There is a perception that the Los Angeles Kings, the team Darryl Sutter took over Thursday night, are a genuine bona-fide Stanley Cup contender which was underachieving so badly that another good man, Terry Murray, was obliged to walk the plank. The theory was that after a long, but thorough and painstaking rebuild, done largely through the NHL entry draft, the Kings were approaching Chicago Blackhawks’ territory of a couple of years ago - poised for a major breakthrough this season, about to give the good burghers of hockey-mad Los Angeles something to celebrate for the first time since the Gretzky era.
Murray managed to get the Kings into the playoffs in consecutive years, but couldn’t get them to the next level, which was to actually win a round, and that will now be Sutter’s primary mandate. So here he is, the Jolly Rancher of Viking, Alberta, coaching for the first time in more than five years, attempting to do what Murray could not - and in the process, save the job of the man who hired him, general manager Dean Lombardi. Lombardi is increasingly under the gun in L.A., where he is six years into a five-year rebuild and under heavy scrutiny for the slow turnaround and his cautious ways.
But here’s a little compare and contrast exercise - between Los Angeles’s personnel and that of the cellar-dwelling Columbus Blue Jackets, a team equally anxious to see tangible results, and see them in a hurry.
The link between the two is Philadelphia and a Flyers team that sent two of its core players, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, to the Kings and Blue Jackets respectively in blockbuster deals at last year’s NHL entry draft.
Columbus landed Carter to centre the No. 1 line alongside Rick Nash, which hasn’t worked out at all. Coach Scott Arniel finally gave up this week and split them up, keeping them together on the first power-play unit, but splitting them up in even-strength situations.
Los Angeles acquired Richards to act as the 1a centre on a team that includes Anze Kopitar and gave up the previously untouchable Brayden Schenn in order to make it happen.
Carter and Richards have both had to deal with injury issues since arriving at their new zip codes, but they had pretty good nights Thursday, Carter scoring three first-period goals, two with the man advantage, for Columbus; while Richards opened the scoring for Los Angeles in Sutter’s debut vs. Anaheim. It was Richards, going out of the Kings’ line-up with a suspected concussion, that likely cemented Murray’s fate. L.A. wasn’t scoring enough, even with Richards in the line-up. Without him, they were a disaster.
Still, the conventional wisdom is that L.A. is far ahead of Columbus on the development curve, even if the evidence suggests differently.
After Richards and Kopitar, the Kings’ next best forward is Dustin Brown, a good player who topped out at 60 points FOUR years ago and has been in the mid-50s ever since. Then there’s Justin Williams (frequently injured); Simon Gagne (best days behind him); Dustin Penner (a disaster since arriving from Edmonton), plus a cast of journeymen (Jarrett Stoll, Brad Richardson, Trent Hunter, Colin Fraser). Kyle Clifford is one good young player on the horizon, but he plays fewer than nine minutes per night.
OK, now over to Columbus. Carter and Nash essentially cancel out Richards and Kopitar, right? Then there’s Vinnie Prospal, who continues to prosper wherever he goes; Ryan Johansen, who is about a year away from being a special player; Sens castoff Antoine Vermette, who is capable of scoring 60 points; and R.J. Umberger, who has a lot of Brown’s qualities as a leader and a scorer, but is far behind the scoring pace he set last year. Mark Letestu and Sammy Pahlsson are quality bottom-six forwards; Kristian Huselius is a dynamite power play specialist currently on IR again. Columbus is in fact so deep that Derick Brassard, a former sixth overall pick who had 47 points in 74 games last year, hadn’t been able to crack the line-up most nights this year, or until recently, when he’s getting a shot with Nash again.
If Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson can get their games back on track, L.A. will eventually have an edge on defence, although James Wiesnewski, Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin have helped Columbus close ground there.
The only real glaring difference is in goal, and that was ably demonstrated again in Thursday night’s action, where the Blue Jackets’ Curtis Sanford permitted six goals on 38 shots in a 6-5 Columbus collapse at the hands of the Nashville Predators, not exactly known as an offensive powerhouse at the best of times. Meanwhile, the Kings’ No. 1 man, Jonathan Quick, may be the most underrated netminder in the league and helped Los Angeles to a 3-2 shootout win over the surprisingly inept Ducks (L.A. and Anaheim bring up the rear in the Western Conference scoring stats).
The Blue Jackets’ nominal starter, Steve Mason, is in the midst of his third bad season in a row (but finally won a game last week, a straw that everyone on the team was desperate to clutch in the immediate aftermath of a 2-1 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks). After Sanford’s struggles vs. Nashville, you figure Mason will get a start, either Boxing Day against Chicago, or the next night against Calgary.
If Columbus GM Scott Howson doesn’t survive beyond this year, it will be because he did nothing to shore up his goaltending in the off-season, which is how they’ve come to rely on the journeyman Sanford (5-6-3) so much, and executing a modest turnaround after a 2-12-1 start. But ultimately, if Mason ever finds his Calder Trophy form and gets his career back on the rails (as opposed to disappearing, Jim Carey-like from the scene), then the Blue Jackets have a chance to be decent, and spoil the party for a lot of teams that consider themselves real playoff and championship contenders. If not and if Howson can’t improve the netminding on the fly, then his job will be in jeopardy.
