1. Who the heck is going to fill out the fourth line and the third defensive pair?
(DISCLAIMER: The answer to this question might be different in January than it is now.)
The Kings will always go as their Big 3 of Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick go, but LA’s also built a rep of being tough. In 2014, the Cup-winning goal came from #6 d-man Alec Martinez, assisted by temporary fourth-liner Tyler Toffoli and permanent fourth-liner Kyle Clifford. So who will be this season’s Martinez and Clifford? Even after recent roster moves the pool of potential fourth liners and bottom pair d-men remains at about a dozen or so, and they all could feasibly make the team.
The best candidates to shore up the back end? Veterans Tom Gilbert, Matt Greene, and Rob Scuderi might hang on to one or more of those spots, but for the first time in a long time, we could see multiple rookies on the blueline early in the season. Kevin Gravel’s the workmanlike favorite, Derek Forbort’s the first-rounder whose time is running out, Paul LaDue’s the recent grad who’s come out of nowhere in camp. Those six guys are fighting for two spots, and the ones we see on October 12 will probably be different than the ones we see on April 9.
The forward picture isn’t much more clear; incumbents Jordan Nolan and Andy Andreoff and free agent signing Michael Latta look to hold off rookies Nic Dowd, Michael Mersch, and Adrian Kempe. And if you’re a neutral observer who doesn’t care about any of those guys, check out former Sharks winger Devin Setoguchi, who could make the team on a tryout after struggling with alcoholism. He’s had a good preseason, and if he becomes a contributor it’d be one of the stories of the season.
2. With Milan Lucic out and Marian Gaborik injured, which wingers will pick up the slack?
Tanner Pearson has been suspended for the first two games of the 2016-17 season. Pearson scored 15 goals last year, so missing him for two games certainly isn’t going to make or break the season. And yet, this is causing genuine concern, because we want to know — AS SOON AS POSSIBLE — if Pearson’s going to be the answer to LA’s questions up front. The Kings always thrive on possession and will continue to do so, but the goals have to come from somewhere, and as the fourth-leading returning goalscorer for LA, Pearson is the best candidate.
Beyond Pearson, pickings are slim. The Kings couldn’t find a direct replacement for Lucic, but they did go out and get Teddy Purcell. He hasn’t topped 15 goals since 2011-12, and even with Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl as his primary linemates last year, he failed to fill up the net. Will he get to play with Anze Kopitar? It appears that Dustin Brown will, and though we’ve been waiting a couple years for his scoring totals to rebound, the now-ex-captain of the Kings might just rediscover the shooting prowess that’s abandoned him in recent seasons.
If they fall short, maybe Tyler Toffoli can score 50 goals. That’d be great.
3. Will Vezina finalist Jonathan Quick avoid a letdown after a shaky postseason and World Cup?
In a word: probably.
Quick’s inflated reputation in the eyes of many in the NHL resulted in a Vezina nomination he probably didn’t deserve last season. So it was all the more pleasing to his doubters when he struggled mightily in last year’s playoffs before he failed to save Team USA from an early exit at the World Cup. The up-and-down perception of Quick is a constant storyline, one that covers up the fact that his save percentages over the last three seasons were .915, .918, and .918. Those aren’t standout numbers, but after a sensational 2012 and a horrid 2013, he’s been reliably, slightly, notably above average.
Goaltending is always tough to call, and Quick’s in-season performances can vary wildly. He’s started 85% of the Kings’ games since the Kings won their second Stanley Cup, though. Even if he starts slowly, he’ll get every chance to rediscover his form... and he probably will.