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How good are the red-hot Kings, really?

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The Los Angeles Kings play beyond a lot of people’s sleepy times, so many might have missed this, but they’re once again boiling-hot right now, what with their seven-game winning streak. While the St. Louis Blues are up there with them, the Kings came into Friday leading the Western Conference with 41 points in just 30 games played.

With all of that in mind, let’s ponder who and what might be driving the Kings, how this year’s team remains different from the Darryl Sutter days, and the hot streaks that might cool off.

GOATpitar

Giving long-time great players “lifetime achievement” awards via individual trophies is one part charming and two parts obnoxious, but if you must force such a sentiment, Anze Kopitar‘s making quite the argument for a hat-tip Hart Trophy.

For one thing, he’s in range of the Art Ross Trophy after years of being a guy who would top out around 70 points, leaving him strong but not strong enough to threaten for the lead. With 36 points in 30 games, Kopitar could eclipse his career-best 81 points from 2009-10, the only time he hit the 80-range. As of this writing, he’s ranked sixth overall in the NHL.

That’s impressive on its own, but consider that he’s been chained to Dustin Brown (who’s MYSTERIOUSLY enjoying a profound career revival) and Alex Iafallo, an undrafted forward who came into 2017-18 with nary a game of NHL experience under his belt. Hot take: the gap between Kopitar and Brown is larger than that between Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

Wherever you rank Kopitar among the elite, he’s reclaimed his place as one of the best forwards – nay, players – in the NHL. As it turns out, some of those “I feel healthy!” stories have some merit, after all.

The Kings’ triumvirate reigns

So far, Los Angeles has been propelled by its biggest names: Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick, three stars so revitalized, it’s kind of surprising that someone hasn’t flopped out some asinine “The Kings hated Darryl Sutter theory.”

(Oh no, I didn’t jinx it, did I? Sorry.)

Doughty currently has 24 points on the season, ranking third among Kings scorers. He could set career-highs, and even if he slows down, seems likely to at least generate the third 50+ point season of his career. Oh yeah, Doughty’s also gleefully acknowledging the buckets of money he’ll likely collect after his contract expires following the 2018-19 campaign. Seasons like these might not hurt his value, you might assume.

Finally, there’s Jonathan Quick …

Ridiculous goaltending

… Which brings us to at least one big, red flag.

With a career .916 save percentage, Quick might be playing over his head a bit with his current season, generating a splendid .929 mark.

Then again, maybe you could argue that the Kings are playing to his strengths more often system-wise, and/or getting him to tweak his techniques to best take advantage of his outstanding athleticism. Those are all plausible points, although it’s reasonable to wonder if he might, say, slip closer to a still-very-good .920 flat.

The overall goaltending is almost certain to slip, though, as Darcy Kuemper (career .912 save percentage) isn’t likely to maintain a shockingly efficient .941 save percentage.

Now, this doesn’t mean the Kings will go from sitting on the netminding throne to allowing goals like jesters, but one would expect at least some regression. It will be intriguing to find out how much they might slip.

No longer the puck hogs

For years, the Kings were far and away the most dominant team from a puck possession standpoint, while also often suffering from poor shooting and/or save percentages. Now, according to Natural Stat Trick and other sites, they’re a middle-of-the-pack possession team with blindingly outstanding shooting and saving numbers.

The truth is out there is likely somewhere in between with this team. The organizational push toward quality after years of quantity is modern-minded, so this is ultimately a good step, even if some of the results might be a touch misleading.

Road warriors

One trait the Kings share with many of the other NHL’s top teams is just how well their game has traveled so far. Right now, they’re a bit better on the road (10-3-1) than at home (9-5-2). Maybe that will dip a bit, but it’s nice to bank those tougher wins while you can. In many cases, winning those extra road games could mean, say, getting that playoff Game 7 at home a bit more often.

