The Kings have always been one of those teams for whom I have had a bit of a soft spot. Normally when a team eliminates the Wings in the playoffs, they get put on one of those "revenge lists" that had I been a little more off my rocker could result in very bad things happening to them (like only having 1-ply toilet paper in their bathrooms). However, despite a shocking comeback and upset in 2001, I never held a grudge against the royals from Los Angeles, and to this day I will find myself cheering for them when I see them on TV.
This year may result in a different approach for me, though. Perhaps part of my liking of them was due to the fact that they were pretty crappy; like a little puppy you find on the street. He bit me once, but overall he's harmless. However, this puppy has grown some teeth and is ready to assert himself as top dog, hoping to mark their territory in the Pacific Division as the pack leader.
The Kings went out and got themselves a bunch of shiny new players, and even though they are still missing a very important player, they are determined to establish themselves as one of the contenders in the Western Conference. Will these moves be enough? Follow the jump as we look at the Kings.
Last year was yet another good one for a Kings franchise that had fallen on hard times the past decade. They made the playoffs in back to back seasons for the first time in 10 years, even though they failed to match their point total from 2009-10. In a very tough Pacific Division, they finished 3rd with 98 points, but a late season injury to Anze Kopitar took away Los Angeles' best player and made them fairly easy fodder for the Sharks. The Kings were ready to tie their series 2-2 after taking a big lead in Game 4, but allowed the Sharks to come back and win that game before ultimate falling in 6 games.
Arrivals: Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Colin Fraser
Departures: Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Michal Handzus, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Ryan Smyth
Pertinent Stats in 2010-11
Points: 98 (12th NHL, 7th West)
Goals For: 209 (25th NHL)
Goals Against: 198 (7th NHL)
Power Play: 16.1% (21st NHL)
Penalty Kill: 85.5% (4th NHL)
Offense: The absence of Anze Kopitar from the lineup in the last 7 games likely cost the Kings some valuable points, as he was far and away the Kings' best offensive player once again. At the time of his injury, he was nearly a PPG player, but once he went down the Kings only scored 3 goals in a game once for the rest of the regular season, going 3-4-0 and losing ground to the rest of the conference. The NHL's all-time leading scorer among Slovenians is healthy and ready to increase his lead over 2nd place Jan Mursak.
However, the Kings needed an offensive threat beyond Kopitar at the center position, and they got it when they traded for Richards, the former Flyers captain. Richards gives the Kings a legitimate second line center that they have lacked in the last 2 years, and with Kopitar still the main man in LA, Richards can provide scoring and leadership while playing in all situations without the added pressure of being one of the cornerstones of the franchise. The addition of Gagne, a former Flyer and Lightning player, further enhances their second-line scoring and should allow an offense that finished 25th overall in goals for last season.
However, the Kings are missing a big piece of their offense with Drew Doughty still unsigned. The latest reports had him turning down a 10 year, $205 contract because he wasn't provided a gold-encrusted pen to sign it and his Bugatti Veyron Super Sports car was in the shop having giant "8"s stenciled into the hood using diamonds. Doughty is the kind of defenseman who can play in all situations, but he's got a lethal shot from the point and can quarterback a power play as well as any young defenseman in the game today. If he misses any part of the season, the Kings' offense will have to make up for his absence.
Defense: The aforementioned Doughty is no doubt the cornerstone of this team, but Jack Johnson has quietly established himself as one of the better young players in the game. Much like Brent Seabrook/Duncan Keith and Ryan Suter/Shea Weber, Johnson plays in the shadow of his flashier partner Doughty when not cranking out the soft rock, folk hit, but on just about any other team he would be a clear #1 defenseman (with a smash #1 single, no doubt). The former Wolverine (Go Blue!) is an excellent skater, has a good shot, can move the puck and is a very physical player. The scary part is that he's still only 24 and has some further developing to do.
Beyond Doughty and Johnson, the rest of the Kings' defense doesn't contain any superstars, but is one of the more solid corps in the league. Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene are all players capable of playing a shut-down role (Wing fans should remember Scuderi for his play against the Wings in the 2009 Finals), while Alec Martinez is a very young defenseman who will be playing in his first full season. He's got some offensive upside to his game, but on a defense this deep, the Kings will be able to protect him and not play him in situations he's not ready for.
Goaltending: The Kings have 2 very young goalies on the team, with one guy who has established himself as the true #1 guy while the other is a highly-touted prospect waiting for his turn to shine.
Jonathan Quick was part of a goaltending rotation of Erik Ersberg and Jason LaBarbera in 2008-09, but took over the starting job in 2009-10, posting excellent numbers in his first full season with the team. Last year, his GAA went down while his SV% rose, and while he didn't win as many games as the year before, he was a key reason why the Kings fared as well as they did. He's only 25, and with a very strong defense in front of him, he should get better. However, his numbers in the playoffs aren't as great, posting a 3.16 GAA last year.
Waiting in the wings should Quick falter is Jonathan Bernier. The former first-round pick hasn't seen any extended action yet, but he's been good when he's had to be. Last year he saw action in 25 games, and could get more starts as the team looks to keep Quick fresh for the playoffs.
Player to Watch: Normally we'd say Kopitar in this space, but that's too easy. We're going to go with Richards. He's finally escaped the pressures of Philly where very high expectations combined with being a very young captain caused issues with the media and may have not allowed him to just focus on playing hockey. In LA he's second-fiddle to Kopitar, but in a good way. He can play in any situation, has playoff experience and is a good leader. He also provides the Kings with a very good second-line center.
Player With Something to Prove: Look, make no mistake, Doughty will sign a contract at some point. When he does, he's going to have a lot to live up to, because you know that contract is going to be massive (if Ericsson can get $3.25M per season, Doughty could possibly command an ownership stake in the sun). As one of the top-paid defenseman in the NHL (which he will be), he will be expected to become the de facto leader of the defense, possibly of the team, and any kind of slump will result in immediate backlash from the fans and the team won't be as good as when he's playing up to potential.
The Skinny: The Kings are much improved from last year, and I believe they are going to take a serious run at the Sharks for the division this year. Their defense is as good as the Sharks, and they now have the secondary scoring they've been lacking. If Gagne can overcome his injury issues of the past couple of years, Doughty signs and plays the way he's capable, and Quick remains one of the better goalies in the West, I think the Kings win the division. Then when they lose in the first round, it will be a huge disappointment, not an achievement that they made it there in the first place.