The end of the calendar year affords a good opportunity to size up where the inconsistent Kings and the ahead-of-schedule Ducks find themselves, even as COVID hangs over the game like a marine layer. In a roundtable discussion moderated by Times executive sports editor Chris Stone, Times columnist (and Hockey Hall of Fame member) Helene Elliott was joined by Times staffers Curtis Zupke, Jim Barrero and Nick Leyva to divine what the new year holds for the local teams, and the sport more broadly. Stay, too, for Elliott’s suggestion how the Ducks might shore up their forward line.
Chris Stone: If I told you that on New Year’s Day the Ducks would be 17-10-7 and in second place in the Pacific Division, you would say …. (fill in the blank)?
Jim Barrero: “You’re talkin’ gibberish” (obscure reference from “That Thing You Do”). But seriously, I wouldn’t have believed it. And if I did, I would have wishfully expected the Kings to be right there too. At this point, I don’t think this is an aberration, but with COVID as the wild card everywhere, I guess you never know.
Curtis Zupke: “You got hit in the head by a puck” is what I would say, especially coming off an historically awful season on special teams. I think their story so far is about collecting points, even through their struggles. Look at Wednesday night against Vancouver: they were clearly rusty and short-handed (like every team), but they got a point out of that overtime loss.
Nick Leyva: I would have told you 7-17-10 would be more like it for the Ducks at this point. I still doubt the Ducks can finish in the top three of the division. You have Vegas getting stronger and healthier and now Vancouver is making a run. Plus one of the Alberta teams (Calgary, Edmonton) will probably stay in the hunt.
Helene Elliott: Yes, the Ducks continue to be a surprise. And they were in first place for a few days. With Trevor Zegras in COVID protocol now, their scoring capabilities will be off, unfortunately. Also reduces the chances of highlight-reel passes and goals.
Stone: I’ve detected both an admiration and lingering skepticism, both here and in the last roundtable, about the sustainability of the Ducks’ success. Do you believe it requires making an external move — and I recognize the trade deadline is still 2½ months away — at some point to position themselves for a top three finish? Or you just take a shot with what you’ve got?
Barrero: The Ducks are playing with house money right now, seemingly way ahead of schedule on their rebuild. I’d stand pat and see where this group of players takes you and then reassess in the offseason to see if you need to add that missing piece or two to make a real run at it.
Leyva: I’d like to see them make a move at the trade deadline, probably for a another veteran forward. I think your blue line and goaltending are fine at this point.
Elliott: I agree with Jim, though I’d consider an upgrade on defense. The surge in COVID makes this all such a guessing game. So many games are being postponed that depth will become a crucial issue down the road, when those games are supposed to be rescheduled. I’m wondering how the NHL will squeeze in all these rescheduled games without extending the season into July.
Stone: Nick, let’s have some fun with your last statement. Do you have a veteran forward in mind who’s caught your eye on NHL Center Ice?
Leyva: I’ll throw two names out there. I believe Arizona’s Phil Kessel is in the final year of his contract. Might he add some scoring punch and veteran leadership? Another name, and you have to think long and hard about this one: Evander Kane who I believe is in the minors for San Jose. He does come with a lot of baggage and I still don’t think we know the whole situation with his personal problems. But, yeah, what offense couldn’t use a player like him?
Elliott: Nick with the big slapper! I’m gonna say no to Evander Kane. I’d take Amanda Kessel, Phil’s sister and a member of the U.S. women’s national team and a 2018 Olympic gold medalist, before I’d take Phil.
Barrero: Now THAT’s funny!
Stone: Switching gears, same question that we opened with, only with the Kings. If I told you that on Dec. 31, 2021, the Kings would be 15-12-5, you would say (fill in the blank)?
Elliott: I would have said Cal Petersen would have to play well for them to have that record… and he has not. Jonathan Quick has played far better than anyone expected, I think. Still waiting to see what Quinton Byfield can do.
Leyva: I would say that’s about where I thought they’d be, but maybe even better off than I would have guessed. I think they’re in a good place right now but need to find some consistency.
