EL SEGUNDO, CA — A major concern for National Hockey League teams coming out of the nearly four-month lockout was conditioning and injuries, both of which will be significant factors, especially early in the season.
The latter has already hit the Los Angeles Kings hard, with center Anze Kopitar and defenseman Willie Mitchell starting the season as non-roster players due to knee injuries.
But Kopitar is set to return to the lineup on January 22, when the Kings skate at Colorado, and Mitchell skated in a full practice today for the first time since last season. But the big news is that veteran, rugged, stay-at-home defenseman Matt Greene suffered what is believed to be a herniated disc in his back during the Kings’ season opener against the Chicago Blackhawks on January 19.
Greene, who did not skate during the team’s January 21 practice before they flew to Denver, will undergo surgery and is expected to be out for approximately three months.
“Greene came in banged up yesterday, and we couldn’t get him into the doctor until this morning, so we’ll know more [later],” said head coach Darryl Sutter. “He was one of the guys who played hard for us, so there was a chance he was going to get banged up.”
At the time, Sutter said Greene had a “mid-body injury.”
Greene was placed on injured reserve, retroactive to January 19. Taking his spot on the roster will be defenseman Andrew Bodnarchuk, who was recalled from the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate).
After the news about Greene’s injury broke, the Kings released the following statement:
“Matt Greene was placed on IR today due to a mid-body injury. As for recovery timeframe, we plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
Although Bodnarchuk was recalled due to the injury to Greene, taking Greene’s place in the lineup will be 23-year-old defenseman Jake Muzzin, a young blue liner with a bit of offensive skill.
During the NHL lockout, Muzzin played in 29 games with the Monarchs, scoring two goals and contributing nine assists for eleven points, with a +3 plus/minus rating and 24 penalty minutes.
Strangely enough, Muzzin is getting his second crack at the Kings’ lineup due to an injury to Greene. The first time came at the start of the 2010-11 season when he played in eleven games, recording one assist, before being assigned to Manchester.
The knock on Muzzin at the time was that he was often out of position, and his decision-making left much to be desired. But he has spent the last two seasons developing down on the farm, and although he has not developed as quickly as the Kings have hoped, he has taken some serious strides in the right direction.
“I feel like I’m ready,” said the 6-3, 217-pound native of Woodstock, Ontario. “My speed is good, I feel strong, I’m a lot more confident this time around, and I’m more experienced, so I feel a little bit better going into this situation.”
“The last week of practice has been good, and I was playing in Manchester, so I’ve been on the ice for awhile,” added Muzzin. “I feel good, and I’m confident.”
As a young defenseman, Muzzin will have to err on the side of caution, to some degree, anyway, in terms of his decision-making on the ice.
“Your first priority is defense,” he stressed. “If you’re a defender, you want to defend well. That means good one-on-ones, battles, not getting beaten, being strong—all those things. It’s your first priority, to look after your own zone.”
“Today, I was practicing a little bit on the power play,” he added. “If you get your chance, you chip in there. But my main concern is defending, and looking after our own zone.”
“You want to play your game, and if your game is jumping up on the rush, and creating a little bit of offense when you can, then you have to do that. But your main goal is to defend well. If you’re a stay-at-home defenseman, then that’s your job. If you’re a two-way kind of guy, you’ve got to play [that] role. I’m just going to go out and play my game, but look after my defensive zone first.”
For a more in-depth look at Muzzin and his development, be sure to read Frozen Royalty’s exclusive story/interview, LA Kings Blue Liner Prospect Jake Muzzin Is Waiting Patiently For His Chance.
Kopitar Will Return At Colorado
After a fourth day of practice in which he felt no pain or discomfort, Kopitar will be added to the roster on January 22, and will be in the lineup at Colorado.
To make room on the roster, winger Anthony Stewart was placed on waivers on Monday. Assuming he clears waivers, he will be assigned to Manchester.
“I feel good,” said Kopitar, who will wear a knee brace for the rest of the season, at least. “I feel pretty strong, but I understand that it’s going to be my first game in a little while, too, so I may be a little bit out of rhythm. But it’s not the time to think about that. It’s time to get in [the lineup], and try to help the team win.”
“I’ve felt good for the past four days,” added Kopitar, who suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee on January 5, while playing with Mora IK in Finland during the lockout. “In practice, we were skating up and down quite a bit, and working on stuff. I felt good, so I should be ready to go tomorrow.”
