NHL Wish Lists for Santa: How the Pacific Can Catch Anaheim
The NHL staffers at numberFire have caught the Christmas spirit, and for the next week and a half we will be writing wish lists to Santa for each NHL team. December 12th for the Pacific, December 16th for the Central, December 18th for the Metropolitan, and December 23 for the Atlantic will be the schedule.
So who’s been naughty? And who’s been nice?
Corey Perry’s health is obviously their most pressing concern, but let’s assume that Perry returns earlier than anticipated and see what their overall need is: the power play.
Anaheim has skated its way to 18 wins without much contribution at all from its power play unit. Individually, the pieces that the Ducks send out as their first-choice power play should result in an increased shot volume, and by proxy, an increased goal total. Ryan Getzlaf ranks 17th in the NHL in faceoff percentage, and Ryan Kesler, who spells Getzlaf on power play faceoffs, places even higher at sixth.
The argument could be made that, instead of playing Kesler at the point on the man advantage, the Ducks should have him take the faceoffs. This would free up Getzlaf to line up net-side on the faceoff circle to navigate his 6'4" frame in front of the opposing goalie as quickly as possible.
With Perry still sidelined, Devante Smith-Pelly could be promoted to the point slot and probably holds his own given the extra defensive responsibilities with his game already predicated on forechecking and physicality. By taking a chance on a young player like Smith-Pelly, Anaheim might find some success on the man advantage. Even if Smith-Pelly can’t cut it on the first unit, slotting Cam Fowler in at the blue line would at least ensure consistency. A unit of Rene Bourque-Kesler-Getzlaf with Smith-Pelly/Fowler-Sami Vatanen should be able to generate higher results than the Ducks’ 19th-ranked power play unit.
Dear Santa: a potent power play.
Arizona is a mess of a franchise that came within one vote of being relocated to Seattle in 2013. Their play in 2014 makes that appear to be an incorrect decision. Arizona ranked last in the NHL in attendance for 2013-2014 at 13,745 and this year rank 28th but with less attendance at 13,040. Seattle is openly pining for any new sports franchise after having the NBA’s SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City but would probably prefer an expansion team to the Coyotes at this point, who rank 27th in nERD with a nERD of -0.58, meaning they would be expected to lose to a league-average team by 0.58 goals.
Arizona has occupied the Gila River Arena since 2003 and is barely filling two-thirds of the seats. Seattle on the other hand has an energized fan base - one that sells out a football stadium for MLS games - that appears ready to embrace an NHL franchise. The current deal Arizona has would make any move before 2018 very difficult, but just based on economy and culture Seattle would be ideal.
As far as population goes, Seattle and Phoenix are quite comparable, so no loss there, and building a downtown arena would generate more interest than what the Coyotes currently have in Glendale. The television broadcasts and fan loyalty would be divided with the Canucks, who are in the closest geographical proximity, but as a whole, the state of Washington would seem to be far more interested in hockey than the desert of Arizona.
For the NHL, it would be a serious blow to public relations - and somewhat humiliating considering that they took this franchise from Winnipeg only to give Winnipeg the Atlanta Thrashers once that experiment was proven to be failure. Since Winnipeg has the Jets again, one would have to assume the outcry from their fans would be minimal, but what would it say about the NHL that two of their most recent expansions and relocations were failures? Given that money always talk - hence why Atlanta, Phoenix, Tampa, and Miami were provided with opportunities - if Seattle can prove that they make the most sense financially one would have to assume they end up with a team whether through expansion or the artist formally known as the Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes/Arizona Coyotes.
Dear Santa: the Emerald City, 12th man, and those holding Microsoft and Amazon shares.
The Flames are playing really well, which came out of nowhere, and now they have a nERD of 0.05, 15th in the league. This was a team with 75-to-1 Stanley Cups odds to open the season and now find themselves with 17 wins, 36 points, and two of the league’s five best defensemen.
Drew Doughty and Shea Weber established just how good they were at generating offense in Sochi, but as far as blue-liners go this year Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie are up there with the best of them. With a lower talent pool of forwards to draw from, the level of production from Giordano and Brodie has been a welcome addition.
Giordano alone places in the top five of NHL assist leaders with 21, and Brodie has added another 15, which is remarkable considering that Jiri Hudler and Sean Monahan are their only forwards with double-digit goals. The current pace of the Flames has generated a lot of discussion about what management should do going forward: sell high on some of the overproducing players or buy any available goal scorer and admit they might be two or three years away from being a real contender.
