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NHL roundtable: Ducks rolling behind goal of the year? Another lost year for Kings?

Trevor Zegras of the Ducks reacts to a goal by Sonny Milano on Tuesday in Buffalo.
Trevor Zegras of the Ducks is in disbelief after his behind-and-over-the-net pass resulted in a goal by Sonny Milano on Tuesday in Buffalo.
(Bill Wippert / NHLI via Getty Images)

The NHL season is past the quarter point and the Ducks and Kings appear headed in opposite directions.

The Ducks (15-8-5) are in second place in the Pacific Division, having earned at least a point in six straight games. The Kings (11-10-4) have followed a seven-game win streak with a 3-5-3 stretch that has left them sixth in the Pacific.

Anaheim is being led on offense by its youngsters. Troy Terry (24 years old), Trevor Zegras (20) and Sonny Milano (25) are the Ducks’ top three scorers and Zegras and Milano teamed up for a goal Tuesday that the hockey world is still buzzing about. The Ducks are 10th in the 32-team league with an average of 3.18 goals per game. Los Angeles is 25th at 2.68.

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In the latest roundtable moderated by Times hockey editor Hans Tesselaar, Times columnist (and Hockey Hall of Fame honoree) Helene Elliott was joined by Times staffers Curtis Zupke (former beat writer for both teams), Jim Barrero (a Kings season-seat holder) and Nick Leyva (a longtime Ducks fan) to discuss the Southland rivals.

OK, any hockey talk has to start with the Trevor Zegras behind-and-over-the-net pass to Sonny Milano for the Ducks’ first goal Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres. How did you react to the “Michigan” assist?

Elliott: Loved it. That got more people talking about hockey in a positive vein than anything else I can remember recently. I’m all for more creativity in a league that often tries to stifle creativity and scoring!

Barrero: It was amazing to watch, I must admit. Usually you see that only at a minor-league level, and that he was able to pull it off in an NHL game says something. Agree with Helene about it bringing buzz to hockey. I wonder how veteran players view it, perhaps thinking he’s showing someone up?

Zupke: “Did I just see that? Holy cow.” To Helene’s point, Zegras is moving the needle. He was the talk of the Ducks-Capitals game before that, and the Ducks lost that one in a shootout.

Dallas’ Jason Robertson will play his first game at Staples Center, where he often went as a youth. He’s the third player of Filipino heritage in NHL history.

Leyva: I just found out what the “Michigan” was a few months ago, so when I saw Zegras pick the puck up with his stick I knew exactly what that move was. I wondered how does a team let an opposing player stand behind the net and do that? Yea, I was blown away pretty much.

Elliott: It’s my understanding that the “Michigan” had been used before to score, but I’m not sure if it had been used before to make a pass. Either way it was spectacular.

Ducks center Troy Terry scores against Kings goalie Jonathan Quick on Nov. 30.
Ducks center Troy Terry scores in the second period against Kings goalie Jonathan Quick in Anaheim’s 5-4 shootout victory on Nov. 30 at Staples Center.
(Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

Is it fair to say the Ducks have exceeded expectations at this point of the season?

Barrero: Definitely. As a Kings fan, I’m jealous to see how their young players have driven them into a playoff spot already. I hope for the same soon from the Kings. But yes, the Ducks are playing a very enjoyable style of hockey and I don’t see them bowing out of the playoff race.

Elliott: It will be interesting to see how the kids step up now that Ryan Getzlaf is out for a while with the dreaded lower-body injury. Gotta be optimistic when you see Zegras and Troy Terry and Jamie Drysdale. They’re shaping up to become franchise cornerstones.

Leyva: It’s not only fair but any hockey fan has to be pretty amazed at what they’ve done so far and must recognize this achievement. Can they sustain this pace? That’s my next question.

Elliott: A very good question, Nick Leyva.

Adrian Kempe of the Kings scores against Frederik Andersen of the Hurricanes on Nov. 20.
Adrian Kempe, scoring against Carolina Hurricanes goalie Frederik Andersen on Nov. 20, leads the Kings with 11 goals.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Conversely, is it fair to say the Kings have failed to meet expectations so far?

Elliott: I know how much it pained you to say that, Hans Tesselaar. I think setting the bar low for the Kings was the right approach, though they said (and it is true) that this is the season they have to make the playoffs in order to prove to their fans and themselves that they’ve made progress. I did think they’d be a little better than they’ve been. Cal Petersen has been having a rough time in net, and they still lack finishers up front. Defense could use an upgrade, too.

Leyva: I wouldn’t say that, I’d say the Kings are about where I expected them to be at this point in the season. Still a lot of season left and like many teams, they’ve been bit by the injury bug. A work in progress, for sure.

Barrero: Definitely yes. It sure didn’t help that Quinton Byfield was injured, thus delaying his potential impact. And so far, the young players who are up (Rasmus Kupari, Arthur Kaliyev) have had their moments, but nothing consistent yet. I’m also not happy with what [Viktor] Arvidsson has brought so far. The lack of finishing, as Helene said, has been something I yell about every game.

Zupke: They didn’t pass the Thanksgiving test (it’s often said that if a team isn’t in playoff position at Thanksgiving, they probably won’t make the playoffs). But there should probably be an asterisk for them because of the injuries. That last Canada trip was telling: They beat a slumping Oilers team and then got shut out by Vancouver. They should be better than that. And ditto Jim: I know he’s missed some time, but Arvidsson, where are you?

This seems like a yearly issue. Why do the Kings struggle so much to score?

Elliott: I think it’s partly because of the defense-first system they play. Can you imagine how many points Anze Kopitar might have scored if he had played for a team that was less defense-minded and let him roam? The other part, I think, is simply identifying and developing talent. The Kings had enough bad years to get good draft positions. Yes, Kupari and Kaliyev might develop into scorers but that’s far from certain.

Barrero: I think it has taken them longer than should be expected to transition from their “heavy” game that won them two Cups to the faster style the league prefers now. And without adding any real high-profile scorers over the years and none of the youngsters doing anything to surprise yet (a la Troy Terry), it’s not a surprise that scoring remains a struggle with this veteran core.

Leyva: I think a lot of it has to do with their depth and the inability to find a productive second line. As a Ducks fan, I’m excited to see how their second line looks when Getzlaf and [Adam] Henrique return. In today’s game, you really need two consistent lines to have success night after night.

Zupke: Helene read my mind with the system. I’ve felt they’ve struggled to adapt to what is always, increasingly, a faster, up-tempo NHL. How many times have I sat in a press box watching those defenseman-to-defenseman passes?

Kings general manager Rob Blake, left, and president Luc Robitaille at the 2017 NHL draft in Chicago.
Kings general manager Rob Blake, left, and Luc Robitaille at the 2017 NHL draft in Chicago.
(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Rob Blake was elevated from assistant general manager to general manager of the Kings in April of 2017. They made the playoffs in his first season in charge (getting swept by Vegas in the first round), but have not reached the postseason since. How would you assess the job he’s done?

Barrero: I see fan boards and Twitter calling for Blake’s head all the time, but I think his grade is an “incomplete” at this point and I’m willing to give him more time. That said, the window for patience is closing on his approach, and if there aren’t measurable results in a year or two, either team-wise or through individual achievements, it might be time to try a different way, maybe even avoiding the temptation to appoint another former King to the post.

Elliott: I think when you speak about Rob Blake, you have to include Luc Robitaille, too. I think they both were too slow to recognize that the game, as Jim and Nick and Curtis have all mentioned, was trending toward being speed-based rather than heavy. They thought they could get another Cup out of the championship core without changing the team’s style and it delayed the start of the rebuilding process they really needed. I’d give Blake a C, to be honest. I liked his signing of [Phillip] Danault, was skeptical about Arvidsson. [Alexander] Edler has been OK.

Zupke: He was in-over-his head in the beginning and, as we all know, that last playoff berth masked a lot of things that needed to be addressed, which probably set the organization back further. I think Blake has them on a more direct path on the rebuild, but I think it would be pretty damning if they don’t make the playoffs this season.

Leyva: I sometimes wonder about the Kings identity and that reflects on Blake. Do they want to be a quick, up-tempo team or a slower, defense-minded squad where goaltenders steal a lot of wins?

Elliott: Good question, Nick. Without finishers, they might have no choice but to be a defense-first team. But they need upgrades on defense to do that.

Speaking of rebuilds, the Ducks were criticized in some circles for waiting too long to acknowledge that’s what they needed to do. Like the Kings, they’ve missed the playoffs three seasons in a row. But their prospects would appear to have the jump so far on the Kings prospects. Fair assessment or is it too early to judge?

Leyva: I totally agree that they waited too long to get rebuilding the team. But I had to give Bob Murray the benefit of the doubt because he seemed to always find gold no matter what round he was drafting in. I think it still might be too early to judge what the Kings’ prospects will be.

Ducks defenseman Jamie Drysdale controls the puck against Capitals center Connor McMichael.
Ducks defenseman Jamie Drysdale controls the puck against the Washington Capitals on Nov. 16, 2021.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Zupke: It’s easy to get enthused about the Ducks’ prospects, with Zegras, Mason McTavish, Drysdale, etc., filling up the highlight packages. But it might be too early. Quinton Byfield isn’t even in the NHL yet and it looks like he might be pushing out Gabe Vilardi. Then this Sean Durzi kid comes in and basically pushes Kale Clague out the door. We need more sample size.

Barrero: I don’t follow the Ducks as closely, of course, but they seem to be on a trajectory for a ton of success ahead. As Helene said earlier about Zegras, Terry and Drysdale possibly becoming cornerstones, it reminds me of when [Dustin] Brown, Kopitar and [Drew] Doughty were young, and look what became of them. And with John Gibson in net, the next five seasons, at least, could be prosperous.

Elliott: I think the Ducks are fortunate that Troy Terry took a significant step forward this season. They likely didn’t expect him to be as productive as he has been. Some kids need more time to develop than others do. With the Kings, we haven’t seen Quinton Byfield nearly enough to judge if he can become a difference-maker. Or [Alex] Turcotte. Or [Jaret] Anderson-Dolan.

How did eight teams, including the Kings (who took Turcotte fifth) pass on Zegras in the 2019 draft? He’s looking like the early favorite to be rookie of the year.

Elliott: All I can think of is that Zegras isn’t that big (he’s listed as 6 feet tall) and maybe that was a concern to some teams?

Barrero: There’s always those stories when looking back on drafts, aren’t there? How did Michael Jordan get picked third? As for Zegras, I see he’s listed at 185 pounds and he doesn’t strike me as “imposing” but man can he play. Sometimes, there are things that can’t be measured, and he seems to fit that description.

The intensity of play and sprinkling of skill the Ducks and Kings showed Tuesday night represented progress for both teams, which they appreciate.

Leyva: I think his size probably scared a lot of GMs off. He’s listed at 6-foot, 185 but he’s probably more like 5-foot-10, 165. When I watch him on the ice, he reminds me a lot of Paul Kariya, who was also of small stature but he sure could fill up the net. Also, Kariya was built solidly and Zegras doesn’t have that look to me. I hold my breath when someone takes a run at him.

Elliott: Exactly, Jim. Pat Falloon was drafted ahead of Scott Niedermayer in 1991. Also ahead of Peter Forsberg.

Zupke: I don’t remember anything that made him “fall” in the draft, which as we know, is not an exact science. Sometimes it comes down to needs. Maybe some teams thought he would take more time to develop. I do remember the Ducks were thrilled to get him.

Finish this sentence. Come playoff time, the Kings and Ducks will be …?

Leyva: The Ducks will be in a wild-card spot having been passed by a healthier Vegas team and the Kings might be contemplating a change in the front office.

Zupke: One of them will be a wild-card team. I just don’t see both making the playoffs. I’ll say it’s the Kings that get in.

Barrero: Matching up in the Western Conference semifinals, my son says. Ha! Unfortunately I don’t share his youthful optimism. I think the Ducks will play in the postseason and the Kings will have a lot more explaining to do in the offseason.

Elliott: Come playoff time, the Kings and Ducks will be ... tired? As someone in this fine group mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to move up in the standings and get into a playoff position for teams that aren’t in a playoff position around American Thanksgiving. That said, I think Nashville will fade and I can see the Blues dropping back a bit, too. Dallas has been playing very well lately, though, so the Kings will have to pass them, and the Sharks and Winnipeg to get a wild-card spot. I think both could get in as wild-cards, with the edge to the Ducks at this point.

Zupke: American Thanksgiving! (or, as Canadian sportswriters say, U.S. Thanksgiving).

Elliott: That was for you, Curtis!


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