We're about halfway done with our season preview and are a little ahead of schedule. Hopefully we can get this kicked out well before September ends and the teams start their travel season in lovely Europe. Pre-season hockey rules so go check it out in a town near you!
And now, the Los Angeles Kings.
Team M.O.: The L.A. Kings have been around since 1967 but didn't become synonymous with hockey until Wayne Gretzky was traded there prior to the 1988-89 season. From there the team started to flirt with success while introducing hockey to California, which spawned two other teams within the next decade. Since 2002, the Kings (along with their divisional rivals, the Phoenix Coyotes) have been synonymous with the term "rebuilding", having missed the playoffs since then prior to the start of the season. Many analysts predicted the Kings would be astounding last season, and to tell you the truth they weren't far off.
Last Season: Sixth overall in the Western Conference, where they were eliminated by the Vancouver Canucks in 6 games during the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Considering that this was their first playoff berth since 2002 while riding a relatively inexperienced goalie for 70+ games into the playoffs, they performed admirably.
Offense: This team looks like they're gonna roll three scoring lines and here's what they've got: Anze Kopitar gives the team a genuine Number-1 centerman who can make his teammates around them better. Dustin Brown works undoubtedly hard and can provide solid leadership while being good for 50-60 points. Newcomer Alexei Ponikarovsky gives the team a two-way winger who should be more mature than the departed Alexander Frolov and should be able to play top-six minutes without issue. Ryan Smyth is able to provide an excellent work-rate and gives the team something of playmaking power forward. Both Jarret Stoll and Michal Hanzus have shown consistent improvement since coming over to the Kings and give the team two solid pivots who can play on the second or third units and special teams. Wayne Simmonds has taken a significant step forward this past season and looks like he could be like fellow Scarborough, Ontario native Rick Tocchet and amass points like he does penalty minutes (and Simmonds isn't a bad defensive player, either.) Justin Williams is a more-than-capable point producer; it's the injuries that cut into his overall effectiveness. Scott Parse was given an audition last season and managed to have a solid work-rate for someone who'd be tabbed as the team's Number 9 forward.
On the fourth unit lies a mix of energy and toughness. Oscar Moller is energetic enough to put on a fourth unit, but he will be expected to take advantage of his scoring prowess if he gets called to play on a higher unit. Brad Richardson has managed to provide the Kings with a solid face-off man who can check and be good for 20+ points with limited ice time. Richard Clune should provide the team with a solid grinder who isn't afraid to drop the gloves from time to time. Since Raitis Ivanans has taken off to the Calgary Flames, the Kings would be wise to promote Kevin Westgarth to the role of the team's enforcer.
The Kings have their guys where they need them and they're set. Brayden Schenn did sign a contract with the Kings in the off-season but they might go with another depth option, front-office move (trade, waiver, or signing), or simply go with 14 forwards should they opt to keep three goalies.
We interrupt this regularly scheduled broadcast to bring you this message from Ron Burgandy:
If you want to throw down fisticuffs, fine. I've got Jack Johnson and Drew Doughty waiting for ya, right here.
Drew Doughty was simply stunning last season and will look to be a perrenial Norris Trophy candidate at the ripe age of 20! Jack Johnson was sluggish until GM Dean Lombardi called him out in the press. After that, his production took off and he managed to be better than a point-per-game throughout the playoffs; hopefully he doesn't need a constant kick-in-the-pants to keep it up. Willie Mitchell was signed as an unrestricted free agent and will give the team a solid compliment to give Rob Scuderi in forming an effective second-pairing shutdown unit that will be hell for the opposition. Good thing too because Matt Greene is unfortunately going to start the season on the shelf, when he comes back he'll be back to his tough, defensive ways. Davis Drewiske appears to give the team a solid number six defender while Peter Harrold gives the team a solid utility player and 23rd man.
That lineup would be good enough if Greene were healthy. If I were the Kings, I'd still look at a veteran free agent defenseman. If they wanna a point-producer they could go with someone like Marc-Andre Bergeron or could get a sound defender like Andreas Lilja (I keep throwing him around because I still can't believe he doesn't have a job yet.) Their youth and depth defenders look like they need to stay in the oven, per se, and come up on injury assignments only.
Goaltending: Crowded creases are never considered fun but the guys who play for the Kings will win if they're willing to be a team about it. Jon Quick was far better than expected last season, but he should appear in roughly half of the games he appeared in last season (72) in order to keep him fresh and effective for just more than the 82 game regular season. On top of theat Jonathan Bernier has done a sensational job in both the minors and in call-up duty to warrant serious consideration for playing time. With them it's going to be a Number 1/1A battle.
So where does that leave Erik Ersberg? The Kings could work with a team who needs another goaltender with NHL experience (definitely the Nashville Predators but the Carolina Hurricanes could benefit as well) in exchange for a goaltending prospect who'd play in the minors. However, they could also keep him as the third goaltender on the roster and take advantage of the rules regarding conditioning assignments to Manchester so he can still have some playing time throughout the regular season. The former would be better if they wanted to have a solid goaltending tandem in the minors; the latter would be better if they had two guys already in mind for that position and have Ersberg split duties between the two clubs. Ersberg may opt to be waived instead though, which if that happens, the former would have to occur.
Management: G.M. Lombardi committed to rebuilding the team and he's done an outstanding job. It's on coach Terry Murray now to ensure that this team not only makes the playoffs, but manages to escape from the conference quarterfinals as well.
Prediction: First in the Pacific Division and in the playoffs.
Many analysts will still like the San Jose Sharks and Phoenix Coyotes loyalists will point to how well the team's leadership is, but the Kings appear to have the overall tools necessary (barring a few slight adjustments) to not only compete but to dominate as well. Their rise to prominence should all but assure that playoff hockey will be back another season in the Greater Los Angeles market.