Logan Couture remembers the sunny days for the NHL’s three California-based teams.
“For five to seven years, it seemed like there was a California team in the conference final every year,” the San Jose Sharks captain said. “Teams that came from the East to play here would say that they just needed to get a point or two from the three-game stretch. They just tried to survive.”
From the 2009-10 through 2018-19 seasons, teams from the Golden State made the Western Conference finals nine times. The Sharks made it four times, advancing to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to Pittsburgh. The Anaheim Ducks made it twice. The Los Angeles Kings made it three times, and twice advanced to win the Stanley Cup, in 2012 and 2014.
Then all of their fortunes changed. The Ducks and Kings last made the playoffs in 2018. The Sharks’ last appearance was in 2019. The 2019-20 season marked the first time since the 1995-96 season that the NHL didn’t have one playoff representative from California.
“It’s a funny cycle,” Couture said. “In this sport, you can’t stay good forever. And we’ve all had some down years.”
That they have. The Sharks (.459), Kings (.444) and Ducks (.438) are all in the bottom seven teams in points percentage from the start of the 2019-20 season through Wednesday’s games.
“It’s amazing. All three teams were trying to win, and then all three, at kind of the same time, are trying to rebuild back up,” Anaheim coach Dallas Eakins said. “But that’s the ebb and flow of the league. Teams load up with vets and try to grab that Cup. And with that, there’s a price.”
Like Couture said: It’s a funny cycle. But there are signs the California teams are cycling back to contention, perhaps as early as this season.
“I think all three teams are on the upswing. Anaheim’s got some young, talented players. L.A.’s got some good players. I like where we’re at as well, with the mix of veteran and young players,” the Sharks center said.
Here’s a heat check on the NHL’s California teams.
Couture hates to lose. Anyone that’s spoken to the man after a Sharks defeat can attest to that.
So what did he think about some of those preseason prognostications that had the Sharks descending to the bottom of the Pacific?
“You try and block that out, but you also try to use it as motivation. Everyone plays better, in my opinion, with a chip on their shoulder. With something to prove. I think there are a lot of guys in our room that fit into that category this year,” he said. “We didn’t have a good year last year. We haven’t had a good year for two years in a row. So our guys in the dressing room had a lot to prove.”
The guys in that room are standard-bearers for the franchise, having all played on the Sharks’ last postseason team that lost in the 2019 Western Conference finals: Couture, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Marc-Édouard Vlasic.
(Evander Kane, another member of that team, is persona non grata in San Jose while he serves a 21-game suspension for submitting a fake COVID-19 vaccination card to the NHL. But he was already on the outs before that, having been disinvited from training camp as the NHL investigated him.)
Save for Meier, all of these players have trade protection. All of them have considerable contracts, too: Karlsson, Burns and Vlasic combine for $26.5 million on the Sharks’ salary cap.
“We signed all our contracts. All we want to do now is win,” Couture said. “It’s not that we’re just going to make the best of it. It’s that we’re here, and we need to win. That’s all we have to do.”
The Sharks’ early success this season has been a vibe-changer for the veterans. Winning is fun. Losing can be fun, but in the Sharks’ case, it was a soul-sucking annoyance compared with where the team was just a few seasons ago.
“The last couple of years have not been fun. Personally, when you’re losing every night and then you have to go to the rink the next day, it becomes a job. You get away from it feeling like it’s a fun sport to play,” Couture said. “We don’t want to feel that. We want to at least give ourselves a chance to play meaningful hockey down the stretch. We couldn’t do that last year, and it was very difficult mentally for a lot of us. That’s something that we definitely didn’t want to do.”
This start for the Sharks can be chalked up to a few offseason changes. It starts with a more effective defensive system from coach Bob Boughner. The Sharks had a porous 2.43 expected goals against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play last season, in front of mediocre goaltending. They have a 2.18 expected goals against so far this season in front of improved goaltending from offseason pickups James Reimer and Adin Hill.
“No disrespect to our goalies, because they’ve played great. We’ve been a more structured team in the defensive zone. More connected. More committed to playing defense than we have in the past,” Couture said.
The Sharks have gotten solid performances from first-year players like Jonathan Dahlen (6 points), Jasper Weatherby (4 points) and William Eklund (4 points), the latter of whom was the seventh overall pick in the 2021 NHL draft. Couture said that two veteran additions have also made a difference: forwards Andrew Cogliano and Nick Bonino.
“They bring the attitude and the work ethic. Trying to get better every day, even though they’re in their mid-30s. When a younger guy sees an older guy that works just as hard as they do, trying to prove they can play in the league, everyone just feeds off it,” he said.
Bonino is the only player in the Sharks’ locker room with his name on the Stanley Cup.
“A lot of the guys in the room have won Olympic gold medals. They’ve played in all the big tournaments. But [Bonino] is the only guy that’s won the Stanley Cup in there. It’s everyone’s dream,” Couture said. “When you get in your 30s, the clock starts to tick. You look up, and there are only a couple of years left. I’m turning 33 soon. I know in this sport, at that age, there aren’t many chances or cracks left at it.”
The captain hopes this hot start manifests into a postseason berth for the Sharks.
“I played in the Final before. I know what it takes to get there, and it’s a long road,” he said. “But I just want us to get back to the playoffs. I want us to give ourselves the chance.”
Defenseman Drew Doughty was excited before the 2021-22 season. Perhaps more than he’s been excited in years, because he felt like he was seeing the light at the end of the rebuild tunnel.
