Monday, March 28, 2011

The Kings Without Kopitar

Like all LA King fans, this weekend was at best bittersweet. Yes, the Kings won their one game against the Colorado Avalanche, moving them to 92 points - which is five points up on 9th seed Calgary (with two games in hand on the Flames) and 6 points up on 10th seed Dallas (although the Stars have a game in hand on the Kings). The bigger news though was that the Kings best player, Anze Kopitar, broke his ankle and will be out at least 6 weeks. That would be late second round or early third round in the playoffs - although without Kopitar, I doubt the Kings can make it that far.

If there is one player on the Kings that is irreplaceable, it is Kopitar. The Kings are deep in net and on defense, and even on the wings, but down the middle, for this year anyway, the Kings are thin. It has been mentioned before, but it warrents repeating, that Jarret Stoll and Michael Handzus, the Kings second and third line centermen, are both better third line guys than second line. So without Kopitar, the Kings essentially have a third line guy centering their first and second lines, and a fourth line guy - Trevor Lewis - centering their third line and a winger - Brad Richardson - centering the fourth line. This isn't good. The problem is made worse by a number of factors - the Kings second leading scorer, RW Justin Williams, is also out for the reminder of the regular season at the very least. The only guy in Manchester who could come up and provide offense from the center position, Andrei Loktinov, is also down for the rest of the year. Next on the depth chart is Brayden Schenn, who would be in the AHL this season were it not for the awful agreement between the NHL and CHL which said the Kings had to send him back to Jr. That means that he cannot be called up by the Kings. Essentially, the Kings have no one to replace Kopitar.

What does this mean for the forward lines? For now, it looks like they'll make due with what they have - depend on Stoll and Handzus to play with the top two lines, Lewis on the third, Richardson on the fourth, and bring back Kevin Westgarth - the Kings goalless enforcer - to play the wing on the fourth line instead of making him a healthy scratch like almost all other enforcers this time of year. If that doesn't work, coach Terry Murray will likely try Peter Harrold - a defensemen who can play wing, but has been a healthy scratch since January. Since the Kings have already recalled Oscar Moller - who has looked great in his first two games - to replace Williams, and the only two guys in Manchester with NHL experience this season are Dwight King and John Zeiller (who both looked horribly out of place in the NHL on their short trips here earlier this season), I'm not sure who else they could call up.

What this means for the Kings remains to be seen. Obviously, you cannot replace a Kopitar at this point in the season. He was the team leader in goals, assists, points (where he ranked in the top ten in the league), plus/minus, played the power play, played the penalty kill and had been talked about as a dark horse candidate for both the Hart and Selke trophies this year. For a team that has often struggled for offense even with Kopitar, the Kings will undoubtedly struggle even more without him. If the Kings decide to hold themselves a pity party for the last seven games of the season, then I don't think they even make the playoffs. They need to generate a minimum of 4 points in their last 7 games to make it - if not 5 or 6. After Edmonton tomorrow, who they should beat, the schedule gets tougher with games against Vancouver, Dallas, Phoenix, San Jose and Anaheim (x2) to finish it off. The Kings will have to fight hard every game to get points.

If there is a silver lining, it's that the Kings have always been a defense first team under Terry Murray, and that system never did depend on any one player. Handzus, Stoll, Lewis and Richardson are all strong on the defensive side of the puck, so that should not change. The Kings should still be able to hold opponents to only 1 or 2 goals a game, like they have since the beginning of February - as long as goaltender Jonathan Quick continues to have his Vezina caliber season.

On the offensive side, the Kings need to look at teams like Phoenix and Nashville, and follow their lead. Neither of those teams has a 20 goal scorer on their team, yet right now they rank 4th and 6th in the West respetively (the Kings, by the way, are right in the middle at 5th) by having offense by committee. No one player generates the offense, they all do. Despite the loss of Williams and Kopitar, both who had more than 20 goals, the Kings still have Penner, Smyth and Brown above 20 this season, and Stoll who has 19 - these four will have to step it up even more with Kopitar out. Wayne Simmonds, Alexi Ponikarovsky and Michael Handzus have all had off seasons offensively this year, and they will need to pick it up with Kopitar out of the lineup. On defense, Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Alec Martinez need to contribute on a more consistent basis.

The Kings should still make the playoffs. After all, they have only lost 4 games in regulation since the end of January. I expect without Kopitar, they will struggle down the stretch as they get used to life without him, but if they cannot find a way to win two games and lose one in overtime over their next 7 - which is what they need to do to ensure a playoff spot - then they don't deserve to make it. The playoffs could be tough however. If they can hold onto the fifth spot, and play either Phoenix or Nashville, in the first round, I think they'll have a chance to win. If they face Vancouver, Detroit or San Jose however (which is what would happen if they Kings drop to 6th, 7th or 8th), it would be tough to compete offensively with those teams. Both GM Dean Lombardi and Terry Murray have preached "mental toughness" all season, and it's now time for the Kings to prove they have it.

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