LOS ANGELES — With the Los Angeles Kings already hitting the golf courses after yet another year of failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the time has already come to start looking at their future.
Realistically speaking, that look at the future began in earnest back in mid-December when they were already out of playoff contention. But now, without the distraction having to endure watching the second-worst team in the National Hockey League struggle in most games, we can focus on what lies ahead.
The First Pick In The 2008 Draft Goes To…
Kings fans can already hear NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman saying those familiar words…
"The first pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft goes to…"
And right at that point, they’ll cringe.
The reason: On April 7, the Tampa Bay Lightning retained the first overall pick in the 2008 draft when they won the NHL Draft Lottery.
The Kings retain the second overall selection in the draft, which will be held June 20-21 in Ottawa.
The consensus first pick in the draft is expected to be center Steven Stamkos, who scored 58 goals and added 47 assists for 105 points this season with 88 penalty minutes for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League.
The 6-1, 180-pound native of Unionville, Ontario also scored eleven goals in four playoff games.
In the 2006-07 season, Stamkos scored 42 goals and added 50 assists for 92 points with 56 penalty minutes. In the playoffs, he tallied three goals and three assists for six points in seven games
But with the Lightning all but guaranteed to select Stamkos, the Kings are expected to select one of a handful of young defensemen who are all projected to be solid NHL players, likely number one or number two defensemen.
“Without tipping my hand, I think it’s safe to say that there are some pretty good defensemen there,” said Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi.
Lombardi pointed to the consensus top defenseman prospects, who are all among the top players in the 2008 draft class as well.
“If you want to focus on all four of them, it’s been awhile since there’s been a crop of four like that. That’s pretty unusual, and they’re all worthy of consideration. They each bring some element to the table and it’s not often you see something like that. They might have the potential to be top two guys.”
Lombardi specifically pointed to defenseman prospects Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Luke Schenn and Zach Bogosian, and later said that Tyler Myers should be considered to be in that group as well.
Noting that the Kings have some very large holes on the blue line, both with the big club and in their farm system, it would seem that drafting a defenseman would be a priority.
Although the Kings did not win the lottery, there will still be a lot of talent to choose from and the Kings still has a ton of options available on draft day.
“I think everybody would like to have the option and the obviously, the [first pick] gives you more value if you wanted to move,” Lombardi explained. I think everybody would like to win the lottery, but there is no doubt in my mind that we’re going to get a very good player at number two, so I’ll take it.”
“I haven’t seen any of these kids play, other than on TV,” said Kings head coach Marc Crawford. “I do talk to our scouts and other scouts and they all say the top guys are pretty special and are impact guys almost immediately. That’ll be great if that happens. Lord knows it’s a victory we really need and would be a nice shot in the arm for this organization.”
The 2008 draft is a crucial one for the Kings and their rebuilding plan, with fifteen picks in the draft, including two first round selections and three second round picks. They also have three third round selections, two fourth round picks, one fifth round selection and two picks each in the sixth and seventh rounds.
Frozen Royalty will take a closer look at the Kings and the 2008 draft in the week prior to the draft.
No Sophomore Slump For Kopitar
The most important of the Kings’ core of young players is second-year center Anze Kopitar, who set new career-highs with 32 goals and 45 assists for 77 points in 82 games.
Last season, his rookie year, he scored twenty goals with 41 assists for 61 points in 72 games.
"[I am] a year older and in one year you learn a couple more things and you get more experience," said Kopitar. "I definitely felt comfortable on the ice."
To be sure, the “sophomore slump” never reared its ugly head in Kopitar’s case.
“I was kind of scared in the beginning,” Kopitar explained. “Luckily, it didn’t happen. I’ve got to thank my teammates who played hard with me all the time. I pretty much played with [Dustin] Brown and [Patrick] O’Sullivan all the time, so a lot of credit goes to them, too.”
Like Crawford, Kopitar was also looking ahead.
"I think the group really got together, a lot closer than last year," he said. "We are a big family here. Not happy yet, but I’m sure in the future, when we make the playoffs, we’ll be a big, happy family here."
“We can be confident for next year. The guys really came together, especially in the last month. We were playing good hockey and we’re going for it next year.”
Crawford Sums It All Up
Crawford looked back at the 2007-08 season and quickly identified his team’s biggest problem—keeping the puck out of their net.
“The biggest deficiency was that we had no goaltending in December,” he lamented. “We were atrocious. You go through a month where, unfortunately, the schedule wasn’t good to us. We played sixteen games in a month, and that’s a bad time to have that facet of your game not be good.”
