LOS ANGELES – Milan Lucic has turned into quite the early-season riddle for Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter.
Lucic started out training camp and the first two regular season games on left wing with Anze Kopitar at center and Marian Gaborik on right wing. This trio – which seemed like the right group on paper – couldn’t find cohesion through nearly a three weeks of practices and two regular season games.
“I was told he fits with Kopitar and Gaborik, so that’s what everybody that knew everything about hockey in North America told me, so I don’t know where he fits,” Sutter said.
Recently Sutter has moved Lucic to left wing on a line centered by Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli on the right wing. Lucic, the hulking former Boston Bruins winger, has just one assist and is a minus-2 in five games. He feels there’s some progress being made, but it’s still a ways in determining whether skillset works with Los Angeles’ lineup.
“I don’t think things gelled as well as they … I guess, should have with Kopitar and Gaborik,” Lucic said. “I think a big thing has to do with, for myself, getting used to the new system and new players and new atmosphere and all that type of stuff. I hesitated a little bit (early) … playing with Carter and Toffoli – for myself has taken that hesitation out of the game.”
When the Kings acquired the 27-year-old Lucic last summer as part of a package for goaltender Martin Jones, he seemed like the perfect player for Los Angeles’ system.
The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Lucic, a pending unrestricted free agent, had the big, brawny body the Kings coveted for their grinding, cycling puck possession system.
Putting him with Kopitar – another large, mobile player – and Gaborik – a goal scoring speedster – made a lot of sense hypothetically. But in reality, it just didn’t work. The day before the start of the season, Kopitar said, “I don’t think the comfort level is not there quite yet” before quickly correcting himself by saying the trio was on the right track.
Through the first two games they were held without a point. In the first game of the regular season – a 5-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks – they were a combined minus-6.
Lucic was also given a match penalty at the end of this game for going after Sharks forward Logan Couture. It was a forgettable moment in what was supposed to be the beginning of a new era for Lucic.
“You’re always excited, especially with a new team and everything, so you want to make a good first impression,” Lucic said. “We scored a goal on our first shot, so things started off the way we wanted to and unfortunately I think for myself and everyone we were just trying a little too hard to impress and I guess put on a show and it bit us in the end.”
On practice Oct. 10, Sutter made the decision to put Lucic with Toffoli and Carter.
This came after the Kings were beat 4-1 by the Arizona Coyotes the night before. The Kings didn’t play poorly that game, but it was clear the Lucic needed a different center.
Kopitar’s game goes more East-West than North-South, and Lucic’s strength comes on skating up the ice and creating havoc on the forecheck. Also, Gaborik needed to move to the left side, which wasn’t going to happen if Lucic was playing wing on that line.
Since the move, Toffoli has picked up two goals in three games.
“(Toffoli and Carter) are two players who play I think more that straight line type of game and for myself I think that’s where I’ve most of my success in my career,” Lucic said. “I think that’s why we’ve had some success the last two games as a line. It has worked well the last couple of games, the three of us.”
There are still questions about Lucic’s production drop-off, which started last season. After three straight full seasons of 24 goals or more, he hit 18 in 2014-15 – his lowest full-year total since 2008-09.
He still hasn’t scored this year, but he doesn’t seem disconcerted yet. The veteran Lucic understands that in a full NHL season you're going to have ups and downs.
“The NHL is the best league in the world so goals don’t come easy, especially around here,” Lucic said. “You see the first five games goals haven’t come easy. You have to find a way to execute and bear down when you get those chances. When the first one goes in you can get on a streak and get on a roll and get that confidence going where you want it to be.”
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