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Don’t be surprised if Kings, Ducks, Sharks finish with similar records

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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.

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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.

Canucks, Kings ‘put on a show’ during first NHL preseason game in China

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SHANGHAI (AP) A golden dragon was held aloft on poles by skaters. Kobe Bryant appeared on video. NHL mascots gave the crowd a primer on what this odd game is all about.

NHL preseason hockey made its debut in China – a 5-2 victory by the Los Angeles Kings over the Vancouver Canucks – in a step by the league to crack an immense market.

The fans in Shanghai got a fast and physical display Thursday – 17 power plays and 57 shots on goal, all met with loud cheers. Each hard check drew a collective “oooh” or “aaah.”

“Obviously, you wanted to put on a show for the fans here and they got to see some goals, too,” said Vancouver forward Sven Baertschi, who scored the Canucks’ first goal.

An announcer came onto the ice to explain the finer points of the game as Fin (Vancouver’s killer whale) and Bailey (Los Angeles’ lion) acted out infractions such as charging, crosschecking, tripping and hooking.

A golden Chinese dragon came out next, hoisted on poles by seven skaters. A group of Chinese kids in hockey uniforms joined the NHL players during China’s national anthem.

With Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the NHL is showcasing two preseason games in a country unfamiliar with hockey. The Kings and Canucks play their second game in Beijing on Saturday.

Even if the rules remain somewhat of a mystery, the crowd appreciated the speed and collisions.

“To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know the crowd, the noise, the atmosphere,” Los Angeles coach John Stevens said. “I think the whole thing for me is we’re here to grow the game. It’s my hope that the more they see it, the more people like it.”

Tanner Pearson scored twice for the Kings and Alec Martinez and Jeff Carter each had a goal and an assist. Jonathan Quick made 31 saves.

Team allegiances were hard to find in the crowd, the most demonstrative fans being rowdy Canadians waving their country’s flag.

Spectator Inge Zhang was more appropriately attired for an NBA game, wearing a Miami Heat jersey with pink letters. A media manager for the Shanghai Sharks basketball team, she was excited because she heard a certain NBA great might be there.

“So we came here actually for Kobe Bryant,” she said while her friend laughed. “But I love this sport, too.”

Bryant, in fact, did show, although in a video message to support his hometown Kings.

“I see more foreigners here tonight than Chinese, but I think there are still a lot of hockey fans in China,” Zhang added. “I think the NHL should take this opportunity to grow the sport here.”

That’s the plan now that the NHL has signed a contract to bring two preseason games to China for six of the next eight years.

“The effort here really is to build from the grassroots up, to try to grow the appreciation for the sport, the understanding of the sport,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said before the game. “We’ve certainly made the Chinese Ice Hockey Federation and the Chinese government aware that we’re willing to help any way we can as they gear up and prepare for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.”

But this is the first step in a long process.

“It’s great for China itself to see the NHL live and in person, see the speed of the game, how good the players are,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “But whenever you’re bringing hockey to a new country, it’s going to take time. I think it’s great the NHL is committed to doing that.”

Kings outlast Canucks in first edition of NHL China Games

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The Los Angeles Kings came away with a 5-2 preseason win over the Vancouver Canucks in the first of the 2017 NHL China Games. This contest took place in lovely Shanghai.

Adrian Kempe got the ball rolling for Kings, as he scored the first goal of the game on the power play to make it 1-0 for his team (top).

Kings forward Tanner Pearson scored a great shorthanded breakaway goal to extend Los Angeles’ lead to 2-0 (check out the Pearson goal by clicking the video below).

The shorthanded goal against wasn’t the only issue the Canucks power play had in this game. Vancouver managed to score once on the man-advantage, but they finished the game 1-for-14 in that department (yes, it’s only a preseason game).

with Vancouver trailing 3-0 in the second period, Sven Baertschi finally got them on the board to cut the Kings lead to 3-1.

Markus Granlund made it 3-2 in the third period, but that’s as close as the Canucks would come to tying the score.

Pearson extended Los Angeles’ lead to 4-2 before Jeff Carter finished off the game with an empty-net goal.

These two teams will meet again in Beijing on Saturday at 3:30 a.m. ET.

Kings’ power play – with Toffoli on point – is latest nod to modern NHL

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Considering how well the Darryl Sutter-coached Los Angeles Kings hogged the puck, there was a sense that he yielded as much as one could expect from a talented, but aging roster.

With a new regime in the front office (from GM Rob Blake to assistant-turned-head-coach John Stevens), there’s at least one interesting test taking place: what if modern tactics were applied to a Kings team that, structurally, often felt like a “throwback” team?

(Again, to Sutter’s credit, that throwback style worked very well at times.)

