With the start of the season a mere two days, it’s time to post some predictions and things to watch for this Kings season.
1. Justin Williams stays healthy and plays 70+ games. - Right Winger Justin Williams has lost playing time, due to injury, each of the past four years. Williams missed 33 games last season with a broken leg and desperately needs a strong rebound year, especially since it’s a contract year for Williams. Look for Williams to reach his season goal of 30 goals.
2. Willie Mitchell sets career highs in points. – Mitchell has never been much of a scoring threat but being paired with offensive minded Drew Doughty will draw a big increase on Mitchell’s offensive numbers. In his best year, Mitchell had 23 points (3+20=23) two years ago in Vancouver. I’m expecting 25+ assists with at least 30 points by the end of the season.
3. Jonathan Bernier takes over top goaltender spot. – Bernier has been patiently waiting in the wings for his chance to shine and this is it. Last year he lead Manchester to the postseason and won the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award for outstanding AHL goaltending in the process. I believe Bernier’s natural goaltending skills help him overtake Quick for the number one spot.
4. Brayden Schenn moves up to second line center spot. - During camp, the competition between Brayden Schenn and Andrei Loktionov proved to be one of the most interesting. We knew one of them would make the opening day roster but, lo and behold, both made the cut. When Scott Parse comes back off IR, look for Loktionov to have his bags on their way to Manchester, since sending Schenn down means losing him for the year to his junior team the Brandon Wheat Kings. Schenn has the skills to handle the second line and we need another goal scorer in the top six. I’m not sure Schenn is the answer but I think he’ll get a shot.
5. Kyle Clifford see’s significant NHL playing time. – Kyle Clifford is a bruiser with the talent and drive to be much more. He still needs a lot of work but I think he’ll fill a forth line spot quite nicely this year.
6. Anze Kopitar breaks top 10 in league scoring race. - Last year Anze Kopitar finished with 81 points (34+47=81), which was good enough for 17th place in the NHL and 7th among centers. This year with a better core of players and a younger, healthier line mate in Dustin Brown, Kopitar will break 90 points and finish in the top ten in the NHL.
7. Ryan Smyth’s numbers fall and so does he. – Smyth will be 34 years old to start the season and will have a little trouble keeping up with Kopi and Brown. Brown will adapt and increase his grinding skills and, in turn, render Smyth’s job on the top line expendable. Smyth will drop to the second line to help mentor and compliment Brayden Schenn after he moves up.
8. Kings finish with 100+ points… again. - With most of our key players returning from last year, we should be expecting much of the same. The Kings converted 20.8% of their power play opportunities, good enough for fourth in the western conference and 7th in the NHL. But the real key to achieving the 100 point mark again will be improving the 5-on-5. Which brings me to my next point…
9. Jarret Stoll finishes the season not wearing Kings jerseys. - General Manager Dean Lombardi isn’t done improving this Kings team. Most of us will agree that our weak point is the second line. Who’s going to put the puck in the back of the net form the second line? We have a good supporting staff there but no marquee play maker. I think Schenn makes a bid to fill the role but look for Jarret Stoll to hit the trading block by the end of the year.
10. Kings win the Pacific Division. – In the 2009/2010 season, the Kings finished 3-3-0-1 against the San Jose Sharks, who finished with the best record in a very strong Western Conference. This year, the Sharks filled the hole left by Nabokov in net with last years post season feel good story Antti Niemi. I expect Niemi to struggle in his second full season in the NHL under the pressure of the strong Pacific Division leaving the door open for the Kings to take control of the top spot.