlantic Division is terrible, so the Bruins can probably win a round or two. But they won’t get any further than that.

Montreal Canadiens: You don’t win the Stanley Cup without a great center. Sidney Crosby. Jonathan Toews. Anze Kopitar. Patrice Bergeron. That’s the bar you have to reach. And the Habs aren’t even close. Their centers are Phillip Danault, Tomas Plekanec, Andrew Shaw, and Steve Ott. They also have Alex Galchenyuk, though he’s not trustworthy enough to play the middle, apparently. Even with Carey Price in goal, it won’t be enough to overcome Montreal’s lack of talent at center. The playoffs are all about matchups, and the Habs can’t match up.

Minnesota Wild: One of the best teams to start the season, but one of the worst to end it. And there’s a simple explanation for that – the Wild’s luck was bound to run out, and that’s exactly what happened. Devan Dubnyk was never going to maintain the .936 save percentage he took into the All-Star break, and his teammates were never going to maintain whatever ridiculous shooting percentage they had. At the end of the day, the Wild are a good but not great team. The same thing they’ve been since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed on. Haven’t been past the second round yet.

Anaheim Ducks: Cam Fowler is out at least two weeks, and it could be six. For a Ducks team that was starting to roll at just the right time, make no mistake, this is a devastating injury. Fowler led the Ducks in ice time (24:51), and with 39 points, he was their highest-scoring d-man. Now it’s up to the young guys to step up. Hampus Lindholm and Brandon Montour are only 23, and Shea Theodore is just 21. Also, watch for opponents to pick on the Sami VatanenKevin Bieksa pairing. If Randy Carlyle decides to put those two together, that’s a defensive disaster waiting to happen.

Columbus Blue Jackets: A nice story early on, when the power play was unstoppable and Torts looked like a motivational genius. But after a 27-5-4 start, the Jackets went 23-19-4 in their final 46 games, and their power play absolutely stunk (11.4%). If not for Sergei Bobrovsky, their record would’ve been even worse in the second half. Columbus still has a bright future, but a team doesn’t go from terrible to Stanley Cup champion in one year. These playoffs will be a good experience, but nothing more.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pens had a legitimate shot to become the first repeat champs of the salary-cap era. We say “had,” because Kris Letang’s injury is too much to overcome, even by a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. To say otherwise would be to discount how well Letang played in last year’s playoffs. It was bar none the best hockey of his career. He was as important to the Pens as Duncan Keith to the Blackhawks and Drew Doughty to the Kings when those teams won it all. The defending champs will still be a tough out, but they’ll be an out all the same.

Chicago Blackhawks: The ‘Hawks may have gotten the band back together on defense, but that doesn’t mean it was a good idea. Brian Campbell is 37 years old. Johnny Oduya is 35. These guys are not in their primes anymore. As the playoffs wear on, assuming the ‘Hawks can win a series or two, this roster is going to show its age.  And that includes 38-year-old forward Marian Hossa, who’s always been such an underrated part of Chicago’s dynasty. Hossa is still pretty good, but he’s not the player he once was. In the end, age catches up to everyone, and all those Blackhawks rookies that have been forced into the lineup aren’t good enough to make up for it.

Washington Capitals: All the stars have aligned for the first championship in franchise history. A cinch of a first-round opponent in the Leafs. The Penguins without their best defenseman. Whoever comes out of the Atlantic bracket should be no threat whatsoever, and let’s face it, the Western Conference isn’t so daunting anymore. It must be equal parts exciting and terrifying for the Caps and their fans, because it all looks so darn easy. The team has stayed remarkably healthy all season. It added Shattenkirk at the deadline. So… you know why the Caps won’t win? Because it’s never, ever easy. There’s always a Black Swan lurking, and doesn’t this tortured franchise know it. Blow it this year, Caps, and there will be no coming back from the devastation.

Kings will explore ‘different philosophies’ to help scoring woes

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The Los Angeles Kings had great possession stats again this season, but for whatever reason, all that time with the puck didn’t translate into many goals.

The Kings’ ineffective offense is the single biggest problem for new general manager Rob Blake to fix heading into next season, after Dean Lombardi was fired Monday along with head coach Darryl Sutter.

