NHL Season Preview 2015: Three Big Questions Facing the Kings
The Kings are all in once again, but a few questions remain before the team can bounce back.
It's that time of year again! Let's take a look at three important questions facing the Los Angeles Kings going into the 2015-16 season as part of SB Nation's big season preview. Without further ado...
1. Can Eastern Conference imports Milan Lucic and Christian Ehrhoff replace the Kings’ departed veterans?
The Kings seemingly spent most of the offseason watching veterans leave in free agency, or retire, or have their contracts terminated in legally dubious circumstances. The final list of departing skaters included Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll, Andrej Sekera, Mike Richards, and Robyn Regehr, with only Milan Lucic and Christian Ehrhoff arriving to replace them. Fortunately, the Kings didn't really need to find external replacements for Stoll, Richards, or Regehr! Simply put, those three delivered such miserable production last year that their replacements are very unlikely to do worse.
Williams and Sekera are very good players who clearly needed good replacements, however, and so the Kings acted aggressively to bring in Lucic and Ehrhoff. Lucic should be at least a fair match for Williams. Lucic doesn't quite have Williams's play-driving ability, but he's still a clear positive in that department. In terms of on-ice shooting percentage, Lucic has a stronger track record--he's at 9.32% at 5v5 over the last five years compared to Williams's 7.85%. For a Kings team that often posts good possession numbers but struggles to convert shots into goals, Lucic's offensive efficiency should be a welcome addition. Lucic's other big advantage is that, at 28 years old, he occupies a much happier place on the aging curve.
Ehrhoff is quite a bit riskier as a replacement for Sekera. He has been a brilliant offensive defenseman in the not-too-distant past, but his age (33) and concussion history are both major causes for concern. Although his quality of play in Pittsburgh definitely fell short of his performances in Buffalo or Vancouver, even last year Ehrhoff was still a respectable second pairing defenseman when healthy (albeit one saddled with a 975 PDO). Given LA's startlingly poor defensive depth, Ehrhoff is absolutely worth a gamble at $1.5 million. Perhaps the Kings will one day remember this Ehrhoff contract as fondly as they remember the 2010 signing of Willie Mitchell--another 33-year-old defenseman coming off a concussion, who turned out to be just what LA needed.
2. Is the old Dustin Brown ever going to return?
Short answer: No, Dustin Brown will not return to his prior form.
The good news is that it's not because he's an appreciably worse player now. He hasn't taken a nosedive off a cliff yet. His possession metrics and shot rates are still respectable. Basically, he's still playing reasonably well! (Even if last year's point totals didn't really show it.) Dustin Brown never really went anywhere; really, the biggest problem Dustin Brown will face going forward, and the reason he's not the "old" Brown, is his linemates.
At his peak, Brown was playing on a dominant line with Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. Now, Williams is gone and Brown has been surpassed by many players on the depth chart. As such, he's going to be stuck with offensive luminaries like Dwight King, Trevor Lewis, Nick Shore, and so on. Given Darryl Sutter's propensity to mix and match his forwards, Brown will occasionally work himself into the top two lines this year. If he does well, maybe he'll stay. However, I suspect that Lombardi and Sutter did not go out and get Milan Lucic to give him mediocre minutes. I further suspect that this is what they feel Brown is now. His role is simply: gritty leader that will chip in goals here and there. That isn't all bad, but it isn't quite who he used to be, and measured against his contract, it might be disappointing.
3. Are Brayden McNabb and Tyler Toffoli ready to become core players?
From the day Dean Lombardi was hired by the Kings, the concept of a team "core" has guided most of his big decisions. The four consistent names who are brought up as part of that core: Kopitar, Brown, Doughty, and Quick. Lombardi has done an admirable job filling the rest of that core in his tenure, and those four guys are still around. But for the first time, though, LA has lost a few players who could be considered core pieces. As a result, two young players who found themselves in larger roles last season will look join that core this year.
Of course, some would argue that forward Tyler Toffoli is already there. The 23-year-old winger had a breakout season, scoring 23 goals (including a league-leading five shorthanded goals), thriving in possession stats, and locking up a spot on Jeff Carter's wing. What separated Toffoli from the "core" last season was ice time; Darryl Sutter only gave Toffoli fourteen and a half minutes a game in which to make an impact. That's less than Dustin Brown and Jarret Stoll each received, and they combined for fewer points than Toffoli got on his own. Stoll is gone now, but more importantly, Justin Williams is too. Toffoli brings a lot of what Williams took with him to Washington, and adds speed and penalty killing in lieu of Williams' experience, so a boost in ice time is inevitable. The question isn't whether Toffoli is ready to join the core, but whether LA will be able to keep him in that core when his two-year bridge deal is up.
More uncertain is the role of Brayden McNabb. McNabb showed flashes of blue line brilliance last year, especially in his stints with Andrej Sekera, but exhibited many of the same growing pains we saw with Muzzin and Martinez. (All three, of course, had sparkling possession stats to go with the occasional brain fart.) Neither Muzzin or Martinez was asked to shoulder a great deal of shutdown responsibility in year 2, though. McNabb should get significant minutes next to Ehrhoff on the second pair, which means he'll be tested. Is he ready? Based on last year's performance, his possession and assist numbers say yes, his goalscoring and defensive assignments say no. How he performs will be key to LA's championship hopes.