After a tumultuous off-season, the Los Angeles Kings are counting on new acquisitions and young guns to restore their place among the NHL’s elite.
COACH: Darryl Sutter
2014-15 RECORD: 40-27-15, 95 points (fourth in Pacific, missed playoffs)
VITAL SIGNS: 2.66 goals-for per game (18th); 2.40 goals-against per game (fifth); 19.0 power play pct (11th); 80.9 penalty kill pct (t-16th); PDO: 99.7 (21st); Corsi-For pct.: 54.1 (2nd); Fenwick-For pct. 53.6 (2nd); face-off pct.: 51.3 (11th)
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART:
Milan Lucic – Anze Kopitar – Marian Gaborik
Dustin Brown – Jeff Carter – Tyler Toffoli
Tanner Pearson – Nick Shore – Trevor Lewis
Dwight King – Andy Andreoff – Jordan Nolan
Drew Doughty – Jake Muzzin
Alec Martinez – Brayden McNabb
Christian Ehrhoff – Matt Greene
OUTLOOK: Tumultuous is probably the kindest adjective that could be used to describe the Kings’ off-season. The franchise faces a December court date with the NHL Players’ Association regarding the abrupt termination of Mike Richards’ contract (the Kings cut Richards after he was found to be in illegal possession of a controlled substance at the Canadian border). The Kings also released face-off maven Jarret Stoll after he was arrested with cocaine and ecstasy in Las Vegas (Stoll eventually signed with the Rangers) and finally moved on from defenseman Slava Voynov, whose ugly domestic violence case cast a pall over the team last season. Couple that with the departure of playoff hero Justin Williams to the Capitals and the inability to re-sign star center Anze Kopitar to a long-term deal, and the entire summer looks like a disaster on the surface.
Enter Milan Lucic, the prized acquisition from the Bruins who will be tasked with jumpstarting the Kings’ offense one year after they shockingly missed the playoffs. With a wealth of talent but oft-criticized for his on-again, off-again efforts, Lucic joins Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Jeff Carter as the focal point of the Kings’ attack. The team will miss Williams, one of the game’s most reliable third-line wingers, but his departure allows for even more exposure for Tyler Toffoli, whose 23 goals last season were one of the bright spots on a struggling offense.
Whether it’s Lucic, Toffoli or longtime Kings Kopitar and Dustin Brown, L.A. will need to improve its offense in overtime to make the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference. The Kings finished an awful 3–15 in OT games last season (2–8 in shootouts; the new 3-on-3 format should spare them a few visits to the skills competition), one of the primary reasons behind their early date with their golf bags.
Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick still lead a solid defensive unit that may be a bit leaky in the third pairing of veterans Matt Greene and newly-signed free agent Christian Ehrhoff, but the Kings’ concerns remain with their offense, not their blueline.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Tanner Pearson
I chose Pearson for this section last year along with Toffoli, citing the Kings’ need for young scoring to offset the aging out of Dustin Brown and Mike Richards. With Richards gone and Brown returning from a dreadful 2014-2015 season, Pearson returns to the spotlight after missing almost 40 games last season with a broken leg. He rocketed out to a quick start with eight goals in eight games to start last season, but gradually slowed before the leg injury shelved him for the rest of the regular schedule.
The Kings missed him.
With surprising upper-body strength to complement his surprisingly soft hands, Pearson is the type of third-line scoring threat the Kings will need to avoid the goal droughts that have plagued them since Darryl Sutter took over behind the bench. The Kings were maligned by many for thinking they could “find the spark” late last season for another Cup run, but they apart down the stretch partly due to exhaustion after three consecutive trips to the Conference finals or beyond and partly to locker room tension (Sutter was locked out of the dressing room by his players after an April loss), but mostly due to the fact that they struggled to put the puck in the net. While Kopitar, Lucic and Gaborik remain the primary scoring threats, a healthy Pearson could give them the cushion they did not have in the second half last season.
PREDICTION: 96 points, third in Pacific.