NHL opportunities knocking

NHL.com (whether knowingly or not) highlighted two California hockey players who forever will be linked by their draft year (2010), their round (first) and their backgrounds playing for the now-defunct LA Hockey Club.

Forward Beau Bennett, taken 20th overall in ’10, is making a strong push to remain in the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins lineup, according the league’s website. Unfortunately, the story did not make the California connection, though plenty of other ones have.

NHL.com also weighed in on Emerson Etem‘s growing role with the Ducks, and make no mistake, it is growing. Interesting to read NHL Network analysts Kevin Weekes‘ take on working out with Etem when Etem was just 13. The accolades Etem receives for his work ethic are justified (as I’ve witnessed those workouts in Venice), as are the ones about his upbeat attitude.

That is something else Bennett and Etem, share – phenomenal, team-first attitudes and a truly grateful outlook for all the sport has given them (and undoubtedly will give them).

But they’ve got company from California this season.

In the past month, two defenseman have made their debuts and both will be profiled in the upcoming issue of California Rubber Magazine.

Matt Tennyson made his first NHL appearance on April 1 and has played three games, picking up two assists. Though he played just a few seasons for the San Jose Jr. Sharks growing up, his family now calls California home. Tennyson was part of a large group of players I affectionately termed the Cali-mazooans, who played for Western Michigan in Kalamazoo. That group included Brett Beebe, Garrett Haar, Chase Balisy, Dennis Brown, Robert Francis and J.J. Crew. Tennyson signed with the Sharks last spring and has spent most of this season in the AHL.

And lastly but not least is defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, whom I spoke to this week for a story. As with the other three, Ruhwedel was a delight to speak with. Unlike the other three, Ruhwedel jumped directly from college to the NHL through a whirlwind of events last week.

Consider that last Thursday (April 10), he was playing in the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh against eventual champion Yale. Less than 36 hours later, the smooth-skating defenseman was on his way to Buffalo for a physical, to sign his contract, get his gear and play in an afternoon game, which the Sabres won.

All of this for a player who spent exactly one season playing AAA hockey in California (for the Jr. Kings) and only a handful playing AA growing up in San Diego county.

This is the first time the state has had four players make NHL debuts in a single season, to say nothing of the fact that 40 percent of said season was lost due to a lockout.

Congratulations to these four!

Kings’ Cup run paralells ’03 Ducks run

If the Los Angeles Kings’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals this season seems familiar to you, it should.

It is strangely similar to that of the 2003 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. And while that comparison might make Kings fans cough up their Corn Flakes, there are several compelling reasons to draw this conclusion.

The 2003 Ducks rode the unreal goaltending of Jean-Sebastien Giguere to a 12-2 record through the first three rounds of the playoffs. The 2012 Kings have gotten stellar play in net from Jonathan Quick en route to a 12-2 record through three rounds.

The Ducks, the sixth seed that season, vanquished the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in four games in the first round. The Kings, the eighth seed, knocked off the defending Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks in the first round (before taking seeds 2 and 3 in the West).

Both teams made key acquisitions before and during their respective seasons.

The Ducks signed Adam Oates and traded for Petr Sykora, two forwards who boosted the club’s offense. Anaheim then added defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh and forwards Steve Thomas and Rob Niedermayer at the trade deadline. All were huge contributors to the Ducks reaching the postseason and then rolling through it.

The Kings traded two elite young forwards to obtain center Mike Richards this past summer. Then at the deadline, they shipped defenseman Jack Johnson to Columbus to obtain Richards’ former Flyers running mate Jeff Carter.

Then there is the opponent in the Finals — the New Jersey Devils. Only Patrick Elias and goaltender Martin Brodeur remain from the 2003 Finals team.

Let’s hope history does not repeat itself because after a long layoff between rounds, the Ducks lost to the Devils in seven games.

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The Devils feature several familiar faces to California hockey fans, starting with their assistant coaches — Larry Robinson and Adam Oates. Robinson finished his Hall of Fame playing career with the Kings and later coached them to their only playoff appearance between the 1993 Cup Finals and 2001. Oates was a key member of that first Ducks Finals team.

