Goalie Jonathan Quick (#32) of the Los Angeles Kings controls the puck during the first period

California Threatens Once More

California has been a tough go for teams from all parts of the country and Canada over the past several years. It’s a common question to teams who visit the Anaheim-LA-San Jose juggernaut whether they’re happy with a split, or even just to get two points. Sometimes, they admit that they are.

This year, that’s going to be the same. Check that. It’s going to be worse, if you look at San Jose and LA. In Anaheim, not so much, as loads of changes and the loss of Corey Perry with a knee injury should serve to slow the Ducks down. On the other hand, a slow start is seemingly in their genes, and they’ve recovered from one before. More than once, in fact.

So what’s up with the teams? San Jose’s story is simple: Eric Karlsson changes everything. He makes the Sharks so good on the blueline that it has even been suggested by a national radio personality, one has to assume not entirely in jest, that they could consider putting Brent Burns back on the wing. Marc-Edouard Vlasic adds to the strength on the blueline.

To put it in the terms fans on the Left Coast know, here’s the formula. Having Karlsson and Burns on the same defense is like what the Ducks had when it was Niedermayer and Pronger. What happened that year, you ask? Anaheim won the Stanley Cup. Does San Jose have the depth to do that? Recall also that that Ducks team had speedy Selanne, well back from a knee injury, Getzlaf and Perry as youthful speedsters, and a fantastic third line that shut down everyone they faced.

As the season starts, and we get to see the Sharks down here in the Southland, I’ll report in with more. But don’t assume that the “aging” Thornton is incapable of a monster year, nor that the scoring will be hard to come by. Aside from that defense, remember that Couture and Evander Kane (remember when he came to the West last February?) are primed to better their totals of 34 and 29 goals last year.

Thornton, 39, has over 1000 career assists, and he’s set to center the team’s top line. He’s had major work done on each knee over the past couple of years. Helping out with the offense should he get hurt, or maybe anyway, will be Antti Suomela, a free agent who will probably slot in at third-line center. He’ll take over for Chris Tierney, lost to Ottawa in the Karlsson deal.

That allows us to move back south to LA. The Kings’ equation goes like this: Kovalchuk plus almost anybody equals more goals, and that’s what the Kings desperately need.

Now, who’s going to play with him? You could make the case that it could be almost anybody but Jeff Carter, who slots in as the third center with Kopitar as number one and Kovalchuk as two. But low and behold as the preseason went on, there was Carter with Kovalchuk and Kempe. An experiment perhaps, but if it starts to yield a goal or two a game, why not? The Kings still have lots of offensive potential, including a pair of players who have been together as they were in the past, youngsters Pearson and Toffoli.

Part of the reason why it was even possible to put Carter and Kovalchuk together was that Michael Amadio impressed everyone in the organization with his camp, and he’s slotted to be the third center. He’s not without NHL experience, having played 37 games in the big league last year, with eight points on four goals. To complement that, he was more than a point-a-game guy in Ontario of the AHL.

New players in the LA lineup are likely to be few, because the Kings have a strong core that has remained. Two potential additions who were getting some audition time as the Kings took on the Ducks on Saturday night in each team’s preseason finale were Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Austin Wagner. Emerson Etem, also hopeful of a spot, did not play in this game.

The former two are competing for a real spot, the last one, as the extra forward, as camp ends.

In prior years, that decision would have been more momentous than now, because to send a guy up or down meant a near-impossible cross-country flight to Manchester, New Hampshire. Now that the AHL team is in Ontario, California, about 60 miles and perhaps 2-3 hours (yeah, traffic can suck bigtime) east of Manhattan Beach, where many of the players live, it’s far easier to give a guy a short audition and send him back to the farm.

And in an interesting twist, that team will spend a good deal of time in LA this year, training where the Kings do, so the call-ups, or send-downs, will literally be like walking across the hallway to another room. The only downside: the Reign are essentially going to be playing their entire season on the road, as they’ll have to make the trek to Ontario after morning practice and spend the afternoon in hotel day rooms to get their naps and perform their routines.

On the other hand, most NHL teams now don’t practice and play in the same place, so going to the rink for a game is not like going where they spend most of their hockey-playing lives, in their practice rinks. Maybe they get used to it. From an outside point of view, it looks awkward. I’d much rather practice where I play.

Any, on the send-down/call-up thing: Anderson-Dolan, who is just 19, is a different case. He turned that age in early September. That also means that he was 17 when he was drafted two years ago, in the second round, in 2017. It’s called the “18 year-old draft,” but a player is eligible if he will turn 18 by September 15th of a given summer. He was the 41st overall pick, by, it need not be said I assume, the Kings.

He has shown steady growth in Junior hockey, and last year exploded over 70 games with 91 points and 40 goals. He got into five Reign games last season, recording two assists. But the point is, if he gets sent down, it’s back to Junior.

Wagner played in Ontario with the Reign last year, putting up 10 goals in 50 games, and he can go back and forth, no problem, because he’s just 21 and thus not subject to waivers yet, being within the three-year window that allows the team to move him up and back at will.

10 goals as a left wing in the pro league one down from the NHL doesn’t sound like much, and it’s also true that his best year in Junior was not as good as Dolan-Anderson’s, but the word on this guy is that he’s got incredible foot speed, and just needs to get his hand speed to catch up.

He was picked #99 overall in the fourth round by LA in 2015. One thing he has over Anderson-Dolan is one good solid playoff season in Junior. That happened in 2017, when he played 22 games for the Regina Pats and got 29 points in the post-season.

And that takes us to Etem who, it must be said, has not taken advantage of his skills in the NHL to date. Sure, he has 173 games and 22 goals, but look at his hockey resume, and it’s like a bouncing ball. He has been with the Ducks, New York, and Vancouver, then the Ducks again. He’s played in four AHL lineups, and with the Swiss A-league. Bouncy ball, like I said. Lack of focus and consistency, many others have commented.

Is this the last chance for the kid from Long Beach to make good? He’d have an easier time of it were he still toiling for the Ducks, whose lineup, as I’ll detail in a moment, is full of opportunity. In other words, not full of veterans.

Etem was not in the lineup in the last preseason game with Anaheim. He’s on a “PTO” (Professional Tryout”), and could be signed or not as the Kings wish. If he is, he could sit while Wagner plays, and if Wagner plays, that’s better than if he sits. After all, if he’s just going to be up in the press box with us, he might as well be in Ontario, and I’m pretty sure that if you could talk to Etem, he might say this: “I’m hoping to make that happen, because I’m so good they have no choice but to play me.”

But while he has shown speed in the preseason, and netted a couple of goals, the team is only guarded in their opinions, as indicated by Kings Insider Jon Rosen. If it ever gets that far, Etem does have good playoff experience, it ought to be said. But what deal he’d agree to, or if he’d do a two-way contract, has not been disclosed at this point. On the other hand, the prospect of being out of hockey at 26 and having to get a—gasp!—real job would be horrifying, especially with no college. Etem played in Medicine Hat for three years rather than going the college route.

How did the potential for two or three spots open up in the LA lineup? Gabe Vilardi, who has been good in Junior and was drafted #11 by the Kings in 2017 hurt his back, and Jonny Brodzinski is recovering from shoulder surgery. Vilardi has a scanty Junior resume, injury being a culprit. Guessing would tell you that he’s not going to be in the NHL for a long time. But he was a highly touted prospect ahead of his draft, so there’s the opinion of the experts to take into account.

On defense, the Kings have two guys probably set not to make the squad: Daniel Brickley, who can go back to the AHL and come up if needed, and Kurtis MacDermid, who is big and tough but too slow to keep to the pace the Kings have finally decided they must play at to compete in scoring.

The Ducks—that’s a matter altogether different. A bunch of veterans are out. Those include Patrick Eaves, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, and Nick Ritchie. The only one not hurt (or ill) is Ritchie, who is on a contract holdout. Most people would call that a very serious miscalculation, as he’s as likely to be forgotten than remembered if he doesn’t get the ink on the paper pretty soon.

Ritchie had a great playoffs two years ago, but last year, both regular season and post, he was just, well, good and good enough. He’s big, and he’s tough, and he can score at times, so he’s no scrub. But a holdout? And one of the last in the league? Who’s yer agent, kid?

Unfamiliar names on the Ducks’ squad outnumber familiar ones. How about Ben Street, Troy Terry, Sam Steel, Max Comptois, Kiefer Sherwood, and Carter Rowney? Sound like people with no chance? Well, by the time the Ducks’ last game with the Kings was halfway through, Street, Terry, and Rowney had the Ducks up 3-0. And this was against a more-or-less NHL-ready Kings roster.

The rundown: Street’s been in the NHL since 2012-13, but he’s played only 35 games and hasn’t scored a regular-season goal. He had a promising 65-point season with Grand Rapids of the AHL last year, and got into a handful of Red Wings games as well. He’s 31.

Troy Terry was a fifth-round pick, and he got two games of NHL play in last year. He’s 21, and a University of Denver three-year player. His draft year was 2015.

Rowney is a name that many will recognize, probably from the 2017 playoffs, when he appeared in 20 Penguins games and won the Stanley Cup. He has scored five regular-season goals in 71 games.  Five points in 44 games last year obviously translates to under a 10-point per season potential. Yikes. As are so many Ducks, he is a university guy, having played four years with the University of North Dakota. He was not drafted.

Not on the scoresheet with a goal but worth noting also was Kiefer Sherwood, a highly skilled player who signed as a free agent out of Miami of Ohio. He played eleven games with the Gulls of the AHL last year, scoring two goals. He played against the Kings Saturday and had one assist in twelve minutes of ice time.

So the faces will be different but the results might not be as bad as one would imagine for the Ducks.

The game of Kings and Ducks ended up as it had been, 3-0, after the Ducks won over LA 7-4 on Wednesday. What does this shout? That LA still has the same old problem: they can’t score. And that the Ducks have some miracles amongst them, like they always do.

The Kings open their regular season next Friday with San Jose in town. The Ducks will have opened theirs already, on the road in San Jose, Wednesday.



I’m now a member of the PHWA–the Professional Hockey Writers Association.

Dustin Brown was hit by a shot in the second period and did not finish the game.