2011-12 Los Angeles Kings Could Contend For Pacific Division, Western Conference Titles

2011-12 LOS ANGELES KINGS PREVIEW: The 2011-12 National Hockey League season begins tonight with the first three games of the season. Even though the Los Angeles Kings have another day before they begin the new season, let’s take an in-depth look at the team and their outlook for 2011-12.

Logo courtesy LA Kings/NHL
EL SEGUNDO, CA — After a few seasons of rebuilding from scratch, followed by a couple of years of building upon that foundation, the Los Angeles Kings are at a unique point in their 44-year history, one in which they are on the verge of becoming a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, not to mention a perennial winner.

In other words, after five seasons, the Kings are right where Dean Lombardi hoped they would be when he laid out his plan for the franchise after taking over as President/General Manager of the team in April 2006.

But that was five-and-a-half years ago, so let’s review, shall we?

Just a couple of months after taking the reins, when the 2006 National Hockey League Entry Draft came around, Kings fans watched, many in sheer horror, as Lombardi’s plan quickly started to take effect.

Indeed, when the Kings traded away veteran forward Pavol Demitra, who was one of the victims of that tragic plane crash in Russia last month, Lombardi’s long-range plan to rebuild the Kings from scratch, essentially tearing the team down to the ground and building it back up, began in earnest.

In that deal, the Kings sent Demitra to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for left wing Patrick O’Sullivan and a first round selection in the 2006 draft, which the Kings used to select forward Trevor Lewis.

“This move was made to get younger players in a critical age group that I have feel needs to be upgraded before this franchise gets on solid footing,” Lombardi said from the draft floor on June 24, 2006. “Obviously, we’re giving up an established player in Pavol Demitra, a very good player. But in order to set this franchise up for being something structurally sound, I felt we had to make a move such as this and acquire more young assets.”

Getting younger was a cornerstone of Lombardi’s plan.

“It’s very difficult, but it depends on your philosophy and where we have to go,” said Lombardi. “And that’s what the difficult thing the past few weeks has been—define what we are and how we want to get to the top, and unfortunately, you have to make moves like this and try and get some young players.”

“We can continue puttering around, trying to be just good enough, or we can make some moves like this which might hurt short term, but hopefully pay off down the road.”

Short-term sacrifice for long-term gain would become the theme for Lombardi and the Kings.

“This team transitioned very quickly,” Lombardi said in an exclusive interview with Frozen Royalty in June 2009. “It went from one of the oldest to the youngest and…that other team has no upside. When you look at [the Kings’] back end, it would have been great five or six years ago. But where’s your upside? Where are you going, let alone the fact that your team is filled with mercenaries?”

“It also shows that when you go with young players, it does take some time,” Lombardi added. “On the other hand, we had more points than last year and we went from one of the oldest teams in the league to one of the youngest teams. So it’s one thing to have the number of points we had two years ago and have an old team with no upside to having eight or ten more points this year but being one of the youngest teams in the league with significant upside.”

With upside came hope.

“What you have is hope,” Lombardi stressed. “I think when you’ve got one of the older teams we had while we were buying time you have no hope. It’s just buying time. From that perspective, I’m pretty pleased. It’s come along quicker than I thought. The turnover of the defense from one of the oldest in the league two years ago to one of the youngest, which I said we had to focus on and rebuild the back end, that has come along quicker than I thought and not only at this level. In Manchester, again, we went from one of the oldest teams in the league two years ago to one of the youngest teams in the league. I think the only team that was close to us in youth was Columbus.”

“So all the things that go into building a reserve list and starting to show itself on a team are coming into fruition.”

Fast forward a little more than five years, and the Kings have made the playoffs the last two seasons, even though they have bowed out in the first round each year.

Back in 2009, Lombardi talked about one of the final pieces of the puzzle.

“The fourth part is learning to win and that’s the ultimate thing,” he said.

With the start of the Kings’ 2011-12 season upon us, and after two seasons of being eliminated in six games during the first round of the playoffs, the Kings are expected to show that they have made significant progress in that crucial area, pushing towards becoming a Stanley Cup contender.

Off-Season Upgrades, Penner Must Step Up

Over the summer, the Kings acquired center Mike Richards from the Philadelphia Flyers and unrestricted free agent left wing Simon Gagne, formerly of the Tampa Bay Lightning, addressing their biggest needs—a scoring winger and a second line center.

With Anze Kopitar centering the first line, the addition of Richards gives the Kings a one-two punch down the middle that they have not had since Wayne Gretzky and Bernie Nicholls were the Kings’ top two centers in the 1988-89 season, and about half of the 1989-90 campaign.

“Mike Richards is not only one of the top players in the league, he’s also universally recognized as one of the finer leaders in the game, and one of its elite competitors,” said Lombardi. “I don’t know if it’s an analogy with baseball and the [number] three [and] four hitters, the idea of having a guy hit behind you. Looking at last season, going into the playoffs, or how we lost in the playoffs, [the second line center] was clearly the hole to me, that was our biggest hole.”

Richards, 26, is not just a skilled, two-way forward. He also brings character and leadership.

“[Richards brings] hockey sense and competitiveness,” Lombardi noted. “It’s not only what the player gives you, it’s what he represents in terms of when he comes into your room—this is the way you approach a game. Ever since seeing him in junior hockey, all the way up, he’s always been surrounded by winning, and he’s been a major part of it.”

“This is a classic case where it’s not always about the most talented guy, but the guy with the biggest heart,” Lombardi added. “You talk about a smart player, too. His hockey sense, the physical aspect—we definitely needed to add that to our club. You put that with his competitiveness, it’s a great fit for us.”

Gagne should add much-needed scoring from the left side.

“I think the one thing about Simon is that he’s always been a big-game player,” said Kings Assistant General Manager Ron Hextall. “He has scored big goals at critical times. You look at his playoff numbers, and he played in some real big games and has played some of his best hockey. That’s part of the reward that we look at.”

“I know Simon Gagne very well,” said head coach Terry Murray. “If we can keep him on page through the whole year, he’s a player who’s very smart, very intelligent, can check, plays the game the right way, he plays [all] 200 feet [of the ice surface], and he can score. He’s got a nice touch around the net. If people start getting him the puck, whether if he plays with Kopitar or Richards, I don’t know yet, but if he gets the puck in the right place, he’s going to score goals.”

“It just makes us that much better when you have two, number one centers, and a guy like Simon, who has scored thirty goals quite a few times in this league,” said left wing Dustin Penner. “On paper, we look like a great team. Now it’s time for us to put the pieces together.”

Also on the left side, a leaner, meaner Penner is expected to improve upon his less-than-dismal performance with the Kings last season, after joining the team at the trade deadline.

Penner dedicated himself to improving his strength and conditioning this past summer, which was his biggest problem. But whether he can combine the necessary focus and attitude with the improved strength and conditioning remains to be seen. In any case, Penner is one of the keys to the Kings’ 2011-12 season. He must improve significantly over last season in order to shoulder his share of the load. If he fails, the Kings do not have another left wing in their system who can be relied upon to provide the offensive production needed from that position, leaving a huge void that will need to be filled via trade if they are to succeed.

Kopitar and right wing Justin Williams are both coming off late-season injuries last year, and Kopitar’s broken right ankle with torn ligaments was quite serious. However, both appear to have recovered fully, and both must improve upon their 2010-11 offensive numbers, especially given the additional talent around them.

As Penner alluded to earlier, with two legitimate scoring lines, the opposition can no longer key on one line, giving the Kings more options for generating offense.

“Now we’ve got two lines that are going to put a little more pressure on the opposition to make decisions,” Murray explained. “‘OK, who do we put our best defensemen out against? Who do we match up our checking center against? How are we going to plan this out?’”

The third line should be better as well, with left wing Kyle Clifford coming off a solid playoff performance last season and a year of NHL experience under his belt. Brad Richardson, who provides energy, solid defensive play and the occasional goal, is also likely to see time at left wing. Add to that the acquisition of unrestricted free agent right wing Ethan Moreau, and the Kings have three solid options surrounding Jarret Stoll, who slides into the third line center role—a position he is better suited for.

“Stoll now slides into that third spot, and he’s always been a player who we’ve trusted to match up against anybody in the league,” Murray noted. “He’s a strong guy, he’s got speed, and he’s a very responsible player.”

Power Play Must Be A Strength Rather Than An Embarrassment

Last season, it was less painful to take a high stick to the face, or a slapshot in the ribs, than it was to watch the Kings’ pathetic power play.

Of course, that is an exaggeration, but you get the point. The Kings were absolutely dreadful on the power play in 2010-11, ranking 21st in the league with a paltry 16.0 percent rating.

Last season, the Kings had a static power play, with players standing around, seemingly content to pass the puck around the perimeter, generating few quality scoring chances.

That must change this season if the Kings are to be successful.

