Los Angeles Kings Preview 2007-08

LOS ANGELES — The 2006-07 season was yet another disappointing one for the Los Angeles Kings, who have not qualified for the playoffs since the 2001-02 season.

But while the team was a near-cellar-dweller last season, the 2007-08 Kings should be an improved team, even though they it would take a small miracle for them to be a Stanley Cup contender.

To be sure, last season was a disaster on the ice for the Kings, who finished with a 27-41-14 record, good for just 68 points. They ranked 14th in the fifteen-team Western Conference, a whopping 28 points out of playoff contention.

But while the Kings stumbled and bumbled their way through many games last season, President/General Manager Dean Lombardi and his staff were hard at work, reloading the team’s depleted system with some talented, young prospects.

Now in the second year of their first real rebuilding process, the Kings are already starting to reap the benefits as their younger players are starting to assume leadership roles on the team, and even young prospects are starting to fill key roster spots with the big club.

Indeed, last season, the Kings were led by forwards Alexander Frolov, Michael Cammalleri, defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky and rookie phenom Anze Kopitar, who combined for 107 goals and 163 assists for 270 points. But there was a significant drop-off in scoring from the other forward lines, leaving the Kings in the bottom third in the National Hockey League, scoring just 2.72 goals per game.

Recognizing his team’s shortcomings on offense, Lombardi dove into the unrestricted free agent market and brought in forwards Michal Handzus and Ladislav Nagy.

Although Handzus missed the vast majority of the 2006-07 season with the Chicago Blackhawks due to a knee injury and Nagy had an off-year with the Phoenix Coyotes and the Dallas Stars, a return to form for both would give the Kings a considerable boost up front. But on balance, the big question is whether or not either player will bounce back in 2007-08.

The 2006-07 Kings were also poor defensively, and Lombardi upgraded his blue line corps over the summer as well, signing unrestricted free agent defensemen Tom Preissing and Brad Stuart, along with journeyman defenseman Jon Klemm.

Pressing and Stuart are not superstars, but they are considered to be solid defensemen who are also capable of contributing offensively. With the addition of Preissing and Stuart to the likes of Rob Blake, Lubomir Visnovsky and Jack Johnson, the Kings have a very solid top five on the back line, with defensively-challenged Jaroslav Modry in the number six spot, at least for the time being. Kevin Dallman has apparently won the number seven defenseman spot, as the Kings assigned Jon Klemm to the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings primary minor league affiliate) on September 28.

To be sure, the Kings had a lot of weaknesses last season, but none were bigger than in goal. Indeed, no matter who the Kings put in goal, some were better than others, but none of them got the job done consistently.

But the worst was Dan Cloutier, who suffered from knee and hip injuries and as a result, played in just 24 games, finishing the season with a 6-14-2 record, a 3.98 goals-against average and a .860 save percentage—all horrible numbers.

Cloutier came to training camp fully recovered from hip surgery and looked a lot better in two pre-season appearances, but it was not enough for him to make the Kings roster to start the new season, and on September 21, Cloutier was waived. A day later, after clearing waivers, he was assigned to Manchester to regain his form.

Although very few thought Cloutier would be named as the Kings’ starting goaltender to start the 2007-08 season, this move came as a surprise. But it was not a snap decision.

“I think, in looking at it, the thing we’ve come to realize is that the only way…if you take this in steps, he didn’t have a good year last year, with the combination of injuries or whatever, he did go back and he got completely healthy,” said Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi. “He was really good this summer in terms of doing all the goalie camps and working with our goaltending people to get his game back technically. So, physically, he repaired himself. Technically, he did everything that was asked and he looked a lot better.”

“But it still comes down to playing,” added Lombardi. “The way we’re looking at it is, the reality now is that he hasn’t played in three years. The only way he’s going to totally get his confidence is, like we said, was to get physically healthy, and then in order to get his rhythm essentially, the only way to do it is he’s got to play. We were kind of looking at it and seeing where his game was at, and we just felt this was the best thing for him. It’ll give him a much better base with which to come back and try to be the goaltender he was before we got him.”

Of course, no one can predict if or when Cloutier might return to the form that made him a three-time 30-game winner in the NHL, opening the door for the Kings to bring him back to the big club.

“We do this with the idea…it’s still up to him,” said Lombardi. “Is it definite? No, he’s got to perform. But the intention is to have him back at some point. But to say you can guarantee it, if we had to guarantee it then we probably wouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

“To us, the final thing about getting himself mentally tough, it’s only going to come from playing, and that needs to happen there and not here,” added Lombardi. “But to say, are we looking at a crystal ball and we know this is going to work? No, but we think it’s the best avenue to take.”

With Cloutier stuck in Manchester for the foreseeable future, one way or the other, the Kings have three goalies left on their roster—two are unproven at the NHL level, and another is coming straight out of junior hockey.

With roster restrictions eased for their trip to Europe, the Kings can keep Jean-Sebastien Aubin, Jonathan Bernier and Jason LaBarbera on the roster until they return to North America on October 1, and the biggest question coming out of the Kings’ training camp is who will win the number one goalie position.

