Los Angeles Kings 2010-11 Season Preview

GLENDALE AZ - SEPTEMBER 14: Kyle Clifford #64 of the Los Angeles Kings celebrates with teammates after scoring a first period goal against the Phoenix Coyotes during the NHL Rookie game at Jobing.com Arena on September 14 2010 in Glendale Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

 

I wrote what I thought was a stupendously brilliant and exhaustive Kings season preview that would have undoubtedly redefined blogging as we know it, had the SBN editing interface not eaten the whole thing leaving you stuck with this:

 

2009-10 Recap

  • The Kings exceeded everyone's expectations in '09-'10, flirting with a top four seed before finishing sixth in the West and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in eight years.
  • Lombardi added Rob Scuderi (UFA), Ryan Smyth (trade with Colorado) and Justin Williams (trade with Edmonton and Carolina); Scuderi, to anchor wunderkind Drew Doughty; Smyth and Williams, to jump-start Anze Kopitar.
  • Flanked by Smyth and Williams on the first unit, Kopitar led the league in scoring into November, before injuries to Smyth and Williams broke up the line.
  • Scott Parse got his first look at NHL action, and responded by leading the team in goals per sixty minutes of ice time (G/60).
  • Brad Richardson rebounded from a horrible '08-'09 to become Terry Murray's utility knife, and seemed to play every position on every line at some point or other during the season.
  • Drew Doughty played his sophomore season like it was his 10th, topped his impressive rookie numbers, won a spot on the Canadian Olympic team, and earned a Norris Trophy nomination.
  • Jack Johnson, Jonathan Quick and Michal Handzus also earned Olympic nods, and Johnson in particular came into his own in the Vancouver games. JJ's Olympic momentum carried him the rest of the season and the playoffs. He played easily the best hockey of his post-collegiate career after mid-February.
  • Jonathan Quick went in the opposite direction. On a tear before the Olympic break, Quick sat on the US bench for two weeks, and was never the same. Although he finished the season with a franchise-record 39 wins and 72 games played, he only won 6 of 22 after the break.
  • The Kings limped into the post-season, finishing with 101 points, the third best point-total in franchise history.
  • The Kings opened their first playoff series since 2002 in Vancouver against the #3 seed Canucks.
  • They split the first two games, both OT. The Kings dominated game 3 and two-thirds of game 4.
  • At which point, the wheels fell off. Twenty minutes from being up 3-1, the Kings found themselves tied 2-2, and that was enough to wake up the Canucks. They closed out the series in six.

Offseason Moves - Who's In/Who's Out

Big Enigmatic USSR-born Left Wing

Out: Alexander Frolov (to NYR)

In: Alexei Ponikarovsky (from PIT, but really TOR)

Thoughts: Love the Fro, but this is probably a wash.

Wise, Old Defenseman Who Can Kick Your A**

Out: Sean O'Donnell (to PHI)

In: Willie Mitchell (from VAN)

Thoughts: If healthy, Mitchell is a substantial upgrade. Also, Doughty says they have the same "personality type," which ought to be something to behold. Note to Fox Sports (or obsessive stalker-type season-ticket holder with gear like in "The Conversation"): mic them.

Mistake-prone third-pairing defenseman with offensive upside

Out: Randy Jones (to TBL)

In: nobody. 

Thoughts: A resurgent Davis Drewiske and/or one of the prospects (Thomas Hickey, Johan Fransson or Jake Muzzin) will fill this spot.

Bottom six wisdom and sandpaper

Out: Fredrik Modin, Jeff Halpern

In: nobody. 

Thoughts: That's okay. Halpern was no good in his short stay here; Modin was great, but the spot is better filled by one of the kids. Two trade-deadline pick-ups that cost us nothing except Teddy Purcell who will probably Moulson his way to 30 goals this year.

Hulking obstruction-penalty generator (enforcer)

Out: Raitis Ivanans (to CGY)

In: Kevin Westgarth (Manchester, AHL)

Thoughts: Terry Murray has indicated Westgarth has all but earned a spot on the fourth line. This makes no sense to me but what do I know. 20 year-old Kyle Clifford seems like a better choice.