I previously discussed how difficult the Flames will be to play in the postseason when defensemen start playing crazy minutes. I think that’s something to build on alone, but goalie rotations rarely work out, and that’s where Calgary finds itself, alternating between Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo. These high-scoring teams rarely can maintain momentum, and the Flames must brace for the inevitable slump that comes with a team that struggles killing penalties.
Dear Santa: don’t let Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie ever change. Ever.
Where to start in Edmonton? They, unfortunately, have quite a few team needs, evidenced by their -0.98 nERD, 29th in the league. Their 19 points is tied for last with the Carolina Hurricanes, and according to power rankings, they are projected to finish tied for last in points with the Buffalo Sabres.
Putting their on-ice issues on hold, the organization’s greatest need is some justification for the players they invested three consecutive first-overall selections in the NHL Entry Drafts.
Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov are supposed to be the building blocks that return the Oilers to their heyday when Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Juri Kurri led their attack. It’s lofty and unfair to compare any of the Oilers current players to three of the greatest hockey players ever, but surely the Edmonton brass was hoping for at least one of their top selections to be a consistent Hart Trophy finalist.
Edmonton had the unfortunate luck of drafting first in two drafts with a weak talent pool and also made what looks to be an incorrect choice with Hall instead of Tyler Seguin in 2010. In the three previous drafts, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, and Patrick Kane were the first overall selections. Putting those three together probably earns you at the least a trip to the conference finals and maybe even a Stanley Cup. Granted, the teams that ended up with one of those players were not in position to pick first the following year, which underlines the value that Tavares, Stamkos, and Kane brought the Islanders, Lightning, and Blackhawks, respectively.
What the Edmonton really needs is another version of Esa Tikkanen—a player who is more than willing to do the dirty work while playing second fiddle and provided some much needed locker room glue. Tikkanen played on Gretzky’s line with fellow Finn Kurri and helped the Oilers win four of their Cups in the 1980s. With skill players like Gretzky and Kurri, Tikkanen wasn’t needed to score goals (although he scored more than 30 on three occasions) and lead the attack, he was there to provide defensive cover and do the dirty work to enable the team’s stars in succeeding.
These types of players often prove to be the most valuable on any champion, but they are hard to scout and develop. Who in their right mind takes a lesser role at lesser money to play an unglamorous role? There is still plenty of time for this current group of high picks to reach their potential, as Hall just turned 23 and Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov are both 21. Let Boston’s dump of Seguin be the cautionary tale not to give up on young players too soon.
Even if two of these three guys can develop into All-Stars, will someone step up and do the unglamorous role and provide some steady leadership?
Dear Santa: if a reincarnation of Gretzky, Messier, or Kurri is unrealistic, we’ll settle for another Esa Tikkanen!
Los Angeles Kings
It’s no secret that the Champs are suffering an early-season hangover. After winning two Cups in three years, many in LA the Kings remember how to find their form that made them one of the more balanced teams in the NHL. They currently trail the league-best Ducks in the standings, but according to nERD, the Kings are a better team, ranking fifth in the league with a nERD of 0.43. The Ducks are sixth at 0.40, so what gives?
Anze Kopitar is the biggest culprit of the early season slump, which isn't all that surprising when you consider how big 2013-2014 was for him: leading Slovenia as their only NHL representative in Sochi and pacing the Kings en route to another Cup. Not that anyone thinks Kopitar took time off or got lazy, but after gearing himself up to peak from February to June, some decline was unavoidable. With only five goals in 24 games, LA is hoping this slump breaks soon and Kopitar can return to his 30-goal form.
Thankfully for Los Angeles, goaltender Jonathan Quick has been much more consistent than the Kings’ skaters, displaying that form that earned him a Conn Smythe and a starting nod for Team USA. Quick ranks in the top five in saves, save percentage, and goals against average, and he has anchored the Kings to 11 of their 14 wins.
The other underlining issue in Los Angeles’ season has been the ongoing Slava Voynov distraction. Voynov’s legal woes regarding domestic abuse have been well documented and don’t need to be regurgitated in this format, but by letting him participate in a skate-around last week, the Kings earned a $100,000 fine. His presence, whether guilty or innocent, has to be a huge locker room distraction because the Kings are still paying and allowing him to use their facilities while his case is open. This lax stance by the Kings is surely creating some friction that is contributing to their less than stellar start.