“We don’t score,” Blake said today. “There needs to be some emphasis on how we’re going to do that. There’s time now through this offseason to come up with those different philosophies. Whoever the head coach, when he is hired, will have a major impact on that.”

Blake will also seek input from the Kings’ core players. Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter, and Anze Kopitar were all at today’s press conference.

“I’m going to lean on these players to find out,” said Blake. “They’re the ones on the ice delivering that, and we’re going to share ideas here, and they’re going to direct us in the right way.”

It remains to be seen if a style change can help the Kings. It’s not going to make Marian Gaborik or Dustin Brown any younger, but it could help Doughty and Kopitar unlock some more of their offensive abilities.

That being said, Sutter’s philosophy delivered two Stanley Cups to Los Angeles. The real problem with the Kings these days might be their roster, which hasn’t been infused with enough youth to stem the declines of Brown and Gaborik, or the outright loss of players like Justin Williams.

Read more: Kings facing identity crisis

In other news from today’s press conference, there’s been no decision yet on the future of assistant coaches John Stevens and Davis Payne, and Blake expects to find a new position for VP hockey ops Michael Futa.

 

Few easy answers as Kings face identity crisis after ouster of Lombardi, Sutter

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In most cases, when a firing happens, you understand the reasoning behind the decision. Even so, there’s also an important question for the new regime: how much power do they really have to change things?

The Los Angeles Kings stand as an especially interesting case.

With two Stanley Cup victories in tow, franchise history will smile upon the legacies of both GM Dean Lombardi and head coach Darryl Sutter. Still, new GM Rob Blake and team president Luc Robitaille have some difficult questions to answer.

Let’s categorize the questions they face into two broad categories (more here, even if it was written before Lombardi was fired):

Rebuild or reload?

The Kings have an aging core full of problem contracts, especially if a rough 2016-17 campaign stands as a sign of things to come for Anze Kopitar (rather than an outlier).

Maybe most interestingly, Drew Doughty only has two years remaining on his current deal that carries a reasonable $7 million cap hit.

Theoretically, Rob Blake could look at the situation as being a two-year window to try to continue to contend … or he could try to use Doughty’s deal to try to get out of some of those tough contracts and/or add some high-end draft assets to rebuild faster.

Hogging the puck, but struggling to put it in the net

It’s a tough call because the Kings have generally a) dominated puck possession but b) rarely enjoyed “easy” regular seasons. They’ve very much been a grind-it-out team.

Former Kings goalie Kelly Hrudey wondered if Los Angeles needed to adapt to the league’s larger trend toward faster puck movement and faster players.

“They’re having these discussions about style of play. Is it Darryl’s style that just doesn’t work in today’s game, with the speed and so on, or is their organization that they put on those kinds of players?” Hrudey said recently, as Sportsnet reports. “I’ve covered them twice in the last eight days, and I don’t know if that group can play fast enough.”

Really, it’s been an issue that Lombardi has been aware of some time, wrestling with the topic as early as 2015.

“We’re not able to go in and, I guess, out-skill you,” Lombardi told LA Kings Insider almost exactly two years ago. “It’s not often you’re going to watch and say, ‘wow, they won, and there’s a lot of highlight plays out there.’ So we’re not that type of team, which I think, also, was why we’re successful in playoffs, because we’re used to playing, and we’re built that way. In playoffs it’s about taking away space and creating your own space. You’re not going to get that space you’re going to get during the regular season, so it’s kind of that Catch-22.”

Indeed, that’s the question: maybe it would be ideal to play a faster style, but do they really have the personnel to do so? And then those questions circle back to the previous issue of rebuilding vs. reloading. It’s all … well, very confusing.

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There are a number of ways this can shake out. Management can blow it all up, trading out as many older players as they can and trying to start from scratch. They could “rebuild on the fly” like the Sharks once dig in moving Ryane Clowe and Douglas Murray for picks in 2013. Failing that, they can lean toward smaller tweaks and see if a new coach and/or system might do the trick.

No way to sugarcoat loss of Letang

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Even though Kris Letang isn’t the best player on the Pittsburgh Penguins, there is a strong argument to be made he is probably their most important player, the most difficult to replace, and the one they can not afford to lose if they are going to win another Stanley Cup.

