EL SEGUNDO, CA — With injuries to stay-at-home defensemen Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell to start the abbreviated 2013 season—Greene played in just the first game of the season, while Mitchell has not seen action yet this year—things have certainly not gone according to the plan for the Los Angeles Kings.
“You’ve seen the way we had planned this,” said Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi. “If you look at last year, we had a stopper with a puck mover, and obviously, that’s what we lost in Greene and Mitchell.”
Indeed, last season, the Kings had Rob Scuderi paired with Drew Doughty, Mitchell with Slava Voynov, and Alec Martinez with Greene. As Lombardi described, each defensive pair had a stay-at-home guy and a puck mover.
But with Greene (back surgery) and Mitchell (knee surgery) lost so early in the season, and with Martinez suffering what is believed to be a left shoulder injury during his first shift of the game at Detroit on February 10, the Kings have been forced to improvise, relying on young, inexperienced defensemen to fill in, step up and get the job done.
As a result, the Kings have had to rely on young, inexperienced defensemen, including Jake Muzzin, Davis Drewiske, and Keaton Ellerby, much more than they expected to at this point in their careers.
But they are not the only young players on the Kings blue line.
“As a collective unit, it’s the youngest in the league,” Lombardi explained. “We’ve got six guys back there and essentially [just] one veteran. It’s an ongoing process, and that includes Drew and Voynov, so it’s not only the kids—Ellerby, Drewiske and Muzzin, who are just sowing their oats. You’ve got Voynov and Drew playing clearly expanded roles.”
“This the first time, in Drew’s case, that he’s killing penalties, he’s not being sheltered,” Lombardi elaborated. “He’s playing against top players, and his minutes have grown. The same with Voynov.”
Lombardi noted that Doughty and Voynov are doing well in their expanded roles.
“You start there with your top guys, and you watch their evolution,” said Lombardi. “[But] that’s always what you’ve envisioned with those two, to be your Suter-Chelios, Niedermayer-Pronger type thing—those two top guys. But they’re still very young. They’ve kind of been accelerated into that role, and overall, I think they’re handling it very well.”
“You can see the evolution in Drew, and both of them have had to become complete players,” added Lombardi. “They never killed penalties last year. At least, with Willie Mitchell there, we were able to shelter Voynov when he had to play against top players. But that’s not there right now.”
“Drew and Voynov—they’re [also] more physical, at times this year. Drew had that hit [on Anaheim’s Francois Beauchemin on February 25]. You can see these guys getting better in terms of winning those battles. Part of that is…just look at Voynov’s body, and how much it has matured.”
Lombardi raved further about Voynov’s development.
“Part of Voynov’s success is due to him paying his dues [in the minors],” Lombardi stressed. “His game has such a solid foundation to grow from, and so much of that is a tribute to him—at 19 years old, he was the youngest player in the American [Hockey] League—and how he stuck with it, when the Russians were coming after him, telling him that he could make millions over [there].”
“When he had to play in the minors during the lockout, he could’ve easily asked to go back [home to Russia to play in the KHL],” Lombardi added. “There was a lot of money [available to him]. He said no, and he played his bag off [with the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate].”
“His growth, as an athlete, and as a person, is off the charts, and I think a big part of that was that he did pay his dues down there.”
A player who knows a little something about playing with young, skilled, puck-moving defensemen also had high praise for Voynov.
“I think he has been our best defenseman all season,” said Scuderi. “Playing for four months [at Manchester] certainly helps. He kind of stepped right in. He’s been in that game shape, game conditioning. That aside, he’s been making unbelievable decisions, smart plays with the puck when he doesn’t have a play, and [he’s] trying to be creative, and use his talents when he does have time.”
“He’s got a lot of talent,” added Scuderi. “He’s got that offensive vision for when to step into the play, and how to do it. He’s joining from behind. He’s not forcing the play, he’s not carrying the puck up himself, forcing bad offensive plays. He joins the rush, makes the nice play on the breakout, and he’s been getting rewarded.”
As for his least experienced defensemen, Lombardi talked about what they are doing well, along with the challenges each faces as the season wears on.
Lombardi noted that Ellerby is still learning the Kings’ system, which is considerably different from what his former team, the Florida Panthers, employs.
