Finally, it’s over.
Yes, quite possibly the most ridiculous labour dispute ever has finally been resolved, and the NHL is finally going to get back underway. Hey, a 48-game regular season and normal playoffs is a heck of a lot better than nothing, and with the playoffs slated to last into late June this year, at least we’ll have a shorter wait than normal for next season (not that it makes up for this).
With the shortened season this year, the schedule is obviously going to be a little different. I was a little confused about it for a while myself, so for those who also don’t understand it, here’s a little breakdown of how it’s going to work. Teams will play two of their four division rivals five times each — one of them three times at home and twice on the road, the other vice versa — and two of their four division rivals four times each. For the Kings, they will play the Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes five times each (three times at home and twice on the road against Dallas, vice versa against Phoenix) and the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks four times each. Teams will play the 10 teams that are in their conference but outside of their division three times each. Five of them twice on the road and once at home, five of them vice versa. For the Kings, they will play the Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild twice on the road and once at home, while they play the Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks, Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets and Calgary Flames twice at home and once on the road. Teams will not play any games against teams outside of their conference. I believe things like which division teams would be faced more often and which teams would be faced more at home than on the road and vice versa were all chosen at random. In a normal 82-game regular season, teams play their division opponents six times each (three times at home, three times on the road against each team), their conference opponents outside of their division four times each (twice at home and twice on the road against each team), 12 teams from the other conference once (six of them at home, six of them on the road) and the other three teams (that I think are also chosen at random) from the other conference twice (once at home and once on the road against each team).
Even if the season goes later than usual, from now until the end of the season, teams will still be playing more than usual, so it’ll be interesting to see how players hold up. We’ll see which players found the right balance between staying in game shape and having enough left in the tank during the lockout. Either way, all teams have to deal with it, so ultimately it’s not a big deal, and at the end of the day it’s just great to have hockey back. However, perhaps teams that have gotten off to hot starts recently before fading late (Oh hey Dallas) will actually benefit from this and make the playoffs, while teams that have started slow before picking it up late recently (‘Sup New Jersey) won’t be able to do that again. All games are more important this year. Now, how about we focus on the Kings?
In the 1997-1998 season, the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. The cool thing about that was that they also won it in the 1996-1997 season.
They also won the Cup in the 2007-2008 season, and then almost did it again in the 2008-2009 season, but fell one win short. So, it remains that no team has repeated as Stanley Cup champions since 1998. The Kings are going to look to change that this year, but recent history is not on their side.
Not only have we not seen teams win the Cup in back-to-back years recently, but it’s rare that we’ve even seen teams make consecutive deep playoff runs, with the exception of when the Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins met in the Stanley Cup Final in the 2007-2008 season and then again the next year. The Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins met in the final in 2010-2011, and after strong seasons last year were expected to be there again, but both went out in the first round. The Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup in 2009-2010, but have followed it up with two straight first-round exits. The team they beat in the final that year, the Philadelphia Flyers, have followed up their trip to the final with two straight second-round exits. The Penguins won the Cup in 2008-2009, but followed it up with a second-round exit and then two straight first-round exits. The team they beat that year, the Wings, have followed up that trip to the final with two straight second-round exits and then a first-round exit last year.
There are a number of reasons why teams have struggled to go deep into the playoffs in consecutive years. One is that this is the NHL, not the NBA. There is a lot of parity and there are a lot of really good teams. An eighth seed just won the Stanley Cup with one of the most incredible playoff runs ever. Another is that teams that make deep playoff runs end up having pretty short off-seasons and not as much time to recover from the numerous injuries that players suffer and often play through during the season (in this regard, perhaps the lockout will help the Kings?). Deep playoff runs are very mentally, emotionally and physically draining. It’s tough to be able to do it in consecutive years. And, of course, for the team that actually wins it all, there’s many who believe in the Stanley Cup hangover. People question whether or or not they’re still going to have as much drive as other teams, but since winning the Stanley Cup is so awesome, wouldn’t they want to win it again just as badly as other teams want to win it? Considering other teams who go deep into the playoffs but don’t win the Cup have also struggled to make consecutive deep playoff runs, perhaps the champions also just suffer from being tired from such a long season (and, in the case of the champs, perhaps compromising some training for partying in the summer).
