Daily Debate: Real test for the Kings and future of the Flames

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun assess the Darryl Sutter regime in L.A., the surging Canucks and the future of the Flames.

Burnside: Ho, ho, ho, my friend. Well, time for the final Daily Debate before the NHL’s Christmas break. Love that there’s a heavy schedule Friday evening to send us into yule bliss with 22 of the 30 teams in action and loads of meaningful games. For me, I’m curious to see how the L.A. Kings fare in Game 2 of the Darryl Sutter era. The Kings nabbed two badly needed points in Sutter’s debut but let’s put their 3-2 shootout victory Thursday night in perspective: It was against the lowly Anaheim Ducks. Still, a win’s a win, but I think the real test for Sutter and his low-scoring troops begins tonight in San Jose.

The Sharks technically lead the Pacific Division but are tied in points with Dallas and Phoenix at 39. Guess what? If the Kings win in regulation, they’ll pull within a point of the Sharks. Go figure. As bad as the Kings have been -- and it’s been plenty bad on the left coast -- they’re that close to being right back in the hunt. Getting Mike Richards back -- he scored the Kings’ first goal Thursday -- is likely as big, if not a bigger factor, in the Kings’ long-term chances of making the playoffs than Sutter’s influence. But we’ll get a much better sense tonight of which direction this team might be headed.

LeBrun: The Sharks have three games in hand on Los Angeles, but it is somewhat stunning that despite the Kings’ disappointing first half, they still have the division lead within their grasp. No team in the Pacific has really found its groove this season. The return of Richards, as you mentioned, is gigantic for them. I thought he was their best forward before he got injured. He’s the kind of two-way, gritty player who Darryl Sutter will absolutely make his go-to guy. I would expect Richards’ ice time to increase under the new coach.

With Richards back in the lineup, the Kings, once again, have their 1-2 punch at center with he and Anze Kopitar, which affords Sutter so much more flexibility in matchups. When you’re playing a loaded team like San Jose, for example, that’s critical when the Sharks can come at you with Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Michal Handzus down the middle. Of course, that was exactly the point when GM Dean Lombardi traded for Richards in the offseason. He looked at the top teams in the West such as San Jose, Vancouver, Detroit and Chicago and knew he needed more than one elite center to compete. Now that Richards is back, the Kings can indeed compete.

Burnside: Well, we’ll see whether the Kings can compete or not. As you know, I’m not sold on the Sutter hire as the panacea that some believe it will be. But no question, Richards is the catalyst for the team. He was leading the team in goals scored when he went down with a head injury.

Another pre-Christmas tilt I’m looking forward to is Washington’s visit to New Jersey. The Caps have shown glimpses of breaking out of their season-long funk with four wins in their past six outings. Alexander Ovechkin has looked more Ovie-like in recent games and scored a big goal against Nashville in their last win. For me, though, the Caps can’t start entertaining a playoff berth, let alone a sustained playoff run, until the goaltending stabilizes. Michal Neuvirth is expected to start again for the Caps against the Devils, and it looks like Dale Hunter’s giving the youngster a chance to carve out a niche as the team’s starter. The Caps still rank 23rd in goals allowed per game, but Neuvirth has won three of his past five starts and allowed more than two goals just once in his past six appearances. Like the Kings, the Caps could return to the playoff picture with a regulation win over the surprising Devils (and pending the outcome of the Winnipeg game).

LeBrun: In the Caps' 4-1 win over visiting Nashville, they finally looked at ease under Dale Hunter. One game hardly makes a trend, but that as good as they’ve looked under the new coach, playing a fluid and aggressive game and not showing any of the indecision and hesitance that I saw in the previous games after Hunter took over.

Meanwhile, we don’t have to guess whether Vancouver is on a roll. The red-hot Canucks, winners of 12 of their past 15 games, can take over the Northwest Division lead with a win over rival Calgary tonight. The Canucks are getting some breaks go their way as well. I mentioned this on air at TSN here in Canada on Thursday night, but Terry Gregson, the NHL’s director of officiating, told me that Alexander Edler’s goal Wednesday night against Detroit, upon further review, should not have counted. Gregson’s feeling is that Wings goalie Jimmy Howard did not have a chance to make a save after Jannik Hansen crashed into him.

Gregson discussed it with the on-ice officials from that game. In the end, Gregson (and I agree with him) said it should have been no penalty, no goal -- just a faceoff. That’s little solace to the Wings, of course, since it doesn’t change the 4-2 score from that night. Even worse, Detroit followed that up with a 3-2 loss at Calgary last night with backup Ty Conklin in net. Conklin barely has played this season, and I don’t think head coach Mike Babcock has a whole lot of confidence in him. My suspicion is that GM Ken Holland might look at who’s out there closer to the Feb. 27 trade deadline to see if there’s an upgrade available.

Burnside: That Vancouver/Calgary game is interesting because, a little like the Kings, I think it’s going to reveal whether the Flames are really going to be a player in the playoff discussion or whether they’re going to simply hover in that 11-14 range in the standings. The Flames are coming off a big win over Detroit, as you noted, and are 5-2-2 in their past nine games. A win over Vancouver would not only move them to within a point of eighth place (pending other outcomes of course), but it also would be a huge statement for a team that many of us have been dismissive of for much of the season. Funny, I reached out to GM Jay Feaster about a week ago to talk about the team’s improved play and he respectfully begged off, saying he didn’t want to be discussing the team’s upswing when they still weren’t in the playoff bracket.

With Jarome Iginla edging toward the 500-goal plateau -- he has 497 -- there’s finally some good news around the Flames. I’ll give you a quick guess as to who’s leading the team in scoring, though: the oft-maligned Olli Jokinen, who is riding a five-game point streak and who has 13 points in his past nine games. One thing is for sure, if the Flames fall out of the playoff picture: You can bet Feaster will be fielding lots of calls on Mr. Jokinen leading up to the trade deadline. Your thoughts? And before I close my end of this debate, I want to wish you and your family a very merry holiday, my friend. The same goes for all our readers, too.

LeBrun: I don’t want to be a Grinch, but I still don’t believe in the Flames. I don’t think there’s any way they make the playoffs this season. Their current flirtation with a playoff appearance temporarily masks the real work that awaits Feaster. This roster needs a drastic, offseason overhaul. Luckily for Feaster, he has 13 expiring contracts on payroll, nine players slated for unrestricted free agency led by the likes of Jokinen, Lee Stempniak and Scott Hannan and four players who will be restricted, including Mikael Backlund and Blake Comeau. In short, it finally gives Feaster the kind of roster flexibility next summer to make real changes. But that’s a long time away still.

Merry Christmas, Scotty. Look forward to seeing you in Philadelphia next week for the Winter Classic.