EL SEGUNDO — The Los Angeles Kings are starting their 2007 training camp a bit earlier than other National Hockey League teams, with the exception of their neighbors about 35 miles to the south.
Why? They start the season with two games against their Stanley Cup Champion neighbors, the Anaheim Ducks, in London, England on September 29 and 30, and before that, they will play two exhibition games in Salzburg, Austria on September 25 and 26.
As such, the Kings (and Ducks) were given a head start on the rest of the league, and on Monday, they opened their training camp at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. But the Kings will spend just nine days in Southern California before they leave town for their first road pre-season game at Colorado on September 19.
And even before that, they begin their pre-season schedule just three days into training camp at Anaheim on September 13.
With just three days before their first exhibition game, Kings head coach Marc Crawford and his staff have had to plan very carefully, and they wasted no time in drilling the systems the Kings will play this season into their players’ heads.
“I thought it was a very good first day,” said Crawford. “We covered a lot of material and how we play. Our goal is for our guys to be comfortable with our systems within the first six days.”
“We’ve done a good job of planning for everything,” added Crawford. “We’ve got this amount of time to prepare for the exhibition schedule. I think the fact that we have a limited time to prepare for the exhibition schedule will probably help us with the quick start to our regular season.”
Crawford also emphasized that the players are already being closely watched to determine who makes the big club and who does not.
“We’ve got that evaluation process going on in the scrimmages and the very competitive drills we’re running in practice,” he said. Our scouts and our management people are doing a good job of evaluating people, and we’re seeing people in situations they’re going to be in in games. That’s giving us a very good read.”
“I particularly like that a lot of the younger players showed very well today when we sprinkled in the veterans. That was a very good sign. I was very pleased of the overall performance of the group.”
Indeed, the competition was more intense than usual on the first day of training camp.
“Obviously, we have to prepare pretty quick with games on Thursday and Saturday, so the competition level is a little higher than in most camps,” said veteran defenseman Rob Blake.
“It’s always good to get that excitement going,” said veteran center Derek Armstrong. “The battles were a bit tougher on this first day, but it’s good to get back into the flow of things.”
Cloutier Optimistic, But Realistic
The biggest reason for the Kings being a bottom-feeder in the 2006-07 standings was shoddy goaltending, primarily by veteran Dan Cloutier, who was hampered by injuries all season long.
But contributing to the problem was anointing Cloutier as the team’s number one goaltender at the start of training camp last season, a major blunder that will not be repeated this season.
“I did make a mistake last year, kind of jumped the gun,” Crawford explained. “I made an assessment that we needed to have a number one goalie [early on], we wanted to get that out of the way. That probably came from my time in Vancouver where everything is such a story all the time, especially the goaltending position. We’re going to learn from the mistake I made last year. I know why I made it. We won’t make that mistake this year.”
Indeed, the Kings will give a long, hard look to Jason LaBarbera, Jean-Sebastien Aubin, not to mention the younger goalies in the system, including the highly-touted nineteen-year-old Jonathan Bernier.
Cloutier is also on that list, but Crawford said that he will have to work hard to make an impression on the coaching staff, just like the other goalies in camp.
“We’ve got good races at all the positions. The goaltending one is going to be especially interesting,” said Crawford. “So people likeLaBarbera, Aubin, tomorrow Bernier, the kids we had here last week [Erik Ersberg, Jonathan Quick and Linden Rowat], along with Cloutier, will all get great opportunities to show themselves and we’ll reserve judgement for as long as we possibly can and hope we don’t make a mistake this year.”
As for Cloutier, he can only be concerned with his own performance.
“I’ve never worried about the competition,” he said. “As athletes, you can’t worry about what the other guy is doing. You can only worry about yourself and your game.”
Cloutier’s biggest obstacle has been injuries, including a knee injury and a serious hip injury last season that required season-ending surgery.
“It’s a long process since I don’t have a whole lot of games played the last few years, and the these injuries that I’ve had are pretty serious injuries for a goaltender,” said Cloutier. “I had the knee injury and now the hip, but I really feel I had a great summer of rehab and approaching certain things in my game. Now it’s time to build on that, have a good camp, and see what happens.”
