LOS ANGELES — Entering their fourth season since President/General Manager Dean Lombardi began the process of tearing down the Los Angeles Kings and building them back up, practically from scratch, those efforts are now, finally, beginning to bear ripe, sweet fruit.
Indeed, instead of having a bunch of older veterans on the downside of their careers making up the core of the team, the core is now made up of young players who are on the rise. They are skilled, strong in terms of character and they have been “growing up” together, building strong bonds with each other, something rarely seen before in the Kings’ dressing room.
If that sounds like things are coming together for the Kings, don’t worry. You are not hearing things. You do not need to get your hearing checked.
Yes, Lombardi’s rebuilding efforts have resulted in significant improvements on the forward lines, on defense and in goal. But does that mean the Kings are now a playoff team?
To be sure, expectations for the team, both from fans and from management, are higher than they have been since the last time the Kings made the playoffs in 2002, maybe higher, since this team is not being built just to be invited to the post-season party. Rather, it is being built to win the Stanley Cup and become a perennial contender.
But they have not reached that level yet, so first things first.
“It’s early,” said newly-acquired veteran left wing Ryan Smyth. “For sure, every team wants to make the playoffs and from there, it’s a whole new season. But let’s start the season, get used to each other, develop some chemistry, some team camaraderie and go from there.”
If the bonding work the players did during the off-season, along with their work during training camp, was effective, the Kings just might be ahead of schedule on the aspects of the game Smyth mentioned. That could go a long way toward pushing the Kings into the playoffs.
But it is going to take a lot more than chemistry and camaraderie for the Kings to qualify for the post-season. Three of those factors are goaltending, a continued commitment to defense and their young players must take a big step forward this season.
Quick Must Become The Real Deal
Without solid goaltending, a team has no chance to do anything of note in a given season, and for a team that has had a perennial problem in goal, Jonathan Quick was a sight for sore eyes last season.
Jason LaBarbera, who was named the number one goalie coming out of training camp, had been a sieve in goal for the Kings. Quick came in and immediately solved that problem. In fact, he was so impressive in a short time that the Kings were able to dump the hapless LaBarbera on the Vancouver Canucks in a trade on December 30.
Quick went on to play in 44 games, earning a 21-18-2 record, a 2.48 goals-against average, a .914 save percentage and four shutouts.
Indeed, Quick played so well that he was three games above the .500 mark while backstopping a team that finished three games under the .500 mark.
That earned him the right to be the team’s number one goalie in training camp and to start the 2009-10 season.
“Quick is clearly the number one goaltender,” said Kings head coach Terry Murray. “He played well throughout the camp. He earned the right to come into training camp as the number one guy.”
“We have strong goaltending, that’s a huge part of it,” said Kings right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “Quick has shown that he’s going to be the same guy he was for us last year. That’s a huge plus.”
Quick might be the number one goaltender and he has the faith of his teammates behind him. But he still has a lot to prove, since he has not proven himself over the course of an entire season.
“I still have a lot to prove,” he said. “I only played half a season last year. Nothing’s going to be given. Last year, I was coming in trying to prove my way onto the team and I’m going to do the same this year.”
For his team to have a chance to make the playoffs, Quick will have to build upon what he accomplished last season.
Don’t Tear Down The Foundation
When Murray was hired by the Kings on July 17, 2008, he brought with him a philosophy that he immediately began to instill in his players: a commitment to defense, something the Kings paid little attention to in the seasons under former head coach Marc Crawford.
And when the ice chips settled for the last time in the 2008-09 season, Murray must have smiled when he saw the numbers.
Defensively, the Kings improved from 28th in the National Hockey League in goals allowed per game (3.21 goals/game) in the 2007-08 season to eleventh (2.76 goals/game) in 2008-09.
Their improvement in penalty-killing was even more impressive, moving up from last in the league (78.9% rating) all the way up to seventh (81.1%) in 2008-09.
Another example of their huge improvement on defense was that in 2007-08, the Kings allowed 32.0 shots per game, ranking 28th in the thirty-team NHL. But in the 2008-09 season, they ended the season ranked fourth, allowing 28.1 shots/game after leading the league in this category for a considerable time.
“We played pretty good defense last year,” said Brown. “We can’t lose track of that.”
No question about that. If the Kings fail to apply themselves in their own zone at least to the same extent that they did last season, the playoffs will be little more than a pipe dream.