Interesting supporting cast

So, there are some intriguing things to consider about the Kings:

  • Iafallo ranks as one of a few solid new/new-ish players. Adrian Kempe‘s been great so far, while established-but-under-the-radar wingers Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli are contributing nicely. Just feast your eyes on this beauty of a goal.

And, heck, this one for good measure:

  • I feel the need to mention that Jake Muzzin‘s been quite effective, too, and continues to build a nice resume as one of the other guys on the Kings defense.
  • Some veteran scorers could influence this team’s ceiling.

On one hand, you have Jeff Carter, a forward who’s carried the Kings offense during significant stretches during recent seasons, sometimes being the main catalyst when Kopitar struggled. Can he get healthy? Is he finally hitting the regression wall with his 33rd birthday looming on New Year’s Day? (Aside: today is Doughty’s birthday, fittingly enough.)

On the other hand, Marian Gaborik has six points in eight games. This isn’t to say that Gabby will find the fountain of youth and regain his status as “that high-scoring guy when he’s able to play,” but if he can even flirt with the form he showed in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Kings suddenly have depth to go with what’s been a top-heavy group so far.

***

Overall, there are some clear signs that the Kings are probably playing over their heads.

A team that once was forced to grind through bad luck and low-percentage plays now seems to hit the lottery with percentages more than we’ve seen with L.A. in some time.

Still, it’s not all gloomy, especially if the Kings can beef up their supporting cast. Considering the age of their core players, they might just want to test their championship window and ponder a worthwhile “rental” or two.

A franchise that once seemed to be swirling down the sink now gets to swing for the fence one more time.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: NHLPA Executive Board backs RTP, CBA agreement

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

• The NHLPA’s Executive Board has approved the tentative Return to Play and Collective Bargaining Agreement. Now things move to the full union membership vote for ratification. Voting, which is by secret, electronic ballot, begins Wednesday and will end Friday. [NHLPA]

• Inside the NHL bubble: testing, what could cause postponement [PHT]

Justin Williams on coming back to the Hurricanes for one last run: “I didn’t come back to play 20 games. I came back for a chance to win a Stanley Cup.” [News and Observer]

• “Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr found sensible solutions to shared problems without resorting to any of the hostility or grandstanding these negotiations are typically known for. They and their respective leadership teams started meeting out of the spotlight last summer before recalibrating on the fly and piecing together the framework for this agreement amid a health crisis that poses a significant threat to their industry and many others.” [Sportsnet]

• Will any NHL players opt out of the Return to Play? [The Hockey News]

• These X-factors will shape the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. [ESPN]

• “Lawyers for the NHL Players’ Association are scheduled to appear by video conference before an Ontario judge Tuesday in an effort to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a former union employee who alleges the NHLPA covered up a theft of more than $100,000 in union funds by one of its executives.” [TSN]

• It doesn’t sound like Jake DeBrusk, a pending RFA, will be looking for a hometown discount this off-season. [NBC Sports Boston]

• Who is the No. 1 goalie and will rust be a factor are just a couple of questions facing the Penguins ahead of their series vs. Montreal. [Pensburgh]

• Are the Predators better served hoping to win the No. 1 pick or advancing by the Coyotes? [A to Z Sports Nashville]

• The Oilers are deeper than their solid special teams units. [Oilers Nation]

• A long-term knee injury could keep Juuso Valimaki out of the Flames’ lineup next month. [Flames Nation]

• On the challenges facing Flyers veterans after a long break. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

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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.

IIHF encouraged by NHL’s potential return to Olympics in ’22

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International Ice Hockey Federation chief Rene Fasel is encouraged after learning the NHL’s pending labor deal opens the possibility of the world’s best players returning to the Olympics.

Aside from the uncertainty raised by the coronavirus pandemic, Fasel told The Associated Press he doesn’t foresee any major stumbling blocks that could derail negotiations leading up to the 2022 Beijing Games.

