Friday, October 8, 2010

L.A. Kings Season Preview

I know this is mainly a movie blog, but longtime readers know that occasionally I indulge myself and write about my other love – hockey. I will probably write more this year than ever before, because this coming season I convinced my wife to let me get NHL Center Ice – which should allow me to watch all the games I want. And what I want to see is the L.A. Kings games. It is probably odd for a guy from Southern Ontario to like the Kings – but I started when I was small, and Gretzky was my favorite player, so the Kings were by default my favorite team. There were a lot of us when I was a kid – and I’m the only one I know who hung on. Cheering for any other team just felt wrong. I will be a Kings fan until I die. So, with that in mind let’s look at the L.A. Kings line by line for the upcoming season. They had a great year last year – more than 100 points and there first playoff berth in 8 seasons. This season, I suspect will be more of the same. They still need to add a few players before they will be true contenders – but I do think that within 5 years, the Stanley Cup will be won by the Kings.

Line 1
Ryan Smyth – Anze Kopitar – Dustin Brown
The first line is perhaps the Kings biggest problem. While Anze Kopitar gets better every year – which is scary because I think he is one of the top 10 centers in the NHL, and one of the top three or four in the west – he has never had the wingers he needs to perform at his peak potential. Last year he got over 30 goals and 80 points, but if he was playing with someone of his caliber, he could easily eclipse 100 points. This is why the Kings tried to land Kovulchuk (although I say now that us not landing him was a blessing in disguise) and every time a high profile forward is rumored to be up for grabs, the Kings are in the midst of things. It’s not that Ryan Smyth and Dustin Brown are not good players. But Smyth is aging, has never been a high skill guy, but more of a crasher and het presence without a booming shot. He has struggled with injuries as well. If he’s healthy, he should net 25-30 goals this season. For his part Brown is back with Kopitar after a year on the second line. He hopes to regain his 30 goal potential, and he may just do it. He often tries to do too much with the puck, but with Kopitar, he won’t have to. This is a decent line – but you know the Kings want to add a highly skilled sniper to play alongside Kopitar. When they do, they’ll be a true contender.

Line 2
Brad Richardson – Jarrett Stoll - Justin Williams
This line seems rather cobbled together to me – and it will change when Scott Parse comes back from injury (more on him later). To start the year, Brad Richardson, the Kings handy Swiss Army Knife player who seems to be able to go anywhere on forward they want him to, will start the year here. He has some skill, some speed, some grit, but he is better suited for a fourth line role. 20 goals would be considered a success for him. Stoll is not really suited for second line duty either – he is a solid two way player and great face off, but unlike most offensively minded centers, he is a shooter, not a passer. They would love to add some a second line center with more skill, but they haven’t been able to do so. Yet the biggest question mark remains Justin Williams. He is offensively gifted and has great speed – a former 30 goal scorer in the NHL and a Stanley Cup champion with the Hurricanes. But the guy cannot stay healthy. He hasn’t played more than 50 games in any of the last 3 seasons. This line will score some goals, and they are solid defensively – but again the Kings wish they had a little more skill here.

Line 3
Alexi Ponikarovsky – Michael Handzus – Wayne Simmonds
If both the first and second lines are solid but not spectacular, it must be said that I think this is one of the best third lines of any team in the league – and also one of the biggest. Ponikarovsky comes over to fill the gap left by Alexander Frolov’s departure (he’s slacking is now the Rangers problem). He adds size and some decent hands – he normally gets 20 goals every year. Handzus is aging, but he is still a great two way center, capable of shutting down his opponents and scoring to boot. Both of these guys are UFA after this year, and I doubt the Kings will bring either back – but that’s not because they aren’t great, but because they are aging, and they have young guys who should be ready to fill in. The most exciting part of this line is Wayne Simmonds – who at 22 is young, physical, speedy and has scoring touch. Every time a trade involving the Kings is rumored, Simmonds is apparently part of the deal, but we won’t give him up. He’s a great young player. This is our shut down line, and I’d put them against anyone.

Line 4
Kyle Clifford – Brayden Schenn – Kevin Westgarth

This line is pure speculation on my part, because we still don’t known really who is going to play here (I’ll get into that more below) and both Clifford and Schenn could be sent back to the CHL before the 10 game mark to avoid burning a year of their Entry Level Contracts (both are too young for the AHL). But if this turns out to be the line, than it has a lot of potential. Clifford is only 19, but he is fearless – a banger and crasher, who isn’t afraid to drop the gloves, but also has a scoring touch. He’s a key part of the Kings future. Schenn is even better – a legitimate two way center who puts up a lot of points, but can also shut down the opponents. Since both are 19, if they do stick with the big club, there will be growing pains, but it looks good for the future. In Westgarth, the Kings have a classic enforcer – not too skilled, but he can hit and fight better than anyone else (he broke a guy’s jaw in a preseason fight). I think that there will times when Simmonds or Brown are double shifted to give these guys more offense, but Westgarth knows his job, and will do it well.

Injured: Scott Parse
Parse is this year’s Matt Moulson or Teddy Purcell. That is, he is the guy the Kings are giving a chance to in the top 6 to see if he sticks – Moulson and Purcell did not, and now they are no longer Kings. It kind of sucks for him that he is injured to begin the season – he could lose his job before he even really got it – but Parse has genuine scoring skill, and seems to have improved defensively. No, I don’t think Parse is the future answer for the Kings for a Kopitar winger – but he could turn out to be a genuinely great second liner. He just needs to get healthy first.

Press Box: Andrei Lotkinonov, Trevor Lewis
Let’s start with Lewis – he is most likely going to spend most of the season watching the games from the pressbox. They’ll slot him in those games for Westgarth when they don’t feel they need an enforcer, but generally he’ll sit. He’s old enough that the Kings know that his future is going to be a fourth line role if anything. As for Lotinonov, it’s going to be interesting. Until Parse comes back, I see him, Richardson, Clifford and Schenn cycling in and out of the lineup – splitting time between the second and fourth lines. When Parse comes back, I think two of the rookies – Lotki, Clifford and Schenn – get sent down (Lotki will go to the AHL if he gets cut), Richardson will take his spot on the fourth line, and the other rookie gets to stay. He could easily be in the lineup to start instead of any of those other guys. He has legitimate offensive skill, and is probably going to be Stoll’s replacement on the second line some day soon – but not this year.

Paring 1
Drew Doughty – Willie Mitchell
There is no doubt any more about Drew Doughty. The Norris trophy finalist is only 20, and is still one of the very best defensemen in the game – a legitimate two way guy who can beat you on the powerplay, and shutdown your top line. At only 20, he’s going to get even better. The question mark is newcomer Willie Mitchell – a great shutdown guy for Vancouver, he has been out since last January with a concussion. Although now he appears fine, the danger is always there. But as long he stays healthy, this is one of the best defensive pairing in the league.

Pairing 2
Jack Johnson – Rob Scuderi
Jack Johnson has been making slow but steady progress in the past few years. He has always been offensively gifted, but he has solidified his defensive game somewhat last year. Of course, being paired with Randy Jones last year meant that they were the weakest pairing defensively – something they are obviously hoping to change by putting him out with Scuderi – who did a great job with Doughty last season. Scuderi is a defensively minded guy first, and he’ll help to steady Johnson, who hopefully will be even better this season. This is a solid second pairing.

Pairing 3
Jake Muzzin – Davis Drewskie
You essentially have two rookies starting together on this third pairing until Greene comes back. Muzzin is straight out of the OHL – where he was named defenseman of the year last year as an overage player. He is big, he is defense first and he is solid. Davis Drewskie started here last year – but got injured and couldn’t stick it out. He is being given a second chance this year. Essentially, although they are paired together, they are competitors as well – trying to be better than the other so that when Greene comes back they stick. If Muzzin is the weaker of the two, then he’ll go to the AHL. Drewskie, I’m not sure about because it will be his second chance, and he is not waiver exempt. He could be traded. They should be okay, but I’ll feel better when Greene is back.

Injured: Matt Greene
Greene is a big, mean, physical defense first guy – who was very solid for us last year as out fifth man. Paired with Sean O’Donnell, they were a little slow on the rush, but adding either Drewskie or Muzzin alongside him will help. He will be fine in out fifth defenseman slot when he’s healthy in a month or two.

Press Box – Peter Harrold
Harrold is valuable because he play both forward and defense – although he is better suited on the back end. The Kings actually played much better in the playoffs with him in the lineup and not Randy Jones, but he didn’t get much of a chance. He’s a journeyman, who is hoping to get more action this year, but I think he’ll spend most of the year sitting.

Number 1: Jonathan Quick
Back-Up: Jonathan Bernier

For those 8 seasons the Kings didn’t make the playoffs, goaltending was also an issue. We kept going back and forth and never found a steady goaltender – hell the year before last we played a total of SEVEN different goalies in at least one game. Finally, that changed last year. Jonathan Quick did a great job for the first three quarters of the season – setting a franchise record in wins with 39. He struggled down the stretch and in the playoffs – perhaps because he was essentially a rookie and Terry Murray overplayed, something he vows not to do this year. He could be a great goalie for years to come. But then again, there is Jonathan Bernier. The AHL goalie of the year last year, and a highly touted prospect for years now, Bernier is finally getting his chance to stick with the big club this year, albeit as a backup. If Quick falters, then Bernier gets in more and more. Somehow I think that although the plan right now is more like 60 games for Quick and 20 for Bernier, I think by the end of the year it will more like 50-30 or even 45-35 and we’ll have legitimate questions about who to go with in the playoffs. I like have this problem – it’s certainly better than putting Yutaka Fukufuji in net.

Overall: The Kings finished last season 46-27-9 for a total of 101 points, with 241 goals for and 219 goals against. I don’t think they’ll score many more goals than last season – they didn’t add a scorer anywhere in the line-up, but the addition of Willie Mitchell, making their second d-pairing stronger, and better overall goaltending, means I this they will let in fewer. In reality though, I suspect the Kings will finish pretty much where they did last year – somewhere between 4th and 6th in the Western conference (they were 6th last year). They don’t quite have the team to challenge San Jose for the Pacific division title yet (although every year that’s gets closer to reality), so I don’t expect them to make a big step forward this year – but I doubt they’ll step back either. Their best players are young, and getting better every year. Yes, the Kings need to add a legitimate sniper to their top line before they become one of the truly elite teams in the NHL. But they are getting closer every year.

For the Record, here are my predictions of where every team is going to end up this year.

Western Conference
1. Vancouver
– The best crop of forwards in the west, solid d. Luongo can have another “average” season, and they could still take this spot.
2. San Jose – Great forwards with some gas left in the tank, and two solid goaltenders. Defense shouldn’t be too big a concern with Boyle there.
3. Chicago – Despite all the losses, they still have a great, young core. Turco can be average.
4. Detroit – One last time, the Red Wings make a push.
5. Los Angeles – Without that top line scorer, they remain in the middle.
6. Phoenix – Was last year a fluke? We’ll find out.
7. St. Louis – Perpetual underachievers finally make good.
8. Nashville – Every year they look like crap on paper. Every year Barry Trotz gets them into the playoffs.
9. Calgary – The definition of insanity is trying the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.
10. Colorado – The future looks bright, but they won’t surprise anyone this year.
11. Anaheim – Great forwards, solid goaltending. Horrible Defense. Will have to put in 5 every night to win.
12. Edmonton – Great rookies, who will score highlight reel goals, but make a lot of mistakes. And what about defense and goaltending?
13. Minnesota – Can anyone on this team score?
14. Dallas – Ownership issues, no improvements in the off season, the Stars continue to sink.
15. Columbus – Poor Rick Nash.

Eastern Conference
1. Washington
– Built for regular season success. Can they do in the playoffs?
2. Pittsburgh – Better defense will help them along. Malkin on the wing gives them some support. Crosby still the best in the league.
3. Boston – They underachieved last year. They won’t this year.
4. New Jersey – Lots of great forwards, solid d, and Brodeur in net. But they are starting the year with only 11 forwards because of the salary cap.
5. Philadelphia – A dysfunctional team, with goaltending issues. But still a hell of a lot of talent.
6. Buffalo – The best goalie in the league will help win a lot of games.
7. Tampa Bay – Big improvements over last year. Still an offense first team, but one that will be fun to watch.
8. Montreal – I think their playoff run last year was a fluke. Carey Price isn’t going to be great as the # 1. Still, they somehow sneak in.
9. Ottawa – Their time has come and gone, and they don’t seem to realize it.
10. New York Rangers – Highly paid underachievers. Frolov won’t help.
11. Toronto – Solid goaltending, great d – but can anyone other than Kessell score?
12. Carolina – Just can’t seem to get out of neutral.
13. Atlanta – A team without an identity or superstar. They fall back this year.
14. New York Islanders – Other than Tavres, what is worth watching here?
15. Florida – The worst team in the league. By far.

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