I will make my predictions for the second round of the playoffs on Thursday after the Games 7 in Phoenix and Washington (although I picked Detroit to win, I will be cheering for the Coyotes tonight, and I will be cheering for Washington tomorrow – but that’s only because I have hated the Montreal Canadians ever since they beat my Kings in their one and only Stanley Cup final appearance), but for now just allow me a few words on my beloved L.A. Kings who lost their first playoff series in 8 years.
I think this was a great turnaround year for the Kings. Last season they got 71 points (which is Maple Leafs level of suckage) and this season they got 101. They had the bad luck of meeting a determined Vancouver team in the first round (strangely, I think that if the Kings had got one point more, and played Phoenix, or one point less and played Chicago, they would have had a better chance – but you play the hand you’re dealt). I think the Kings did a very good job in the first round – only really having one terrible game (5), and giving Vancouver all they could handle.
The difference in the series was goaltending – after a fairly even first four games on that front; Roberto Luongo stepped up huge for Vancouver, and at the same time Jonathan Quick faltered. Better goaltending by the Kings, and Game 5 doesn’t get away from them like it did, and they win Game 6. But I am not placing blame on solely on Jonathan Quick – who had a great season. The Kings will be better next year and here’s why – their best players – Doughty, Kopitar, Brown, Simmonds, Johnson, Richardson, Quick etc. are all young, and had never played in the playoffs before. This series gave them valuable experience, and will help them going forward. The scary part is that players like Doughty, who is only 20, is going to get even better. When you add in potential prospects like Brayden Schenn (another 99 point season in the WHL, and who had a hell of a playoff for his team) and Jacob Muzzin (who won the OHL Defensemen of the Year Award this year) mean that LA has even more great talent coming up.
But the biggest difference next year will be in net in the form of Jonathan Bernier – who won the AHL Goaltender of the year award this year, and is having amazing playoffs. The Kings would be stupid not to bring him up full time next year – not to replace to Quick, but to help him out. This was Quick’s first year as a number 1 goalie in the NHL – and he played 70 games (which meant more than 1,000 more minutes than he had played at any level before). He was worn down and tired. Bring in Bernier and do what teams like Chicago, Washington and Montreal do and go back and forth between the two, giving the starts to whoever has a hot hand. This will I think help the Kings, not only during the regular season, but also during the playoffs, as you know you have a solid back-up if the starter falters – which was clearly not the case this year, as Ersberg let in 2 goals in 4 shots in his appearance in Game 5.
They do have six unrestricted free agents this year – but considering that Modin and Halpern came over at the trade deadline, Ivanans barely plays and Jones was a disaster in the playoffs those four won’t be huge losses if they go somewhere else (but I would like to see Modin return). The bigger questions will be big, veteran defensemen Sean O’Donnell, who is always solid, and Alexander Frolov, who has a ton of skill – but often goes weeks or even months without showing it. I expect the Kings to try and sign at least a few of these guys, and maybe make a splash in the free agent market this summer as well. The thing that became painfully obvious in the Vancouver series – aside from the need for stronger goaltending – is that LA needs a closer on that top line with Kopitar, and in my mind Simmonds who did great after being promoted. Ryan Smyth is a great veteran presence for the Kings, and he still does a great job at annoying goaltenders (Luongo said as much after the series), but he no longer has the shot required to put pucks in the net consistently (which Luongo also alluded to). Also, he’s a grinder who gets garbage goals, and the Kings need a sniper, someone who finds those open seams as brilliantly as Samuelson did for the Sedins. It’s not that they didn’t know this already – it was why they had talks about getting Kovulchuk (but considering Atlanta wanted Simmonds AND Johnson AND more, Dean Lombardi smartly said no), and almost got Ray Whitney from Carolina (but the 37 year old wanted a three year contract extention to wave his no trade clause, so again we smartly said no).
I never thought the Kings would win the Cup this year. It is hard for young players who have never been in the playoffs before to put up a really good run. But I do believe that the team gained valuable experience this year. I was impressed with our young guns this series, to almost to a man were wonderful for us – especially Drew Doughty whose talent and maturity at 20 scares me. And I remain convinced that as the balance of power in the West continues to shift – San Jose, Detroit and Vancouver are all getting older, not to mention the already flailing Calgary Flames, Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars – that the Kings will be a legitimate Cup Contender within the next 3-4 years.