The San Jose Sharks (43-22-8, 2nd Pacific) and Los Angeles Kings (26-39-8, 8th Pacific) have something in common: both teams have lost their last three games, in regulation, at home. For the Kings, this is all gravy, as they fight to cling to the best possible odds for this summer’s draft lottery. For the Sharks, it could cost them the division, but things are looking up: as has been the case for many NHL teams this season, nobody busts a slump like the Los Angeles Kings. The two struggling squads are tied for the second longest active regulation losing streak (the New York Rangers have lost four) while ostensibly heading in very different directions.
The Sharks are looking particularly vulnerable at a pretty disheartening time: they just finished a three-game home stand with zero points, during which they were outscored 15-7. That futility, paired with the Calgary Flames’ win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, brought the Sharks from a one-point lead in the Pacific to a three-point deficit. With only nine games left in the season, and the Flames appearing to have found their form, our boys will be hard pressed to catch them and, what with their recent humbling on Monday, it’s hard not to be a little afraid of Mark Stone’s Vegas Golden Knights and Variety Show.
Yet again, though, the Sharks have backed into a postseason appearance, as they officially punched their ticket on Tuesday night with the Minnesota Wild’s loss to the Colorado Avalanche. This year marks the Sharks’ fourth consecutive postseason bid and the third in which they’ve snuck in the proverbial back door, relying on teams lower in the standings missing opportunities to bank points. At this point, we’ll take whatever good news we can get.
If it’s good news you’re looking for, maybe skip this part, because it is incumbent on us to talk about Monday. In what all good and kind souls hope and pray is nothing resembling a first round preview, the Golden Knights came into San Jose and, we assume, left with most of it. The 7-3 trouncing came largely credit of two Knights with names on opposite ends of the spellability spectrum: Jonathan Marchessault with two goals and two assists, and Reilly Smith with one goal and three helpers. I haven’t looked this up, but I assume the Knights’ third star of the game was goaltender Martin Jones, who, in true Vegas fashion, bet big and lost.
Jones allowed three goals on the Knights’ first 11 shots, and was recipient of a merciful hook halfway through the first period, but the damage was largely done, and the Sharks missed the third straight opportunity to be the first Western Conference team to clinch a playoff berth. The game was a chilling one, as these very Knights are looking more and more likely to be a first round opponent of the Sharks and, if this is what they can do on the back end of a road back-to-back, one shudders to think of what seven games will look like. That’s probably overly pessimistic: the Sharks were without two of their top defenseman in Erik Karlsson and Radim Simek, and missing their leading goal-scorer in Joe Pavelski, but we Sharks fans have evolved a sense for disappointment, and it’s hard to blame us for searching out its preliminaries.
If you were skimming past that misery for more fun and games, this is where you can tune back in: the Kings are finished, and not just this season. Sure, they’re only two points above the Ottawa Senators for worst in the NHL and their loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Monday officially eliminated them from postseason contention, but their immediate future is not particularly bright either.
That loss to Winnipeg, L.A.’s third in a row, brings them to a 2-12-4 record in their last 18, playing into their “lose for Hughes” or, if I have any say about it, “play like crappo for Kaapo” strategy for the rest of the season. It is often said that front offices tank with roster decisions and top-down stifling of ability, and that players don’t tank. No one, apparently, told that to the Los Angeles Kings, as they went 19:27 between the second and third periods without a shot on net. The loss marked the 400th straight game for Drew Doughty, a contender in similar standing to Brent Burns’ current streak of 461.
These two teams haven’t met since just after the new year, when the Sharks hosted the Kings to the tune of a 3-1 win on Jan. 7. Karlsson recorded three assists that night, holding up what was at that point a 13-game point streak. While the Sharks certainly miss his dynamism in the line up, they should be able to handle a basement-dwelling team like the Kings without him.
PS: If you can, check out the Kings’ broadcast of this game on Fox Sports West, as they’ve invited special guest and celebrity anchorman Ron Burgundy to help out with the call, which can be nothing else but delightful.
How seriously should we take the Sharks’ injury concerns?
By now the absence of Karlsson from the Sharks' lineup is old news, but he is reportedly travelling with the team to southern California for this back-to-back, so his return could be imminent. Whether it should be imminent is another matter entirely. What is new is the absence of Simek and Pavelski. While there aren’t many questions surrounding Simek’s absence: he’s been diagnosed with two torn ligaments in his knee and is almost definitely done for the season, the captain’s diversion is a little more mysterious. After sustaining an awkward fall during Saturday’s tilt against the Nashville Predators, Pavelski sat out Monday’s contest, and was later referred to by head coach Pete DeBoer as “a little longer than day-to-day.”
This does not inspire confidence. The Sharks will need their leading goal-scorer back, and soon, if they hope to make the run that we’re all expecting.
How bad does an Ilya Kovalchuk healthy scratch look on the Kings?
A prized commodity out of the Russian KHL last off-season, Kovalchuk was reportedly talking to many teams, including our very own hometown Sharks, about his return to the NHL. The healthy scratch tonight eventually signed with the Kings, to much wailing and gnashing of teeth, somewhere. The Russian superstar, who left his 15-year, $100 million contract with the New Jersey Devils just three years in, in 2013, chose to ply his trade in his home country, playing for SKA St. Petersburg — you know, the most dominant team in the league, filled with superstars, owned by the state energy conglomerate and Vladimir Putin, that was specifically constructed and favored to win championships to foster chemistry for Olympic teams? That team.
Who could have possibly guessed that Kovalchuk’s rigorous training in Russia, playing against teams unfairly crippled by a salary cap from which his own team was exempt, winning gold medals in an Olympic year in which the best league in the world did not participate, honing his craft against the second best of the second best for five grueling years, would not prepare him for the triumphant return he so expected in the NHL? Who, indeed?
What secrets do the future hold?
L.A. and San Jose may share a three game share of ineptitude, but their futures could hardly be more different.
The Sharks have a lot to do this summer, as they currently only have 13 players on their current roster signed for next season. Among the expiring contracts are such names as Pavelski, Karlsson, Joe Thornton, Joonas Donskoi (all unrestricted free agents), Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc (restricted free agents), among others. It seems pretty unlikely that the Sharks will have the cap flexibility to retain all of these players, which makes this year’s success all the more important. The time is right now for the Sharks, and each injury makes that window look smaller.
Where San Jose don’t seem to have enough players locked up for the future, L.A. might have too many.
The Kings have $53.4 million in cap space allocated to eight players through the end of the 2020-21 season (For context, this season the Sharks’ top eight players in cap hit add up to $51.875, so the number is not the problem, so much as the term. By 2020-21, San Jose will have eight current contracts remaining total). Some of those players are worth that kind of hit on a contending team (Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Alec Martinez), some are occasionally productive (Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick), and some are total disasters of cap management (Kovalchuk, Dion Phaneuf, Dustin Brown again), but if the Kings are going to build something competitive for the future, none of that really matters.
Luckily for L.A., a fire sale is not out of the question. Thanks in part to Doughty’s ill-advised decision to negotiate his contract himself, of those eight players, only three have any kind of no trade protection over this coming off-season (Kovalchuk and Brown submit seven teams to which they would be willing to be traded, Phaneuf submits twelve) (e: upon further reflection, Doughtyalso has a no move clause this off-season). This led to a lot of speculation before this season’s trade deadline about the futures of Quick and Kovalchuk, among others, but the Kings stayed mostly quiet as time ticked down, having done most of their business ahead of time, and saving the rest for the off-season.
If the lottery balls fall the right way for the Kings (as of this writing, they have a 38.8 percent chance of picking in the top three and a 13.5 percent chance of picking first overall at the draft), they may want to start a rebuild sooner rather than later, but that may prove particularly difficult.
Bold prediction: The Sharks bounce back, laying the wood to the Kings in a 6-2 rout. Thornton gets three of his six assists, and the next three tomorrow in Anaheim.
Both teams meet the Anaheim Ducks next, the Sharks head to Honda Center tomorrow for a 7 p.m. puck drop, and the Kings host the Ducks on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.