“There’s times when the puck gets below the tops of the circles in the offensive zone where it has to be very basic and we get middle lane drive,” said Murray. “Let’s get the pucks through to the net. We might get away from that a little too often.”

“There’s a reluctance, sometimes, to shoot the puck,” added Murray. “That’s one of the areas—we need to get a better shot mentality, and I’ve talked about that since the first day that I got here. In order to win, you have to get pucks to the net.”

“You’re not necessarily looking to score on that original shot. You’re trying to generate second and third opportunities, and recover pucks. That’s one of the areas we need to be better at on the power play, and we need more movement on the power play.”

Much of the Kings’ success or failure on the power play this season will fall on Kopitar’s shoulders. Indeed, he must take on greater responsibility when the Kings have the man advantage.

In particular, Kopitar must become a greater threat to score.

“He’s got such a great shot that he can score [from the face-off circle, coming off the half-wall], but just getting it on the net is going to open up a lot of opportunities,” Murray stressed. “That’s where that movement that I’m talking about needs to come from, with him and [defenseman Drew] Doughty, trying to get the puck on their sticks more often to get that two-on-one created with that strong side penalty-killer. Now you can take advantage and attack seams a little bit more aggressively than what we did in the second half of the year.”

“That’s what the game is all about,” Murray added. “You’re trying to create two-on-ones in areas of the ice, and if the pressure comes to one area, you can go someplace else and make plays happen. But if a [penalty-killing] team is overly aggressive with skilled players, [the team on the power play] can now generate a shot opportunity just by getting pucks through that one, aggressive player. That opens up a lot, after you make that one play. That’s where we need to be a little bit better.”

Doughty, Johnson Must Bounce Back

On the blue line, the Kings return the same defensive corps from last season, less Peter Harrold, who signed with the New Jersey Devils as an unrestricted free agent during the off-season.

Defense was a huge plus for the Kings last season, who ranked seventh in the NHL in goals against. But as strong as they were defensively, blue liner Jack Johnson ended the season with a -21 plus/minus rating.

Although the plus/minus statistic is the most misleading statistic in hockey, Johnson’s -21 rating is telling, given the fact that the Kings were so solid defensively, and that he was the only one of the Kings’ top six defenseman with a plus/minus rating in negative territory.

“I love his game when he’s playing that gritty, physical game,” said Murray. “That’s the way he started in the first half of [last season]. He’s hard to play against because he is a strong individual. He can get some impact hits. He can close on you, and really lean on people very quickly.”

“As we got into the second half of the year, maybe post-All-Star game, I saw a little bit of a drop-off in that area,” added Murray. “That buys that extra second for those good players, and that’s who he’s out against. If you give good players half a step, sometimes, that’s all they need to make a play.”

“When I go back and think about Jack’s game, the physical part of it can be harder, he could close a little faster, [he could be better with his] stick to eliminate those passing and shooting opportunities. That can clean up a lot very, very quickly.”

Johnson must clean up those flaws in his game and become an asset on defense rather than a liability if the Kings are to reach the next level this season.

But with Johnson, there’s still more, as he disappeared off the scoresheet for the vast majority of the second half last year, failing to score a goal after February 2, and contributing just six assists after that date, a span of thirty games.

“Jack was one of the top scoring defensemen in the NHL in the first half [last season],” said Murray. “He had great power play numbers at the start of the year. His wrist shot was really paying off for him. He was taking a step to the inside, and just getting pucks through, missing the first man.”

“As we got into the second half, we got away from that in all areas of the ice—getting pucks to the net,” added Murray.

Perhaps a positive sign for the Kings was that in one instance during the pre-season, Johnson had the puck at the opposition’s blue line with the Kings on the power play. He took a step to his left to find a shooting lane, and wristed the puck on net, something he rarely did after Christmas, as Murray indicated. In any event, Johnson must become more of a threat from the point, primarily by getting more pucks to the net, if the Kings’ power play is going to be effective this season.

Meanwhile, Doughty was having problems of his own last season, as his offensive numbers took a considerable hit as well.

“We talked about him not being quite where he was [during his second NHL season],” Murray noted. “It was such an incredible season for a young player to start getting into the category of a Norris Trophy candidate, with the numbers he was putting up. It was phenomenal.”

Emerging as a star in the league meant that Doughty became a target for every team whenever he was on the ice, something he handled poorly.

“Last year, there was a little bit of a drop-off,” said Murray. “Maybe his preparation coming [into the season], getting on top of himself, emotionally, other teams were checking him harder, there’s no question about that. He was played harder, physically, and we saw where he missed some games because of a big hit in the neutral zone last year. That was the kind of example we saw of teams focusing in on him in the early part of the season.”

