Kings have plenty of leadership after offseason moves

It only took one big free agent signing, another smaller signing, and a historic trade to change the face of the Los Angeles Kings. The collection of moves proved that the Kings have transitioned from a team planning for the future to a team preparing for the present. With the additions of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne, the Kings have a legitimate stable of top six forwards for the first time in a decade. Mix in recent acquisition Ethan Moreau for depth and the Kings have the look of a team ready to make a run this season.

On top of the talent the Kings brought to Los Angeles this summer, there’s another tie that binds each of the signings: leadership. Both Mike Richards and Ethan Moreau are former NHL captains, but head coach Terry Murray doesn’t foresee any power-struggle problems in the locker room. In fact, Murray knows Richards well from his time as an assistant coach in Philadelphia.

The Kings head coach spoke about Richards and the leadership qualities he expects the former Flyers captain to bring to his new team.

“He’s got those instinctive leadership skills that some players have and some players don’t,” Murray said of Richards. “He steps up; a big part of his leadership is doing it on the ice. He’s a guy who wants to take over whenever it’s needed. He’s a guy that watches the game very closely, he jumps in, he’ll fight, he battles, he’s gritty. He can make plays; he can crank it up to the next level whenever necessary. We saw it in the Olympics two years ago with Team Canada. At the end of the day when Canada had to get their game going, it ended up being [Jonathan] Toews and Richards. They moved a couple of different guys around on the other wing. But to me, when I watched that whole tournament, those were the guys who stepped it up and showed the way for the rest of the team.”

Fortunately for the Kings, they already have a strong leadership group in place. Dustin Brown has been the captain for the past three seasons and is the main leader of the Kings’ young core of players on the ice. Murray also intimated that alternate captains Anze Kopitar and Matt Greene are well established on the team. The Kings won’t ask the newly acquired Richards to jump into an official leadership position with the Kings—although they expect him to continue to lead by example as he has throughout his career.

“I think they have some similarities in their vocal approach,” Murray said when comparing Richards’ style to Brown’s. “Mike’s not a real loud and demanding guy that way. Brownie, to me, is similar. They’re more on-the-ice action players. They lead by example. [They play] hard, they play a physical game, and they play the game the right way. They come to practice and do the same thing all over again the next day. That sets the tempo and the tone for the rest of the team. That’s tremendous leadership in a quieter way. Then you have other guys, as we know, who are focused, demanding, yelling and screaming. And sometimes that’s me. [smiles]”

It not just the former captains that have the Kings coaching staff excited. In addition to Richards and Moreau, Simon Gagne has been an alternate captain and shown the ability to motivate throughout his career as well.

“[Gagne] was under consideration for the captaincy of the Flyers when I was there,” Murray revealed. “At the time whenever Richards came in and Primeau got injured… Now you’re looking, what are you going to do for the captaincy? The conversations in the coach’s office included Gagne as one of those guys. He had those qualities, but he’s a quieter guy too. He’s a player. He wants to get on the ice, play the game, set the example, and do the right things and lead by performance. We lose Handzus, and I love Handzus and his leadership and his intensity in play. But we also look at the two players that we’ve added that bring a lot of [good] qualities.”

The Kings head coach brings up a good point when the talks about losing Michal Handzus. Handzus played tough minutes for the Kings last season on the penalty kill and against some of the toughest opposition. But aside from his play on the ice, Handzus helped some of the younger players grow into effective two-way players (see: Trevor Lewis).

Bringing in guys like Moreau, Richards, and Gagne will not only help fill the void on the ice, but they should the hole in the locker room as well. They have mentored teammates in the past—and they’ve all been to the top of the mountain. Each of the newcomers have been to the Stanley Cup Finals; and each wants to finish what they’ve already started. Los Angeles has a team that is looking to take the next step, they could use a few veterans to show them the way. Enter Richards, Gagne, and Moreau.

The pieces are in place for Los Angeles to evolve into a contender this season. Whether the Kings fill their promise or fall short again—leadership won’t be an issue.

The Buzzer: Nikita Kucherov just keeps scoring goals

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Player of the night. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning have played six games this season. Forward Nikita Kucherov has scored a goal in all of them.

He continued that goal scoring streak on Monday night in the Lightning’s 3-2 win in Detroit by scoring a pair of goals, including the game-winner to help lift them to their eighth consecutive win over the Detroit Red Wings.

With that win the Lightning now have the best record in the NHL, while Kucherov’s seven goals are the second most in the league, trailing only Alex Ovechkin (nine).

Kucherov has seen his production increase every year he has been in the NHL. He set a career-high with 40 goals a year ago and seems like he is on track to top that mark this season. Now playing in his age 24 season he should be right in the thick of his prime years in the NHL. When it comes to pure skill and offensive production there are only a handful of players in the league that can top what Kucherov is doing.

