Elliott: Cal Petersen's season-opening start underlines next-gen movement on Kings

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Los Angeles Kings goalie Calvin Petersen (40) defends against Vegas Golden Knights.
Kings goalie Cal Petersen reacts as Vegas Golden Knights forward Nolan Patrick takes a shot during the third period of the Kings' season-opening win Thursday. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Back in the Darryl Sutter coaching era — which feels like forever ago — he’d inevitably give the same succinct response each time he was asked which goaltender would start the Kings’ next game.

“Be there for the song,” Sutter would say, his way of keeping everyone guessing until players had assembled on the ice and the national anthem was playing in advance of the opening faceoff.

That same question about the starting goalie, posed Thursday to current coach Todd McLellan on the morning of the team’s 2021-22 debut, drew a more informative response. It also reflected the new era the Kings are launching. “Cal,” McLellan said, referring to having chosen Cal Petersen for the opening night honors over two-time Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Quick. Petersen made 23 saves and Anze Kopitar had a hat trick in the 6-2 win over Vegas.

The last time Quick didn’t start the Kings’ opener was the 2008-09 season. But for the Kings to move forward they can’t look back. Cup-winning holdovers Quick, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Kopitar will play important roles this season, but this must become Petersen’s team and Gabe Vilardi’s team and Mikey Anderson’s and Matt Roy’s and Sean Walker’s. Maybe Arthur Kaliyev’s and Vladimir Tkachev’s team, too, after they made the roster out of training camp. Ownership will someday be shared by Quinton Byfield, who is recovering from a fractured ankle, and Jaret Anderson-Dolan, who’s starting the season in the American Hockey League.

“I think you’d say it’s the best roster to date, as far as being able to have success and win,” general manager Rob Blake said this week. “Best” is a relative term, given they’ve missed the playoffs three straight seasons and four of the last five and have won one playoff game (in 2016) since their second Cup title. McLellan is Blake’s third coach, after John Stevens and ineffectual interim coach Willie Desjardins.

There will be pressure on McLellan to win if this truly is their best team of the Blake regime because expectations are higher.

On paper the Kings are deeper, faster and more skillful than the group that fell apart late last season and became embarrassingly uncompetitive. Alas, the game is played on ice, which gets slippery.

If Blake has scored more hits than misses during an overhaul the organization was too late in starting, the kids must start taking over now. They’ve generally been brought along slowly. Blake gave them help during the summer by bringing in defense-oriented center Phillip Danault, winger Viktor Arvidsson and experienced defenseman Alex Edler to ease their burden.

“One of the themes after talking to a lot of players at the end of last season and coaching staff and then kind of combining the thoughts, was trusting reliable players. To add a couple to our lineup to not only protect the young guys but protect the older guys also, so we’re not exposing them to the difficult minutes game in and game out all the time,” Blake said recently. “You can kind of spread that out. But the two words that resonated between players and coaches were trusting and reliable.”

The Kings are placing a lot of trust in Petersen, who signed a three-year, $15-million contract extension last month through 2024-25. He was 9-18-5 last season with a 2.89 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in 35 games for a team that finished sixth in the Pacific Division and ranked 25th in the NHL.

“I think he’s progressed the way we’ve wanted and we got him into a number of games and he’s going to continue that schedule,” Blake said, “but we wanted to be stable in that position, and I think the tandem with Jonathan and him will solidify and help to give us stability back there for a few years here.”

The division of goaltending duty hasn’t been set. Each played in three exhibition games. “I think we let it play out. They’re going to compete for their starts,” Blake said. “They’re both capable of leading the team, and that’s what we expect.”

Iowa-born Petersen said he came into training camp with fortified confidence after being voted the best goalie at the world championships. It also helped to know there would be a “normal” training camp before the NHL’s first full season following two that were cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I feel really sharp and spent some of my summer here so I was able to roll that right into camp,” said Petersen. “I feel really good and I’m looking forward to a big challenge this year and being very competitive with Jonathan Quick and having a chance to be the guy that’s relied upon and counted on in big games where we need a win.

“On the other side, I think we’re going to have a much more improved team. More veteran presence and established NHL guys and a lot of competition kind of throughout the lineup, which I think will only make us better.”

Quick, who will be 36 in January, had shoulder surgery in May. He had some strong performances in preseason games and isn’t making it easy for Petersen to take over the No. 1 job.

“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” Petersen said. “He’s obviously still extremely capable and has been for a number of years. I think it’s my job to make it extremely competitive and battle for each game I play.”

The better the competition is in goal — and at every other position — the better the Kings’ chances of returning to the playoffs. “With our pieces, you look at the lineup, that’s our natural next step,” Blake said. To take that step they’ll need Petersen and their kids to be in the driver’s seat.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.