LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings have undergone quite a bit of change in recent weeks.
First, and perhaps most notable, the Kings were hockey’s version of a roller coaster—you never knew if they were going to be world beaters or your worst hockey-related nightmare, something that has happened so often that they found themselves way, way out of playoff contention in early December and are still in last place in the National Hockey League standings.
The upside about a last place finish is that they are in the lead for the first pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft where center Steven Stamkos is being touted as the top prize.
To be sure, a sure-fire prospect like Stamkos, who pundits say is destined to be a big-time NHL player, would be a big, big help for the rebuilding Kings. But right now, all that is on the back burner.
Season Turning Around?
As reported earlier, the Kings are still in the basement of the league standings. But since Christmas, they are 10-7-1 in their last eighteen games, earning 21 out of possible 36 points.
And although the Kings are still in last place overall, they actually have improved, believe it or not, over last season.
The Kings are currently 25-23-3, good for 53 points in the standings. At the same point last season, the Kings were 20-32-10, good for fifty points.
Indeed, the Kings have played much better hockey since Christmas, and especially December 29, when they began their current 18-game stretch. The improvement has come on the strength of improved team defense bolstered by the hot hands of Alexander Frolov and Anze Kopitar, who have led the way offensively.
“Since Christmas, we’ve played much better and we’re much more confident,” said Frolov. “We’re making plays, holding onto the puck in the offensive zone and we’re doing some damage.”
“I think we just believe in ourselves,” added Frolov. “When you win and play well, you feel much more comfortable on the ice and off the ice. We just have to keep doing what we’re doing. We have a lot of good, young, talented guys,” added Frolov. “They’re getting more comfortable and more experienced.”
Frolov has been doing much of the damage, melting the ice with twelve goals and 17 assists for 29 points in that 18-game stretch and on most nights, he has been dominating.
“[Frolov has] been pretty good from Christmas on,” said Kings head coach Marc Crawford. “He played through January and we had a number of guys who played hurt. He was favoring his injury but he’s gotten stronger now.”
Another indication of change in the Kings’ organization is that some of their young prospects have gotten the call to join the big club and show the coaches and the front office types what they can do after spending most of the season down on the farm.
Over the past few weeks, the Kings have recalled forward prospects Teddy Purcell, Brian Boyle and Lauri Tukonen. Purcell and Boyle have gotten a good look by the Kings so far, while Tukonen was just recalled on February 17.
Purcell has played in eight games with the Kings so far, scoring a goal with two assists for three points. And that goal was a big one, his first in the NHL.
“It’s pretty special,” said Purcell. “I got a little stint of five games last month and had some opportunities, and I hit the post. To get a good pass by [Kyle] Calder in the slot tonight and bury it was really nice.”
“It’s a little weight lifted off my shoulders and a little less pressure, so it’s nice to get that out of the way,” added Purcell.
“Dean [Lombardi] and Ron [Hextall] and Jeff Solomon did a great job of convincing Teddy to come here,” said Crawford. “The talk was that by the time the season rolls along, he’s probably going to be a guy who’s in the lineup and they were right. He’s gone down, worked hard and played real well at Manchester. Right now, because we’ve got a couple of injuries, he’s getting his opportunities—taking advantage of it. He’s played better each time he’s come up here.”
Boyle made an even bigger impact in eight games with the Kings, using his quick hands to score four goals and contribute an assist for five points.
“If that first one [scored on the last road trip] didn’t go in, maybe things would be a bit different,” Boyle explained. “When I get a chance to shoot, I feel pretty confident. If it’s an open area and I have time to shoot, your eyes light up and you get pretty excited. Fortunately for me, guys have been finding me in some pretty good areas.”
“I’ve been fortunate to get some good minutes in,” Boyle elaborated. “The coaches have let me play. They said that I’ve got some ability, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, don’t change your game. That’s nice to hear. Sometimes you think you don’t want to make a mistake and you’re not trying anything, you’re not trying to be creative, but that’s what got you where you’re at. So it was reassuring to hear that from the coaches. You’re playing with some good players in the NHL. Those guys will find you and if you give them the puck they’ll do some good things with it too.”
And Boyle has done that while using his 6-7, 243-pound frame effectively, including a big hit at center ice on Calgary Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf, one of the NHL’s best hitters, during a 6-3 Kings’ win on February 15.
“[The hit] was pretty good,” said Boyle. “I couldn’t get out of the way, so I figured the only way to get by him was to go through him.”
But in the second period, Phaneuf got even, nailing Boyle in the left corner of the Calgary zone.
“He got me back in the second period,” Boyle explained with an ice pack on his left shoulder, thanks to the hit by Phaneuf. “Those boards don’t move too well. He’s obviously a tenacious player.”
“Boyle is such a big body,” said Crawford. “He scored a great goal—you saw his hands tonight on the goal, then you see his big body create so much space for Armstrong on the other goal. He’s handful in front of the net and it creates some openings for players who can dangle and handle the puck like Frolov and Armstrong.”
The Kings experimented with Boyle playing as a defenseman, but after a couple of months, he returned to the center position.
“I played eight games at the end of my college career and it worked out pretty well,” Boyle explained. “But that’s a different level. They asked me, wanting to make sure I was on board and I wanted to be on board. I thought maybe it would a good experience. But then I thought I was getting a little bit better at it but then went back to forward. At first, I thought I did something wrong. But in the long run, I think it’s going to help my overall game.”
“It was frustrating, actually,” Boyle elaborated “It was a lot of hard work, but it was a good experience because it taught me a lot. It was a little mentally straining, but I got a lot of support down there. They played me a lot on defense, even though maybe some nights I didn’t deserve it—that’s what I think anyway.”
Crawford explained the Kings’ thinking about converting Boyle from center to defense.
“Looking at our depth in the organization, we don’t have a lot of top-flight, young defensemen coming up,” said Crawford. “We saw this kid who was 6-7 who played defense on the penalty-kill for Boston College throughout his career, so that’s where the idea came from.”
“We all knew that if he went down and played on defense it would help his defensive game,” added Crawford. “For most young players, that’s the process they go through. You have to learn to play without the puck, you have to learn to compete and we felt he could do that in the defense position. As it turns out, his foot speed wasn’t good enough, so in December, he made the switch back to center.”
The back-and-forth move did not work, but it was not a waste.
“I learned a lot about the defensive zone, how to attack when playing defense. I’ve been a center my whole life and I thought I knew pretty well how to play center. But I learned even more when I was playing defenseman that when you have the support from a good, low center it makes a huge, huge difference. So when they switched me back to center I kept that with me. Hopefully, that helps my game.”
At this point, with Boyle not looking at all out of place at the NHL level, the move, while not successful, appears to have helped his game. But it was not enough to keep him up with the big club, as the Kings sent him back to Manchester on February 17, a move that many fans found perplexing, to say the least.
“[The Kings front office] felt that in Brian’s case, he’s still got stuff to learn,” said Crawford. “Brian’s going to be a good player. He’s performed real well at this level. He’s a guy we know will be in our lineup. Yet, when you’re talking about development, you can develop in a number of different ways. I think he’ll get another opportunity here before too long, I believe that’s what the plan will be.”
Boyle will get first line ice time at Manchester instead of third line minutes with the Kings—considerably more ice time in all situations.
“He has to go down there and be the best player down there,” Crawford explained. “If you try to figure everything out as a player, you usually end up thinking too much. Organizations feel that development is huge for young players. Down there, he’s going to play a bit more and in all situations. Here, he was getting some power play time and about twelve to thirteen minutes per game. He certainly played great while he was here, but he needs to play a little bit more and then he’ll get another opportunity here.”
“He had played center on power plays down there and was still scoring, so we knew he was a good offensive player with a good shot,” Crawford elaborated. “He’s got a chance to be a very good player. He’s going to have to continue to work, he’s going to have to continue to use his size, use his reach, and keep getting better at the competing and battle levels throughout the games, and they happen in the offensive zone as well the defensive zone.”
“We love his size, we love his shot and the fact that he keeps his head up in the offensive zone, and we think we can teach him the other stuff. He’s getting more comfortable playing with the puck and in situations we’ve been able to put him in.”
Let The Trading Begin
The Kings will be sellers with the NHL trade deadline fast approaching on Tuesday (9:00 AM PST). The Kings will consider any offer for their veteran players older than 25 years of age.
As of press time, the Kings have not asked defenseman Rob Blake to waive his no-trade clause, and he has expressed his desire to remain with the Kings.
Winger Ladislav Nagy is suffering from a neck injury that could prevent him from being traded. But outside of that, defenseman Brad Stuart and other vets are definitely up for sale for the right price, and the first of those veterans to be dealt was defenseman Jaroslav Modry, who was sent to the Philadelphia Flyers on February 19 in exchange for a third round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
The Flyers, who have lost defensemen Rory Fitzpatrick, Mike Rathje and Derien Hatcher to injury, were shopping for blue line help.
“Jaroslav is a steady, two-way defenseman that will bring us leadership and experience down the stretch,” said Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren.
Modry, 36, scored a goal and added five assists in 61 games with the Kings this season. The 6-2, 220-pound native of Ceske-Budjovic, Czech Republic was in his second stint with the Kings and ranks seventh all-time among Kings defensemen with 454 games played and is ninth in points (164).
The Kings now have three selections in the third round of the 2008 draft, in addition to two first-round picks and two second-round selections.
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