However, when you look at the Kings, you have to think their chances of winning it all this season are as good (if not better) than anyone’s. They just went 16-4 through a playoff run and offensively I think they still have upside (their power play can’t possibly be so bad this year, they’re still a pretty young team and some guys could be even better, and perhaps they’ll even get a healthy Simon Gagne). Assuming they’re still going to play strong defense, do a great job on the penalty kill, get great goaltending and still have the drive to win it, this team appears to be in great shape.
The Kings brought back basically the entire team from last year. Let’s take a little look at the roster and what we can expect.
I’d expect the top line of Anze Kopitar between Dustin Brown and Justin Williams to remain intact. Kopitar easily has the talent to be one of the best players in the game, but has been plagued by inconsistency and needs to avoid those extremely long droughts without goals that he seems to fall into at least once a season (yes, everyone has slumps, but Kopitar can go almost a third of the season and score one goal). He could do that by being a little more aggressive, by not being such a perimeter player so often (particularly on the power play) and by having more confidence with the puck, rather than looking to pass so often. Kopitar has one of the best shots in the league, but for some reason he doesn’t use it nearly as often as he should. He also had a terrific post-season, and as he continues to mature, hopefully he can finally turn the corner and become more consistent. If so, this is a guy who can score 35-40 goals and 85-90 points in a (full) season easily. At least. Not bad considering he’s also emerged as one of the best two-way players in the game.
Brown has also been plagued by inconsistency. Even in that great post-season he had, he was mostly invisible in the last two rounds after dominating the first two rounds, although he did respond with a huge performance in the game that clinched the Cup for the Kings. I’m not sure I see the captain’s inconsistency disappearing (at least, not completely), but if this were a full season I’d hope Brown could still put up 25-30 goals and 55-60 points. Considering he’s also very physical and gets under other teams’ skin, and emerged into a great leader, a very good two-way player and a force on the penalty kill with Kopitar, the Kings would happily take that production.
Williams isn’t quite as inconsistent as his linemates, and his linemates being more consistent would also help him produce more consistently. Williams is very underrated for what he does on that line. It looks like his injury problems may finally be in the past, and if he can stay healthy the Kings would be happy with around 25 goals and 60-65 points from Williams if this were a full season.
The second line isn’t as set in stone. Mike Richards is likely to be the centre and Jeff Carter is likely to be the right wing. Richards is very similar to Brown, actually. He’s a leader, physical, agitates the other team, a great two-way player and great on the penalty kill, and Richards should put up similar offensive numbers to Brown, although I think he can produce a little more than Brown. Like most Kings, Richards should have a better offensive season this year, and I think, if this were a full season, the Kings would be happy with around 25-30 goals and 65-70 points from him.
Carter isn’t the all-around force that his good buddy Richards is (although he’s certainly reliable defensively), but he can probably score more goals than Richards. Looking at Carter’s track record, the Kings should want 30-40 goals and 60-70 points from Carter if this were a full season.
The left wing on this line will likely be either Gagne or Dustin Penner, as the two will compete in the abbreviated training camp. Penner kept the job when Gagne came back in the middle of the Stanley Cup Final last year, but really, you weren’t going to put Gagne on the second line in the middle of the Stanley Cup Final when he hadn’t played in almost six months (Gagne was put on the fourth line). Gagne’s now 32 years old and has been ravaged by numerous injuries throughout his career. Gagne finally had an operation to remove something in his neck that had apparently been bothering him since well before he even came to the Kings, but even if that had been a big problem for him and by some miracle he can stay healthy for the whole season this year, well, even if this were a full season, the Kings should just be happy if they can get around 20 goals and 40 points from Gagne at this point, even if he’s on the second line, and hopefully Gagne can also keep up the good two-way game that he’s been known for throughout his career.