Barrero: Overall, I guess I’d be happy they were above .500, but the schedule has shown how streaky they can be, so that has made it difficult to feel great about their season so far. The kids have shown some flashes, but the vets need to step up more if this team is going to stay in the playoff hunt.
Zupke: Fairly disappointing, although we didn’t anticipate them losing a third of their defense off the bat. The thing I keep coming back to with the Kings is that it’s difficult to count out a team with Quick, Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown, all Cup winners. But it has to end sometime, right? (Doughty’s turnover Tuesday night … yikes!)
Stone: Feels like this group, if I had to take the collective temperature of the room, sees the Ducks’ and Kings’ end point as both being somewhere between where they find themselves now. Fair?
Barrero: I’d say that’s fair. But I think there’s more of a chance the Ducks remain in the playoff picture at the end than the Kings move up to take a spot.
Leyva: I think that’s very fair to say, but I agree with Helene, it’s so hard to predict where these teams might end up because of all the protocols, postponed games, injuries and other factors.
Zupke: Yes, as Helene has pointed out, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into this season again. Unless it calms down, both teams are going to be tested with depth. The league now has the Olympic window to get in some of these canceled games, but you’d have to assume the NHL might have to go to winning percentages to decide playoff spots.
Stone: Speaking of winning percentages, who ends up with higher one: Kings or Lakers?
Zupke: LeBron played center the other night. How’s his slap shot?
Barrero: Oooooooh. That’s a fun one to ponder. I’ll take the Lakers by a hair, just because the math is easier to figure than those complicated NHL records.
Elliott: Difficult to compare percentages in NHL and NBA because the NHL has the stupid loser point, which means the Kings were at .532 with a record of 14 wins, 12 regulation losses and five overtime/shootout losses (going into their Dec. 30 game against the Canucks).
Leyva: I’d have to say the Kings right now. Does LeBron know how to skate?
Elliott: I once asked Dave Winfield, who grew up in St. Paul, Minn., if he had ever skated or played hockey. As I recall, he told me he had. He got into a fight and pursued the guy off the ice and outside the rink, still wearing his skates.
Stone: Not to be a downer, but we can’t ignore elephant in the locker room: COVID. Logistical nightmare, for sure, especially with the unique Canada issue. Is there a concern, too, about the quality of play deteriorating, at least in the short term? It’s always flawed to compare sports, but I watched that New Orleans-Miami “Monday Night Football” game and the COVID impact was so obvious. Is there a danger of this in the NHL?
Elliott: Absolutely. We’ve seen that on a widespread basis in the NBA. Maybe someone will try to lure Wayne Gretzky out of retirement…
Zupke: You have to remember, this is a league that is perfectly fine with using emergency goalies who, although we love their back stories, have no business playing in the NHL. It absolutely impacts quality of play. And a reminder here that even AHL games are being postponed at this point.
Leyva: I’m not sure if we’ll see that in the NHL since the league is shutting down entire teams if there’s an outbreak among a handful players. Can you imagine seeing the entire Ducks and Kings rosters replaced with San Diego and Ontario players? I think before the integrity of play is affected, we’ll see more teams shut down for a week or so.
Barrero: It will be interesting to see if the NHL’s new policy about shorter COVID isolation times for players will have a positive effect on this front. But so far you can see that things are just difficult to predict. And this latest surge will probably get worse before it gets better, so the potential for quality-of-play issues still seems very high.
Stone: How about that Bruce Boudreau? Maybe the Kings can find some of that magic our old Southland friend has conjured in the last three weeks?
Zupke: I tweeted it after he got hired: Death, taxes and NHL teams having a great honeymoon with Bruce Boudreau.
Barrero: Darryl Sutter, circa 2011-12? I don’t think the Canucks march to the Cup, but it’s fun to see teams turn it around and respond positively to a major change.
Elliott: “Gabby” Boudreau is one of the game’s great characters. He was an extra in “Slap Shot,” which immediately makes him immortal, in my book. His apartment was used in the movie, too, if I recall correctly.
Leyva: I figured Boudreau would have the Canucks playing better but did I see him getting off to a 7-0-0 start? No way.