The Los Angeles Kings head into this coming season with high expectations. In fact, this season is the first in quite a while where the Kings and their fans are perfectly justified in their optimism. Last season’s strong performances were derailed in the playoffs when they encountered a San Jose Sharks team looking to shed their “choker” label, and without their star forward, Anze Kopitar, lost to a brutal injury near the end of the season. Despite the loss, and the fact that the Kings ran into a strong San Jose team, they performed quite well, and converting on an important power play near the end of Game 6 might have turned the entire series on its head.
This season is a whole new story. What do we have to look forward to in Los Angeles? Let’s consider what 2011-2012 has in store for the Kings:
Coaching – Terry Murray has led this team for the past three seasons, and this will be his fourth. Despite providing strong, stable leadership, Murray has been criticized, sometimes rightly, for a tendency to change lines like it’s going out of style. One theory on the game of hockey is that players need to develop chemistry together, and playing together consistently can give players the chance to predict where players are heading. That theory, while probably holding some merit, doesn’t hold water in my mind. Professional hockey players are paid big money because they have the ability to work with a wide variety of other players. No matter which perspective you take, Kings fans are sure to have to ponder the “what ifs” for at least one more season. A season filled with line-changes and rotating partnerships. In general, Murray is a good fit for the team. He’s a stable presence for the younger players, he doesn’t rock the boat, and he has familiarity with even the new players brought in from Philadelphia.
Defense – Let’s see if we can get through an entire preview without mentioning Drew Doughty… Wait… Damn. OK, so the Doughty issue is hanging over the heads of Kings fans (and aware hockey fans nationwide) and will be until it gets resolved. I’m not going to recount everything that has happened on that front, suffice it to say that a hold-out would be far from unexpected at this point. Fortunately for the Kings, they actually have the depth on the blue line to potentially compensate at least in part, while the management team gets the Doughty contract sorted. The team has three elder statesmen in Matt Greene, Rob Scuderi, and Willie Mitchell, each of which provides a strong, stable, experienced mindset to the blue line. The team also has at least two (and potentially three whenever DD eventually signs) younger defensemen with upside in Jack Johnson and Davis Drewiske. But that’s not where the strength of the defensive depth comes from. If Doughty is out for the start of the season, the Kings have at least one opening on the roster for one of their youngsters to fill. Those vying for the spot in camp are Thomas Hickey, Alec Martinez, Jake Muzzin and Viatcheslav Voynov. While Martinez seems to have the inside track, since he’s got a bit of experience and performed will down the stretch and into the playoffs, really anyone could take that spot. From what I hear, Voynov is a very strong candidate, though my money would still be on Martinez, at least to start the season. Regardless, when Doughty comes back, which eventually will happen, the defense will be that much stronger. In the meantime the Kings should be just fine.
Offense – The offense is probably the only real place where the team has a different look. The top two centers in Los Angeles give the Kings arguably the strongest 1-2 punch in the Western Conference in Mike Richards and Anze Kopitar. Both are incredible performers, and give the Kings realistically a 1A – 1B set up, which would takes the scoring pressure off of either, and keep any team from keying in on either. On the wings, the Kings are just about as stacked, lining up Dustin Brown, Simon Gagne, Dustin Penner and Justin Williams. My bet is that Scott Parse, Brad Richardson, or potentially Trevor Lewis could see time on one of those two lines at some point, especially if we see struggles to start, or if injuries hit the Kings. After the top 6, the Kings lost Michal Handzus, mostly because there just wasn’t room for him. If he had headed anywhere other than San Jose, I could wish him luck. As it is, I hope he has lots of luck, but all his teammates have terrible luck and the Sharks struggle. Despite that loss, the Kings still have Stoll, Moreau, Clifford, Richardson, Lewis, Parse, Westgarth, and newly acquired (controversially) Colin Fraser to fill the bottom 6 spots. That is of course assuming no youngsters make a push to make the roster, and with Loktionov chomping at the bit, that’s far from a sure thing. In general, I see the Kings employing a bit of a scoring by committee strategy, though more likely by choice rather than by force, since there are so many threats offensively. Are they as high-powered as the Washington Capitals or some of the top of NHL players, no. But they’re likely to be a threat to score every night, and with strong defense that will be enough more often than not.
Goaltending - Goaltending is the tale of Jonathan. There are two of them, both of whom have incredible potential, and likely deserve to play more than they likely will this season. Terry Murray has come out and stated that Jonathan Quick is going to be his #1 starter, at least for now, but Jonathan Bernier played great down the stretch last season and proved himself a better than average backup. I would imagine Quick will play somewhere around 50-55 games, with 25 or 30 games going to Bernier. Obviously that could change if Bernier or Quick struggle, but if the schedule can be maintained at roughly that rate, it should be sufficient to ensure that Quick remains fresh heading into a hopeful playoff appearance next season.
I started this preview by mentioning that I think for the first time the optimism surrounding the Kings is justified. I don’t want to jinx anything, and certainly anything could happen, from injuries, to players performing far below expectations. Despite those risks, I see the Kings making a real run this season. A strong performance in the regular season should see them battling with the Sharks for the top of the Pacific, and they are likely to be in the hunt for home-ice advantage for the first time in a very long time. I’ve said it before, but once the playoffs start, it’s up for grabs, and with strong play in net, offensive contributions from the blue line and consistent, responsible production up front, this could be a season for Kings fans to remember heading forward. Even if it doesn’t end with a Cup (if wishing made it so…), it should be a fun season to watch.
I’m curious, where do you see the Kings ending up? Think they’ll beat out the Sharks for #1 in the division?
Tags: Alec Martinez Andrei Loktionov Anze Kopitar Brad Richardson Colin Fraser Davis Drewiske Drew Doughty Dustin Brown Dustin Penner Ethan Moreau Jack Johnson Jake Muzzin Jarrett Stoll Jonathan Bernier Jonathan Quick Kevin Westgarth Kyle Clifford Los Angeles Kings Matt Greene Michal Handzus Mike Richards Philadelphia Flyers Rob Scuderi San Jose Sharks Scott Parse Simon Gagne Terry Murray Thomas Hickey Trevor Lewis Viatcheslav Voynov Willie Mitchel