If Penner wins the job, the Kings should probably expect around similar production as they would from Gagne. I don’t know if he’ll put up the numbers he did in his last couple of years in Edmonton, but they’ll need him to put up much better numbers than he did last year. Hopefully Gagne stays healthy so Penner actually has to earn that spot, rather than just get it because they had no one else for it, like what was the case last year.
You’d expect the third line of Jarret Stoll between Dwight King and Trevor Lewis to remain intact, but what happens to the one of Penner and Gagne that gets beat out for the job on the second line? Do they get bumped down to the third line? Let’s just say that this line is King, Stoll and Lewis. If King can play like he did after being called up in February last year, then over a full season the Kings could expect around 15 goals and 30 or so points from King, and they would happily take that. Stoll had a terrible offensive season last year, and the Kings need him to bounce back and put up (if this were a full season) at least around 15 goals and 35-40 points. Stoll is expected to be a big source of secondary scoring for the Kings. Lewis had a great post-season and really seems to have found his niche with the Kings. Lewis is going to do a lot of underrated things for the Kings, but he’s probably not going to put up a ton of points. If Lewis carries over his post-season play into this year, again, if this were a full season, the Kings could hopefully get around 10 goals and 25 or so points from Lewis this year, and considering everything else he does for the Kings, they would take that gladly. Perhaps I’m being a little hopeful in my offensive expectations for Lewis, but I truly do believe he can put up those numbers now that he’s found a permanent role that he’s comfortable in, and I think his post-season may have been a coming-out party and I think he can do a little more offensively. Lewis and Stoll have also become two of the Kings’ better defensive players, and King showed to be reliable in his own end as well.
There figures to be a lot of competition for the fourth line. At least one of Gagne, Penner or King will likely be bumped back to here. Colin Fraser and Jordan Nolan were fixtures on the fourth line in the Kings’ run, so, with them and one of Gagne, Penner or King, you’d figure the fourth line would be set, but where does that leave promising young power forward Kyle Clifford, the underrated, versatile Brad Richardson, and the new guy, Anthony Stewart, who I think could be a very solid bottom-six forward for this team if given the chance? As spares? Well, I guess who plays and who sits will be determined by the players and how well they play. It will also keep pressure on whoever is in the lineup to continue to play well because the Kings will have some solid players waiting to jump in if they don’t. As is normal from the fourth line, the Kings shouldn’t expect these guys to produce much offense, but the Kings had their fourth line do pretty much everything else well for them in their playoff run, and that’s what they’ll be asking from them again. Also, keep in mind that there’s 15 forwards right there. Assuming they’re going to keep Davis Drewiske around as the seventh defenseman, rather than get rid of him and have no spare defenseman and three spare forwards, one of those guys is going to have to go. The Kings will start the season with all of those forwards on the roster, but Kopitar doesn’t figure to be out for long (I’ll get more into that in a bit), and when he comes back, they’re going to have to make a decision. The Kings also have a number of good prospects waiting with the Manchester Monarchs that they can call up if they need to, such as Tyler Toffoli (who was invited to training camp and really impressed), Andrei Loktionov, Brandon Kozun and possibly even Tanner Pearson, who the Kings just selected with their first-round pick in last year’s draft, but since he was in his third year of draft eligibility and he turned 20 years old over the summer, he’s already eligible to play in the AHL, as he’s been doing all season so far.
It should be mentioned, though, that that is what the Kings should look like up front when they’re healthy. If only the lockout had ended just a little bit sooner, as Kopitar hurt his knee playing in Sweden right before it ended. The good news is that when he was injured he was expected to miss 2-4 weeks, and the NHL season is starting just around two weeks after he got hurt, so he won’t be out for long, but it’s still too bad he’ll miss getting a full workload in training camp (though he was playing in Sweden all season so far, so not a huge deal) and the start of the season. It may not be many games that he’ll miss, but every game is so important this season. In Kopitar’s absence, there are some different things the Kings could do, but the lines they’re going to go with tomorrow have Carter between Penner and Williams, Richards between Gagne and Brown, Stoll between King and Lewis, and Fraser between Clifford and Nolan.
On defense, the Kings are expected to return with the same pairings as last year, those of Rob Scuderi with Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell with Slava Voynov, and Alec Martinez with Matt Greene, with Davis Drewiske as a spare. All of those pairings feature a left-handed shot with a right-handed shot, and a puck-moving defenseman with a stay-at-home defenseman. Scuderi, Mitchell and Greene aren’t going to put up much offense (although Mitchell’s big shot could have him put up decent numbers and even earn him some more time on the power play), but they’re going to be very strong defensively, provide some physical play and veteran leadership for their young partners, and for all of the team for that matter.
The Kings are expecting not only continued great defensive and physical play from Doughty, but big offensive numbers as well. A lot of people forget how young and inexperienced he is, but Doughty’s last couple of seasons have still been disappointing for sure after his monster sophomore season, but with his big contract and coming off a very strong post-season, the expectations for Doughty will be for him to once again become one of the NHL’s best defenseman, and if this were a full season the Kings would be happy if he could put up numbers similar to the ones he put up in his sophomore season in 2009-2010 when he put up 16 goals and 43 assists.
Voynov had a great rookie season. He put up eight goals and 12 assists in 54 games and was a plus-12. Over a full season, that translates to just over 12 goals, 18 assists and a plus-18 rating. For a rookie defenseman who didn’t even turn 22 years old until around halfway through the season and wasn’t even supposed to be in the NHL last year? You take that happily. This would be his first full season in the NHL if not for the lockout, but regardless, the Kings are hoping the talented young Russian can not only be as good as he was last year, but pull a Doughty and take a big step forward in his sophomore season (just hopefully not followed with Doughty’s regression afterwards). While he’s not going be used as a shutdown defenseman, the Kings were also very impressed with Voynov’s all-around play, and hope that continues.
Martinez had a bit of a sophomore slump last season, and missed time with injury and as well as some as a healthy scratch, and ended up playing in just 51 games in the regular season. He put up six goals and six assists, which, over a full season actually translates to about 10 goals and 10 assists, which isn’t bad. The previous year in his rookie season he put up five goals and 11 assists in 60 games, which is about seven or eight goals and 14 or 15 assists over a full season. So, there is offensive potential there. Martinez will mostly be playing on the third pairing with Greene, so he may not put up a ton of points at even strength, but he’ll likely get a good amount of time on the power play, which is where the Kings will be expecting him to produce. I like Martinez and I think if this was a full season, the Kings might be able to get around 10 goals and 20 assists from him, which would be great. (If I sound like a bit of a pollyanna with my projections for the players’ stats, keep in mind my projections are sort of best-case scenarios. Even if this was a full season, they likely all wouldn’t reach them. Players will have injuries and many years don’t play to their potential) Martinez also isn’t going to be a shutdown defenseman, but was solid in his own end in his rookie season, but wasn’t quite as strong last year, so the Kings will hope he can bounce back in that department.
Mitchell is expected to miss some time with a knee injury, so Jake Muzzin, a 23-year-old defenseman the Kings are still high on, will start the season with the Kings. He’s on a one-way contract now, and I doubt he clears waivers, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens when Mitchell comes back. Muzzin is going to have to make an impression right now, but apparently he hasn’t made enough of one so far, as he will sit tomorrow, as Davis Drewiske will take Mitchell’s spot in the lineup. Drewiske is once again expected to be the spare defenseman for the Kings when everyone’s healthy, but he is actually pretty solid in his own end (and believe it or not, even had two goals in the nine games he actually played in last season!), and I’m comfortable with him in the lineup when they need him (like now). Also of note is that Drewiske will actually take Martinez’s spot on the third pairing alongside Greene, while Martinez will move up to take Mitchell’s spot alongside Voynov. I guess they didn’t want Drewiske playing more than bottom-pairing minutes, though it does break up the fact that the Kings had a shutdown, veteran guy with a young, offensive guy on each pairing (Martinez and Voynov are two young offensive guys who will play together, Drewiske and Greene are two veteran shutdown guys who will play together).