“Yeah, we’re starting to see it. We haven’t put it on ice. We’ve only put it on paper right now. But I’m looking forward to seeing it,” he said this preseason. “We’re going to be way better this year. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
The Kings have been nurturing one of the deepest collections of prospects in the NHL. But GM Rob Blake said the team’s veteran core — Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick — all wanted to see signs that the team was getting better in the summer. So Blake went out and signed Montreal center Phillip Danault, traded for Nashville winger Viktor Arvidsson and signed Vancouver defenseman Alex Edler in the offseason. Wouldn’t you know it: The team’s veterans were their best players to start the season.
Kopitar had 13 points in nine games. Doughty was scorching hot, too, with seven points in his first four games.
“He hasn’t missed much time in his career, so this was hard,” Blake said. “Immediately after the game, we felt that injury may be a lot worse. A couple of days later, in perspective, we felt maybe we got lucky. Since I’ve here, I think Drew and Kopitar have pretty much played every game. So we haven’t had to experience that type of player out of our lineup for a long period of time.”
It wasn’t just Doughty. The injuries started in the preseason with Andreas Athanasiou, who had a broken finger. It looked like 2020 No. 2 overall pick Quinton Byfield could make the Kings out of camp and be an NHL contributor, but then he broke an ankle. Defenseman Sean Walker was then lost for the entire season with a torn ACL — the second season in a row he’s seen his season derailed, after taking a puck to the face in 2020-21.
“The injuries have thrown a little different loop at us,” Blake said. “Everybody deals with injuries, but it’s not something you ever plan for.”
The injuries have contributed to a roller-coaster season thus far for the Kings. They opened with an emphatic win over Vegas. They were winless for their next seven games. But then they put together three straight wins, all at home.
A few of the players from the Kings’ deep farm system are on the NHL roster and contributing, like center Rasmus Kupari and winger Arthur Kaliyev. Byfield could join them when he returns. The Kings have prospects like Alex Turcotte and Tyler Madden honing their games at the AHL level, making up for the fact that they didn’t get full AHL runs in the pandemic-impacted 2020-21 season.
Kings fans have heard of these names for years. Blake admitted that fans’ patience may be running short when it comes to waiting for them to help the team get back to contention.
“I would think they’re getting rumbly. They want to see some stuff transfer [to the ice]. They want to see some players play important roles and producing in the NHL, rather than just talk about these young players,” he said.
“But that’s what our players were saying at the end of last season, too.”
As for the other California teams, Blake sees some kinship.
“Different style teams, but the same kinds of transitions: really good for a number of years but then had to take a step back and now start to progress again. We all have some veterans, and we’re trying to filter in younger players. Trying to integrate them into some of the holdovers from the days when those teams were competitive,” he said.
“I’ll say this: Anaheim plays a really fun style to watch right now.”
Eakins appreciated the sentiment that his team is fun to watch. “But I think it’d be more fun if we had some wins on the board,” he said.
Like the Kings, the Ducks are just now recovering from a roller-coaster start. They opened the season going 2-1-0. They followed that with six straight games without a win, before taking their past two games at home.
“We’re a team where being in the middle of a rebuild, you’re going to have certain nights that you’re off. But if you’re doing things right — and I think we are now — you should be in a lot of those games,” Eakins said.
Six of the team’s seven losses have been by one goal.
“Our next step as an organization in the next year is learning our lessons on how to win. To not be out of the game by a goal, and but to win those games by a goal or getting the extra one in the empty net,” Eakins said. “We had two games last week where we were down by three goals. And those games would have been over in the past. But have a resilient, quietly gritty group, and they battled back to at least pocket a point.”
Like the Kings, the Ducks are trying to win with a blend of veteran holdovers and upstart young stars. Anaheim has run it back with Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg and Adam Henrique up front; Kevin Shattenkirk (11 points in 11 games), Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson on the blue line; and John Gibson in goal. Joining them are dynamic 20-year-old forward Trevor Zegras, who played 24 games last season; and 19-year-old defenseman Jamie Drysdale, the No. 6 overall pick in 2020.
Like the Kings, it appears the Ducks are trying to hit the sweet spot between aging veterans and bright young talents in order to contend again.
“My honest answer is that I don’t know if there’s a sweet spot,” Eakins said. “I’ve looked at a million different teams that have gone through a rebuild and how they did it. Teams that were last in the league and suddenly are very good. And I’m not sure there is a sweet spot.
“What I do know is that our young guys are urgent, and they want to become everyday NHL players. Our vets, to a man, really care. You want that injected into your team. We don’t have that vet who’s an entitled player or that just goes about his own business. They’re 10-out-of-10 people. I’d take any one of them as my son-in-law.”
Eakins said the most amazing thing about the Ducks this season is that the names on the roster, by and large, haven’t changed since last season. “But it’s like they’re different human beings,” he said, which sounds like something out of a “Body Snatchers” film until he elaborated. “Our culture is different. The way they come to the rink every day is different. The way they stick together. That’s a testament to them: They shook off a tough season, saw this was a new season and said, ‘Let’s have at it.'”
So far, the Ducks are 11th in goals per game (3.18) and 22nd in goals against per game (3.09), which does add up to some fun games, as Rob Blake mentioned. But Eakins said the additions of assistant coaches Geoff Ward, Newell Brown and Mike Stothers to his bench have led to a “sense of calm and that sense of experience” that has helped the players.
The Ducks hope to be better than they’ve been. Same goes for the Kings, and the Sharks.
“These three teams were trying to win the Stanley Cup,” Eakins said. “And now, the exact same three teams are trying to do the fastest rebuild possible to get there again, and they’re trying to beat the other two teams in California to do it.”
“It’s amazing. We’re all in the same competition. It’s just different now.”