2016-17 was a bit of a transitional year for the Los Angeles Kings, as three rookie defensemen played significant roles for a head coach who was generally distrusting of young players, particularly on the blue line. At least two more rookie defensemen will make their NHL debut for the Kings tonight. Over the summer we looked at what went right, what went wrong and met a few new faces along the way.
Generally regarded as the league’s best despite only one Norris Trophy to his name, Drew Doughty needs no introduction. He will once again play nearly 30 minutes a night and hasn’t missed a game in over three seasons. [Is Drew Doughty worth $10 million to the Kings in 2019?]
Jake Muzzin will look to re-take his mantle as a Corsi-god. [Jake Muzzin, the Lightning Rod]
Alec Martinez should collect another 30-something points, but will start the year on IR. [Please Don’t Panic, It’s Going to be All Right, But Alec Martinez is Hurt]
Derek Forbort earned expansion draft protection by doing his best Rob Scuderi impression as Doughty’s wingman. [Can Derek Forbort Avoid the Sophomore Slump?]
Paul LaDue missed the cut out of training camp, but Martinez’s injury provides him a life line. [Brodzinski, Kempe and LaDue Give Us a Taste of the Future]
Kevin Gravel fell behind the pack and will start the year in Ontario, but expect to see him back before long. [Is the NHL road smooth ahead for Kevin Gravel?]
The New Faces
Christian Folin, the new Matt Greene? He has the size, the snarl and similar stats through the same age. In the age of the mobile, puck-moving defenseman, will he find his niche or is he a relic of a bygone era? [Kings Sign Christian Folin to One-Year Deal]
Swedish import Oscar Fantenberg turned some heads in the pre-season and might make his NHL debut tonight. [Meeting Oscar Fantenberg]
Hard-nosed Kurtis MacDermid showed there is more to his game than just his fists, as he beat out more skilled defensemen to earn his way onto the NHL roster. [Top 25 Under 25, #15: Kurtis MacDermid]
The Kings continue the youth movement with their defensive corps, with an average age of 26. That includes elder statesman Alec Martinez (30), who starts the year on the IR with a lower body injury.
While they are putting their faith in younger, inexperienced defensemen, they are not completely buying into the puck-moving, mobile defense phenomenon that the NHL has headed in the last few years. Folin and MacDermid are both throwbacks, rugged stay-at-home types, passing up finesse guys like Gravel and LaDue. All indications point to their bottom pairing being fluid, exploiting the proximity to their AHL affiliate in Ontario throughout the season.
Systematically, the Kings will once again keep their focus on zone exits and maintaining possession. When asked to defend, they are putting a renewed focus on utilizing their sticks. New defense coach Dave Lowry has preached a one-handed philosophy to take away lanes while avoiding the slashing penalties that have been prevalent in the pre-season:
“It’s always ‘have your stick ready,’ but it’s also stick positioning on the ice and all that,” Lowry said.
“The generations change. It used to be two hands on your stick. Well, two hands always brings your stick up in the air. You put one hand on your stick, it puts it on the ice. Coaches, when they watch video, they say, ‘the sticks make you a bigger player,’ and they close lanes.”
The influx of young defenders aside, the Kings will still live and die with their tried-and-true core of Doughty, Muzzin and Martinez. Doughty is good enough to carry an ordinary bottom-pairing partner like Forbort, allowing Coach Stevens to spread the wealth and strengthen his other pairings.
Muzzin and Martinez will look to prove their struggles last year were a fluke, after the pair looked elite just a year before. With Martinez starting the year on the IR, Muzzin will find himself having to carry the second pairing to start the year, likely with Christian Folin. Muzzin certainly looks rejuvenated, racking up seven points in five pre-season games.
With a new offensive philosophy implemented and a reconfigured power play, look for Doughty to play with even more creative license than he has in the past, perhaps breaking the 60 point plateau for the first time in his career. Martinez is not expected to miss more than a few games, though at age 30 it would not be realistic to expect much more than his usual 30 points or so. Derek Forbort is the designated stay-at-home guy and is cemented into the every day roster. Expect to see him first over the boards to kill a penalty and protect leads with Doughty in the game’s final seconds.
The bottom-pairing will be fluid and ice time will be merit-based. Fatenberg has looked the best, showing a calm demeanor and making intelligent decisions with the puck. That said, it is anyone’s guess how he fares against the NHL’s best. MacDermid and Folin look to provide toughness and take away space, but will have to straddle that edge to stay out of the penalty box. LaDue and Gravel will certainly get their looks as the season goes on, but need to play with some immediacy if they want to crack the roster on a regular basis.
The key to the season might fall into Muzzin’s lap. Should he return to his 40-point, possession-monster ways, the Kings have a legitimate top-four that will tilt the ice in their favor on a nightly basis. If he has a repeat of his -21 disaster from a year ago, this looks like a middle-of-the-pack squad that will have to fight to the end for a Wild Card spot.