As for the Kings, well, Sutter’s biggest year as the Calgary Flames’ coach came when he rode Miikka Kiprusoff’s goaltending and timely scoring from Martin Gelinas to the seventh game of the 2004 Stanley Cup final. Maybe he can count on Quick to do the same. After all, the NHL is, in Sutter’s words, a “3-2 league.” As long as Quick keeps giving them the ‘2,’ the Kings have a chance here.
THE HAVES AND HAVE NOTS: Pity poor Martin Havlat, the often injured Ottawa Senators’ winger, who is out again, this time for up to eight weeks, after suffering a freak injury for the San Jose Sharks Tuesday night. Havlat partially tore his left hamstring, jumping over the boards, onto the ice, the way he would have 10,000 other times in his career in the most innocent of innocent plays. This time, Havlat felt something give; and he needed to crawl back to the bench, on his knees, to get off the ice. Havlat’s injury makes you want to revisit a controversial decision the Blackhawks made after the 2008-09 season, when they declined to sign Havlat to a contract extension and instead gave his money to Marian Hossa. Havlat left and then had two average seasons with Minnesota, before being swapped to the Sharks last summer for Dany Heatley, and he’d had a tough start in San Jose, even before the injury. Hossa, meanwhile, is currently No. 6 in the NHL scoring race and playing great for Chicago. Havlat for Hossa? Once upon a time, they might have been rough comparables. Not now. Not anymore.
GABBY ON A ROLL: Havlat, incidentally, signed with Minnesota in 2009, after Marian Gaborik bolted for New York to join the Rangers. Gaborik had a great first year in New York (86 points), a bad second year (48 points, including just 22 goals) and is now in the middle of one of the quietest good years in the league. Gaborik is up to 20 goals now, tied for the NHL goal-scoring lead, one of four players to reach that mark, with a day to go before the Christmas.
THE 50-GOAL ABYSS: Gaborik is joined at 20 by the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel, the Chicago Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamko. However, he is technically the overall leader, having played just 32 games, meaning his per-game goals average is just over 50 (50.84). Stamkos is projected to score 50.02; Kessel is at 48.38 and Toews 46.74. See the pattern ... and the problem? With 507 of the 1,230 regular-season games in the books, iI’s possible that for the first time in forever, the NHL may not have a 50-goal scorer this season. The NHL lockout - which precipitated many and varied rule changes - was supposed to change all that. It hasn’t. Last year, only Corey Perry (Anaheim) got to 50. Three years ago, only Alex Ovechkin (Washington) did. Since the start of the 2006 season, there have been only 15 50-goal seasons. Ovechkin has four, Ilya Kovalchuk and Heatley two apiece. Two others of note - Jaromir Jagr got there in ’06, but he ceded the Rocket Richard trophy that year to Jonathan Cheechoo, who had 56. You gotta figure Doug Wilson in San Jose, Bryan Murray in Ottawa and a lot of others are all asking the same question: Whatever happened to Jonathan Cheechoo?
COLORADO ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGHS AND LOWS: The Colorado Avalanche began the year, unable to win at home, but gold on the road (six consecutive wins). No explanation for that phenomenon made sense. Now, the Avs can’t win on the road, but had won seven in a row at home, and were going for No. 8 Friday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Coach Joe Sacco stuck with J.S. Giguere in goal ahead of Semyon Varlamov, who has been an unmitigated disaster since arriving for a king’s ransom of draft choices from the Washington Capitals. What must surely be even more galling for the Avs is the fact that the man they ditched to bring Varlamov in, Brian Elliott, is leading the NHL in three of four goaltending categories (goals-against, save percentage and shutouts). The Avs-Lightning match-up will feature, not a brothers act, but a cousins’ act - Ryan Malone of Tampa facing Brad Malone of Colorado for the first time. According to ColoradoAvalanche.com, Brad at 22 is 10 years younger who Ryan, but credits his older cousin for the path he took. “He was one of my idols growing up. Everything he did I tried to model myself after. To play in a game against him is pretty humbling and it's pretty special."
NOT IN THE ROCKET RICHARD DERBY: What did Brandon Dubinsky (Rangers) and Eric Belanger (Oilers) have in common? Heading into play Thursday night, both players are stuck at a single goal apiece after Dubinsky had 24 last year, Belanger 13. Dubinsky doubled his output in the win over the Islanders, Belanger could not follow suit in the win over the Minnesota Wild ... Also killing fantasy hockey players everywhere: Mike Green, the Washington defenceman and usually one of the most consistent point producers from the blue line, is 18 games and counting into his convalescence from what is officially a strained right groin (a strain keeps a guy out more than a month, with still no end in sight?). Green skated 10 minutes this week, but there is still no word about when he might return.
TWO COACHES, STILL WORKING: Nobody was paying much attention to the Phoenix-Florida game the other night, except for me - because of the match-up behind the bench. It was Dave Tippett vs. Kevin Dineen, teammates on the 1984 Canadian Olympic team, proteges of Dave King and both extremely good at what they do. Tippett continues to have the Coyotes in the playoff mix, even after losing his top player, goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, to the Flyers for contractual reasons. He’s getting by with Mike Smith, a Tampa castoff, who might be better than either of the two goalies currently playing for the Lightning. Meanwhile, Dineen has the Panthers unexpectedly in the hunt for a playoff spot for the first time since the turn of the century. Dineen is an early candidate for the Jack Adams trophy as the coach of the year.
AND FINALLY: Happy holidays to all of the Friday notebook regulars - and you can only imagine how this year, more than any other, I sincerely wish good health to all in the upcoming year.