2010-11 NHL season preview: Los Angeles Kings

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for doughty.jpgLast season: (46-27-9, 101 points, 3rd in Pacific Division, 6th in Western Conference) Last season was a big step forward for the Kings. They went from one of the worst teams in the West to the sixth seed. Drew Doughty burst onto the scene and became a Norris Trophy candidate while Jonathan Quick managed a Brodeurian workload. Most look at last season as a stepping stone for bigger things to come.

Head coach: Speaking of stepping stones, Terry Murray seems like the right kind of coach to help a team transition between a bad one and a solid one. He preaches defensive responsibility and seems like a solid bench boss, but I get the feeling the Kings won’t be true contenders until they hire a proven entity.

Key departures: F Alex Frolov, D Sean O’Donnell, F Jeff Halpern, F Fredrik Modin. The Kings might have been better off if they brought back Frolov, but it was clear that the Kings and Frolov had a falling out last season. O’Donnell is a steady defenseman but is far from irreplaceable. Halpern and Modin are two injury-prone guys who can bring something to the table but won’t be missed too dearly.

Key arrivals: D Willie Mitchell, F Alex Ponikarovsky. Mitchell is the big coup of free agency for the Kings. If he can stay healthy, he’ll provide L.A. with a genuine shutdown defenseman. Ponikarovsky seems to be a replacement for Frolov. He flopped badly with the Penguins, but the Kings hope he can be the useful player he was with Toronto.

Under pressure: The Kings top line is under pressure for a simple reason: the rest of the team won’t provide much offensive punch. They don’t really have a true second-line center (Michal Handzus and Jarret Stoll are nice checking centers, but won’t score very often) and get pretty thin at wing once you get past Dustin Brown, Ryan Smyth and eternally-injured Justin Williams. Anze Kopitar, in particular, will face a lot of pressure.

quick2.jpgProtecting the house: Quick is coming off a strong season, even if it was more on the ‘quantity over quality’ side. The team could probably get into the playoffs based on his play alone, but the other Jonathan (Bernier) will make things interesting. It’s unclear if he’ll be able to take the top job from Quick this season, but the Kings might have two solid goalies on their hands at a cheap price, something many teams envy.

Doughty is truly a force of nature. It’s one thing that he’s blessed with incredible talent, but he also possesses the hockey IQ of a veteran defenseman. To imagine that he might just be scratching the surface of his potential is staggering. Beyond Doughty, the Kings have a great shutdown guy in Mitchell, a promising, if occasionally infuriating, talent in Jack Johnson and another solid defense-oriented player in Rob Scuderi. Many teams seem to focus on forwards and goalies, but the Kings are built from the blueline.

Top line we’d like to see: Smyth-Kopitar-Williams. When healthy, this trio is an impressive first line. Smyth is fearless when attacking the net, Kopitar is possibly the most underrated center in the NHL, while Williams can bring speed and goal scoring skill to the table.

Oh captain, my captain: Dustin Brown is one of the many young captains in the NHL, but he breaks certain trends by throwing his body around with reckless abandon. I’m not sure if he’s a natural leader, yet Brown hopes to get the job done by leading by example.

Street fighting man: With Raitis Ivanans ‘playing’ in Calgary now, the Kings lack an obvious fighter. Beyond that fearsome enforcer, it honestly doesn’t seem like the Kings really emphasize fighting anyway, but we’ll see if Wayne Simmonds or someone else picks up the pugilistic mantle.

Thumbnail image for ryansmyth.jpgBest-case scenario: The Kings make a big jump from a middle of the pack Western Conference team to Stanley Cup champions thanks to great goaltending and fantastic defense led by Doughty. Smyth and Williams stay relatively healthy to support Anze Kopitar on a great first line while Brown and Ponikarovsky provide timely offense. Johnson flourishes while Mitchell stays healthy.

Worst-case scenario: Doughty plateaus, the team tunes Murray out and injuries and a lack of depth keep the Kings from producing consistent offense. The Kings barely make the playoffs and then the Sharks punt L.A. out in the first round, leaving Dean Lombardi & Co. to ask what’s next.