Strengths and Weaknesses

King-sized Strengths

  1. Depth of scoring - I keep reading that the Kings lack scoring depth, but I think it's more accurate to say that they use scoring depth to compensate for lack of a dominant first line. What the Kings really have is no first line, one elite second line and two (maybe three) great third lines. But what the Kings lack in 40 goal scorers, they more than make up with the sheer volume of guys who can or will score 20. Kopitar, Smyth, Williams, Stoll, Brown, Ponikarovsky, Handzus, Simmonds, Parse, Doughty...that's ten guys. One of Schenn, Moller or Richardson also have a shot at 20 if they get a full season in. The league record for 20 goal-scorers in one season is 11 (Boston, 1975). 
  2. Youth - The Kings got a bit younger last year, and might get younger still. We won't know until we see who makes it out of camp. Regardless, the "core" is young: Brown, Kopitar, Simmonds, Doughty, Johnson, Moller, Richardson, Drewiske, Quick, Bernier -- are all 25 or under.
  3. Unity - Lombardi has methodically assembled a roster of team players, character guys and leaders. For better or worse (hint: better) he steered clear of Dany Heatley last summer, and didn't break the bank for Kovalchuk. It's tempting to wish Lombardi would compromise the long-term plan just once, but if the fully operational battle station of Doughty, Kopitar, Johnson, Simmonds, Brown, Schenn, Clifford, Quick, Hickey, Loktionov, Moller, Voynov and Bernier peak simultaneously in a perfect storm of hockey greatness in (say) two years, no one will complain we don't have Kovalchuk or Heatley. Kopitar and Brown are coming into their own as leaders. Lombardi went out and got three cup winners (Justin Williams, Sean O'Donnell, Rob Scuderi) and four guys with 230 playoff games between them (Ryan Smyth, Jarret Stoll, Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell). The farm system is full of captains (Hickey, Teubert, Moller, Schenn, Muzzin) and players with significant international experience (Martin Jones, Bernier and Kozun, in addition to Hickey, Teubert et al, have World Jr experience; Vey, Clifford, Toffoli, Schenn and Deslauriers are on the preliminary WJC rosters for this year).

King-sized Weaknesses

  1. Top six firepower - the conventional wisdom is true: the Kings might have eight-to-ten 20 goal scorers; they might have a couple of 30 goal guys; but they'll be lucky to have anyone who scores 40. I wouldn't say second-line left-wing is a "hole." But it's a question mark. And, this week, Dustin Brown is skating with Kopitar and Smyth on the first line. Brown is either the best third-line right-winger in the league, or a pretty great second-line guy. Is he a first line 30-goal scorer? He was once, three years ago, under the run-and-gun Marc Crawford "system." Exception or rule?
  2. Experience - Lombardi has brought in several veterans. But experience will always be an issue until they've earned it, together, as a team.
  3. Enforcers and Deterrents - Terry Murray likes to have an enforcer on the active roster. The last two years, it was Raitis Ivanans. Raitis, while being a kind hearted fellow who, for example, went to see "Billy Elliot" when the Kings were in NY, and who was also fairly terrifying to the opposition on the rare occasions he was released from shackles, was also an obstruction penalty machine. He's in Calgary now, and in his place is either (1) Kevin Westgarth, who is a little more fleet of foot than Raitis, but not enough to put anyone's mind at ease, or (2) some combination of middle-weights a la Wayne Simmonds, Kyle Clifford, Rich Clune or Jordan Nolan. Since two of those guys have no NHL experience, and the other is more irritating/hilarious than scary, I can only assume we're going with Westgarth. I can easily see that turning into Ivanans 2.0.

Depth Chart

Active roster

Here's what we've got without the question marks:

Ryan Smyth - Anze Kopitar - Dustin Brown

LW2 - Jarret Stoll - Justin Williams

Alexei Ponikarovsky - Michal Handzus - Wayne Simmonds

LW4 - C4 - RW4

F13, F14

Rob Scuderi - Drew Doughty

Willie Mitchell - Jack Johnson

D5 - Matt Greene

D7

Jonathan Quick

G2

Second-line left-wing

It's his job to lose: Scott Parse

Could lose job to: Brad Richardson, Oscar Moller.

Or, one of these prospects: Brayden Schenn, Bud Holloway, Brandon Kozun, Andrei Loktionov.

Wildcard: Schenn. If he makes the team, he might get switched to LW. At which point, all bets are off.

Verdict: Kozun and Loktionov are not physically ready yet. Moller is more likely to start in Manchester, but be in the on-deck call-up spot. Richardson seems to be a squatter on the fourth line, but ready to take over if Parse craps out. But I don't think Parse will crap out.

Fourth-line utility forward

It's his job to lose: Brad Richardson

Could lose job to: Oscar Moller, Trevor Lewis.

Or, one of these prospects: Brayden Schenn, Corey Elkins, Marc-Andre Cliche.

