Monday, September 20, 2010

Know Thy Enemy - Los Angeles Kings

Tuesday morning, and we are a day away from the start of the NHL preseason. The Wings kick off their preseason schedule with a trip to Pittsburgh to open up their new arena, and it sounds like the Penguins are going to treat this as a regular season game and suit up all their stars, while the Wings will likely send some of their big guys and a host of other players to see what they can do. Word is that Osgood is going to get the start in goal, and this makes me a little sad, because I was hoping that Jimmy could show Sid how he cleaned his glove over the summer, and get Sid's opinion on whether it smelled better. Head on over to KK to check out George Malik's awesome coverage of training camp. However, some good news came down the pipe today. I was over at NOHS and saw that is going to stream the Red/White Game today. This is the annual scrimmage between two halves of camp, and is always a good time. If you have access to a computer at noon EDT today, check it out.

Los Angeles Kings

Alexei Ponikarovsky; Willie Mitchell
Departures: Alexander Frolov

The Kings took a major step forward last year, making the playoffs for the first time since the 2001-02 season, and while they bowed out in the first round to the Canucks, there's no question that last year was a huge success for the Kings. They had been one of the sad-sack franchises for the last few years, but the front office has shown a lot of patience in trying to rebuild the team, and the Kings look to be one of the big up-and-coming teams in the league right now.

Offense: The Kings are led on offense by Anze Kopitar, a guy who would be a superstar if he played anywhere except LA. He absolutely burst out of the gate last year, but as the season wore on, fatigue and the grind started to wear him down a little. He ended the season with 81 points, including 34 goals, and this year could be a breakout year for him. Behind Kopitar, there aren't any real offensive superstars, but there are a lot of 40-60 point guys sprinkled throughout the lineup. Ryan Smyth is looking to bounce back from an injury-filled season, as is Dustin Brown. If both of those guys can stay healthy, then the Kings will have a very formidable first line. Michal Handzus stepped up last year with 20 goals, and it's hoped that Ponikarovsky can finally live up to the potential now that he is out of the spotlight in Toronto and has no pressure to perform next to Sidney Crosby. If you take a look at the Kings' lineup, there are names there that won't be known by anyone, but are capable of chipping in offense: Jarret Stoll, Wayne Simmonds, Brad Richardson and Oscar Moller. There's talk that their number 1 pick in the 2009 draft, Brayden Schenn, is going to get a very long look in camp, and could make the team. On the blueline, the Kings have Norris candidate Drew Doughty, the team's second-leading scorer last year. I believe that once Lidstrom retires, Doughty could make a push for the title of "best defenseman in the NHL", as he's got all the tools. He's only in his third season, but even bigger things are expected of him. Jack Johnson is also a young player that can chip in points, as he ended up with 28 assists last year. The Kings finished 10th in the NHL last year, and with a team that young and very little turnover, they could rise depending on how their younger players progress. Their power play finished 7th in the league last year, and if Smyth can stay healthy, then they should either stay consistent or even see some improvement.

Defense: After the 2008-09 season, the Kings knew they had a solid young defense with Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Matt Greene; however, they knew they needed a good shut-down guy, so they went out and signed Wing-stopper Rob Scuderi. This year, sensing the need for someone else on the blueline, they went out and got Willie Mitchell. I'll put this out there: if Mitchell can stay healthy and the young guys don't regress, we could potentially be looking at the best defensive corps in the Western Conference. Doughty is an absolute stud who can do everytihng; he's the Lidstrom of the Kings. Johnson is still honing his defensive skills, but he's only 23 and has a lot of maturing to do, and he's very good. Greene is a stay-at-home, physical defenseman who can pop in the very occasional goal. Scuderi showed in the Finals in 2009 that he can stop the other team's top line. Add Mitchell to that mix, a guy who can play both ends of the rink but is particularly effective in his own end, and there's not a weak link there. It looks as if Thomas Hickey, their top pick in the 2007 draft, is going to get a long look in camp, and the notes I read said that he's another good puck-mover who is under-sized, but plays with intelligence, like Brian Rafalski. The Kings finished 9th in the NHL in goals against, but their penalty killing can improve, finishing 20th.

Goaltending: Yet another area where the Kings are young. The plan last year was for Jonathan Quick to hold on to the starting job until Jonathan Bernier was ready to ascend to that spot. However, Quick was fantastic last year, winning 39 games while posting a 2.54 GAA and .907 SV%. He nearly out-dueled Jimmy Howard in the January game where Howard had 51 saves, but by the end of the season, playing 72 games had worn Quick out. Despite his solid play last year, the Kings' goalie of the future is Bernier, and there appears to be a competition headed into camp to claim the numer one spot. Bernier is a hot prospect who has destroyed the competition in the AHL, and it's only a matter of time before he gets his shot with the Kings. If one of them steps up and really puts their mark on the team, the other could be used as trade bait to bring in a piece that may launch the Kings up to legitimate contender status.

Coaching: The Kings are led by Terry Murray, a guy who has never done a ton in his time as a coach but who's teams are generally solid. He got the Flyers to the Finals in 1997, but he could not decide on a goalie and got swept. Under his guidance, the Kings have gotten much stronger defensively, and their special teams have improved. Murray has always reminded me of Ron Wilson: he's a guy that can teach young players and get them to develop into really good hockey players, but he's not able to get that team over the hump to a championship. In a strong Pacific Division, the Kings will be competing for points every night.

Player to Watch: I was torn between Kopitar and Doughty for this, but I'm going to be keeping my eye on Doughty all year. He's entering his third year, and he's only 20 years old. He's already been nominated for a Norris, he's won an Olympic Gold Medal. This year, he will very likely play in his first NHL All-Star game, and he could crack the 60 point mark. He's no slouch defensively, either; he was a +20 last year, and typically plays against the other team's second line. This year he should improve defensively, and he may be given more opportunities to play against the best. If his numbers stay the same in an increased role, he will easily be nominated for another Norris, but unfortunately will fall 3 votes shy of Lidstrom.

Player With Something to Prove: On a young team like the Kings, there are always guys that need to show what they can do at the NHL level. However, for me, the player facing the most pressure this season is Jonathan Quick. He was brilliant through the first half of the season last year, but playing that many games can get to anyone, and by the end of the year, he was significantly struggling. With Jonathan Bernier hot on his heels, Quick is going to have to have a strong start to the season, or else he will be relegated to the bench and/or traded.

Why They Can Win the Division: Their division is a tough one, but there are no real glaring weaknesses on this team. They can score with almost anyone, they've got an extremely solid defense corps, and their goaltending is good. If they can continue their development and get scoring up and down the lineup, they will give the Sharks a run for their money, and could pull the upset in the division. This situation reminds me of the Blackhawks gunning for the Wings for many years; this year could see a changing of the guard in the Pacific.

Why They Won't Win the Division: As solid as the lineup is, there are still question marks. Jonathan Quick fell off the map at the end of last year, and if he does not show his early-season form, then the job could be handed over to Jonathan Bernier, and a goalie switch mid-season does not always work out. While the team is developing nicely, and there are some very good players in place, outside of Kopitar and Doughty the team lacks a legitimate superstar. They tried to get Kovalchuk, but he decided that he would much rather drag out his contract negotiations with the Devils than sign a monster deal with the Kings. In a division that has the Sharks and Coyotes, points are going to be hard to come by, and the strain put on Kopitar to be the number one offensive threat every single night could wear on him like it did last year.

My Prediction: Look, I actually like the Kings. I find myself rooting for them as long as they do not play the Wings. Normally, after a team has knocked the Wings out of the playoffs, they are forever on my shit list (hence my irrational hatred of the Devils); not so with the Kings. Maybe it because was the Wings had a ton of injuries in that series, or maybe it was because a part of me sensed that the Kings were going to be garbage for the rest of the decade and I figured the fans needed some happiness. Either way, I'm pulling for the Kings to take out the Sharks and win the Pacific. I like Doughty a lot, I think Kopitar should be more well-known than he is, and I like the fact that Ryan Smyth (who has as much skating ability as I do) can make it in the NHL, leaving me with hopes that one day I too can earn a spot on a team. The Kings are the new-Blackhawks, in that they are a young team on the rise, and everyone is picking them to do big things this year. I think they are still a year away, and while they will finish close to the Sharks, they just won't have enough to get to that elite level. But watch out: this team is going to be a big deal in a year or two, and as a Wing fan, I'm nervous about playing them.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice. Having lived in LA and watched this team over the past few years, here's my two cents:

    A significant player you omitted is Justin Williams. Both he and Smyth went down at different times last season, and it seems to be a much higher priority for Williams (he of the "missed 116 of 246 games over the last three seasons") to stay healthy than for Smyth. I don't recall Brown being injured last season, but his problem is that he was forcing a lot of unnecessary one-on-one situations that ended up with either a turnover or a pillow-soft shot on goal. Kopitar's slump started when Smyth went down, and it took Kopitar a while to get out of his mid-season funk, but his lack of production came mostly mid-season, not really toward the end. The man who really got fatigued at the end was Quick, as you mentioned, and there was some controversy at various points last season that Terry Murray should have gone with the Kings then-backup Erik Ersberg (a very capable [backup] goaltender in my opinion). There was a mini-controversy last season over whether to keep Bernier in the NHL or not after three consecutive stellar performances (I remember two games against Nashville and Vancouver but not the third one), but the plan from management from the beginning of last season was to send Bernier down to Manchester for the entire year so that he could be the guy on the team and lead the Monarchs on a deep playoff run (went to the Conference Finals before bowing out to the Hershey Bears in, I think, six games). This year, all signs point to Ersberg being the odd-man out, and Bernier could potentially take the starter's job at some point this season.

    There are actually a lot of players that could take not only that last defense spot but also the spot open for at least the first month since Greene had surgery and will miss the start of the season. Hickey in addition to Johan Fransson (I did a double take the first time I saw that name), Jacob Muzzin, Alec Martinez, and maybe a few other guys I'm not remembering at the moment could be on the opening night roster. As for forward prospects, I think in addition to Schenn (and possibly Moller), other players to pay attention to are Kyle Clifford and Andrei Loktionov; Clifford is a grinder with some offensive punch, and Loktionov is a definite skill player.

    I really think that, even though the Kings might trade for someone that fills a need or a hole, they probably have an outstanding chance of finding that player (those players) from among the many they've developed over the last few years. Maybe it's because I've been following them closely, but I'm inclined to think that they win the division this season.