Keeping it real: Los Angeles should be able to get solid goaltending from one or both of the Jonathans. Their defense is among the best in the league, particularly with their top two pairs. Kopitar is a truly elite player who would receive a lot more credit if he played in the East. Those are the positives, but this team could be very shallow, especially if they get hit by injuries. They could win the division, yet I’m inclined to say they will probably finish second in the Pacific and fifth in the West.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Kings justify a 4. If they manage to land another scorer or two via trade, waiver pickup or a late free agent signing, their ceiling might be even higher.

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    Sebastian Aho has found his scoring touch again

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    There was a time just over a week ago that people were hitting the panic button on second-year Carolina Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho.

    Many of these people fell into two groups:

    Group No. 1 consisted of Hurricanes fans desperate for their young budding star to get going and rekindle the scoring touch he possessed last season

    Group No. 2 was made up of Aho’s fantasy league owners, thousands across North America, who were growing impatient with the 20-year-old’s unproductive start to the season.

    And then there was Aho himself, but he chose to stay positive despite the drought.

    “I think I’ve played better and better every day, and I think the goals are coming,” Aho told The News & Observer in Raleigh at the beginning of November. “I just need to stay positive. Just relax my game. Obviously, work hard, but still when I get the chances just relax.”

    The above concerns of all parties involved were genuine, of course, Hurricanes management, too, were likely chomping at the bit as they awaited the Finn’s scoring touch around the net.

    Perhaps Aho just doesn’t like running with the big pack out of the gate. Slow and steady, as the old saying goes. Despite the lack of pucks behind goalies, Aho has been a strong possession player this season and his expected goal numbers are equally as good.

    Aho also has his brief history in pro hockey on his side.

    Indeed, Aho’s rookie season didn’t start much different. Last season, it took the Finn 13 games to score his first NHL goal, but he managed to finish the season with 24, an impressive number from a new commodity.

    He was only off that pace by two games this season.

    It took him 15 games (over four-and-a-half hours of ice time) to register his name and number in the goal section of the scoresheet.

    It was just a matter of time, and now, he just can’t help himself.

    Aho has been on a tear since that Nov. 13 coming out party where he scored his first marker and added two helpers in a dominant 5-1 win against the Dallas Stars.

    After adding another goal and another apple on Sunday, Aho now has 13 of his 17 points this season in his past 10 games. He’s also the proud owner of a four-game goal-scoring run.


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

    Flyers’ Radko Gudas disagrees with 10-game suspension

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    Radko Gudas is just like you and I in the sense that he also expected a big suspension for slashing Mathieu Perreault of the Winnipeg Jets in the back of the neck. He was a right as the NHL Department of Player Safety announced on Sunday that he will sit for 10 games and be docked $408,536.60.

    While the Philadelphia Flyers defenseman knew a suspension was coming, he didn’t think it would be as many as 10 games.

    “I was surprised. I did not expect that, no,” Gudas said on Monday via Flyers TV.

    All of Gudas’ previous encounters with the DoPS involved bad hits, usually to an opponents’ head. This was the first time he’ll sit due to bad stick work.

    [Radko Gudas suspended 10 games]

    “Before, I never used my stick in any way like that,” he said. “It was unfortunate.”

    Despite the ugliness of the slash, Perreault was fine and hasn’t missed any games for the Winnipeg Jets. He was well-aware of Gudas’ rap sheet and while he said the defenseman apologized, he was weary at the thought it wasn’t intentional.

    [Perreault bemoans ‘stupid’ slash]

    “He apologized in the penalty box, but when you look at the replay, it looks like he did it on purpose,” Perreault said last week. “It wasn’t an accident. He’s been known for doing stuff like that, so I certainly don’t appreciate it. I’m sure the league will take care of it.”

    Gudas won’t be able to return to the Flyers’ lineup until Dec. 12 and it doesn’t look like he’s going to appeal. It will be interesting to see what happens the next time he runs afoul of the NHL rulebook given this latest suspension.

