pacific division

It’s Los Angeles Kings Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings. 

2018-19
31-42-9, 71 points (8th in Pacific Division, 15th in Western Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Joakim Ryan
Martin Frk
Todd McLellan — head coach

OUT:
Dion Phaneuf
Brendan Leipsic
Peter Budaj
Willie Desjardins – head coach

RE-SIGNED:
Cal Petersen
Michael Amadio
Alex Iafallo
Matt Roy

2018-19 Season Summary

As far as seasons go, they don’t get much worse than the one the Los Angeles Kings just endured.

They couldn’t score (30th in goals-for), not even on the power play (27th at 15.8 percent) and they couldn’t stop much from going in (22nd in goals-against), and certainly not on the penalty kill (29th at 76.5 percent).

Ilya Kovalchuk‘s NHL return couldn’t save them — he was simply a massive bust.

Their highest goal-scorer had 22 goals, only two players had more than two goals and just one had more than 60 points. And Anze Kopitar‘s season paled in comparison to his 90-plus point campaign from the year previous.

Jonathan Quick forgot how to stop the puck, posting a tremendously ugly .888 save percentage, by far the worst numbers of his career.

John Stevens got fired early, they hired Willie Desjardinsan act that didn’t work out — and then went out and got Todd McLellan to lead them into an uncertain future.

The pain extended all the way to the draft lottery in June where the Kings could have selected, at worst, Kaapo Kakko, if the odds would play out to their 30th-place finish. Instead, they fell three places to the fifth-overall pick… one final kick in the pants.

[MORE: Three Questions | Kings’ rebuild | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

And it hasn’t been much of an offseason, either.

Rob Blake has essentially done nothing over the summer. PHT’s Adam Gretz wrote about quiet Kings a month ago and little has changed since the team shipped out Jake Muzzin to Toronto.

Here are the moves that have been made since the beginning of the year, per Adam’s story:

  • Traded Carl Hagelin, who had played only 22 games with the team after being acquired for Tanner Pearson, to the Washington Capitals for two mid-round draft picks
  • Traded Nate Thompson, who had played only 79 games with the team, to the Montreal Canadiens for a fourth-round draft pick
  • Traded Oscar Fantenberg, who had played only 74 games with the team, to the Calgary Flames for a conditional pick in 2020.
  • Bought out the final two years of Dion Phaneuf’s contract
  • Signed Joakim Ryan to a one-year deal in free agency

The pessimist fan will tell you it’s all doom and gloom right now and they’d be right. The Kings are used to being juggernauts in the Western Conference. Those days are long gone. Next season isn’t going to be pretty.

The optimist, meanwhile, will say the upcoming season — while nearly lost before it even has a chance to begin — is about the kids coming up and a lot of assets coming the team’s way around the trade deadline.

Pending free agents Tyler Toffoli, Trevor Lewis, Kyle Clifford and Derek Forbort could all be on different teams before the season is through. If a team gets really desperate for, say, a goaltender, shipping out Jonathan Quick may become a possibility, too.

That would all add up to cap space to be used up next summer, even with Phaneuf’s buyout hitting it for just over $4 million.

That should offer a glimmer of hope, at least, because there’s not much to suggest this coming season will be any better.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Can James Neal bounce back after ugly season in Calgary?

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James Neal figures he’s re-invigorated.

One can assume the salivating prospect of playing alongside Connor McDavid would have that sort of effect. For Neal, it could also mean putting behind him a horrible season where he failed to hit double-digit goals for the first time in his career and finished with just 19 points in 63 games.

The 2018-19 season made Neal the biggest bust of last year’s free-agent crop. Despite playing on the team that was tops in the Western Conference at the end of the regular season, the only thing Neal’s game topped was the scrap heap. It got so bad that when the Flames needed a win in Game 5 of Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Neal was parked in the press box as the Flames crashed out of the postseason.