“We knew about all the work that was done before we traded for him, where his game was,” Lombardi explained. “The key for him, because he hasn’t been in our system and come through our development program, there’s a little bit of going back to basics to get a foundation. That’s what you’re starting to see now. Be hard to play against, keep your gaps tight, keep your stick in the lane, and start there. We’re already seeing improvement.”
“The other thing with Ellerby is that [we play] a different system,” Lombardi elaborated. “The coaches dissected him before we traded for him, and there were definite variations in the system versus what he’s expected to do here, so he’s adjusting, not only in terms of going back to basics as a player, getting his confidence, and finding an identity, but there’s also some system things he’s working on.”
“I think there’s been progress every day. The last two games have been two of his better ones, and that’s to be expected.”
Kings winger and team captain Dustin Brown indicated that Ellerby and Muzzin are settling into their roles.
“With Ellerby coming in, and Muzzin—I think they’re getting more comfortable, especially for Muzzin, a younger guy without a lot of NHL experience,” said Brown. “They’re getting more comfortable in the system, and in how we play our game. Scuderi, Voynov and Doughty are staples on our back end. It always helps to have those guys push the younger guys and the newer guys along.”
“This is an opportunity for Muzzin to step in, and he’s done a good job,” added Brown.
But after some shaky performances in early February, Muzzin was a healthy scratch against Detroit and St. Louis on February 10 and 11, respectively.
“If you’re a player who’s mostly chasing the other team’s game, you’re not going to play very much, or not at all, or in a different league,” said head coach Darryl Sutter, referring to Muzzin.
But Sutter gave him another chance against Columbus on February 15, and Muzzin responded—he has not been out of the lineup since.
“He’s getting into the tough areas, he’s being strong on his stick, and being more competitive,” Sutter noted.
“[Muzzin is] getting himself in better position, and [he’s getting there] quicker,” Brown noted. “The first couple of weeks of the year, the speed of the game—he’s making better plays now, but I think it’s the result of him getting into position quicker, giving him an extra half second to make that play.”
“That’s something you’ve got to get used to,” Brown added. “The pace of the game is a little bit quicker [at this level, compared] to the AHL. Getting back for pucks for a defenseman—if you get back quicker, it’s much harder, as a forechecker, to get on the guy. He’s doing a much better job at that.”
Muzzin also talked about the speed of the game.
“I’m feeling more comfortable with the speed of the game, knowing what I have to do to maintain [a high level of play],” he said. “I feel a lot more confident coming into this season [with the Kings] than I was in my previous stint. I’ve got a lot of help from the guys, and the coaches. I just have to believe in myself, and my ability. So far, I’ve done that, and I’m doing OK.”
As Muzzin’s play has improved, his ice time has been on the rise.
“It’s nice to see that,” he noted. “You feel good about yourself, and it makes you more confident. But at the same time, you have to continue working on your consistency, and getting better.”
“Generally, with young players, [confidence] is a big part of it,” said Sutter. “But it’s a two-way street, also. It’s very simple. The better you play, the more you play.”
“[Muzzin] is basically an unproven player,” added Sutter. “He’s no different from a sixth, seventh or eighth defenseman. It’s strictly based on performance.”
More Physical Play Needed From Young Blue Liners
Lombardi indicated that although his team’s young, inexperienced defensemen are progressing, they need to add more physical play to their game, especially given the holes in the lineup that they’re filling.
“These kids are big kids, and they can handle it, [physically],” said Lombardi. “But it takes awhile, just like it took awhile for Greene, and if you go back in Rob Scuderi’s career, he wasn’t shot out of a bottle. [His play] evolved.”
“We’re hoping that these kids, having been put into this situation, can add that to their game,” added Lombardi. “Right now, Muzzin is showing that he can [play] on the power play. But in terms of the overall mix? Just look at what we’ve lost. If you still believe in [pairing] that physical stopper [with a puck moving defenseman], that’s a big hole. But we’ve got to adjust, and these other guys are going to have to pick up the slack.”
“Muzzin has shown that he can be physical, even when he first came up two years ago. These aren’t small boys, by any stretch, and that’s why we like them. They start with a big frame. But now it’s about doing it all the time.”