Dear Santa: consistency from our skaters and the freedom from off-ice distractions to reach our full potential.
San Jose Sharks
Since the lockout of the 2004-2005 season, the Sharks have won their division four times in a row, finished second another four times, and counted third place in 2012-2013 as their worst finish.
Unfortunately, this great regular season franchise hasn’t exactly been able to put it together in the playoffs. San Jose made the Conference Finals twice since the lockout getting swept by the Blackhawks in 2010 and beaten in five by the Canucks in 2011.
Looking back, it appears the Sharks peaked somewhere in 2009 or 2010 when all the talk centered around a President’s Trophy win in 2009 and Canadian media personalities gushing about how San Jose’s top line of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and Dany Heatley stayed intact for Team Canada. That trio plus blue-liner Dan Boyle tasted success in Vancouver earning Gold Medals, but Sharks fan again watched their team bounced early in the playoffs.
So now the question facing the Sharks brass is what to make of this season’s start that sees the team four games over .500. Like the Kings, their nERD indicates they should be good. Their nERD of 0.28 ranks ninth in the league, and the Sharks rank 11th in overall record - but just fourth in their division.
They openly tried to trade Thornton in the summer and Marleau had to commit his future publicly several times to reassure everyone the Bay Area was where he wanted to be. (Heatley departed in 2012 for those wondering.) Many have moved on from the thought that the two can keep producing at high levels, they have 12 20-goal seasons between them, which really puts the spotlight on their supporting class.
Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic received a lot of the extra pressure in recent years as the new faces of the franchise. Couture has proved this season he’s up to the task with a stellar 12 goals and 14 assists centering a line with Marleau and Tommy Wingels. Vlasic has shown poise and leadership for a player entering his prime. By posting a +12, Vlasic leads all Sharks’ defensemen and ranks seventh in the NHL.
The biggest problem is in net where expected starter Antti Niemi has been awful with a 2.54 goals against average and .915 save percentage. The Sharks have spelled Niemi with Alex Stalock who’s been decent at best and ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack in goals against average and save percentage. Rookie Troy Grosenick was given his NHL debut on November 16th and posted 45 saves en route to a shutout win over Carolina, which earned him a start two days later against Buffalo. Grosenick leaked three goals on 13 shots and hasn’t been heard from since.
Dear Santa: please fix at least one of our goaltenders.
The Canucks currently sit in second in the Pacific despite their nERD of -0.03, 17th in the NHL. They might be able to keep it up despite the metrics, but the big question for the team is the future.
What’s the plan for when the Sedin twins start to tail off and eventually retire? Vancouver has banked on the electric play of Daniel and Henrik Sedin for almost 15 years, and their faith almost rewarded them with a Stanley Cup. The Canucks won the old Northwest Division seven out of nine years and added two Presidents Trophies to the display case but missed the playoffs last year under the realignment.
Goalie Ryan Miller has contributed largely to their turnaround this season by posting 16 wins, but it must be remembered that he’s 34 years old just like the Sedins. The best player the Canucks developed over the last 10 years was Ryan Kesler, who was dealt over the summer to Anaheim in what was an attempt to start rebuilding.
Journeyman Radim Vrbata was their "big" offseason signing, which is another move that pointed towards the Canucks’ starting over. It’s not that Vrbata is a bad player, but he is just a friendly contract and a move that won’t win Vancouver the Cup anytime soon. Vrbata’s value is inflated like many who have shared a line with two healthy Sedins, but the bigger issue is young talent.
General Manager Jim Benning admitted at the time of the Kesler trade that the goal was to add youth and skill to the roster. When the dust settled from the moves and countermoves, the Canucks were left with Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, and Derek Dorsett for their NHL roster and center Jared McCann, who they kept in the OHL. The commitment to youth looks good on the surface with these moves, although it would have been nice if Vancouver could have pried the 10th-overall pick away from Anaheim in that trade.
The real question will be whether or not they try to move one or both of the Sedin twins while they still have value. The twins have obviously played their whole lives together and have no-movement clauses in their contracts, so it will be tough for Vancouver to move one of them let alone move them at all.
Dear Santa: let our youth movement pay out a big return.