But there’s hope in Edmonton after Ken Holland and the Oilers acquired Neal for Milan Lucic. Hope, because Holland has already done what those previous to him couldn’t: get Lucic out of town. And hope, because as bad as Neal’s season was last year, there’s optimism that he could turn it around this year.

That faith rests in his shooting percentage. Never before had Neal shot below 10 percent in all situations in his career over a full season and never below nine percent in five-on-five situations. Last year, his shooting success was just five percent in all situations and 4.63 percent in five-on-five.

As Willis points out, if that shooting percentage just returns back to the mean, Neal could double his goal total without much extra effort.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Neal’s shot contributions are very good. Using CJ Turtoro’s player comparison tool, you can see just how stark the contrast is between himself and Lucic, who replaces Neal in Calgary.

Take those shot contributions and put them on a line with McDavid and profit?

So there’s it’s a good bet that Neal can contribute. How much so remains to be seen.

He’s still a positive possession player, even during his down year last year (50.58%). Over the past three seasons, he’s been outscored five-on-five, something that hadn’t happened previously since 2008-09. His expected goals were the third-lowest of his career. And he shot just 141 times, the lowest total outside of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

Either last season was a sign of things to come or an outlier for a player fully capable of potting 20 goals. At 31, he isn’t a dinosaur by any means.

Shedding Lucic’s no-movement, $6 million a season contract was a win already. And if Neal is on McDavid’s wing, it will be interesting to see how big of a rebound season he can have.


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

Oilers’ season captured in second-period meltdown

Associated Press
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If there ever was a seven-minute stretch that perfectly summed up the Edmonton Oilers’ 2018-19 season, it happened on Tuesday night against the Colorado Avalanche.

Leading 2-0 nothing in the second period, and with a goal already in the bank by Milan Lucic — the $6 million man’s sixth of the season — the Oilers reverted to their true colors in a span of 7:08.

A promising looking contest, one day after Connor McDavid declared that he was “really, really” frustrated with how this season has gone in Edmonton, the Oilers forgot how to play hockey and Mikko Koskinen forgot how to stop pucks and the walls came crashing in. Again.

The result was four-straight goals from the Avalanche in an epic collapse for Edmonton, even by their own lowly standards.

Nathan MacKinnon walked through three Oilers who were just standing still for the 2-1 goal. The tying goal came when Koskinen, who was handed a silly contract extension earlier this season, whiffed on what should have been a routine save on Tyson Barrie.

Alex Kerfoot scored the go-ahead goal after he was left unmarked in front of Koskinen. The insurance marker came on a backhand from the high slot off the stick of Colin Wilson, another puck that needed to be stopped.

And then there was the defeated skate by 100-plus point man McDavid back to the Edmonton bench. It’s ugly in northern Alberta, and who knows how the Oilers — a cash-strapped team when it comes to the salary cap — get out of this mess. Two 100-point players (Leon Draisaitl being the other) and the Edmonton Oilers are going to miss the playoffs for the second straight season with the best player in the world in their lineup.

If nothing else, it’s a shame for hockey fans who want to see McDavid’s talents while he chases down a Stanley Cup.

Instead, they’re left with efforts like Tuesday night. As McDavid said on Monday, “It’s just not good enough.”


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

Grubauer extraordinary as Avalanche extend wildcard lead

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‘Gruuuuu’ will be the soundtrack to the Arizona Coyotes’ nightmares tonight when they lay their heads down to sleep tonight.

Enter Sandman? Nah. Enter Philipp Grubauer.

An incredible 42-save effort, one that included Grubauer shaking off two third-period goals that brought the Coyotes level with the Colorado Avalanche in the final eight minutes game, gave the Avalanche a crucial 2-1 shootout win in a pivotal game that may have just settled the wildcard race in the Western Conference.

Colorado’s big offseason acquisition pulled through in the clutch. He survived a 20-shot barrage in the third, stopped three shots in overtime and then turned aside Nick Cousins, Alex Galchenyuk and then Vinnie Hinostroza with a sprawling right-pad save in the shootout to put the Avs three points ahead of the Coyotes with four games to go.