The Core Must Improve
Last season, with Murray demanding that his players focus on defense in order to instill that commitment deep into their souls, offensive production suffered.
In the 2007-08 season, the Kings scored 231 goals (2.76 goals per game, ranking thirteenth in the league. But in 2008-09, their scoring dropped considerably, down to 207 goals (2.46 goals/game), ranking 27th.
An example of that drop in offensive production was apparent in the play of center Anze Kopitar.
Last season, Kopitar was pushed to work hard in all three zones, especially in his own zone. He scored 27 goals and tallied 39 assists for 66 points, but that was a significant drop from his 32 goals and 45 assists for 77 points in the 2007-08 season.
This season, Kopitar must put it all together and push to become a true, number one center.
“Your top players are key guys,” Murray stressed. “Your key guys have to go out and perform at a high level in critical situations at critical times during the season.”
“Kopitar in particular has got to have a really big bite of this hockey club,” Murray added.
Kopitar will bear much of burden as the Kings’ best forward, but others will have to step up as well.
“It’s just a matter of our core guys being better than they were last year, and I don’t mean by stats,” Brown explained. “I’m not really worried about numbers on a piece of paper. It’s more about how we play the game. Our core guys…[Alexander] Frolov, myself, Kopitar, [Jack] Johnson, [Drew] Doughty—all those guys last year—we all learned a lot together.”
“It’s not about how many points we have. It’s more about how we play the game and playing hard.”
One player Brown did not mention was second-year right wing Wayne Simmonds, who tied for the team lead in pre-season goal scoring with five goals.
Simmonds, who ended the 2008-09 season with nine goals, could be a surprise source of offense for the Kings.
“Simmonds played, right though camp, very well,” said Murray. “He was one of our better players at the end of the year and he seemed to come into camp with that same attitude.”
“He played very well in all situations and was one of our top goal scorers at the end of training camp,” added Murray. “He’s going to be an important player for us.”
“That’s the exciting thing about training camp,” said Brown. “Last year was probably the exception, having three first-year guys [Doughty, Simmonds and Oscar Moller] come in right out of camp, and two of those players [Doughty and Simmonds] are going to be pretty high-impact players on our team this year, which is a credit to them, absorbing everything they could last year.”
Although no one will expect a bunch of goals from him, forward prospect Trevor Lewis, 22, impressed the Kings with a solid training camp and made the opening night roster.
The 6-1, 204-pound native of Salt Lake City, Utah, is expected to center the fourth line.
“He’s improved one hundred percent since last year at training camp, just through maturity, getting stronger,” Murray noted. “His sense and knowledge of the game has improved.”
“He played all three forward positions in camp,” Murray elaborated. “He has been on the puck and he made things happen. He had a very impressive camp.”
Net Presence And Shot Mentality
One thing Terry Murray talks about a lot is that his team needs to improve their net presence and develop a shot mentality, something they had a big problem with last season, contributing to their scoring woes.
Translation: The Kings need to get bodies in front of the opposition’s net to screen the goalie on a consistent basis and shoot the puck more instead of always trying to make the extra pass, which, often times, is not there and results in a turnover.
Murray noticed some improvement in those areas during the pre-season, but more is needed.
“Throughout the pre-season, one thing that we’ve been focusing on—and I think there’s still think there’s a lot of room to improve—is traffic in front of the net,” said Brown.” We have a few guys who will go there consistently. We need everyone to go there consistently.”
One key player seems to have gotten on board with that.
“A big positive is that Kopitar has four goals in the last couple of [pre-season] games and two of them were jam goals that he, a year ago, probably wouldn’t have scored,” Brown noted.
Playing on a line with Smyth, Kopitar should learn about going to the front of the net, since Smyth is one the best in the business.
“He’s one of the best in the game at going to the net and getting dirty goals,” said Brown.
Will the Kings make the 2009-10 playoffs? As stated earlier, maybe. They certainly have improved their skill level up front, on the blue line and in goal from where they started the 2008-09 season. But can they put it all together?
The problem with the Kings is that they have very, very little room for error.
Indeed, the Kings may not be good enough to cover up for Quick if he falters and if they fall back to their old habits in the defensive zone or if their core players cannot produce more offense, they will be in big trouble—if they falter in just one of those areas, the playoffs likely become a pipe dream.
But if they can put it all together? Playoffs. It’s as simple as that.
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