After all that, you’ve probably noticed that Lombardi really didn’t say anything about Drewiske. Actually, he did mention Drewiske in that interview…
“You guys know Drewiske,” said Lombardi. “[He] never stops, as far as the type of kid he is. He’s just a dog out there, and I don’t mean [that] in a bad sense. He just never quits.”
Despite all the positives Lombardi expressed regarding their young defensemen, he was quick to point out that there is a long way to go.
“Overall, it’s not the way we planned it,” he noted. “[Last season], we had a veteran with a kid. We’ve had to accelerate [things for their young defensemen]. I give those kids a lot of credit, but there’s still a lot more of this ‘war’ that they’re going to have to get through.”
Kings Looking To Keep Scuderi In The Fold
Scuderi is in the final year of his contract with the Kings, and will be an unrestricted free agent on July 5.
But not if Lombardi can help it. Already, he has started the ball rolling on signing Scuderi, now 35 years old, to a new contract.
“It’s fair to say we’ve had some informal discussions,” said Lombardi. “I wouldn’t say we’ve gotten to the meat of [contract negotiations].”
“It would make a lot of sense to [sign Scuderi to a new contract] before the trade deadline, or before the season ends, that’s for sure,” added Lombardi.
Martinez Close To Return
As mentioned earlier, Martinez has been out of the lineup since he was hit during his first shift at Detroit on February 10.
Martinez, who suffered what is believed to be a left shoulder injury, returned to full contact drills during practice on March 1.
“I’m feeling good now, it’s just a matter of getting practices in,” he said. “I feel good. I can shoot the puck. I’ve tested it out, throwing myself into the glass a few times, and we had a little bit of battling in two-on-one [drills], and it felt good. Every day, I noticed a big difference, and today, it was even better than it was two days ago.”
“It makes a big difference, just being out there with the guys, feeling like you’re part of things again,” he added. “It gets pretty tough when you’re injured like that. It doesn’t take long to feel like you’re part of the team. It feels good to be back. It’s exciting, and I’m laughing and joking with the guys out there. It’s a lot better than just skating with a stop watch and no pucks.”
“I’m just excited to be back amongst the living.”
When asked if he was traveling with the team to Vancouver, where the Kings face the Canucks tonight, Martinez was already packed and ready to go.
“No one’s told me I’m not [going],” Martinez noted. “I’ve got a bag packed, unless someone tells me in the next twenty minutes.”
“Darryl’s rule is that if you can practice, he wants you to travel,” Martinez added. “That’s why I didn’t [go on the trip] last week.”
But will he be in the lineup at Vancouver tonight? It’s possible, but definitely not a sure thing.
“Darryl hasn’t told me anything yet,” said Martinez. “I’m ready to go, but it’s the coaches’ decision. I understand if he wants me to get a couple of practices in first, but I felt good out there today.”
As usual, Sutter was about as clear as mud regarding an injured player.
“[Martinez is] cleared for contact,” he said. “Remember the protocol. Injured reserve—he’s hurt, [and] can’t play. Cleared for contact. Activated. Available to play. Not much more than that.”
As most probably know, the Sutter family has a farm in Viking, Alberta, where they raise cattle. During the media scrum interview following Friday’s practice, Sutter was talking about the importance of a good diet and nutrition for the players.
Noting that he was standing in front of a backdrop that had the logo of one of the Kings’ major corporate sponsors, McDonald’s, all over it, Sutter fired a blast at the Golden Arches.
“I haven’t been in [a McDonald’s restaurant] since they cut off Alberta Beef, and that was quite a few years ago,” said Sutter. “I don’t even like standing beside [their logo].”
“Being cattle guys, there was the Mad Cow [Disease] thing, and they cut off Alberta Beef, and they cut off North American beef, so I don’t like standing besides [their logo],” added Sutter.
It is probably a safe guess to assume that folks at McDonald’s aren’t exactly thrilled with Sutter’s remarks. Makes you wonder if the Kings’ marketing staff, let alone President/Business Operations Luc Robitaille, and even Kings Governor Tim Leiweke, are having to do any kind of damage control.
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