“We got the injury when [Jason] LaBarbera got ran into,” he elaborated, “He was playing his best hockey up to that point. He had won four in a row in November, he was really playing well. I thought he was coming into his own. And unfortunately, he never really recaptured it.”
LaBarbera went down with a rib injury and was never the same after returning to the lineup.
“We probably forced him back in a little too early,” said Crawford. “Those types of injuries can lead to other types of things and it’s probably all related. He got the sports hernia probably because he wasn’t feeling right about his upper body, his ribs. He never quite recaptured that flair. Let’s hope that Jason gets totally healthy and gives up another great option.”
LaBarbera’s supporting cast wasn’t much help, either.
“The real failure was that we had [Jean-Sebastien] Aubin, he wasn’t good enough, and we had to bring in young kids,” Crawford explained. “We were also coupled with injuries down at the minor leagues. [Erik] Ersberg was hurt at the time so we couldn’t bring him up. We brought up Jonathan Quick who wasn’t quite ready.”
“When you use seven goaltenders in a season, that’s not a good thing,” Crawford added, referring to the fact that his team tied a league record for the most goaltenders seeing action for the same team in one season. “Thankfully, there are some bright things that came from it. Erik Ersberg is looking like a guy who you say. ‘There’s a strong possibility there.’ Now [Jonathan] Bernier is going to get a chance to play at the minor league level and we’ll see how he is. Those are two really good candidates.”
Indeed, Ersberg gave the Kings solid minutes in goal near the end of the season and worked wonders for their defensive efforts.
“I don’t know how it looked to you, but it looked to us, and we watch a lot of games, not only while they’re happening, but also on video, that our chances started to go way down,” said Crawford. “Our defensive play, even though we were depleted and we traded away [Jaroslav] Modry and we traded away [Brad] Stuart, we were better defensively. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that our players were more sure and they could build on the development in our defensive play.”
Despite his team’s horrendous season, Crawford was ever the optimist about his team’s future because of the development of their young prospects and the emergence of their core of young players at the NHL level.
“We’ve got a good, young group,” said Crawford. “We need more players and there are going to be more coming. The guys that are in Manchester right now, that we allowed to stay down there and continue to develop, they’re going to be here next year and that’s going to make our team stronger.”
“We have to strive to find ways to improve,” added Crawford. “But the biggest way you improve is you develop from within and we’re doing it. It’s been long, it’s been arduous. At times, the people that have suffered the most have been our fans because we have teased them a little bit with them, and I believe those guys are getting more and more ready and now they’re ready to come into our lineup and hopefully, our fans will enjoy the Boyles, the Purcells, the Moulsons, the Berniers and the Ersbergs and those types of guys for a lot of years to come.”
“I do believe there is lots of room for optimism,” Crawford stressed. “We know that we still have to keep our peddle to the metal and keep forging ahead and trying to make any subtle improvements that we can.”
Thornton Likely To Retire
“That’s pretty much it, yeah,” said Thornton. “I’ve tried to prepare myself for the last month of the season and try to lay it all out there. It’s been a great season and a great career. I’m ready to move on.”
“I’m not one hundred percent [certain that he will retire], but I’m probably as close as you can get to it,” added Thornton. “I’ve tried to prepare for it, so I think that’s the next step, to move on. I still love to play, but my body is telling me otherwise.”
After eighteen seasons of tough, in-your-face, rugged play, Thornton’s body is telling him to hang up the skates.
“It’s too hard now,” he explained. “It’s too much preparation every day. I went through a lot of injuries again this year. It’s time to move on.”
“It’s tough,” he elaborated. “You don’t bounce back as easy as you do when you’re a little bit younger. You try and do all the right things to prepare, but it’s hard. I used to show up right before practice when I was younger. Now it’s an hour to an hour-and-a-half preparation just to get yourself ready to get on the ice and compete.”
Thornton said that he was happy to play a role in the development of the Kings’ young core and he believes in their rebuilding process.
“It’s just been exciting,” said Thornton. “It’s been a privilege to see these guys grow over the last two years. Hopefully, I’ve been a big part of it.”
“I have a lot of belief in Dean Lombardi,” added Thornton. “He built the San Jose Sharks. He put that team together over the past ten years and now he’s going to try and rebuild here. There’s a great, strong nucleus in that locker room, starting with Kopitar, Dustin Brown and moving on through the lineup, guys like Jack Johnson who are up and coming.”
If Thornton retires after this season, he will end his NHL career with 144 goals and 141 assists good for 285 points and 1,459 penalty minutes in 940 regular season games with the Kings, Sharks, Stars, Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
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