We’re now more than a month into an NHL postponement and there is still no clear timeline on when professional hockey will return. While fans of the sport have received small tidbits of news over that time, including college signings and contract extensions, the thirst for discussion has rarely been quenched.
With that in mind, we’re happy to continue our new feature: The PHR Panel. Three times a week, our writing staff will give our individual takes on a question many hockey fans have been wondering about. If you’d ever like to submit a subject for us to discuss, be sure to put it in the comments. This series will run each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
To catch up on the previous edition, click here.
Today, we’ll each give our thoughts on the future of three struggling west coast franchises.
Q: Which team has the best chance at a playoff spot next season: San Jose, Anaheim or Los Angeles?
Brian La Rose:
Of the California trio, the Sharks have the best chance of making it and I say that fully knowing that they’re going to be bringing the same core group back that has currently has them dead last in the Western Conference. But with the Kings still early in their rebuilding process and the Ducks’ youth movement not going as well as they hoped, neither of them are realistically in the postseason mix for next year so San Jose has the best odds by default.
The good news for the Sharks is that there’s cause for optimism. Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson are immediate bounce-back candidates after putting up underwhelming numbers (relative to their respective contracts) from the back end this season. That will help get them a few more wins.
It’s also hard to believe that they’ll be as banged up as they’ve been this year in 2020-21. Karlsson, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl are among the players that have missed at least 14 games due to injuries and it’s hard for any team to overcome that. While San Jose is in the basement this season, they wouldn’t be had it not been for their list of injuries. Being healthier will get them a few more wins as well.
They will certainly need better goaltending from Martin Jones next season but he can be better than he has been lately. I’m not saying I expect them to get back in next year but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.
That’s a tough one. I really cannot under any circumstances see Anaheim or Los Angeles, both in the middle of full rebuilds suddenly jumping into the playoff race next year. I would be surprised if either team spent significant money on big free agents this offseason, which would be essential considering how young both squads are.
So, if there was a team that had a chance it might be San Jose, even though that seems like a stretch as well. The team does have quite a bit of veteran talent and some top players on their roster which could make them contenders. However, they don’t have enough of that talent and some of it has aged considerably such as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau (assuming they return to the Sharks next season).
What they don’t seem to have is depth and with little cap room to work with (potential compliance buyouts notwithstanding), there is little incoming youth coming into San Jose. The team has traded most of its top picks and with much of their young talent in the AHL struggling last season, it’s hard to envision the Sharks being overly relevant in a top-heavy Pacific Division. Of course, the team could get a boost from Ryan Merkley next year on defense if he can prove he’s ready to play at the top level, but even that seems like a long-shot. Perhaps some high-quality, inexpensive depth signings could alleviate some of those issues and give the Sharks a chance.
Each member of what used to be an elite three-team rivalry in Southern California is looking for a return to form. While the Sharks may have the best veteran pieces and the Kings have the most cap flexibility to improve via free agency and trade, I will give the Ducks the best chance to make it back to the postseason in 2020-21.
I think that Anaheim has more talent than most people realize. It starts in goal with all-world keeper John Gibson, who would be a perennial Vezina candidate if he got more help. On the back end, Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, and Erik Gudbransson all missed considerable time due to injury this season, but if healthy and backed by youngsters Jacob Larsson, Brendan Guhle, and Josh Mahura, there is the potential for it to be a strong unit.
However, the forward corps is where there is the greatest opportunity for improvement from this season to next. The Ducks’ talent in the pipeline cannot be overlooked. Max Jones, Sam Steel, Troy Terry, Isac Lundestrom and Maxime Comtois will all have another pro season under their belts, while standouts Trevor Zegras and Brayden Tracey will be looking to make an impact as well. Add that group to veterans Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rakell, Adam Henrique, and Jakob Silfverberg, as well as new faces Danton Heinen and Sonny Milano, and Anaheim appears to have a number of potential difference-makers.
On paper, the Ducks seem to have the depth to be a contender and could look to add another high-end player, either on the blue line or perhaps as a physical force up front, to further that strength. Anaheim has fallen short of expectations for several years now, but with expectations for next year now lower than they probably should be, the Ducks have a chance to be a surprise playoff team is they can stay healthy and capitalize on their youth and talent.
The loss of Joe Pavelski seemed to have a bigger impact than many expected on the Sharks this season, who at times looked leader-less and lost on the ice. Nothing went right for the team and perhaps they could bounce-back with some offseason tweaks, but I wonder if there isn’t more pain coming in San Jose before any pleasure.
Anaheim too could take a step forward to compete for a playoff spot, given how much young talent is coming up through the system. I’ve been vocal in my live chats for some time expressing my doubts in the real ceiling of some of their recent high draft picks, but there’s still a good chance at least a couple of them hit.
While it’s hard to imagine right now, I actually think that the Kings might be the best bet here.
The team is in the beginning stages of a rebuild no doubt, but there is a lot to like about what they’ve accomplished so far. After stripping several older pieces off the roster they not only loaded up on draft picks—six in the first three rounds this year—but also started playing much better. I’m a huge believer in Cal Petersen as a legitimate starter in the NHL and he showed it with a .922 save percentage in eight appearances, while Gabriel Vilardi is finally healthy enough to show why he was taken so high.
I think a new season with new expectations and new faces could rejuvenate Drew Doughty, allowing him to help mold some of the team’s talented young defenders into a strong unit.
In the games leading up to the league pause, the Kings were 10-2-1 and on a seven-game winning streak. I think that might be a sign of things to come, and they could potentially sneak into the playoffs as soon as next season.