Wildcard: Moller. A brilliant camp would make him hard to send down.

Verdict: Murray appears to be giving the opportunity to Richardson. I would hope that if he's outplayed by Moller or Schenn in camp, that the best player gets the job. But Richardson's maturity and versatility (and the fact that he's not waiver-exempt) give him an edge.

Fourth-line Deterrent

It's his job to lose: Kevin Westgarth

Could lose job to: job elimination.

Or, one of these prospects: Kyle Clifford, Jordan Nolan.

Wildcard: Clifford. He's smaller than Westgarth, and much younger. But he's better. And he can score.

Verdict: Westgarth will get his shot. Murray has spoken.

Fourth-line "energy"/pest

It's his job to lose: nobody.

Could lose job to: Rich Clune.

Or, one of these prospects: Kyle Clifford

Wildcard: Murray might go with two skilled guys and an enforcer (e.g. Lewis/Richardson/Westgarth), rather than the more annoying Clune/Richardson/Westgarth. Clifford is a mega-wildcard in this slot, because, pest-wise, if Clune is a gnat, Clifford is one of those bugs from "Food of the Gods."

Verdict: Clune will get one of the press-box spots, and play 30-40 games.

Third-pairing defenseman

It's his job to lose: Davis Drewiske

Could lose job to: Alec Martinez

Or, one of these prospects: Thomas Hickey, Jake Muzzin, Johan Fransson

Wildcard: With Matt Greene hurt, the prospects have a cracked-open window to impress Kings brass and steal the spot from Drewiske. A great camp would earn one of those prospects a foot in the door. 

Verdict: Hickey or Muzzin will make the opening night roster, along with Drewiske, as the third pair. They'll have a month to battle it out, until Greene comes back.

The 2-3 press box seats

It's his job to lose: Peter Harrold, Kevin Westgarth, Rich Clune

Could lose job to: Alec Martinez, Trevor Lewis

Or, one of these prospects: [none; no prospects in the press box; they're in Manchester, getting ice-time]

Wildcard: Martinez and Lewis both have the healthy-scratch spot within their grasp, and they're both competing with the same guy, uber-utility knife Peter Harrold.

Verdict: Peter Harrold is a smart, fast defenseman who Murray converted to forward and somehow didn't suck. Like Richardson, he will go anywhere, no job too dirty, but unlike Richardson, he can play defense and forward and he's pretty good on the point on the power play, too. He's not great at anything, but he's good enough at everything to be irresistibly useful. Also, he's cheap and he's not waiver-exempt. So he's a habit that's hard to quit. 

#2 Goaltender

It's his job to lose: Erik Ersberg

Could lose job to: Jonathan Bernier

Or, one of these prospects: seriously?

Wildcard: injuries in camp. Bernier in 2009, now Ersberg in 2010 (but how serious, we don't know). All it takes is a tweak, and suddenly we're looking at an Ersberg/Bernier tandem with Quick on the IR, or choose your own unlikely combination. And, seriously, what if Ersberg gets into a regular season game, by some miracle. Can't you see him playing like Ken Dryden and clinging to the Kings net for dear life? Weirder things have happened.

Verdict: Ersberg has done some spectacular work here. And I really like him. I sort of feel about him the way I did about Manny Legace when he left the Kings. "Somebody is going to be very happy with this guy." He ended up with a ring, didn't he? I hope Erik ends up in Tampa or somewhere in the East where I can root for him.

Predictions

I predict the Kings are good now. Will they be able to top last season's 101 points? Here's a look at the Kings 90+ point finishes, and what they did the next year:

1975, 105 pts; 1976, 85 pts (-20)
1981, 99 pts; 1982, 63 pts (-36)
1989, 91 pts; 1990, 75 pts (-16)
1991, 102 pts; 1992, 84 pts (-18)
2000, 94 pts; 2001, 92 pts (-2)
2001, 92 pts; 2002, 95 pts (+3)
2002, 95 pts; 2003, 78 pts (-17)
2010, 101 pts; 2011, ??

That little string of Andy Murray teams (2000-2002) is the only time the Kings didn't plummet the year after a 90+ point season.

I think it's reasonable to expect the Kings to defy the trend and finish at least in the mid-to-high 90s. Still, it's more important to for the season to have a smoother arc, fewer peaks and valleys, and to have the proper surge of momentum leading into the playoffs. I would rather the Kings finish with 96 and be firing on all cylinders in April than to finish with 101 but burn out down the stretch, as they did last year.

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