And to the surprise of many, the 19-year-old, fresh-out-of-junior-hockey Bernier has been the Kings’ best goalie in camp, and the competition has not been very close at all, despite what is being said by the Kings, who are strongly considering keeping Bernier on the roster, at least early on.

“I guess right now you would consider anything,” said Lombardi. “But [having three goalies on the roster] is a viable option, depending on how it plays out.”

Bernier could be with the team in the early portion of the season, and could play in a maximum of nine games for the Kings before they have to decide whether to keep him with the team or assign him to the Lewiston MAINEiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

“I think you know, as far as how I feel how careful you’ve got to be [with a young goaltender],” Lombardi explained. “I think you let it go day-to-day. At the minimum, in his case, he’s getting valuable experience, and it’s experience he can’t get in junior hockey, and that’s the way we’re approaching it.”

But the Kings are not showing their hand just yet.

“It’s like, you watch practice today, and he gets to face NHL shooters and then he gets a half-hour of practice with an NHL goalie coach. That’s the way we’re approaching it,” said Lombardi. “We still have time, under the rules, to see this through and give him experience. Like I said, he’s accomplished an awful lot in junior hockey and now we’re trying to train him at the next level and we’ll see. But to say that anything has been decided on that front, no.”

2007-08 Los Angeles Kings Preview In-Brief

Additions: Jean-Sebastien Aubin (goaltender), Kyle Calder (left wing), Michal Handzus (center), Ladislav Nagy (right wing), Tom Preissing, Brad Stuart, Jon Klemm (all defensemen)

Gone: Jamie Heward (defenseman), Tom Kostopoulos (right wing), Jamie Lundmark (center), Alyn McCauley (center), Aaron Miller (defenseman), Mike Weaver (defenseman)

Projected Forward Lines
Michael Cammalleri – Anze Kopitar – Dustin Brown
Patrick O’Sullivan – Michael Handzus – Ladislav Nagy
Kyle Calder – Derek Armstrong – Alexander Frolov
Scott Thornton – Brady Murray – John Zeiler

Projected Defensive Combinations
Lubomir Visnovsky – Rob Blake
Jaroslav Modry – Jack Johnson
Brad Stuart – Tom Preissing

Projected Goaltenders
Jonathan Bernier (starter), Jason LaBarbera (backup)

Waiting In The Wings
Kevin Dallman (defenseman)
Raitis Ivanans (left wing)
Jon Klemm (defenseman; will start the season in Manchester)
Jean-Sebastien Aubin (goaltender)

Captains/Assistant Captains
Rob Blake, Captain
Michael Cammalleri, Assistant Captain
Scott Thornton, Assistant Captain
Lubomir Visnovsky, Assistant Captain

Keys To Success

This season, “success” for the Kings means that they must qualify for the playoffs. Anything less would make the 2007-08 season a failure, and the following are the keys for the Kings to make that happen:

  • Cammalleri and Frolov had career years last season and they must at least duplicate their 2006-07 numbers, if not improve upon them.
  • Kopitar had an outstanding rookie season, scoring 20 goals with 41 assists for 61 points, and he must improve significantly upon those stats, even though the rest of the NHL knows about him now and will be gunning for him. Kopitar must find a way to fight through the additional obstacles that will be in his path this season to avoid the sophomore jinx and lead the Kings as their best player.
  • Brown must play like a first-line power forward. He clearly has the skills, but has struggled to join his physical game with his offensive skills. He must figure that out in the 2007-08 season. Brown has the potential to be a 30-goal scorer in the NHL, and the Kings need him to at least get close to that number this year.
  • Rob Blake must regain, at the very least, most of the form that has made him one of the best defensemen to ever play in the NHL. Last season was a poor season for the aging Blake, who was slowed by a hip injury that required surgery at the end of the season. Blake will likely start slowly in the first couple of months of the season as he continues his recovery, but by Christmas, the Kings will need him at 100% and they will need his game back at a high level.
  • Visnovsky has become a force on the Kings’ blue line, both offensively and defensively. He must continue the play that has raised his reputation throughout the league over the last two seasons and he must find a way to stay healthy.
  • The second line must produce. As stated earlier, Handzus and Nagy had off years last season and they must rebound this year. And as for O’Sullivan, he has been one of the best players in camp for the Kings, showing that he has learned how to use his body and play without the puck. He needs to continue along those lines throughout the rest of the year…and the rest of his career.
  • Last but certainly not least, the Kings must get reliable goaltending from whomever they decide to make their number one goalie. There is little doubt that Bernier will get a lot of opportunities early in the season to show his worth, and if he plays well, the Kings will make him their number one netminder, despite his young age.

After all that, the biggest key for the Kings is reliable goaltending. But the other keys are not all that far behind.

Projected Finish: Third place in the Pacific Division, eighth place in the Western Conference, qualifying for the playoffs in a tight race to the finish.

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