Four players on the Devils have played for California NHL franchises, including the aforementioned Sykora (who returned to the NHL after playing in Europe) and former Duck Ryan Carter, as well as former King Peter Harrold and former Shark Steve Bernier.

Zucker, Tennyson leave college early to sign NHL deals

Just days after their respective college teams were eliminated from the NCAA hockey tournament, two players with California ties have signed their first NHL contracts.

Forward Jason Zucker, a 2010 second-round draft pick of Minnesota’s, signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Wild and is scheduled to make his NHL debut Thursday night, according to the Star Tribune.

Zucker is a former LA Selects player who has spent two seasons at Denver University, where he was the WCHA’s freshman of the year in 2010-11. Prior to that — and after playing for the Selects — he spent two seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program.

Meanwhile, defenseman Matt Tennyson (Pleasanton) reportedly has signed with the San Jose Sharks, foregoing his final season of eligibility at Western Michigan University.

Tennyson, who played youth hockey for the San Jose Jr. Sharks, had 11 goals and 13 assists this past season for the Broncos. The goals were third most on WMU, which won the CCHA tournament. He was a second-team all-CCHA selection.

Zucker, who was captain of Team USA in this past winter’s World Junior Championship, had 22 points and 24 assists for 46 points this season for the Pioneers, who reached the WCHA final in addition the NCAA tournament. He was a second-team all-WCHA pick for the second consecutive season.

Congratulations to both as they take this next step in their hockey careers.

 

Roy Sommer, a California original

Read a very well-done piece on Oakland’s own Roy Sommer on The Hockey News’ site today.

Sommer gets more than a passing mention in the hockey book for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is he was the first California native to reach the NHL, playing three games with the Edmonton Oilers in 1980.

Sommer has been in the San Jose Sharks organization since 1996 and is closing in on 500 victories as an AHL coach. When he says at the end of the THN column that he was only telling the short version of his hockey story, believe him. We spent an hour (if not more) on the phone during my research process, and the stories didn’t stop.

His commitment to the game is unquestioned, and several people have told me his summer camps in San Jose are highly enjoyable.

Roy Sommer truly is a California original, and hockey is much richer for having him in it.

 

Straying from youth hockey to the NHL for a moment

I had the opportunity to watch all three of California’s NHL teams in person during a four-day span recently, and I came away with the following impressions.

The Anaheim Ducks will have long road back to the playoffs. Duh, they’ve lost 16 of 18 games and can’t hold a lead.

I watched them give up four goals in the first nine minutes of the third period to Chicago and snatch a 6-5 defeat from what once was a 4-1 lead. And I don’t blame Jonas Hiller for the Blackhawks’ outburst, though he could have stopped a few of the goals in the third-period blitz. The Ducks’ d-zone coverage was willy nilly (to put it mildly) all game, and particularly so in the third.

But the Ducks’ problems extend beyond a leaky defense, which clearly misses Lubomir Visnovsky. If the top two lines don’t score, the Ducks don’t score.  23 games into the season no forward not named Selanne-Perry-Getzlaf-Koivu-Ryan has more than nine points.

But the top line of Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry-Bobby Ryan is a combined minus-29, so for all the offense they provide (45 points, including 21 goals) they give up a lot more. One forward you can’t fault is Teemu Selanne, who not only leads the team in points (22), but is just minus-3, a Selke Trophy candidate compared to his top-line brethren.

Rumors of a Ryan trade are flooding the Internet, and he’s an easy target given he has just 11 points in 23 games and a minus-6. But do you really want to trade a player of Ryan’s ability so early in his career? If they could pry Shea Weber or Ryan Suter from Nashville, OK. But unless you’re talking a franchise defenseman, forget it.

Frankly, the Ducks take a lot of undisciplined penalties (they spend 14 and half minutes per game in the box, in the bottom six in the league) and seem to complain to the refs a lot … in addition to not always seeming prepared. Those factors point to the coach, but I remain convinced Randy Carlyle won’t be going anywhere. The ownership still remembers 2007.

