All Game 7s are not created equal.
Nobody wants to lose a playoff series, but when the Anaheim Ducks host the Los Angeles Kings at the Honda Center Friday night, one team will have a lot more at stake than the other.
The Ducks are not the ones on the hot seat. Win or lose, their fans should be plenty excited for the next five to 10 years. Anaheim’s stars, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, are in their primes and locked up to long-term deals. Between Frederik Andersen and especially John Gibson, the Ducks’ goaltending is trending up, and Jonas Hiller’s probable departure frees up free agent spending money.
Favre Selanne retiring – no, really – and Saku Koivu possibly joining him, Anaheim’s kids will get far more playtime next season. That’s a great thing for a team with the NHL’s No. 1 collection of 21-and-younger talent. The Ducks rank first overall in THN Future Watch 2014, meaning our panel of 17 NHL scouts decided Anaheim has the best youth harvest in the game. Cracking the individual top 75 prospects are Gibson (No. 2), Sami Vatanen (24), Rickard Rakell (28) and Shea Theodore (75). And that group doesn’t include the youngsters already up with the club at the time the votes were compiled, Hampus Lindholm, Devante Smith-Pelly and Emerson Etem, nor does it factor in Cam Fowler and Jakob Silfverberg.
There’s nowhere to go but up for Anaheim. Just look at the flashes shown by Gibson, Vatanen and Smith-Pelly, a.k.a. the human bowling ball, in this series alone. A loss is nothing to fret about.
Can the Kings say the same, however? A defeat would mean two straight years of playoff regression after a 2012 Stanley Cup and would send L.A. to the off-season with some questions. If Jonathan Quick doesn’t deliver, memories of his amazing Conn Smythe performance two years ago will fade further. Instead, focus will shift to the fact he has nine years remaining on his deal at $5.8 million per season. That’s a little scary for a goaltender who makes his living with athleticism and reflexes over technique and has a history of back trouble, no? Pretty tough to imagine Quick aging well. Factor in how outstanding backups Ben Scrivens and, later, Martin Jones played, with the league’s best puck-possession team in front of them, and it’s fair to wonder if Quick is as vital to L.A.’s success as he used to be. He doesn’t have a no-trade clause, either. I’m just sayin’.
Captain Dustin Brown, also locked up to a huge long-term deal, will feel pressure to deliver a major comeback campaign in 2014-15 should L.A. fall to Anaheim in 7. This was Brown’s worse year since his rookie season, no doubt. Mike Richards’ two-way ability keeps him quite valuable, but he’s paid like a high-end scorer and he has 12 goals in 95 games this season.
Marian Gaborik has been a revelation for the Kings, but is an unrestricted free agent this summer. The sandpaper division of L.A.’s blueline has two pending UFAs in Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell. And while coach Darryl Sutter still has some leash left, a second-round exit would put heat on him to take the team forward next year.
Tyler Toffoli looks like a bona fide NHL goal scorer, but the Kings don’t smile when they look at their approaching prospects in the rearview mirror. Future Watch ranks their kiddie crop 26th, and they boast no individuals in the top 50 overall. They also dealt away promising young power forward Hudson Fasching (No. 65 in Future Watch) for defenseman Brayden McNabb. There ain’t much help on the way at all.
The Ducks and their fans have good reason to enter Game 7 loose and free. The Kings, not so much. A second-round loss could have GM Dean Lombardi answering questions he hasn’t had to for a couple years, particularly when no one on the 2014-15 roster has a no-movement clause.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin