September 14, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: Fifteenth in the Western Conference (32-43-7, 71 points). Posted an impressive 4-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks in the NHL's season-opener in London. It was pretty much all downhill after that.
Gone is Marc Crawford, who oddly appears better suited for legal defense than coaching defensemen. Gone is Ladislav Nagy, a player of such undeniable offensive consistency that he's now playing for Gulag Backwater of the KHL. Gone, finally, is Dan Cloutier, a huge bust whose goaltending abilities had deteriorated to the point where there was actually a welcome mat placed on the ice in front of his five-hole.
But the Los Angeles Kings also bid farewell to Michael Cammalleri, Lubomir Visnovsky and Rob Blake, which means this year's roster will have some rather dramatic changes. And whether that roster has any semblance of success this season depends on two factors: Whether the third-worst defense in hockey can figure itself out, and a gentleman by the name of Terry Murray.
Homecoming King (Top Player): Uh, what sophomore jinx? In a refreshing change from the norm in the NHL, center Anze Kopitar improved his offensive numbers across the board and established himself as one of the League's best young pivots. He led the Kings in points, assists, power-play points and was second to Dustin Brown in goals.
Heading into his first RFA year, there's absolutely no reason to expect Kopitar to regress offensively, barring injury. And best of all, he won't have to share ice time with Evgeni Malkin, whom the Kings were ready to trade for this summer.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): The expectation is that the Kings may put together a top line of Brown, Kopitar and Patrick O'Sullivan; which may create a top-heavy lineup, but would also have the potential to be one of the conference's most dynamic lines. Kopitar is aces, Brown can undress a defense (ironic, no?) and O'Sullivan is ready to break out.
RFA O'Sullivan's contract negotiation has extended beyond a reasonable timeframe, as the Kings desperately want to avoid compensating him at a level that may affect contracts with Kopitar and defenseman Jack Johnson. Once he's in, O'Sullivan could be on the verge of a revelatory season. His 22 goals and 53 points were good; on a top line as first-rate as this one could be, the 30-goal mark could be within reason and reach.
At the very least, O'Sullivan should play well enough to elbow his way into the next classic 1980's commercial parody the Kings decide to film. Seriously, this should have been the Kings 2007-08 highlights DVD:
Best Expulsion: (Addition by Subtraction): Crawford didn't trust giving his younger players the kind of ice time they should have received in a lost season. And so he's now where coaches who make awful decisions and get themselves fired all go: Canadian television.
Terry Murray was an interesting choice to replace him, no doubt, but the Kings' split with Crawford was justified and overdue. Although debating whether or not management gave him enough to work with is a valid argument to have.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): Two veterans will be counted on in the Kings' revamped lineup. Jarret Stoll is going to be the team's second line center (it's assumed), and he already has two strikes against him heading into Los Angeles: He's made more tabloid headlines for being Rachel Hunter's boy-toy than hockey headlines in his last two lackluster seasons. And his four-year, $14.4-million deal RFA deal with the Kings has already been blasted as overpayment.
On defense, the acquisition of Denis Gauthier gives Murray a player rep in the locker room. He coached Gauthier when they were both with the Philadelphia Flyers, and you'd expect the veteran will be to Murray what a guy like Jim Dowd was to Jacques Lemaire when he took over in Minnesota. That he's only one of two defensemen on the roster who was born before Reagan's first term is rather significant as well.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): Despite the intense criticism he received for not playing up to the standards of his lofty contract, Michal Handzus continues to be a veteran agitator and an aggressive player. The Kings had 22 fights last season, with Dustin Brown and the now-retired Scott Thornton dropping the gloves a few times. But the unquestioned heavyweight of the team is Raitis Ivanans, who had 134 penalty minutes. Just ask Mike Rupp:
Teacher of the Year: There are two schools of thought on hiring Murray as the new head coach. The first is that a roster this young needs a father figure behind the pine -- especially with a veteran like Blake gone -- and Murray's unquestioned experience in the league will allow him to teach and to manage this talent with an expert hand.
The second is that this team needed a dynamic younger coach that could grow with the players on the roster: A Peter DeBoer-type that doesn't have years of NHL battles muddling his optimism or unconventional wisdom.
But there is a third theory, which is that Murray isn't a miracle worker but he's also a completely competent coach who could improve the Kings' record in the standings. This season is a wash; the bottom line is that Murray will be in LA for the 2009-10 campaign, which is when this team plans on really charging hard for the postseason again. Judge him after that.
The Custodians (Goalies): Pop quiz -- Which one of these men isn't currently listed on the Kings roster as a potential goaltender this season? Jonathan Bernier, Erik Ersberg, Dirk Kempthorne, Jason LaBarbera, Jonathan Quick, Daniel Taylor or Jeff Zatkoff?
If you said Dirk Kempthorne, congratulations; not only do you know your Kings goalies, but you also know who the current Secretary of the Interior is in the United States.
Point being that Los Angeles's goaltending situation is like going to a used car lot and simply trying to find a model with an engine that runs. The Kings used seven goalies last year; will that number decrease this season? The team is high on Bernier and Quick; but neither of them seem prepared to carry the load yet.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): The departures of Blake and Visnovsky reshape this defense in a major way, especially when you consider both were in the top eight in scoring for the entire team.
This is Jack Johnson's defense now, and one can assume his ice time will spike. Offensive defenseman Tom Preissing had the expected "Pothier Drop" after going from a prominent role with Ottawa's offense to a lesser-octane attack on the Kings. Greene's a good depth defenseman, as is Gauthier (at best). By the time you read this, the Kings may have already addressed their defense by adding another veteran (hopefully with a healthy salary) to the mix.
The X-Factor is Drew Doughty, the team's No. 1 pick whom many consider NHL ready. He's an offensive defenseman with a ton of potential; could we see a pure rookie run the power play point in LA?
He's also lost 24 pounds since draft day. Hey, what about the other thigh? (rim shot)
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Anyone who dares play between the pipes in a Los Angeles Kings jersey this season.
AV Club (Media): Rich Hammond's Inside the Kings blog is one of the best MSM team-oriented blogs in the business. Ask anyone who re-appropriates the work of others for their own financial gain: If you're going to steal, steal from the best.
Other non-MSM Kings blogs we read include the great Battle of California, Life in Hockeywood, Frozen Royalty, and Purple Crushed Velvet. And as much as Kings fans hate to admit it, the best talk about the team continues to exist on the Let's Go Kings boards.
Bob Miller and Jim Fox are an institution on local television.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Besides the lack of even a single dependable goaltender heading into this season, obviously the biggest challenge is the maturation process. The Kings were lucky there weren't more second-year slumps last season. With defensemen like Thomas Hickey and Doughty, and forwards like Ted Purcell and Brian Boyles, you just have to fight through the growing pains. Having vets like Derek Armstrong and Kyle Calder in the lineup will help. But there's only so much hand-holding they can do.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: C+
Prom Theme: Anything by The Replacements. How do the Kings replace the defensemen they lost? Can a player like Alexander Frolov get back over 30 goals to help ease the offensive loss of someone like Michael Cammalleri? Is Murray a better replacement for Crawford than a fresher face?
Expected Graduation: For a rather candid assessment of the Kings, please read Rudy Kelly's guest take on The Pensblog. For our purposes, let's just say that the Kings are going to miss the playoffs. Badly. If this conference is a hockey apocalypse for weaker teams, then the Pacific Division is Thunderdome. There's always a chance that a team stacked with young players who don't know any better can go on a run. But usually those teams have something better than a selection of wet tissue paper to put between the pipes.