That is why the Penguins’ announcement on Wednesday that Letang will be sidelined for 4-6 months due to a herniated disc in his neck is such a significant blow to their Stanley Cup chances, even if they get all of their other injured players back in the lineup in time for the start of the postseason. None of them are Kris Letang.

In all honesty, they would probably have a better chance to win it all if they had a healthy Letang, but were without one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, than they do with both Crosby and Malkin, but no Letang.

The thought process behind this is simple. Without one of Crosby or Malkin they still have another No. 1 center. They still have a forward that can drive the offense. But when you take Letang out of the lineup, there is nobody else that can play the 28 minutes per night that he does in the playoffs. There is nobody else that can dictate the pace of the game in every key situation the way Letang does. There is nobody else that can serve as a one-man breakout coming out of the defensive zone and skate the puck out of danger. Or join the rush as smoothly as he does. Or chase down just about any forward in the NHL.

Crosby might be the Penguins’ heart and soul, but Letang is the engine the makes the whole system run.

“He’s an elite player and a great teammate,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan on Wednesday. “He’s a tough guy to replace.”

Every Stanley Cup team needs that type of workhorse defenseman, and every one that wins has it. The Penguins have Letang. The Chicago Blackhawks have Duncan Keith. The Los Angeles Kings have Drew Doughty. The Boston Bruins had Zdeno Chara.

So how are the Penguins going to make this work?

The biggest key will be the play of Justin Schultz, because he is probably the one defender on the blue line that can at least somewhat replace some of what Letang does, at least when it comes to sparking the offense.

After starting to regain some of his confidence late last season and in the playoffs following the trade from Edmonton, Schultz’s career has taken a massive step forward in 2016-17.

With 49 points in 76 games he is starting to resemble the player the Edmonton Oilers thought he would be so many years ago.

But he has mostly been doing that in a complementary, support role. Now he has to be not only one of the go-to guys on defense, but perhaps the go-to guy.

Since Letang went out of the lineup on Feb. 28 no defenseman on the team has logged more minutes per game than Schultz’s 23:42, and while his play has remained strong, his production has fallen off a little from where it was before then. Prior to March he was averaging 0.66 points per game and was a 52 percent corsi player in 19 minutes per game. Since March 1 he is at 0.55 points per game and is a 49 percent corsi player. And again, there is also the fact that for as good as he has been, he still isn’t Kris Letang.

If the Penguins have one thing going for them it is the fact they were at least somewhat prepared for something like this and have some depth thanks to the trade deadline additions of Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit.

Think back two years ago to when Letang was also sidelined for the playoffs and the Penguins went into their first-round series against the New York Rangers having to rely on the likes of Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy to play 22 minutes per night, while also using Taylor Chorney on their bottom pairing. That was a bad situation.

Things are not quite that dire this time around. With Hainsey, Streit, Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin, and the possible returns of Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, they at least have enough bodies to piece together a very formidable NHL defense that can help them compete.

To their credit, they have been able to withstand Letang’s absence (on top of several other key players) for the better part of the past two months. They have the quantity on the blue line to maybe get through it.

They just don’t have the elite, No. 1 guy.

Where that becomes a problem is the playoffs are an entirely different animal than the regular season.

While the Penguins have been able to get by in recent weeks, it may not be as easy when they have to play a playoff caliber team every night for potentially seven games. That team might be able to better exploit that weakness. They will not get the occasional game against a last place team or non-playoff team that they can sneak past.

And for the Penguins, coming out of the Metropolitan Division bracket their postseason path is going to have to take them through Columbus and most likely Washington in the first two rounds if they are going to come out of the Eastern Conference again. That is two of the four best teams in the NHL right now.

Even with Letang that would have been a tall mountain to climb.

It is simply that much steeper without him.

Video: Nugent-Hopkins splits the Kings defense, scores a beauty goal

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored an absolutely gorgeous goal on Tuesday.

After picking up the puck at full speed in the neutral zone, Nugent-Hopkins skated right through the L.A. Kings’ defense, leaving Drew Doughty in his dust, and deking to the backhand on Jonathan Quick for the goal.

That was his second goal of the night and 18th of the season.