“I’ve obviously got to take care of my body,” added Cloutier. “It’s let me down the past couple of years, but I’ve had some great preparation throughout the summer. My focus was to really take care of my body this summer, and I really feel that I’ve done that, so now it’s time to do that on the ice.”
Cloutier worked out during the summer to strengthen the hip, and spent some time working with Kings’ goaltending coach Bill Ranford.
“I did a lot of work to get the hip back to where it was and strengthen it,” said Cloutier. “I also did a lot of yoga, quick-feet work, medicine ball. The guy I worked with works with a lot of NBA players and I had a couple of good camps with Bill Ranford, our goalie coach, back in Vancouver. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
But as of the first day of training camp, the hip still is not quite at one hundred percent.
“It still aches because it was pretty major surgery,” he explained. “But it doesn’t affect me on the ice. I’m sure after this first day, it’ll be a little achey. Anyone who has had surgery knows what I mean. Other than that, I felt fine. I could do whatever wanted. I could do the splits, I could go side-to-side.”
Cloutier hopes to be the Kings’ number one goalie on opening night in London, but he also knows that he may not be ready.
“If it takes a month for me to get back to where I was, it takes a month,” he said. “But I feel confident that I will get back to where I was.”
That said, Cloutier also knows that he could get beaten out for the job outright.
“The decision is up to the coaches, but yes, I do want to be the starter,” said Cloutier. “I’m certainly not going to sit here and tell you that I’m going to go out there and win the Vezina Trophy. I’m just going to go out there and do my best every night. That’s all I can ask of myself.”
“I think there’s always guys trying to take your job, trying to do better than you, or if you’re the underdog, you’re trying to take their job,” added Cloutier. “I’ve always been really professional about it. I just worry about my job. You can’t worry about what the other guy is doing—how well or how bad he’s doing. You just worry about yourself, get yourself ready mentally and physically. At the end of the day, that’s what they pay me to do.”
And what if he winds up as the backup goaltender?
“I haven’t thought about that,” he said. “If anyone knows what type of person I’m a guy who competes very hard and battles. I really don’t think about that. I just go out, play as hard as I can and let the coach make that decision, and try to give him a tough decision to make.”
Johnson Making An Impression
Defenseman Jack Johnson, who made his NHL debut late last season, playing in the last five games of the season, has already made quite an impression on the veteran players.
“He’s really mobile, really quick on his feet,” said defenseman Jaroslav Modry. “It’s going to work to his advantage.”
“There’s a few things you’re going to learn over the years [as a rookie],” added Modry. “I remember when I first came in, you’re full of vigor and you want to show everyone what level you can play at. But at times, less is more. Communication is going to be a big part of the game, and [Johnson is] just way above for his age. He’s a special player. He’s a competitor. He’s got his head on straight and he’s focused. He’s going to be a wonderful player. It’s great to be a part of his development.”
Handzus Tests Knee
Veteran center Michal Handzus, who was signed to a four-year deal as an unrestricted free agent on July 2, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament early in the 2006-07 season with the Chicago Blackhawks, but showed no signs of problems on the ice.
“It felt good,” said Handzus. “It is the first day and we have a lot of work to do. But it was a good start.”
Handzus said that he was pain-free, but is not yet at one hundred percent.
“I have a long way to go, but I felt pretty good and I feel confident that I’ll be ready for the first game of the season,” he said. “I skated back home for almost an entire month. But it’s different in practice as opposed to skating by yourself back home.”
Army’s New Role
With the acquisition of Handzus, Armstrong will move from second-line center down to the third line.
“Now it drops [Armstrong] into another slot,” said Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi on July 2 when Handzus was signed.
But Armstrong is not complaining.
“Whatever role they want to put me in is fine,” said Armstrong. “I’m here to help the team win games. I know there’s a lot of young scorers, and we brought in some scorers, so if I have to take a step back or a step forward, it doesn’t bother me one bit. I just want to go out there and win some hockey games.”
