A Summer to forget for California Hockey
Friend of The Hockey Guys, Matt Reitz from View From My Seats, took the time to put together a guest piece for us. He breaks down the off-season for the California based NHL teams. A very interesting take on the way the summer has panned out for those left coast squads.
By Matt Reitz – View From My Seats
When Tupac was talking about “A state that’s untouchable like Elliott Ness,” I’m fairly confident he wasn’t talking about California’s hockey teams. The teams that form a rivalry that Kevin Lowe mocked and has a website dedicated to were not nearly as active as many of the other clubs around the NHL—but that wasn’t necessarily a horrible thing. They all could have done better and they all have holes they’ll need to address this season, but each can take a different positive from their off-season. One team got a few defenseman (but need a few more), one team saved a ton of money that they’ll need next year, and another team re-signed valuable players who would have been impossible to replace.
Sometimes it’s not the headline-grabbing moves that are the best.
At least, that’s what the teams in California will be selling to their fans this offseason.
San Jose Sharks
To be the best in California, you have to beat the best. Even though there are 101 Sharks jokes when it comes to the playoffs, the fact is they have been one of the most consistent teams in the NHL over the last decade. They’re good—every year they’re really good. So if we’re going to start this party right, we need to do it in NoCal.
The biggest moves the Sharks made this season weren’t additions or players they lost, it was players they kept around. GM Doug Wilson was able to avoid a Patrick Marleau bidding war by locking him up before July 1st. Likewise, he didn’t allow Joe Pavelski to reach restricted free-agency by signing him to a 4-year contract on the same day. Mix in a mind-numbingly cheap 1-year deal for Devin Setoguchi, and the Sharks had a productive off-season. And don’t forget about that huge Niclas Wallin re-signing!
But not everything was sunshine and rainbows for the Sharks. For the first time since 2000, they won’t be able to pencil Evgeni Nabokov for 60+ games between the pipes. They lost Captain Rob Blake to retirement (we can debate whether that’s good or bad another day) and underrated center Manny Malhotra to free-agency. So even though they locked up some of their own, there were a few holes to fill.
Replacing Nabokov will be a combination of newcomer Antero Niittymaki and last year’s backup Thomas Greiss. The Jamal Mayers signing is designed to give a little more forward depth to help fill the void left by Malhotra’s decision. A full season with Nic Wallin looks like the current answer to fill Rob Blake’s skates on the ice—or the penalty box. Unfortunately for the Sharks and their fans, Niklas Hjalmarsson was the plan to fill the blueline void. But when the Blackhawks chose him over Antti Niemi, they removed San Jose’s best option to improve their defensive corps.
Bottom Line: They’d look a lot better with Hjalmarsson and proven goaltender.
For the first time in a while, the expectations aren’t through Honda Center’s roof. At least they shouldn’t be. While GM Bob Murray hints at a big deal that may or may not happen, they’re currently sitting on a blueline that would be dwarfed by last year’s Windsor Spitfires. But their biggest acquisition might be in a blueliner they drafted from those very same Spits. Cam Fowler dropped to the 13th pick, the Ducks quickly snagged him with their 1st round pick, and they’ve already signed him to an entry level contract. With names like Brett Festerling and Brendan Mikkelson standing between Fowler and a spot in the NHL, it looks like he’s going to get every opportunity to make the team out of training camp. He has all the tools to be a very good NHL defenseman, but just the fact that they are considering him to make the big clubright out of camp shows how thin their roster is. There’s no way he’d have a chance to make the team 3 years ago. This year, he could be fighting with Luca Sbisa for that lastroster spot.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen (pun intended). Remember when the Ducks had a blueline with guys like Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Francois Beauchemin, and Mathieu Schneider? After some major blockbusters over the last 6 months, they’re now sitting on a blueline that features Lubomir Visnovsky, Toni Lydman, Andy Sutton, Sheldon Brookbank, and a handful of other prospects that won’t make anyone forget Niedermayer and Pronger. They traded one of their best defenders from last season in James Wisniewski for a draft pick. Oh, and they picked up Danny Syvret, as well. So there’s that. On the plus side, the Ryan Whitney/Steve Eminger pairing is long gone!
Up front, the Ducks were able to re-sign Saku Koivu to a 2-year contract. Conventional wisdom says that if Koivu re-signed, chances are Teemu Selanne will be back for another year, as well. We won’t find out Selanne’s plans until he ends his own version of Brett Favre’s favorite game: “Retire or No Retire.” But at this point, they certainly could use another skilled forward to help put the puck in the net.
Unfortunately, the Koivu signing and Selanne indecision are not the biggest stories around the Ducks forward group this off-season. Going into August, the Ducks and restricted free agent Bobby Ryan look to be at an impasse on the contract front. The Ducks want to sign the talented winger to a 5-year, $25 million contract that would eat up a couple of his unrestricted years. On the other hand, the Ryan camp seems intent on signing a deal in the 3-year range for the same amount of money per season. It’s a situation that looks like it could go on for a while.
Bottom Line: Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are going to have to score like they’re Gretzky and Kurri, Jonas Hiller is going to need to show everyone why he’s making $4.5 million per season, and the defense is going to have to exceed expectations if the Ducks want to be competitive this year.
Los Angeles Kings
The biggest move the Kings made this season was the one they couldn’t make—no Ilya Kovalchuk means no elite sniper, but also means no cap problems next season. But by no means was Kovalchuk the only free agent the Kings attempted to land. They pushed hard for defensemen Dan Hamhuis, only to see him spurn the Kings for another organization.
Regardless, this isn’t the off-season of change. That is next year. This was supposed to be the year the Kings made a few fine-tuning adjustments to improve on last year’s success. But next year? Next year they’re going to have to lock-up their long-term future. Drew Doughty, Wayne Simmonds, Jack Johnson, Jonathan Bernier, and Brad Richardson all seem to be part of the Kings long-term plans—and each one of them is a restricted free agent at the end of the 2010-11 season. So while outsiders will talk about all the cap space the Kings have, they won’t have as much wiggle room after next season.
That’s not to say the Kings haven’t done anything this year. After missing out on Kovalchuk, watching Simon Gagne get traded to the Lightning, and seeing Alexander Frolov sign with the Rangers, the Kings organization moved with the quickness of a cat to lock-up LW Alexei Ponikarovsky for a single season. Not only that, they were able to avoid arbitration with Brad Richardson and signed him to a 1-year, $900k contract.They were also able to sign assistant coach John Stevens, not to mention the extensions for assistant coaches Bill Ranford and Jaime Kompon. Are you noticing the sarcasm? Because I’m laying it on pretty thick.
But just because they were unsuccessful in the free agent market doesn’t mean the team will look the same next year. In addition to Frolov, both Sean O’Donnell and Randy Jones are gone. About a week ago, the Kings also learned that Matt Greene will be out until around November. That would mean the Kings are looking at Doughty, Rob Scuderi, and Jack Johnson on defense. That’s it. They have plenty of prospects they have been grooming, but I sincerely doubt Dean Lombardi would feel comfortable with the 3 returners and 3 rookies on the back-end. Forget management, I doubt fans will be saving for those playoff deposits if they don’t acquire a defensemen before the start of the season. Stay tuned, because there’s no way the Kings can be done this off-season.
Bottom Line: When the Kings said they were going to make a big splash this summer, they were probably just talking about some new promotion featuring surfboards and Manhattan Beach.
Really, not one of the Californian teams has done anything to make themselves a better club than they were last year. No one the Ducks sign will be able to replace Scott Niedermayer, the Sharks have treaded water and hope Antero Niittymaki will be able to adequately replace Evgeni Nabokov, and the Kings management has been long on promises and short on delivery. Seriously, the best free agency newcomer would be a battle between Alex Ponikarovsky, Toni Lydman, and Andy Sutton. Not exactly difference-makers, are they?
Despite the fact the Ducks landed Lydman and Sutton, it’s easy to make the argument that both the Sharks and the Kings faired better in free agency. The Sharks succeeded because they were able to bring back Marleau and Pavelski—very few teams can say they acquired two better players. The Kings succeeded because despite a 3 week standoff, they resisted the urge to throw away their salary structure and their rebuilding project is still on schedule. Sometimes, the best action is inaction. It might be hard for Kings fans to see that now—but they’ll rest a little easier when trying to re-sign all of their young players next season.
You want to know who the winners are? We might need to talk about your definition of “winning.”
Matt can be found on Twitter: @ViewFromMySeats
Be sure to visit his site and all the great writers he has on board by clicking: www.viewfrommyseats.com