Monday, I watched the Kings shut out the Sharks at Staples Center.

The Kings played aggressively from the start and it paid off with some gritty goals. They also built a fairly substantial shot advantage, which few teams do to the Sharks.

But then the Kings seemed to get conservative and back roared the puck-possessing Sharks. In the end, goaltender Jonathan Quick was the difference, and he had to be. Once the Sharks gained control of the puck, they started to get power plays, and Quick was brilliant, often stopping second and third chances.

I expect both to be playoff teams, and it wouldn’t surprise me if both won a round, but I also saw some warning signs for both teams.

The Sharks were a bit careless with the puck, particularly on the blue line. Dan Boyle and Brett Burns are extremely talented players, but both had multiple give-aways. But both demonstrated how their puck-moving abilities also can spark San Jose’s transition game.

The Kings seem deeper than in years past, but they’re still missing a creative offensive player or two. Yes, Mike Richards helps their offense (and defense), but I still saw Anze Kopitar getting ganged up on. Simon Gagne is still a very good player, but injuries clearly have robbed him of something over the years.

When the Kings play aggressively, but don’t warm the penalty box seat, they’re tough to deal with. Sustaining that appeared problematic.

The difference, the Kings’ lockdown style could work in the playoffs if they can manufacture timely goals and stay out of the penalty box. I had the sense watching the Sharks that I’ve seen this before, which means a very good regular season and who knows after that.

Etem, McColgan, Maxwell headline California’s WHL ties in ’11-12

It’s too early to tell how the Anaheim Ducks’ offense will shape up this season, but should goals become scarce the Ducks might want to re-think sending California prospect Emerson Etem back to junior.

Etem (Long Beach) was a first-round pick in 2010 and a late camp cut this season. No one questions his speed or will to win, nor should they question his offensive ability after the tear he is on for the Medicine Hat Tigers thus far.

Etem was selected the WHL’s Player of the Week after scoring six goals and adding an assist in three games this past weekend. Through eight games, he has 13 goals, which leads the Dub by five. His 17 points (13-4) are one off the league lead.

Etem headlines a group of 17 players with California ties in the Dub this season.

The group is composed of two goalies (Kelowna’s Adam Brown, 91, and Tri-City’s Eric Comrie, 95); six defensemen and nine forwards.

By birth year, there are five 95s, two 94s, one 93, four 92s and five 91s.

Here is a team-by-team look at California’s prospects:

High-scoring left wing Tyler Maxwell (91), who attended training camp with the Minnesota Wild, returns for Everett. … Brown is joined in Kelowna by right wing Shane McColgan (93), a fifth-round pick of the New York Rangers in June’s NHL Entry Draft. McColgan has been a point-per-game player the past two seasons and performed so well at prospect camp that the Rangers invited him to their main camp. … Etem is joined by veteran defeneseman Matthew Konan (91), a previous invitee to Ducks camps, in Medicine Hat.

Portland’s roster includes left wing Tyler Parker (92), and defensemen Cody Castro (92) and William Wrenn (91), a 2009 San Jose Sharks pick who played for the LA Selects. Wrenn is the team’s captain. The Winter Hawks could have had a third California d-man, but Taylor Aronson, a 2010 third-round pick of the Nashville Predators, made Milwaukee of the AHL.

A third California native made Portland, center Chase De Leo, who like Comrie is part of a strong group of 95s from the state. That group also includes Tri-City center Brian Williams, Victoria left wing Taylor Crunk and Prince George defenseman Michael Mylchreest.

The 94s, who are eligible for next June’s entry draft, are Kamloops right wing Chase Souto and Spokane center Liam Stewart.

Other 92s in the Dub include a pair of defensemen, Tyler Vanscourt with Prince Albert and Brandon Underwood with Regina.

Next: A look at California’s NCAA Division I players

Nine California prospects on THN’s radar

The Hockey News’ annual Future Watch issue (which features Kings prospect Brayden Schenn on the cover this year) is a must-read for those wondering what their team’s future looks like.

