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.

Rangers pay small price to watch Vesey for two more years

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During this time of year, you’re going to see plenty of modest, low-risk signings that usually work out nicely for the teams involved. To an extent, that’s just how restricted free agency works.

Of course, there’s also the notion that players and teams want to avoid salary arbitration hearings, as tears and hard feelings often happened as executives would sometimes ruthlessly argue against someone making extra money.

(Seriously, those discussions might as well have been sponsored by Kleenex.)

It’s nice when you can describe these deals as a win for both sides, and that seems to be the case as the New York Rangers agreed to a two-year “bridge” deal with forward Jimmy Vesey. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports that the cap hit will be $2.275 million per season.

All things considered, that’s perfectly fine.

Vesey, 25, hasn’t exactly justified the hype from “#VeseyWatch,” although considering how slow things can be around the time that sweepstakes heat up for unsigned college free agents, should we really complain?

Predators fans probably shouldn’t complain all that much about Vesey opting against signing with Nashville after they drafted him in the third round (66th overall) in 2012, as he hasn’t exactly been lighting the NHL on fire.

In 2017-18, Vesey scored 17 goals and 28 points in 79 games, numbers that were virtually identical to his 2016-17 stats (16 goals, 27 points in 80 contests). Considering that his highest TOI average was 14:20 per night so far during his NHL career, there’s some reason to believe that Vesey could be a more prolific scorer if given additional opportunities.

The problem is that possession stats indicate that the ice tilts in the wrong direction when Vesey is on the ice, though. He’s been a negative influence in that regard, even relative to Rangers teammates.

On the other hand, the Rangers’ issues were likely at least partially systemic, so Vesey could end up thriving thanks to a coaching change that sees David Quinn replace Alain Vigneault.

And that’s where this contract really makes a lot of sense.

The Rangers get to find out if Vesey should be part of the foundation for their rebuild. If not, the term is manageable and the price tag is very fair for a player who – for whatever faults – almost scored 20 goals despite marginal ice time.

From Vesey’s perspective, he gets a chance to prove that he’s worth a heftier, longer-term contract.

It’s all pretty sensible stuff. It’s up to Vesey to show that the Rangers should’ve tried to lock him down for more years, and also to silence anyone who might gripe about all the attention he received not too long ago.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Devils keep it simple after years of aggressive moves

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The New Jersey Devils making a big, splashy (usually smart) move was starting to feel like a summer tradition along the lines of waterslides and family vacations.

Such aggression paid off pretty tangibly, too, as Taylor Hall won a Hart Trophy while leading the Devils to an unlikely berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Many franchises would take this as a sign to continue pushing chips further into the table. Instead, the Devils are electing – at least currently – to stay quiet, including allowing trade deadline additions Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner to walk.

That trend continued on Tuesday, as the Devils locked down some in-house supporting cast members to affordable contracts. GM Ray Shero handed Blake Coleman a three-year contract that carries a $1.8 million cap hit, while Stefan Noesen signed for one year at a similar $1.75M AAV.

Coleman, 26, seems like a solid enough bet. He generated 13 goals and 25 points in 79 games last season despite a modest 8.9 shooting percentage and equally modest reps (an average of 14:24 TOI per game). Considering heavy usage in the defensive zone, his possession stats were respectable.

The story is more or less the same for Noesen, 25. He scored 13 goals and 27 points in 72 games despite even sparser ice time (13:17 on average) and managed even stronger possession stats while being placed in comparable defensive situations as Coleman.

Overall, this seems like solid stuff for useful (but not ground-breaking) players.

Maybe most importantly, the Devils seem like they aren’t putting too much weight in a postseason run that might be difficult to replicate. At the very least, New Jersey can’t reasonably ask Hall to improve on his fantastic 2017-18 campaign; anything close to that would be gravy.

Granted, there are a few things that actually could shake out better.

Most obviously, Cory Schneider might get his game back together. Despite two consecutive seasons you could probably describe as “backup-level,” his career save percentage remains strong at .920. Maybe this is the “new reality” for the 32-year-old netminder, but there’s also the chance that he might get his game back together. Goalies are tough to predict.

Regardless, the Devils must continue to wade through the Metropolitan Division, which has produced the past three Stanley Cup winners. Alongside those Capitals and Penguins, it’s likely that the Blue Jackets, Flyers, and Hurricanes will be formidable in 2018-19. If New Jersey takes a step back, at least it wouldn’t be after signing risky free agents. They’d probably generally be better off waiting for opportunities to strike, as they’ve done in the past.

(Speaking of leveraging opportunities, perhaps Marcus Johansson will enjoy better health luck next season? His concussion issues ranked as one of the things that didn’t break well for the Devils during what was otherwise a remarkable season.)

No NHL team really gets everything right, and a fair amount of luck is involved in building a winner, but smart franchises try to pile up as many smart moves as possible. Shero’s getting a lot of the big ones right, yet this summer, it seems like he’s making some solid, smaller calls.

Then again, maybe he’s just biding his time for another surprise?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ilya Kovalchuk confident he’s bringing ‘high level’ of play to Kings

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“I’m a young 35.” That’s how Ilya Kovalchuk described himself to reporters during a conference call over the weekend.