“Whatever role you’re put into it’s important that you accept the role,” added Armstrong. “Whether you’re playing twenty minutes last year and three minutes this year, if that’s your role, that’s what we’re going to have to accept as a team.”
At Least They’re Saying The Right Things
If the Kings are not thrilled about grind of starting the season on a long road trip to London, they certainly aren’t showing it.
One school of thought is that what they are doing will be good for the game.
“We’ve got a pretty hectic camp with the games coming up here quick, and then heading over to Austria and then the two games in London,” said Blake. “But we’ve got a pretty global, unique talent pool in our league with a lot of different nationalities. If we can go global and expose our game, it’s going to be better in the long-run.”
“I think it’s a privilege for us to be playing the first regular season games in Europe,” said Crawford. “We get a chance to open the season against the Stanley Cup Champions. It’s a great rivalry here in Southern California. They’re going to be sold out games, the atmosphere will be terrific, and we’re certainly looking at it as a terrific challenge and something we’re proud to be a part of.”
Another is the sentiment that the long trip will bring the team closer together.
“The best thing for us is that it will allow us to come together hopefully a lot quicker,” said Crawford. “We’ll be down to our team before just about everyone else. We’ve got a real good plan going into it, right down to how many people we’re going to use. We’ve tried to look at every detail and prepare for everything that could possibly happen.”
“We’ll be together as a team for more than ten days, so we’ll have a lot of time together and we’ll have a lot of practice time to get the systems going and learn what we all have to do,” said veteran center Michal Handzus.
“It’s a good experience,” said veteran center Derek Armstrong. “We go on a long road trip at the beginning of training camp. By the end of it, I think our chemistry will be great.”
But Armstrong also said that the Kings have not lost sight of the most important goal.
“We’re going there to win two hockey games,” said veteran center Derek Armstrong. “We’re going to sell the game a little bit, but our goal is to win two hockey games and get ourselves off to a great start.”
As is usually the case when training camp opens, the players are optimistic about their chances in the fast approaching season.
“We have a very good mix,” said Handzus. “We have some exciting players up front. When you see [center Anze] Kopitar and [forward Michael] Cammalleri, they are tough to contain. They’re fast and very skilled. We have a good defense, too. It’s up to us to get together as a team, learn the systems and be ready for our first game.”
And they know that having the Stanley Cup Champions just down the road, there is pressure to reach that same level.
“We can use what happened down in Orange County last year as something to really shoot for,” said Crawford. “We have great fans. These fans have been terrific for forty years. I think our fans are just dying for us to give them something to respond to. I can’t compliment them enough for their patience, but we recognize that we’ve got to take a step. And our step this year is quite obvious. We’ve got to be competitive, and the way to be competitive is to give our fans a chance to see some hockey in April. And if we can give them a chance to see some hockey in April, that would be a great step to take.”
Indeed, no one is expecting the Kings to win the Stanley Cup this season. But anything short of qualifying for post-season play would be considered a failure.
“The first step is getting into the playoffs,” Crawford explained. “If you look at the Ducks and the way they were built with their young players, we’re in that similar mold, maybe a couple of years behind that. We want to get to that level, too.”
“Internally, we have to put that pressure on ourselves,” said Blake. “It’s great for California for the Ducks to have won the Stanley Cup, but it’s time that the Kings realize that we have to get to that goal, too.”
To be sure, the Kings are not expected to win the Stanley Cup this season. But that does not mean they are not going to try.
“It’s great for Southern California hockey that the Ducks won the Stanley Cup, but now we’re going to try to take it from them,” said Armstrong.
After you get past the optimism, the realism kicks in, one begins to look more at the progress the franchise is making towards building a consistent winner.
“It’s exciting when you see the team moving in a new direction,” said Modry. You get lots of young talent, and there’s still a lot of good veteran leaders on this team. You just have to put it together on the ice and move forward.”
“There’s always pressure to win,” said Armstrong. “That’s why we play sports, both as individuals and as a team. All of us in that dressing room and throughout the organization were disappointed after last year. But the positive side of that was that the younger guys got a lot of experience in different situations. The win column might not have said it, but we definitely grew as a team and the young guys got a lot of experience.”
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