In goal, the Kings have some guy named Jonathan Quick. Ever heard of him? I think he won this thing called the Conn Smythe last year. I hear he’s pretty good, so the Kings should be more than fine when it comes to goaltending. Jonathan Bernier wants more playing time and would like to be traded somewhere he can be the starting goalie, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen (at least, not yet), so if Bernier is back, then the Kings will still have two very strong goalies. If Bernier is traded and the Kings don’t get another goalie, then Martin Jones is likely to be brought up to be Quick’s backup. Jones is a talented young goalie who has looked good in Manchester and, according to the Twitter account of prospect guru Corey Pronman of Hockey Prospectus and ESPN, Jones is ready for backup duty in the NHL. Right now a Bernier trade doesn’t seem likely, as the Kings haven’t been too impressed with what’s being offered for their talented young netminder. Perhaps he’ll get a little more playing time this year to a) give Quick some more rest with how many games in so little time they’ll be playing, and b) up his trade value. At the very least, it does look like Bernier will start the season as a King.
It’s very rare that teams have been able to return essentially the exact same team that just won the Stanley Cup, but the Kings were able to do that here, returning every single player who played for them in the playoffs. So, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m thinking the Kings are still looking pretty darn good for this season. In fact, if you read my predictions for the upcoming season that I am posting soon, you’ll know that I predicted the Kings to finish first in the Western Conference (WARNING: My predictions usually end up horribly wrong). Kings fans are overjoyed to have finally seen their team win the Stanley Cup, but that doesn’t mean this team is going to get a free pass to mail it in now. That said, I don’t expect that at all from this bunch. It was so much fun seeing them win it, so hopefully we see them do it again (and soon — hopefully even this year… it was such a long wait for the first one, so it’d be nice if the second one was a rather short wait), and hopefully they can at least buck the recent trend of teams not making consecutive deep playoff runs.
Also, one final thing… I still plan on doing game stories for every game that I can this year (and, of course, stories about other Kings news and stuff), but I don’t plan on doing game previews for every game. It just seems unnecessary to do them for games in the regular season, but I will still be doing them for Kings playoff series (assuming there are any), as well as predictions (and much more brief previews) for all other series. The Kings’ first game will be on Saturday at 12:00 PM PT/3:00 PM ET, at home against the Chicago Blackhawks. They’ll be raising their Stanley Cup banner, and hopefully they can cap the party with a win. Either way, I’ll be writing about the game afterwards.
Wait, speaking of the Blackhawks, that brings me to one more final thing. Yes, I am aware that the Kings hired Davis Payne as an assistant coach, of course to replace Jamie Kompon, who did not have his contract renewed after last season, and was shortly after hired as an assistant coach by the ‘Hawks. I didn’t do a post about the Payne hiring because I really don’t know enough about Payne to write a full post. All I know is he’s a former NHL forward who was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers and spent a brief time in the league with the Boston Bruins, and, as far as his NHL coaching experience goes, the 41-year-old Canadian has never been an assistant coach in the NHL, but he has been a head coach. He took over the St. Louis Blues about halfway through the 2009-2010 season and the Blues showed improvement under Payne, but couldn’t quite creep into a playoff spot. Then, in his first (and only) full season behind the bench in St. Louis, in 2010-2011, the Blues once again fell just short of the playoffs, and then after a 6-7-0 start last season, Payne was fired. He accumulated a 67-55-15 record as head coach of the Blues. Again, I don’t know much about him so I can’t comment too much, but I do like that he has experience as a head coach at the NHL level and I do like that he has some experience in the Western Conference and some knowledge of it after his time spent in St. Louis. Both of the assistant coaches on the Kings, actually, have experience as a head coach in the NHL, with the other, of course, being John Stevens. So that’s good, right? Anyways, welcome to the Kings, Davis.
Here’s to another great (shortened) year of hockey! Go Kings!