The origin of California hockey came in 1967 with the founding of the Oakland Seals, later being replaced by the California Golden Seals, and the Los Angeles Kings. After the California Golden Seals were relocated, the San Jose Sharks were added to the league in 1991. In 1993, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim became California’s third NHL team, later becoming the Anaheim Ducks in 2006. It is always natural to have intrastate rivalries and the three teams of California have been no exception.
Another great addition to the intense rivalries among the three clubs is that they all have moved up and down in the standings together for most of the last decade. Over the last 10 seasons, they have all made the playoffs four times, and in the 2012-13 season, 2015-16 season, and 2017-18 season, they all placed consecutively within their division. In the 2019-20 season, they also placed consecutively, but not for the right reason. They were the three worst teams in the Western Conference, making them the only teams in the conference that did not participate in the expanded 24-team playoff field.
All Three Teams Are in the Rebuilding Phase
Last season showed that the three California teams are all in the rebuilding phase. Anaheim finished with the best record of the three teams, going 29-33-9, a .472 winning percentage. The Kings ended the season with a record of 29-35-6, a .457 winning percentage. The Sharks found themselves dead last in the West, with a record of 29-36-5, a winning percentage of .450. This was quite the drop-off for a team that made the playoffs just one season prior.
As the worst teams in the Western Conference, two of the three California teams have piled up on prospects and have accepted the fact that they may not be good again for a couple of years at least. The Sharks, on the other hand, don’t seem to know they should be entering a rebuild and are holding on to their run to the 2019 Western Conference Final. This has put them in a difficult situation as they don’t have a good system of prospects or the current team to make another run in the near future.
The Ducks Rebuild
Over the last few seasons, the Ducks have built up a pretty solid prospect pool, putting them near the top of the NHL. At the 2020 NHL Draft, the Ducks had some solid picks through the first couple of rounds. With their first choice at sixth overall, they picked up Jamie Drysdale, a skilled defenseman who has offensive talent while still being reliable in his own zone. He can also run a power play for the next generation of Ducks. With their second pick in the first round, Anaheim selected winger, Jacob Perreault. Perreault’s skill lies in shooting and passing, as he could work on his speed and strength. The Ducks also drafted winger, Sam Colangelo, an elite offensive talent.
Even prior to the 2020 NHL Draft, the Ducks had a solid group of prospects. At center, Anaheim’s future will include Trevor Zegras, Isac Lunderstrom, and Sam Steel. These potential NHL superstars will also have some solid wingers to play with. Brayden Tracey, Maxime Comtois, Max Jones, and Troy Terry are all in the pipeline as Ducks wingers. It couldn’t hurt if the Ducks added another solid defensive prospect, as aside from Drysdale, they are mainly lead by Brendan Guhle. Jacob Larsson could also play a defensive role in the future, but he is a bit older.
This offseason, the biggest move the Ducks made was picking up Kevin Shattenkirk, signing him to a three-year deal worth a total of $11.7 million. Although he won’t be around as a contributor for too long, he is a good veteran presence for the next few years. The 2020 Stanley Cup Champion can help the young Ducks transition to becoming a more competitive team. The team also extended winger Sonny Milano, who dazzled in his Ducks debut, scoring a highlight-reel goal and adding the overtime winner later that night.
Looking a few years down the line, current Ducks players such as Rickard Rakell, Danton Heinen, and Hampus Lindholm could all still prove to be assets. Overall, the Ducks rebuild is going pretty well. They need to figure out their goaltending situation, though, as both John Gibson and Ryan Miller are older guys. They do have Lukas Dostal as their top goaltending prospect, but nothing is guaranteed when it comes to young netminders.
The Kings Rebuild
Going into the draft this year, the Kings were already ranked at the top of the NHL by many in terms of their prospect pool. The Kings executed an almost perfect draft, widening the gap between them and the next-best NHL prospect system. The Kings started their draft the right way, taking power center Quinton Byfield over winger Tim Stutzle. Byfield, who is 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, provides everything a team could want in terms of skill and is the clear choice to take over for Anze Kopitar as the team’s No. 1 center.
After selecting Byfield, LA focused on positions of need, picking up two defensemen in the second round of the draft. First, Helge Grans, a quick, offensively gifted guy who can run the power play. The Kings also drafted Brock Faber, a smooth-skating, shutdown defenseman.
Before this year’s draft, the team’s prospect pool was a bit lopsided. The Kings seem to have an endless list of top-end center prospects. Included in this list is Alex Turcotte, Gabriel Vilardi, Akil Thomas, Tyler Madden, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, and Rasmus Kupari, just to name a few. On the wing, the Kings have offensive powerhouse Arthur Kaliyev, although there are some questions about his defensive commitment. Carl Grundstrom and Samuel Fagemo are also players who will likely fill winger roles for Los Angeles in the future. On defense, Kale Clague, Tobias Bjornfot, and Mikey Anderson will lock things down in their own end while still contributing on the scoresheet.