I also enjoy scouting it for Californians viewed as up-and-coming players by the magazine’s panel of experts. Each of the 30 teams’ top 10 prospects are profiled, but the real selling point is who are the top 50 overall prospects.

There are nine players with ties to California listed among the 300 (1o for each of the 30 teams) in the publication, and one — Beau Bennett, a 2010 first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins — in the top 50. I have not gone back and compared how those number stack up to years past, but it would make for an interesting study.

Bennett, who just finished a strong freshman season at Denver University, was ranked No. 46 overall and the Penguins’ top prospect. Fellow 2010 first-round pick Emerson Etem was rated No. 57 overall and was slotted as the Anaheim Ducks’ second-best prospect.

Other prospects “ranked” by their respective teams included:

Calgary Flames — C Mitch Wahl was No. 8. Wahl struggled through an injury-plagued season, but with the Flames up against the salary cap and needing an infusion of youth, the former California Wave and LA Jr. Kings prospect should go into camp with some sort of shot at a roster spot next fall.

Colorado Avalanche — C Mark Olver was No. 8. A one-time Wave player, Olver had 40 points as a rookie in the AHL and also scored during a brief call-up to the Avs.

Nashville Predators — D Jonathon Blum was No. 2 (I did not count him in the overall totals because he is in the NHL to stay at this point).

New York Islanders — RW Rhett Rakhshani was No. 5. He tied for the rookie scoring lead in the AHL with 62 points, had four points in the AHL All-Star Game and made a two-game NHL appearance.

Minnesota Wild — C Casey Wellman was No. 4 and LW Jason Zucker was No. 6. Wellman also battled injuries but posted 35 points in 42 AHL games and played in 15 games for the Wild. He’s considered a strong bet to stick in Minnesota next season. Zucker might have been Denver University’s best player as a freshman, posting 45 points in 40 games, and he again shone at World Juniors.

Phoenix Coyotes — LW Viktor Tikhonov was No. 5. The former San Jose Jr. Shark seemed to find his game in the AHL this season, getting 33 points in 60 games. The Coyotes have said they rushed him to the NHL after being a first-round pick in 2008.

I’ll take a look at other players from California whose rights are owned by NHL teams in the next post.

A closing note: inclusion is no guarantee of anything. And the turnover of prospects is quite high year-to-year. Just a few years ago, one would have seen Brett Sterling, Brian Salcido and Gabe Gauthier among the Thrashers’, Ducks’ and Kings’ top prospects. Sterling signed with the Penguins last summer and has played some in Pittsburgh, Salcido played in Europe this past season and Gauthier suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and only played a few few ECHL and AHL games.

Conference Finals

The San Jose Sharks now know their Western Conference Finals opponent – the Chicago Blackhawks.

What happens next is anyone’s guess, though San Jose will have to play its best to beat a young, determined Hawks team and reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time.

The Conference Finals appearance is the second in Sharks’ history (2004 was the other), and it’s just the sixth overall by a California NHL team.

The others were the Kings’ magical 1993 run to the Stanley Cup Finals, and the Ducks’ runs of 2003, ’06 and their Cup triumph in ’07.

I maintain that LA’s Campbell Conference Finals series against the Toronto Maple Leafs in ’93 is probably the most compelling playoff series I’ve ever seen, and I write that in the hockey book. So many rich plot lines to that story.

The Ducks toppled the then relatively new Minnesota Wild in ’03 before falling to the Devils (and Scott Niedermayer) in seven games in the Cup Finals. In ’06, Chris Pronger and the Oilers foiled Anaheim’s designs on a return trip to the Cup Finals. But one spring later, with Pronger and Niedermayer patrolling the Ducks’ blue line, Anaheim won the state’s first Stanley Cup.

In 2004, the Sharks were foiled by Calgary in the West Final. The Flames went on to lose in seven games to Tampa Bay, giving Florida its first Cup. That triggered a run of “non-traditional” Cups as Carolina beat Edmonton in the first year after the lockout (2006), and the Oilers’ summer of discontent set the stage for the Ducks’ wire-to-wire roll in ’07.

So while this is the first time in three seasons a California team has reached the conference finals, it is the fifth time in seven seasons of NHL hockey.