Is it over for the Coyotes? It’s probably a bit too early to say that, but the Avalanche hold the keys to their own playoff destiny now, and no one but themselves and prevent them from unlocking that final spot in the Western Conference.

Arizona certainly showed some poise facing a 2-0 deficit in the second half of the third frame.

Here’s a quick synopsis:

With exactly 8:01 remaining in the third period, the Coyotes and their season appeared to be evaporating quickly.

With exactly 8:00 left in the frame, their Oliver Ekman-Larsson threw them a lifeline.

A captain’s goals if there ever was one, OEL pulled the Coyotes to 2-1. But the Coyotes were still in need of another here. Or the same one. That’d work.

And with exactly 49 seconds left and the net empty 200 feet the other way, OEL did it again to at least secure a point.

Darcy Kuemper turned in a big performance of his own, making 25 saves, including a couple biggies on Nathan MacKinnon, who was flying.

The return of Gabriel Landeskog after a nine-game absence with an upper-body injury was a big boon to the Avs, who are also without Mikko Rantanen. Landeskog provided the assist on MacKinnon’s 1-0 goal.

Derick Brassard even scored, with the trade deadline acquisition finding a big goal.

Both of Colorado’s goals came on the power play, significant because the Coyotes came into the game with the NHL’s best penalty kill. Arizona didn’t give the Avs much five-on-five, so the extra room to breathe on the power play played a critical role.

Colorado has St. Louis, Edmonton, Winnipeg and San Jose left on their schedule. The way Friday’s game shook out was the worst-case scenario for the Minnesota Wild, who are also in the fight four points back after a big win against the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday. Minnesota meets Arizona on Sunday.

The race isn’t over, but some clarity was gained.


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

Avalanche hold on, regain sole possession of final wildcard in West

In a battle for one lone playoff spot, a massive win by one contending team often demands an equal or greater response from another.

It’s either that or things get dicey.

With Arizona winning 1-0 against the Chicago Blackhawks, they drew level with the Colorado Avalanche on points for the second and final wildcard in the Western Conference. The win threw the ball back in the Avs’ court, a high-stakes game of HORSE that’s drawing ever closer to an epic conclusion after narrowly holding on to a 4-3 win against the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday Night Hockey.

Colorado seemed up to the task right out of the gate, finding goals from Matt Calvert and Nathan MacKinnon inside the first 10 minutes of the opening period to jump out to a 2-0 lead through the first 20.

Winners of six of their past 10 outings, and with points in their previous five, the Avs kept their foot on the gas and Tyson Barrie snatched a 3-0 lead early into the second period. Barrie’s goal was his record-breaking 73rd with the franchise, ushering him past Sandis Ozolinsh for most by a defenseman.

The Golden Knights entered the night needing a single point to clinch their second berth into the playoffs for the second time in their two-year existence. Despite not having Marc-Andre Fleury due to injury, the Malcolm Subban-led Knights had done an admirable job holding the fort in his absence with 10 wins in their past 13 games.

And like a team running hot, Vegas stormed back following Barrie’s goal, striking twice through Paul Stastny and Reilly Smith to pull them to within a goal.

Gabriel Bourque restored the two-goal cushion late in the period, a goal that survived a challenge for goaltender interference.

Vegas poured it on in the third, firing 15 shots on Philipp Grubauer (who ended his night with 34 saves). One beat him — an Alex Tuch swat out of mid-air that made for a nail-biting finish for the Avs.

Vegas had several chances when they pulled Subban as a full-frontal assault came the way of the Avalanche net. Adding to the drama was a penalty to the Avalanche with eight seconds left gave Vegas one final chance.

This is how close Jonathan Marchessault came to tying the game, grabbing a point that would have snagged a playoff spot for the Golden Knights.

Arizona’s win and Colorado’s response only adds to the hype train rolling into their meeting on Friday, a game that could very well decide the race if Colorado is to win or one that will write another chapter if Arizona can continue to defy all expectations.

They don’t get bigger than that down the stretch.


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