The addition of Kopitar will allow the Kings to return to the line combinations they used during the 2012 playoffs, including having Kopitar center Dustin Brown on left wing, and Justin Williams on right wing.
Without Kopitar, the Blackhawks, especially top center Jonathan Toews, had an easy time controlling the middle of the ice, all the way to the front of the Kings’ net—without Kopitar, the Kings had no answer for Toews.
After practice on January 21, Williams said he was looking forward to reuniting with his line mates.
“In a shortened season, familiarity is certainly a key,” Williams noted. “It’s crucial. I know where Kopi is going to be, I know where Brownie is going to be, I know their voices out there, I know what they sound like, what kind of games they play, and what kind of plays they’re going to try. That’s going to be extremely beneficial for us to get ourselves going.”
“I’m actually the only one [on that line who] didn’t play meaningful games during the lockout,” Williams added. “Kopi and Brownie were playing a little bit. I need to simply first, get myself comfortable, get myself going. The plays will takeover from there.”
One can only hope, especially after the Kings’ top lines were completely invisible against the Blackhawks, something that Sutter pointed out in rather blunt fashion again on Monday.
“Hopefully, our first and second lines give us some quality minutes instead of just playing them,” he said. “It was basically a waste of time.”
“We were the little bit rusty,” said Williams. “A lot of us haven’t played for six or seven months. When you get into a battle—the first ten minutes of that game, we were on our heels, and they were on their toes.”
“We weren’t prepared for the game,” added Williams. “We kind of forgot how hard it was, and how ready you have to be at every single second. If that game could’ve started worse [for us]—I don’t know if it could’ve—a five-on-three [goal], and then a goal off a shin pad. We got behind early, but we didn’t deserve to win the game, anyway.”
Kings Need Quick To Shake Off Rust…Quickly
Much was made about the fact that goaltender Jonathan Quick allowed five goals against the Blackhawks, and looked a bit rusty. But Sutter pointed out that goaltenders throughout the league have struggled during the first few days of the NHL’s abbreviated 2013 season.
“If you watch games [across the league over the last couple of days], there’s big rebounds, funny saves, a lot of goals,” Sutter noted. “Even in our game the other night, the last goal deflected off of [defenseman Alec Martinez], too. One went off [defenseman] Drew [Doughty], and one went off [Martinez], but at the same time, deflections are part of the game, right? If [goalies] were into their full game mode, those top [goalies] would have those [types of] deflections, too. That’s why they’re top guys.”
“The goaltenders are probably the most important guys who haven’t played for a long time,” Sutter added. “We need Jonathan [Quick] to move on in a hurry, that’s for sure.”
Mitchell Making Progress
Veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell took another step forward in his recovery on Monday when he participated in a full practice, but without contact.
“He’s going to have a pain issue,” said Sutter. “That’s going to be part of the deal, so he’s got to deal with it. Now we’ve got to get him up to speed. He hasn’t done [anything], other than skating lightly. Today was his first day with the team.”
As far as Mitchell is concerned, getting back on the ice was a huge relief.
“It was nice to get out with the guys,” he said. “Playing hockey is fun. Working out is not, plain and simple. I’m sure [my teammates] all said that same thing, as long as the lockout went. You get tired of working out, you get tired of riding the bike, you get tired of doing all that training.”
“It’s like running a marathon,” he added. “You hit the last mile, but they just keep extending the marathon for you—there’s no end in sight.”
“Just to get out with the guys and skate in a full practice—it’s fun. That’s what we miss, that’s what we love to do.”
Despite being back on the ice in practice, Mitchell knows he has to take it pretty slow.
“Hopefully, the inflammation stays out of the knee,” said Mitchell. “That’s what happened the last time, and it set me back a little bit. [But] it felt good. I didn’t really get into any major battle drills, or anything like that. That’ll probably be the next test, but so far, so good.”
Mitchell will travel with the Kings on their current three-game road trip, but he will not return to the lineup tonight at Colorado. He is expected to skate with the team in practices, but there is no timetable for his return to the lineup.
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Anze Kopitar (4:08)
Dustin Brown (1:47)
Willie Mitchell (1:14)
Jake Muzzin (2:38)
Justin Williams (1:49)
Darryl Sutter (4:39)
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