This offseason, LA didn’t make many moves, but there are a few to mention. In early October, the Kings traded forward Brad Morrison to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for defensemen Olli Maatta. Maatta has never surpassed 30 points in a single season, but the 26-year-old is a well-rounded player who can bring value to a team such as the Kings. At the draft, LA moved the 60th overall pick to the New York Rangers in exchange for forward Lias Andersson. Andersson had a rough start to his NHL career, but the Kings are giving him a second chance.
In terms of current players who can still make an impact when the team is more competitive, there is Alex Iafallo, Adrian Kempe, Austin Wagner, Blake Lizotte, and possibly Micheal Amadio upfront. Sean Walker who is just 25 years old could help out the Kings’ defense for a few years, in addition to Matt Roy. Roy is a bit under-the-radar, as he didn’t put up a ton of points last season. He is 25 years old, and his advanced stats showed as some of the best on the Kings last season.
There is no reason he couldn’t play a bigger role in the future. For Los Angeles, the list of players who could contribute down the line just goes on and on. They have a ton of young, current players, as well as a great group of prospects. This makes them one of the scariest teams in the NHL once they mature.
The Sharks Rebuild
Out of the three California teams, the Sharks are certainly in the weirdest spot in terms of their rebuild. The direction of the team is unclear, as they went on a deep playoff run in 2019, but placed last in the Western Conference in 2020. Injuries affected the team significantly, but that cannot be an excuse for last season. The Sharks are holding on to going back to the playoffs with this team, which has proved to not be a good idea. The Kings did this from 2014 to 2018, missing and making the playoffs in alternating seasons. Because the Kings didn’t fully commit to the rebuild until the 2018-19 season, the time it will take to make another playoff run has been extended. The Sharks are going down this same path, but they seem to think they have another run left in them.
Although the Sharks placed very low in the league, they didn’t get a high pick at the 2020 NHL draft, as their lottery pick was in the possession of the Ottawa Senators. Because of this, the Sharks didn’t pick until 31st overall, selecting Ozzy Wiesblatt, a smaller, quick winger. The Sharks clearly are not afraid of picking smaller players such as 5-foot-9 center Thomas Bordeleau and 5-foot-10 center Tristen Robins, both in the second round. They both have elite skating and shots to add to the Sharks’ lacking prospect pool.
The Sharks don’t have much in the pipeline, and fans should be concerned about the future of the team. The Sharks’ prized possession is Ryan Merkley, a defenseman with offensive skills worthy of a top-10 draft pick. The issue with Merkley is his attitude towards the game and his defensive commitment. Although Merkley has a ton of potential upside, the Sharks cannot depend on a defensively lacking player to carry them through the next decade.
The Sharks made two acquisitions this season, both from the Minnesota Wild. Altogether, the team traded their 2021 third-round pick and their 2022 fifth-round pick to the Wild in exchange for goaltender Devin Dubnyk and Ryan Donato. Donato is a solid center who has been on an uptrend over the last few years, putting up 23 points in 62 games last season. He is also just 24, so he has some upside. The Sharks also tried to solve their goaltending issues, but 34-year-old Dubnyk is not the answer. Last season, he put up a save percentage of .890 and a goals-against average of 3.35.
The Sharks have a surprising number of forwards who can still make an impact for a while. This includes Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, and Kevin Labanc. On defense, 22-year-old Mario Ferraro has shown promise as well. The Sharks don’t have too much going for them in terms of their current goaltenders. Martin Jones and Dubnyk are both older, and won’t be competitive for too much longer. San Jose truly needs more of everything if they don’t want to go on a long playoff drought.
The issue is, it is going to be a tough time getting all the pieces they need. A good team is built on draft picks, and the Sharks don’t have many in the next few years. Management is going to have to get to work on how they can dig themselves out of the hole they put themselves in.
Who’s Leading the California Rebuild?
When looking at prospects and current players who will still contribute after the rebuild is over, the Kings have the most quantity and quality. They have a plethora of prospects with lots of upsides, as well as some younger current players who could still be around as the team becomes more competitive. It is also clear who is leading the race to rebuild between the Ducks and the Sharks. The Ducks certainly have a better prospect system and have proved to be in full rebuild mode. The Sharks seem a bit lost on what they should be doing. While they should be rebuilding, they seem to be partly holding on to making another playoff run. They don’t have a lot in terms of prospects, and they haven’t built up the future of the franchise.
NHL Fans Should Look Forwards to California Hockey
In a few years, once each California team has completed their rebuild (although it may be a bit longer for the Sharks), games among these teams will be ones to mark on the calendar. Young teams who are intrastate rivals should make for some entertaining nights. The three California teams, when they have been good at the same time, have put together some great playoff matchups and rivalry games, as they play one another often. With the pace each team is going at right now, they should continue their trend of moving up and down the standings together.