If you follow the Russian forward on Instagram, you’ll see that while he’s on the back nine of his hockey playing days he’s doing his best ensure he’s truly a young 35.

Готовь сани летом💪🏻👍🏻🔝… Nice workout with @primal_joe 🔥👌

A post shared by Ilya Kovalchuk (@ilyakovalchukofficial) on

“You just have to train a little more the older you are,” he said.

There are a lot of miles on Kovalchuk’s 35-year-old body. He has over 1,000 professional games played between the NHL and KHL, including 137 games the last two seasons between SKA St. Petersburg and international duty with Russia. Last month, he agreed to a three-year, $18.75 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings — a team with a lot of experience and age, including 10 players who are at least 30 years old.

That’s not a problem in the eyes of the Kings, who lost out in pursuit of him eight years ago and are happy to bring him in to help with their offensive needs.

“He’s very explosive,” Kings president Luc Robitaille told NHL Network last month. “We watched him enough last year and we feel he can [score] in this league. The way our guys [play] — whether it’s [Jeff Carter] or it’s [Anze Kopitar] — they can hold the puck for him. He’s a great fit.”

The Kings have been desperate for scoring having averaged 2.68 goals per game over the last three seasons, good for eighth-worst in the NHL on that span. Kovalchuk netted 30 goals in each of his final two KHL seasons and his 63 points in 2017-18 equates to approximately 72 points over an 82-game season, per Rob Vollman’s latest translation factors. But while there are exceptions to the rule, production from forwards usually nosedives as they get up in their 30s. The supporting cast in LA will play a big part in how much this contract pays off.

“When I was making my decision, it was all about hockey because I have three or four years left in my tank where I can really play at a high level,” Kovalchuk said. “L.A. has a great group of guys. Like I said, great goaltending, great defense, and they have one of the best centers in the league. I never had a chance to play with those kinds of guys, so it’s really exciting for me. It’s great.”

An exceptional talent over his career, you don’t expect Kovalchuk’s production to disappear as soon as he puts on a Kings jersey this season. But it will be interesting to watch, especially on a team that’s been so desperate for scoring.

“I can’t see the future. I will do my best,” he said. “The last few years I was still in the same caliber like I was, so I feel comfortable. Especially when you play with the guys like Kopitar, [Drew] Doughty, Carter, [Dustin] Brown — those guys, they make it even easier to get the points and the goals. We just need to work really hard and be a good team. It doesn’t matter really who’s going to score – we just need to get to our goals.”

Kovalchuk “retired” from the Devils following the 2013 lockout-shortened season but said he followed the league during his time back home in Russia. He sees how the game has changed over the last five years and he’s eager to prove he can be a productive NHL player again.

“It’s a great league,” he said. “All the best players are playing here, and it’s another challenge for me to come back and be who I am and play at the level of where I can play.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Panarin talks not progressing; Biron on Emery

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Monday’s meeting between Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen and the indecisive Artemi Panarin did not result in a whole heck of a lot. (Sportsnet)

• With so many questions surrounding the Montreal Canadiens’ roster for this upcoming season, is it possible that Xavier Ouellet can crack the team’s top-six? (The Hockey Writers)

• We’re still waiting on the trade of the summer (Erik Karlsson), and so while we wait, DownGoesBrown (Sean McIndoe) looks at six times a team has traded a star and won. (Sportsnet)

• Former Buffalo Sabres goalie Martin Biron looks back at a fierce game between his Sabres and the Ottawa Senators back in 2007, a game that included a fight between himself and Ray Emery. (The Canadian Press)

• The potential owners of the NHL’s 32nd team in Seattle are planning quite the practice facility for them if/when the league expands to the state of Washington. (KIRO 7)

• Can the Winnipeg Jets and defenseman Jacob Trouba get a deal done prior to their July 20 arbitration meeting? (Winnipeg Sun)

• Having failed to make a significant impact so far this summer, including not getting in on the John Tavares sweepstakes, it’s time for Don Sweeney to finally make his move. (Murphy’s Hockey Law)

• How is Peter Chiarelli faring this summer? Is he doing what needs to be done to return the Edmonton Oilers to the playoffs? (Edmonton Journal)

• Is there a more polarizing figure with the Toronto Maple Leafs right now than defenseman Jake Gardiner? Trade him! No, don’t do that! Seriously though, don’t trade him. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• It turns out that Joe Pavelski is a pretty darn good golfer. (San Jose Sharks)

• Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green isn’t setting the bar that high for his club next season. (The Canuck Way)

Tristan Jarry seems like the perfect offer-sheet candidate, so why aren’t NHL teams knocking on that door? (PGH Hockey)

• Despite the class-action lawsuit being thrown out in a Minnesota courtroom last week, both players and lawyers have no option but to forge ahead in their battle for concussion transparency. (The Hockey News)

• A tale about how voting for this year’s MVP award led to a fight on Twitter. (CJR)

• For your hockey-hit viewing pleasure, a look back at all of Dustin Byfuglien‘s best hits from last season courtesy of Sportsnet.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck