COMMENTARY | Most Angelenos will tell you that the seasons in Southern California never really change. Sure, we might call it fall, but if you spend any time outside in the 95 degree weather you would never know if you were in July or November. The only true, tell-tale sign that summer has in fact faded into fall is the return of the Los Angeles Kings to their home at the Staples Center. Like the seasons that refuse to actually change, so too is story of the Los Angeles Kings in recent years, and being an Angeleno, I can't complain about the stubbornness of either.
With a deep playoff run last season, a Stanley Cup Championship in 2011-2012, and the core of forwards Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, defenseman Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov, and goaltender Jonathan Quick all signed until at least the 2015-2016 season, the future is very bright for the Los Angeles Kings. Regardless of their powerful core, which compares quite nicely with rest of the top-tier teams in the NHL (no, I'm not talking to you, Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers), the Kings still have plenty of issues to resolve this preseason before they take the ice against the Minnesota Wild on October 3 for the regular season opener.
Can they stay healthy?
First and foremost, the biggest concern for this team is their health. Throughout the offseason, Captain Dustin Brown spent his time recovering from a torn ligament in his left knee, forward Justin Williams mended his separated shoulder, and center Jarret Stoll has slowly but surely been recovering from the concussion he received during the playoffs after receiving a questionable hit from forward Raffi Torres of the San Jose Sharks, who probably punches puppies and hates fun too. The silver lining in all of this is that neither Brown, Williams, or Stoll required surgery to mend their wounds. Unfortunately for Stoll, though, is that he does have a history of head injuries, and only time will tell the permanence of his most recent concussion.
Of course, the biggest health concern heading into the season is that of stalwart defenseman Willie Mitchell. After being a key component of the team that brought Los Angeles its first-ever Stanley Cup, he sat out all of last season after complications from knee surgery. According to Mitchell , he is ready to go, but Kings general manager Dean Lombardi brought in defenseman Jeff Schultz as insurance for Mitchell's questionable health. After the departure of defenseman Rob Scuderi to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Kings are praying that Mitchell is healthy, because I can't imagine Lombardi sees Schultz, or sure-fire healthy scratches or future roster cuts Keaton Ellerby and Alec Martinez as suitable replacements for Scuderi or Mitchell.
Can Kopitar Return to Form?
During last year's strike-shortened season, forward Anze Kopitar tallied 10 goals and 22 assists during a stretch from the season opener on January 22 until March 25; not shabby numbers from the Kings' most dynamic scorer. However, from his next game on March 28 until the Kings were eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks on June 8, Kopitar had only three goals and 18 assists, a far cry from when Kopitar had eight goals and 12 assists in 20 games during the 2011-2012 playoffs to lead the team to a Stanley Cup championship.
Racking up 42 points in 47 games last season is nothing to complain about, but the huge drop-off in scoring after March 25 is definitely a cause for concern. Although it would be easy to blame injury for his scoring dip, the team hasn't officially announced anything regarding an injury, which is both excellent and terrifying at the same time.
For the most part, we can all take a huge sigh of relief knowing that Kopitar will be entering next season as fit as possible. What scares me, though, is there doesn't seem to be any explanation for the scoring drop-off. Maybe it was just a small nagging injury that the team didn't want to announce. Maybe he was pressing too hard. Maybe he was always wondering what the weather was like in Slovenia. Who knows? What is very clear is that the Kings will need their best player to perform at his best level if they want to pursue another Stanley Cup championship again.
What Will the Kings Reap From the Jonathan Bernier Trade?
There are a few things in life that are certainties: death, taxes, jury duty, hangnails, and that the Kings would eventually deal Jonathan Quick's seldom used but uber-talented backup, Jonathan Bernier. Well, on June 23 the Kings finally traded Bernier to the Toronto Maple Leafs for forward Matt Frattin, goaltender Ben Scrivens, and a 2nd-round draft pick.
The Maple Leafs will feel the impact of this trade immediately, as they now have a very solid goaltending tandem of Bernier and James Reimer. For the Kings, though, the impact of this for them is questionable short-term, but excellent long-term.
I'm sure that Scrivens is a very talented goalie, just by judging him from his adorable player profile photo . However, anyone who plays behind Jonathan Quick doesn't see a whole lot of playing time and really doesn't figure into the Kings quest for another Stanley Cup.
What will be very interesting to watch, though, is the play of Frattin. At 6 feet, 200 pounds, the 25 year-old figures to receive considerable playing time, and could possibly be in contention for the second-line right wing spot that opened up when professional pancake eater and occasional hockey player Dustin Penner signed with the Anaheim Ducks.
Regardless of whether Frattin becomes one of the Kings' premier scorers playing alongside Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, or if he becomes a solid grinder playing with Colin Fraser on the fourth line, the Kings have to view this trade as a win, given the amount of playing time that Frattin figures to receive.
In Bernier, they had a talented player with no future on the club, but with Frattin, his long-term upside is huge. Combine this with the fact that young forward Tyler Toffoli is ready to contribute, and prospects like Tanner Pearson, Valentin Zykov, Linden Vey, and Derek Forbort are all on the horizon, the Kings must feel pretty content with the future of this team.
As the Kings head into their first preseason game of the year in just a few days, we can safely say that the Kings are rock solid on paper. However, it's the intangible issues that could cripple this team. If Kopitar goes on another scoring slump, or Mitchell really isn't ready for the season and the defense crumbles without Scuderi, or Scrivens decides he'd rather pursue a career in modeling, then this team will fall just short of the Stanley Cup finals, again.
But like the seasons that never change in Southern California, I can only hope that this version of the Kings haven't changed too much either - because they would have a very strong chance of hoisting the Stanley Cup just nine months from now.
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