Once considered an afterthought for NHL fans and pundits, the league’s California franchises – Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks – have been among the dominant clubs for over a decade.
The Ducks advancing to the 2015 Western Conference Final marks the sixth consecutive season a California-based team achieved that feat, as well as the tenth time in 12 seasons dating back to 2003.
That might not seem like a big deal until one considers that, since the introduction of the current conference playoff format in 1994, a California-based team didn’t reach the conference final until 2003. Between 1982 and 1993, when it was known as the Campbell Conference Final, the Kings were the only club to do so.
Through all but two seasons of the Campbell Conference era and during the old semi-final format between 1976 and 1981, the Kings were the only California NHL team. Between 1967-68 and 1975-76 the Kings shared the California stage with the Oakland Seals/California Golden Seals. Throughout that period, the Seals never reached the semis. The Kings did so only once, in 1969 when they were swept by the St. Louis Blues.
The success of the Ducks, Kings and Sharks since 2003 could be dismissed as the inevitability of playing in one of the largest states in America, thus improving their odds. However, New York State also has three teams (Rangers, Islanders and Buffalo Sabres) and their records in the Eastern Conference over the same period pales in comparison.
Of the aforementioned New York state teams, the Rangers were the only one to reach the Conference Finals between 2003 and 2014. It’s also worth noting five Canadian teams over the same period reached the Conference Finals only five times.
Shrewd management is largely responsible for the success of the California-based franchises. That’s something which has been seriously lacking for years in some of the more traditional hockey regions.
The Ducks were the first to reach the Western Conference Final during this period back in 2003, when “Mighty” was still attached to their names. Riding the red-hot goaltending of J.S. Giguere and guided by a rookie coach named Mike Babcock, the Mighty Ducks marched to the ’03 Stanley Cup Final.
Two years later, the Ducks hired Brian Burke as their general manager. Building upon a solid foundation of promising youth (led by Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry), in 2005 Burke hired Randy Carlyle as head coach, acquired future Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Niedermayer and brought back beloved scoring star Teemu Selanne. In the summer of 2006, he acquired superstar blueliner Chris Pronger. As a result, the Ducks advanced to the 2006 Conference Finals and won the Stanley Cup in 2007.
Burke, Carlyle, Niedermayer, Pronger and Selanne are long gone now, and the Ducks had their share of difficulties following their championship season. But thanks to the efforts of current GM Bob Murray, the coaching of former Washington Capitals bench boss Bruce Boudreau and now-veteran superstars Getzlaf and Perry, the Ducks once again are a Cup contender.
Years of rebuilding through the latter years of the last decade by Kings GM Dean Lombardi turned his club into a two-time champion in his decade. Thanks to a core of goaltender Jonathan Quick, defenseman Drew Doughty and forwards Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, between 2012 and 2014 the Kings marched to three consecutive Conference Finals (including two Stanley Cup championships).
Salary-cap issues hampered Lombardi’s efforts to bolster his roster this season, costing the Kings a berth in the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. He’ll also have to shed some salary in the offseason to re-sign key young free agents like Tyler Toffoli and possibly replace pending unrestricted free agents Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll.
Those issues have already prompted some second-guessing of Lombardi’s management style heading into next season, as well as concerns over their long-term future. Still, there’s no denying he did a tremendous job building the Kings into a two-time champion.
The Sharks haven’t enjoyed the same championship success of the Kings and Ducks, but between 2003 and 2011 they reached the Conference Finals three times. The first instance occurred in 2004, one year after missing the playoffs and the hiring of current GM Doug Wilson. Under Wilson’s management, the Sharks were among the NHL’s dominant teams from 2007-08 to 2010-11, topping the Pacific Division four times and winning the President’s Trophy in 2008-09.
Yes, the Sharks under Wilson also garnered a well-earned reputation for choking in the playoffs. They also missed the postseason this year for the first time since 2003. Still, a number of former and current NHL general managers would love to have had the same record as the Sharks during their years as a league powerhouse.
Critics of the NHL’s Sun Belt franchises might dismiss the performance of the California teams over the past decade by noting they still fall well behind the state’s pro basketball, football and baseball franchises in popularity. While those franchises will probably never supplant those of the state’s other top pro sports teams, that doesn’t mean they haven’t made inroads within the Golden State over the past decade .
As Yahoo Sports’ Josh Cooper notes, the success of the California NHL franchises has sparked a surge in hockey’s popularity in the state. It’s not just the pro teams which are benefiting. According to Cooper, California is now seventh in players registered by USA Hockey. In fact, player registration has made significant growth in the past decade. Cooper reports it’s climbed from over 16,000 in 2004-05 to over 25,000 in 2013-14.
More arenas are being built or upgraded to accommodate the increasing participation in the sport, especially in the regions near the Kings, Ducks and Sharks. These clubs have also been very active supporters of hockey at all levels within their respective communities.
As per QuantHockey.com, there are currently 12 active NHL players who were born in California. A minuscule number compared to other hockey-playing states, but given hockey’s growing popularity, one that will surely grow in the coming years. It’s only a matter of time until the state produces its first hockey superstar.
The ongoing success of California’s NHL franchises will surely continue to play a significant role in the rise of hockey’s popularity in that state. While the league once received considerable criticism from hockey purists for expanding into southern markets, the success of their Golden State franchises validates the long-term benefits of the expansion plan.