“No, I don’t think there’s a deal-breaker,” he said Tuesday. “There are a lot of challenges. But I think in principle, I would say the news that that’s in the CBA, for me and especially international hockey, is very good news.”

Fasel spoke a day after the NHL and NHL Players’ Association tentatively agreed to extend the collective bargaining agreement for four years, which would run through the 2025-26 season.

A person with direct knowledge of the agreement told the AP it includes a provision that would allow NHL players to compete at the next two Winter Games, including the 2026 Olympics in Italy. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the contents of the CBA were not released.

The league participated in five consecutive Olympics before skipping the 2018 Games in South Korea.

In order to return, the NHL and its players would first have to resolve various outstanding issues — including health insurance, travel costs and marketing rights — with the IIHF and the International Olympic Committee.

Travel costs alone to Pyeongchang two years ago were projected to be $15 million, which the IOC refused to pay. The NHL was also denied control of using Olympic game footage to promote the league and players. Another concern was weighing the benefits of shutting down the regular season for two weeks only to have Olympic games being played in the early morning hours in North America due to the 14-hour time difference; a similar time difference would be present for 2022.

Fasel acknowledged the NHL’s concerns and said he was encouraged after the parties had what he called “a very positive meeting” in New York in early February. Follow-up discussions were placed on hold due to the pandemic.

“We didn’t give up after Pyeongchang. We understood the situation, how it was at that time. No bad feelings,” he said. “We really hope it will come in ’22, and we are ready to work and find a solution.”

The NHL and union have declined to discuss the proposed CBA until it is approved, which could happen as early as Friday.

Carolina Hurricanes veteran forward Justin Williams called the Olympic proposal “really attractive.”

“I just think it’s great for the game of hockey to be able to showcase the best players,” Williams said. “The Olympics are a special event in itself, but having NHL players there, even as actual players, we love to see the best on best. That’s pretty special.”

USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher said he was thrilled by the possibility of being to put together a team with NHL players, which could include rising young stars such as Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau and Seth Jones.

“It’s exciting to consider the team of Americans that could represent our country in Beijing, and we applaud the efforts of the NHL and the NHLPA in making this a possibility,” Kelleher said.

The NHL previously tamped down the chances of returning to Olympic play.

“At this point in time, we believe that the negatives outweigh the positives,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said following the February meeting in New York. Daly did raise the prospect of folding Olympic participation into CBA talks.

NHLPA executive director Don Fehr had a different take on talks with the IOC and IIHF, saying: “The impression I had coming out of the meeting was there ought to be a way to get this done to everybody’s satisfaction.”

Fehr previously described the decision to skip the 2018 Games as a lost opportunity to showcase the sport.

Fasel, whose term as IIHF president was extended a year to September 2021, praised the NHL and players for addressing the Olympics in the CBA.

“We do not have leverage, and we just have to get the PA and the NHL to understand this is good for the promotion of the sport, especially in Asia,” Fasel said. “I’m happy that in the end they understand this is important for the development of ice hockey in the future.”

Blackhawks say team name honors namesake who inspired

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CHICAGO — The Chicago Blackhawks say they will continue to use their team name because it honors a Native American leader who has been an inspiration to generations.

”The Chicago Blackhawks name and logo symbolizes an important and historic person, Black Hawk of Illinois’ Sac & Fox Nation, whose leadership and life has inspired generations of Native Americans, veterans and the public,” the NHL team said in a statement Tuesday.

”We celebrate Black Hawk’s legacy by offering ongoing reverent examples of Native American culture, traditions and contributions, providing a platform for genuine dialogue with local and national Native American groups. As the team’s popularity grew over the past decade, so did that platform and our work with these important organizations.

”We recognize there is a fine line between respect and disrespect, and we commend other teams for their willingness to engage in that conversation. Moving forward, we are committed to raising the bar even higher to expand awareness of Black Hawk and the important contributions of all Native American people. ”

The Athletic first reported on the team’s statement.

Under renewed pressure to change their name, the NFL’s Washington Redskins announced a ”thorough review” of the issue. In baseball, the Cleveland Indians are also looking into it while the Atlanta Braves declined.

Prospects like Kaprizov, Romanov, Sorokin won’t be eligible for NHL return, playoffs

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NHL teams hoping to get a playoff/return-to-play boost from the likes of Kirill Kaprizov (Wild), Ilya Sorokin (Islanders), and Alexander Romanov (Canadiens) seem to be out of luck. At least for what’s left of 2019-20 for the NHL, aka the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Athletic’s Michael Russo, TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, and Newsday’s Andrew Gross rank among those who reported as such about Kaprizov, Sorokin, and Romanov, among others.

Kaprizov, Sorokin, Romanov and others can’t play yet — but can burn a year off ELCs

There is a wrinkle, though.

Such reports indicate that Kaprizov, Sorokin, Romanov and others could burn a year off of their entry-level contracts, even though they can’t participate in the NHL return to play to wrap up 2019-20.

Now, would it be logical to burn a year off of entry-level deals for the likes of Kaprizov, Sorokin, and Romanov? Probably not. Overall, there are likely too many drawbacks for the players, teams, or both.

Take Kaprizov and the Wild, for example.

If you want detail about the Kaprizov/Wild/KHL situation, Russo’s covered those bases multiple times at The Athletic, including here (sub required). But to simplify things, the Wild and/or Kaprizov probably won’t go for burning off 2019-20 from a two-year entry-level deal because:

  • The Wild would only really have Kaprizov signed for 2020-21. While that would finally draw him to the NHL, it would merely give them a single season to gauge Kaprizov’s value. And, with the COVID-19 pandemic looming as a continued threat to stability, who knows if they’d even get that season?
  • Considering that the 2020-21 NHL season might start in December or January, Kaprizov would be stuck idle since March. Meanwhile, the KHL aims to begin its 2020-21 season around September. Kaprizov would risk serious uncertainty for limited gain.

So … yeah, teams have some reason to at least consider burning a year off of entry-level deals for the likes of Kaprizov, Romanov, and Sorokin. But it just doesn’t seem like the wisest path, generally speaking.

With that out of the way, let’s take a quick look at Kaprizov and the Wild, Sorokin and the Islanders, Romanov and the Canadiens.

Waiting game continues for Wild, fans, Kaprizov

Plenty of people deem Kaprizov, 23, as the best player in hockey not playing in the NHL.

Kaprizov ranked first in the KHL in goals (33 in 57 games), also finishing close to the scoring title with 62 points. This was no fluke, as Kaprizov also scored the most goals (30) in the KHL during the 2018-19 season. Doing so at such a young age only leaves Wild fans even more anxious to see him.

And, unlike other young scorers, it doesn’t sound like many critique Kaprizov’s overall game. Back in May, The Hockey News’ Matt Larkin collected some rave reviews about Kaprizov, noting comparisons to “Artemi Panarin‘s mind” combined with Vladimir Tarasenko‘s tank-like body.

Sounds pretty good! The Wild should probably think about bringing Kaprizov over, eh? *Ducks*

But, yeah, a Wild team searching for good news and breakthrough talent could sure use Kaprizov. Maybe next season? Sadly, it sounds like at least a medium-sized maybe.

 

Islanders won’t get a peek at Sorokin

When you compare immediate concerns, Ilya Sorokin seems more like a luxury for the Islanders.

After all, the Islanders enjoyed another season of above-average goaltending. Semyon Varlamov was solid, and much like in 2018-19, Thomas Greiss provided comparable work to the Islanders’ would-be No.1. The sum result wasn’t at the level of what Greiss and Robin Lehner accomplished, but plenty of NHL teams must envy the Islanders’ goaltending.

So they don’t “need” Sorokin, seemingly.