LA Kings Insider’s Jon Rosen reports that the Kings are embracing the modern approach that sometimes scares off more conservative coaches: going with four forwards and one defenseman on a power play.

Rosen reports that the team rolled with Michael Cammalleri, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli, and Drew Doughty on their top unit. In that alignment, Toffoli joined Doughty on the points.

The puck movement drew praise from Rosen:

There was ample movement; such positioning didn’t always remain that way. Toffoli drifted lower towards the half wall, and Doughty often was found straight away, at the top of the key. The plan? More one-time opportunities from high-danger areas closer to the net.

Of course, it’s important to note that it’s September, and the Kings could go a different way once the games count in the standings.

Even if their philosophy stays the same, injuries could force personnel changes. Then again, this alignment leaves a talented forward like Tanner Pearson off the top unit, so it’s plausible that this 4F-1D combo could weather a storm or two. Pearson could also nudge his way in if the Kings believe they need a better balance of left and right-handed shots (and so on).

Checking Left Wing Lock’s listings, it’s clear that his is quite the departure, as the Kings rolled with Doughty plus either Jake Muzzin or Alec Martinez in most instances last season.

Los Angeles fell in the middle of the power-play pack in 2016-17; their 19.1 percent rate of success ranked 15th, while their 46 power-play goals tied for 16th in the NHL. They only allowed three shorthanded goals, so for those other numbers to climb, they might have to stomach more risk.

When you ponder how much the Kings struggle to score at times, it might be worth it.

For more on the pros and cons of putting a forward on the point, check out Matt Cane’s 2015 bit for Hockey Graphs.

Daunting Drew Doughty decision looms for Kings

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This post is part of Kings Day on PHT…

Out of context, re-signing Drew Doughty is as close to a no-brainer as it gets in the NHL.

A resounding resume

The Norris Trophy winner and elite defenseman has been a rock for the Los Angeles Kings, and his significance might only become more pronounced as the franchise deals with big changes (and losses on the blueline) in 2017-18.

Now, $7 million is undoubtedly a lot of money, but Doughty would command a (flinches) king’s ransom on the open market. So, when that cap hit expires in 2018-19, Doughty will get paid. It’s remarkable that, considering his robust resume of accomplishments, Doughty is now just 27 and will be 29 when his current deal expires.

Fixer upper

The question the Kings face isn’t really about re-signing Doughty.

Instead, it’s the difficult riddle of trying to squeeze out more runs with this current core or giving a rebuild a bold shot in the arm by – wait for it – trading Doughty sometime during the next season or two.

Los Angeles could conceivably gain a lot in trading Doughty, especially if GM Rob Blake is creative. In making such a courageous move, the Kings could enjoy some combination of:

  1. Salary cap relief, in convincing a trade partner to eat ugly deals in Dustin Brown ($5.875M through 2021-22) and/or Marian Gaborik ($4.875M through 2020-21) as part of a Doughty deal.
  2. Gain precious draft assets and/or prospects. Much like other contenders, the Kings’ farm system took some hits as they angled to contend with this current group. It was generally worth it, but now Blake & Co. need to pick up the pieces.
  3. Trading for roster players who are young and cheap.

Why they must ponder the seemingly unthinkable

Let’s not forget just how old this team looks. By the end of Doughty’s contract, Brown and Jeff Carter will both be 34. Anze Kopitar, who just turned 30, will be 32. Jake Muzzin will be 30 and will only have one year remaining on his bargain $4M deal. Alec Martinez will be 32. Jonathan Quick will be 33. Gaborik will be 37 and, barring a buyout or move, will still be on the books for two more seasons.

We’ve already seen Kopitar struggle, and while Carter’s been resoundingly productive at a great rate, Father Time seems to punish snipers as much as anyone.

Even Doughty would be close to 30 by then.

It’s unclear how many of these Kings deals are easy to move, and to some, that might serve as a signal to just go for it and then suffer through a rebuild.

Still, you wonder how desirable it would be for Doughty to stay if Los Angeles really starts to slide, although it wouldn’t be surprising if he remained loyal to a squad he won two Stanley Cups with.

A matter of time

On the bright side, the Kings have a full season before they can even sign Doughty to a contract extension, so 2017-18 could serve as a helpful barometer for this situation. Even so, you never know when an optimal trade offer might come; a team could conceivably be willing to give up far more for Doughty if it means getting him for a season or more at such a valuable rate.

It’s all a lot to take in, and trading Doughty would almost certainly stand as a wildly unpopular move with Kings fans, even if the returns were solid and the logic is sound.

At minimum, it’s something management should think long and hard about. It could be one of the most fascinating situations to watch, especially if you’re the type of hockey fan who pines for rare big trades after seeing that mammoth Kyrie Irving – Isiah Thomas trade in the NBA.