NHL Season Preview: Three Big Questions Facing the Kings
Even after another Stanley Cup, LA has a few unknowns heading into 2014-15.
As part of SB Nation's NHL preview series, we've been asked to take a look at three important questions facing the Los Angeles Kings going into the 2014-15 season. Without further ado...
1. Will the Kings' playoff success finally translate to the regular season?
Believe it or not, LA has never won a Pacific Division title. During their three years of playoff excellence, they have a distant third place finish, a distant second place finish and a distant third place finish. Does the regular season matter? In 2014-15, yes, it will. LA played 108 games last season, and six of their best players went to Russia for the Olympics in the middle of it all. The Kings would absolutely love to excel during the regular season, as locking up a playoff spot early would give them a chance to rest Jonathan Quick and sit any banged-up players.
You'll hear the following a lot: "The Kings are built for the playoffs, but they'll struggle during the regular season." But the Kings were the best possession team in the entire league last season. What's the problem? LA has never been able to get both great goaltending and great shooting at the same time during the regular season. The Kings had a decent offense but a struggling Quick in 2013, and in 2014, the Kings gave up the fewest goals in the league but simply couldn't find the net for long stretches.
What's the outlook for next season? Shooting percentage can fluctuate wildly from year to year, and though it's beginning to look like the Kings will never lead the league in it, they should expect a rebound from last year's 29th-place ranking. Jonathan Quick had a very good save percentage at even strength, but was allowed an unusual number of power play goals. LA now has a full season of a dangerous newcomer (more on that below) and has improved their bottom six. If they aren't the victims of bad luck, it'll be LA's strongest regular season in a long time.
2. How will the presence of Marian Gaborik affect Anze Kopitar and the rest of the offense?
Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar were dynamite together last year, albeit in a small sample size. Gaborik has a history of driving on-ice shooting percentage at an elite level, and he did it again for the Kings in his brief time with the team. Without Gaborik on the ice, the Kings shot a paltry 6.51% at even strength, which was 29th in the league last year. However, with Gaborik on the ice during the regular season, that number jumped all the way up to 9.6%. That on-ice shooting percentage was first on the team.
Gaborik's on-ice shooting percentage has topped 9.5% during 8 of his past 9 seasons, spread out over 4 different teams, so it feels safe to say it's a repeatable skill on his part. If everything comes together correctly, Kopitar has a great chance of hitting 80 points for the first time since 2009-10 (when he had 81 points in 82 games). Though Gaborik's fourteen playoff goals will be difficult to replicate (he shot 20% over the course of the playoffs), 30 goals for him in the season seems like a very attainable goal, especially while playing with a puck possession beast like Anze Kopitar. The rest of the offense should benefit quite a bit from that kind of production.
3. Which Mike Richards will the Los Angeles Kings get this season?
Mike Richards was traded to the Kings along with the expectation that he would be a 1B center to Kopitar's 1A. That has never really been the case. For whatever reason, Richards hit the wall when he arrived in LA. Whether it was the tougher conference, a history of physical play, a concussion shortly after arriving, poor conditioning, or some other unknown variable, Richards has never even really been a strong #2 center behind Kopitar, let alone someone that is almost on Kopi's level.
Jeff Carter's ascent to second line center on the Kings pushes Mike Richards to his rightful spot. He will do well when pitted largely against depth players on opposing teams, especially given that he will play with decent wingers this season. Darryl Sutter still has to do the right thing and put him in that role, but it's where he will provide the largest boost to the team.
Even though his 5v5 play has slipped, Richards remains an effective special teams player. Though his point totals have been unimpressive, he does well at limiting shots against while shorthanded and also provides some offensive punch on the power play. On top of that, his reputation as a shorthanded scoring threat is the real deal, and he has probably been the most effective King in this regard since arriving in LA.
In Richards, the Kings probably will never get what they hoped for. If he is expected to be a top flight 2nd line center, he will disappoint every time. However, he remains a useful utility tool for the Kings to keep in their back pocket for at least another season. He's not a player that belongs on your fantasy team at this point, but he'll help the Kings, even if he'll be paid too much money for the help he provides.