“It’s [like] the old sophomore jinx, when a player comes in with an incredible rookie year,” added Murray. “There’s always going to be more attention which you have brought to yourself through a great year.”

Doughty must learn from that adversity and overcome it this season.

“There’s no doubt every team talked about Drew Doughty in their game preparations and pre-scouts, penalty-killing,” Murray explained. “That’s just the way it is. It’s not a bad thing, to go through a more difficult time. The critical part is that you learn, and now, you have to improve your hockey game in order to find a way to get it done. That makes you a better hockey player. I’m looking forward to his year this year. It should make him a better player because of the difficulties, at times.”

Like Johnson, Doughty also had serious problems getting pucks to the net from the point on the power play last season. As one of the keys to the Kings’ power play, he too must figure out how to find the open shooting lanes and get a lot more pucks to the net from the point.

Goaltending Must Continue To Be Their Greatest Strength

Goaltending was anything but an issue last season, with Jonathan Quick playing so well that he was in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s best goaltender.

Backup netminder Jonathan Bernier got off to an uneven start, struggling with being a backup for the first time in his life. But he got his head on straight after Christmas, and was hot enough in the second half to melt the ice in his crease.

Indeed, goaltending is, arguably, the Kings’ greatest strength.

“The goaltending is very good,” said Murray. “Both guys are incredibly young, and the tandem is outstanding together. They really play hard for the team, and support each other, so we’re in a nice place there.”

Quick remains the team’s number one goaltender, but Bernier, who could prove be to as good or better down the road, will likely see more action this season than the 25 games he played in last year.

“There will probably be more games there,” said Murray. “I don’t have it planned out as I did last year at this time. Jonathan Quick is our number one goaltender. That’s the way it is coming [into training camp].”

Unlike the way he started last season, Bernier is concerned about playing well, and nothing else.

“Quick is a great goalie,” he noted. “It’s going to be pretty hard to push him out of the net. He’s had a lot of success here…I can’t worry about him playing well, or him playing badly. It’s just how I play. For both of us, it’s just trying to win as many games as possible for our team. That’s my only focus.”

“You can’t expect anything,” he added. “I know now that I can’t really worry about [how many games he will play]. Last year, I think I played 25 games, and, at the end of the season, when I looked at it, [he thought] it was pretty good. I’m just going to focus on practice right now, and get my game ready for the start of the season.”

“I’m more than ready this year. I’m a lot more confident in my second year. I’m excited to start the season.”

Stanley Cup: No Longer Such A Distant Goal

With the acquisitions of Richards and Gagne, the Kings finally look like a team that can compete with the big boys for that most cherished of team sport trophies, the Stanley Cup.

Indeed, they have two, legitimate scoring lines that should improve greatly upon last season’s pop-gun offense, and they are solid on defense and in goal. As such, barring serious injuries or other pitfalls, the Kings are legitimate contenders to finish first in the Pacific Division and in the Western Conference.

But are they the favorites in the West, let alone the Pacific Division?

In a word, no.

With the improvements they made up front and on their blue line, and when you factor in their experience, the San Jose Sharks are the class of the Pacific Division, and are right up there with the Vancouver Canucks as favorites to finish the season atop the Western Conference.

Despite that, the Kings are not out of that picture, as they have the talent to compete with the Canucks and Sharks for the conference title. But as a team that has not yet shown that they can reach that level, it is difficult to consider them as the favorites for the division or conference titles.

The same can be said about whether or not the Kings are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Although some believe that the Kings have climbed to that next-to-last rung on the ladder, as the old saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.

Indeed, like any team, the Kings must actually earn the right to be considered a Cup contender, and they have 82 regular season games and two playoff series wins ahead of them before that happens.

Nevertheless, the Kings must start thinking about the Stanley Cup and believing in themselves.

“Going into every training camp, your goal is to make the playoffs, no matter what,” Stoll explained. “Let’s not kid ourselves. But this year, we feel that making the playoffs isn’t enough. Losing in the first round, or even the second round, that’s not enough this year.”

“We’ve got to have a good, solid season,” Stoll elaborated. “Making the playoffs is tough, it’s not easy. We want to set a goal of having home ice [advantage] in the first round, and start talking about the Stanley Cup. I know it’s a long ways away, but if you’re not talking about it, if you’re not thinking about it, then you’re far, far away from it.”

“We’ve got to be confident. We can’t be arrogant, or big-headed, but we have to be confident with the players we have, and the team that we have.”

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