    “I don’t agree with it, but I accept their decision,” Gudas said. “There’s not much else I can say.”

    ————

    Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

    Julien: Price’s return to practice “encouraging”

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    A Montreal Canadiens team struggling for answers in the early going this season got a bit of a boost on Monday.

    Goaltender Carey Price returned to practice on Monday morning in Montreal, a welcome sign for a team struggling to stop pucks and desperate to start winning as they wallow in the depths of the Eastern Conference.

    Price worked on lateral movements with Habs goaltending coach Stéphane Waite prior to practice starting, per TSN’s John Lu, and continued to work in the Canadiens’ backup net for the rest of practice.

    Canadiens head coach Claude Julien confirmed after practice that Price would be on the team’s upcoming quick two-game back-to-back road trip beginning in Dallas on Tuesday. Julien also said Price is still listed as day-to-day and that there was still no timetable for his return. Charlie Lindgren will man the crease against the Stars.

    Truth be told, the Canadiens weren’t very good with Price in the lineup before he went down with a lower-body injury, forcing him to miss the past eight games.

    In 11 starts, Price has been above a .900 save percentage in just three of them and owns a 3-7-1 record. His save percentage sits at .877 with an equally unhealthy 3.77 goals-against average.

    Montreal has the second-worst team save percentage in the league at .886 and have several other issues to contend with, including being 29th in goals for, 30th in goals against, 27th in power-play efficiency, 28th killing penalties and dead last in shooting percentage.

    Indeed, the Canadiens will take any positives that come their way at the moment.


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

    Down but not out: There’s hope for those below playoff line

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    It’s 20 games into the regular season, give or take, and your team is looking pretty far down the standings.

    It looks bad, American Thanksgiving is approaching quickly, and prayers to the hockey gods are going unanswered.

    Aye, but it might not be all doom and gloom. Not yet, at least.

    Take the Philadelphia Flyers, for instance.

    Flyers fans are concerned given their team’s current four-game winless streak. They’ve won just three of their past 10 contests and are sitting with a less than superb 8-8-4 record.

    Yet, given how tight the Metropolitan Division has started, the Flyers, who sit in the basement of the division, are only five points off its pinnacle despite their recent downswing.

    If you’re looking for a silver lining, you can find some solace in that.

    Anything appears to be possible in the stacked Met. The New York Rangers began the season 3-7-2 but are just three points adrift of the summit now. Sure, their 7-3-0 record in their past time games is certainly helping their cause, but it goes to show that stringing together a few wins can reverse early season misfortunes.

    Now, if the Flyers could only figure out how to stop blowing two-goal leads and fix their discipline issues

    Over in the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks have only won three out of their last 10 games dating back to Oct. 30. This, after starting the season 6-3-1.

    Their recent skid hasn’t done them any favours, but the pending return of defenseman Chris Tanev could be the shot in the arm they need.

    What about some of the teams that really look down and out, you ask?

    The Edmonton Oilers have most certainly failed expectations so far this season.

    With just seven wins and the team sitting in 28th spot in goals for, despite having Connor McDavid in the lineup, there’s definitely a cause for concern.

    Their current two-game skid coupled with losing four of their past five is far from ideal, but the Oilers, despite their poor play, are only five points back of the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.

    The Oilers have the goal scoring in them. They finished eighth last season in the category. Some consistency would be nice. They put up eight against the Vegas Golden Knights last Tuesday but just two goals combined in their losses to Washington prior to that game and St. Louis following it.

    Continuing with the five-point trend, the Montreal Canadiens — yes, these Montreal Canadiens — find themselves five points behind the Washington Capitals for the final wild card in the Eastern Conference heading into Monday’s action.

    Losers of two straight and four of their past five, things don’t look great from Les Canadiens and it would appear changes are coming.

    Indeed, the problems in Montreal are numerous: low goals for, high goals against, bad save percentage, bad shooting percentage, bad power play, bad penalty kill.
    At this point, it’s going to take a minor miracle in La belle province but they’re still in the mix despite their unfavourable results.

    Things might be looking up, however.


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck