Battle Royale: the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings Jockey for Pacific Supremacy

I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” — Thomas Jefferson.

One team has ruled the roost four consecutive years, missing a fifth (despite registering 108 points) only due to Anaheim’s Cup-winning season in 2006-07.  The other has been a perennial doormat for much of its existence, making the playoffs just 24 times in the 44 years since its inception in 1967-68.  A mere two years ago, the latter was reeling after its sixth-straight non-playoff campaign; the former was about to embark upon back-to-back trips to the Western Conference Finals.

And yet today, Thomas Jefferson’s words couldn’t be more apropos.  Situated on different perches, the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings nevertheless share burgeoning momentum as the 2011-12 NHL season approaches.  Both have shown considerable improvement over the past two seasons, and both have reasonable expectations to achieve not only the Pacific division crown, but still-loftier goals:  reaching the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Sharks Bite Hard

San Jose had every reason to substantially retain a team that averaged 107 points over the last seven seasons and made the Conference Finals three times.  Minor tweaking was in order, but there was no pressing need to take significant risk with respect to the roster.  Yet Sharks GM Doug Wilson boldy decided enough was enough — two straight losses in the Western Conference Finals by a combined 1-8 game tally was a clear and convincing indicator that the team’s regular-season success wasn’t translating over to the highest stages.

Therefore, change was in order:  in came Brent Burns, Michal Handzus, Jim Vandermeer, Martin Havlat, Matt Pelech, Ben Guite, Andrew Murray, Colin White and James Sheppard.  To the curb went Nicklas Wallin, Devin Setoguchi, Dany Heatley, Patrick Davis, Kyle Wellwood, Scott Nichol, Nick Shaus, T.J. Trevelyan, Ben Eager, Joe Loprieno, Kevin Henderson, Ian White, Kent Huskins, Carter Hutton, and Mike Swift.  Although a number of the players exiting the system were merely organizational clutter and still others may yet be re-signed at some point, big names such as Heatley, Setoguchi and trading top-prospect Charlie Coyle (as well as the team’s 2011 1st round pick) demonstrated this was not just another offseason in the Silicon Valley.  The pocket protector-wielding computer nerds now had a defense they could rally behind.

The Kings Crown Second Line Successors

For the past two seasons, Los Angeles has struggled to find consistency in three of their top-six forward positions:  both left wing slots and at second line center.  Ryan Smyth showed the inexorable signs of aging, and the 2nd line left wing position was a revolving door of unproven commodities.  At center, Jarret Stoll and Michal Handzus were generally adequate, but essentially placeholders until better options came along.

Los Angeles did not have the wholesale changes the Sharks experienced.  However, they brought in immediate-upgrade top-sixers Mike Richards and Simon Gagne, as well as fourth-line candidates Colin Fraser and Ethan Moreau.  Leaving the club were Alexei Ponikarovsky, John Zeiler, Rob Bordson (acquired in the Mike Richards trade), Michal Handzus and Peter Harrold.  For the first time in four years, the silicone-enhanced Kings fans have six legitimate top-six forwards to cheer for, not to mention a one-two punch up the middle that rivals the best the league has to offer.

Aristocracy versus Aristocracy

The teams seem poised to collide in a  battle of old guard versus new blood, moguls versus whelps.  San Jose had one of the league’s very best offenses last season, and by all accounts, still does — the no-name defense and weak penalty kill ultimately were unsolved deficiencies that manifested themselves in the conference finals.  The Kings, on the other hand, were polar opposites — the defense and penalty kill were consistent all season, but offensive efficiency, both at even strength and on the power play, eluded them.

Photo Courtesy Dan4th/Flickr

The division is still the Sharks’ to lose, and the Kings are by no means the only contenders for the throne.  Anaheim acquired Kurtis Foster, Matt Smaby, Matthieu Carle, Andrew Cogliano and Mark Bell.  Dallas picked up Sheldon Souray, Radek Dvorak, Jake Dowell, Vern Fiddler, Michael Ryder, Eric Goddard and Raymond Sawada.  Phoenix obtained Raffi Torres, Radim Vrbata, Boyd Gordon, Nathan Oystrick, Kyle Chipchura, M.A. Pouliot, Justin Pogge and Connor Murphy.  Yet both the Sharks and the Kings appear to have made the boldest moves within the division this offseason, executing purposeful strategies to correct specific weaknesses on each team.  In San Jose’s case, it required moving a number of puzzle pieces around; for Los Angeles, it was the willingness to convert future assets into present value, along with finding the elusive left wing sniper not seen since the days Alex Frolov was scoring 90 goals over the span of three seasons.

A Five Team Race

In the end, look for another five-team battle for the playoffs, with at least two serious contenders for the Pacific division title.  San Jose is all but certain to be one of them, but the Kings believe they now have the pieces in place to knock on the door of the Shark Tank.  The Silicone vs. Silicon subplot may be one of the most intriguing ones the West has to offer for the upcoming 2011-12 season — titillating Vancouver Canucks fan “demonstrations” to Ben Eager notwithstanding.