But we’ve seen teams put together big playoff runs with rookie goalies intermittently since at least Ken Dryden swooped in, dominated, and leaned pensively on his goal stick for the dynasty-era Canadiens. That thought goes for goalies of various pedigrees, but particularly someone like Sorokin.

The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler didn’t just rank Sorokin as the top drafted goalie prospect in hockey (sub required). Wheeler also believes that Sorokin could end up being a better goalie than fellow Russian netminders Ilya Samsonov, Igor Shesterkin, and Alexandar Georgiev. Look at Sorokin’s superb KHL stats, and you can see why there’s excitement and intrigue.

Besides, at 24, Sorokin’s getting to that age where the Islanders want to see what they have. Varlamov is 31, and Greiss is on an expiring contract and is 34.

However unlikely, a Sorokin-powered playoff run would’ve been the dream. Getting a better idea of where Sorokin ranks on the depth chart would have been nice, too.

Canadiens won’t get to make defense deeper with Romanov

How much of an impact would Alexander Romanov make for the Canadiens? Answers may vary.

The Ahtletic’s Scott Wheeler barely squeezed Romanov on his top 50 drafted prospects list at No. 48 (sub required). That said, Wheeler admitted that he’s lower on Romanov than many in the hockey world. This seems to be true, as Romanov placed 10th on The Hockey News’ future watch list, representing a meteoric rise from 45th the previous year.

Perhaps some of that variance comes down to how much weight given experts put on tournaments vs. season play.

  • The now-20-year-old defenseman earned top defenseman billing at the 2019 World Junior Championship, and excelled during the 2020 tournament, as well.
  • On the other hand, Romanov’s KHL stats have been modest, including a single goal over two KHL seasons (86 regular-season games).

But, in cases like Romanov’s, it’s often a debate regarding “How good?” The Hockey News’ Matt Larkin wrote that Romanov “looks like a future top-pair defenseman.” Wheeler sees Romanov more as a “sound defenseman” who could help in transition, yet probably won’t put up big numbers.

Either way, the Canadiens absolutely could use a player like Romanov. The better he ends up, the happier they are, of course. But even a steady presence would have helped against the Penguins.

Plenty of other prospects not involved in NHL return beyond Kaprizov, Romanov, and Sorokin

Denisenko at the 2019 WJC. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

Naturally, there are noteworthy players who won’t get to participate in the NHL return to play beyond Kaprizov, Romanov, and Sorokin. This post isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but two other players come to mind:

  • Grigori Denisenko – The Panthers share some of the same space as the Wild and Canadiens as bubble-adjacent teams who could use a boost. Denisenko isn’t considered as surefire as Kaprizov, but there’s a lot to like about the 20-year-old forward. That said, this would hurt even more if Denisenko was a defenseman, because Florida is pretty brutal in that area.
  • Jack Dugan – Like Romanov at 48, Dugan snuck into Wheeler’s top 50 at 47 (Denisenko ranks at 36, Kaprizov sits at six). Wheeler ranks among those that wonder if Dugan would make an immediate impact for the Golden Knights out of the NCAA. Some wonder if Dugan can eventually become a top-six forward. In other words, this isn’t necessarily a Cale Makar-style instant success story.

But Dugan breaks from some of the others on this list in being a prospect for a more proven team. The Golden Knights rank among the top four Western Conference teams, thus they’ll participate in the Round Robin for Seeding. I’d argue that Vegas stands out as one of the best of even that smaller group.

So imagine if Dugan can merely give them a boost? It’s arguable that Dugan could be a bigger deal than maybe a better prospect for a more needy team.

We won’t get to find out, though. While it’s the safer move, it’s a letdown for teams hoping for Kaprizov, Sorokin, Romanov, Denisenko, Dugan, and others.

Also, this means lost opportunities to make bad “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan/Jack Dugan jokes. Bummer.

More on the NHL return to play:

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.