And that is a trend we can all be proud of.

Plenty on deck

I have been immersed in writing the book and traveling for some other work this summer, so the updates have been far more infrequent.

What I can tell you is the book is starting to take shape. After months of writing bits and pieces of various chapters, I believe the project is becoming more cohesive. As I type, I’m taking a break from writing about some of California’s Olympic hockey players. There have been four of them so far – any guesses who they are? (Hint – two men, two women and three of them all played the same position)

On the local hockey front, there are going be at least a dozen Californians in NHL rookie and main camps in early September. I will detail them in my next post. All three California teams will have prospects from the state in their rookie camps – Tyler Maxwell and Brandon Kozun with the Kings, CJ Stretch with the Sharks and Matthew Konan with the Ducks. A common thread? All four played in the WHL this past season.

What’s next for Sharks?

Monday’s elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the hands of their rivals to the south (yes, I think they’re rivals now), cannot sit well with the San Jose Sharks or their fans.

This was a team that not only won the President’s Trophy and had home ice as long as it remained in the postseason, but one that intentionally brought in a mixture of Cup-winning veterans for a presumed deep playoff run.

None of that matters today after the Sharks were ushered out of the playoffs by the Anaheim Ducks in six games. If it’s possible for a six-game series to not be as close as it appeared, this one wasn’t. After Anaheim won the first two games, the Sharks came back to take Game 3 in what was the series’ most exciting game, 4-3. After a Ducks demolition of the Sharks in Game 4, the Sharks saved face on home ice with an overtime win in Game 5, but not before allowing the Ducks out of a 2-0 hole in the third period. Even though the Ducks lost Game 5, their ability to score twice in minutes in the Shark Tank probably confirmed to them that they were the better team.

So what do the Sharks do now? Here are four possible answers.

1. Fire the coach. Highly unlikely and not advisable. Todd McLellan and his staff appeared to do a fine job all season, and everything I’ve heard from Sharks insiders is overwhelminingly positive. He was outcoached this series by Anaheim’s Randy Carlyle, but that is part of the learning curve for the first-team NHL bench boss.

2. Fire the GM. I guess it’s possible, but it wouldn’t make any sense to me. Doug Wilson is not only the face of the Sharks franchise, but you will not find a classier man anywhere – NHL, board rooms, the beach, you name it. He was proactive this past offseason, and my guess is he will be again.

3. Shake up the roster, again. Reports from San Jose were this was not a super tight group, and really, how could it be?  The team mixed in a lot of new parts and had to overcome a lot of injuries in the second half of the season. Still, that the team didn’t play with more heart could be construed as a reflection on the leadership in the room, or lack thereof. So before the inevitable trade Patrick Marleau or Joe Thornton rumors kick up, consider this. Maybe the Sharks need a new captain. Or a new set of them. No one questions the team’s talent level – it’s as high as any team’s, but maybe the mix isn’t right. When Brian Burke took over as GM in Anaheim and brought D Scott Niedermayer in, there was no question he was going to be the captain. As serviceable and popular as Steve Rucchin was, Burke knew he could keep him around and demote him as captain. When the Sharks obtained Thornton in 2005, he seemed to be a logical choice to wear the C, in my opinion, but he hasn’t. If the Sharks trade anyone – and I believe they will – I think Marleau will be the one to go. … Another thing to consider is goaltending. Is Evgeni Nabokov the guy to carry San Jose to the Finals? As good as he’s been the past four, five seasons, he has not stood on his head regularly in the postseason. He also would have a lot of trade value at this point. However, the Sharks do not have the depth at the position they’ve enjoyed in the past. Moves are likely, but what they will be is anyone’s guess at this point. If I carried a vote, I would encourage the Sharks to obtain a new goaltender first, then re-arrange the furniture among the skaters.

4. Do nothing. As crazy as it sounds, this might be the best thing. Perhaps the Sharks will learn from this experience and return determined not to let it happen again. A stable room could do wonder for team cohesiveness. A determined Sharks team would be a difficult Sharks team to beat in 2009-10.