Highlight of the Night.

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilievsky stopped 29 shots on Monday night but perhaps none were better than this pad save to rob Tomas Tatar right on the door step.

Vasilevskiy had a slow start to the season but has been outstanding in his past two games, stopping 57 out of 60 shots in the Lightning’s wins over the St. Louis Blues and Red Wings.

Factoid of the Night.

Justin Abdelkader scored on a penalty shot for the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night becoming the first Red Wings player to do that in nearly 10 years.

Ten years?! That seems like a heck of a long time between penalty shot goals for a team.

Misc.

Mike Green continued his incredible start to the season by scoring his first goal of the season for the Detroit Red Wings. He is now up to nine points in five games this season.

Steven Stamkos picked up a pair of assists in the win for the Lightning, giving him eight on the season. Once he starts scoring goals (he only has one so far) he is going to be a force. His absence a year ago was a big reason why the Lightning fell just short of the postseason. With him back healthy they now have two of the top offensive players in the league (Nikita Kucherov).

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Leon Draisaitl lands on injured reserve for Oilers

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After missing his team’s 6-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, the Edmonton Oilers announced on Monday that forward Leon Draisaitl has been placed on injure reserve.

He was injured one week ago in a game against the Winnipeg Jets and has been sidelined with an eye injury and concussion symptoms ever since. It’s a big blow to an Oilers team that is off to a slower than expected start having won just one of their first four games.

Draisaitl signed an eight-year, $68 million contract over the summer making him a significant part of the Oilers’ core alongside Connor McDavid. He finished the 2016-17 season as one of the top offensive players in the league and is going to be counted on to help carry the offense again when he is healthy. The Oilers don’t have a ton of forward depth and are going to need McDavid and Draisaitl to be the focal points once again if they are going to live up to the preseason hype that made them one of the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

Before he was injured this season Draisaitl had recorded one assist in three games.

The Oilers host the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.

It is not yet known how long he will be sidelined.

SPHL gets creative, adopts ‘pick your opponent’ playoff format

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When discussion about the NHL’s playoff format comes up, there is a section of fans who would like to see the league allow for an even greater reward for top teams other than home-ice advantage.

That idea has become a reality thanks to the Southern Professional Hockey League.

The 10-team SPHL announced on Monday that they are overhauling their opening round and turning it into what’s being dubbed the “Challenge Round.” The top three teams will get to choose their first-round opponent during a “Challenge Round Selection” event which will be broadcast to fans on Sunday, April 8, the day after the regular season concludes. After the top three seeds select their opponents, the No. 4 team will be matched against the leftover side.

Every playoff series, including the President’s Cup Final, will remain best-of-three with re-seeding taking place for the second round.

The idea for this change came to SPHL commissioner Jim Combs over dinner in June with Axel Bammer, Chief Operating Officer of the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga. When Combs heard that the league’s top teams get to pick their opening round opponent, he could imagine the buzz and interest it would generate. (Sweden’s Elitserien did this in the past as well.)

A week after meeting with Bammer, Combs met with the league’s owners and received zero pushback about the idea. The new playoff format was widely embraced as the group felt this was the future of the hockey.

Feedback has been mixed on the change. But Mike Campos, who covers the SPHL for The Sin Bin, sees it being a big plus for the league.

One of the benefits of being at the bottom rung of the professional hockey ladder (second-lowest, if you consider the FHL a pro league) is there is flexibility to implement radically new ideas other leagues can not. If the “Pick Your Opponent” format change generates buzz among fans and rivalries between teams resulting in a spirited postseason, the decision could be a winner for the SPHL.

As Campos notes, lower levels of hockey allow for plenty of onnovation while not straying far from the fundamentals of running a hockey league. This new format will certainly make the end of the regular season much more interesting and provide bulletin board material for teams and storylines heading into the playoffs. It’s an idea worth exploring, and the SPHL is no stranger to implementing ideas that catch on elsewhere.

It was the SPHL where 3-on-3 hockey began over a decade ago. It was deemed a silly gimmick at first, but now that we’ve seen it at the NHL level for two seasons, it’s clearly a welcomed change — one that’s made overtime hockey must-see television.

Combs said the league will see how it this playoff format idea plays out in April before deciding whether to keep or tweak it in the future.

So what do you think? Would you want to see the NHL go in this direction for the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Stick-tap Scotty Wazz

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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.

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With Perreault out four weeks, Jets call on prospect Kyle Connor

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Kyle Connor has been a scorer just about everywhere he has played — the USHL, the University of Michigan, and the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League.

He’s only had a brief taste of life in the NHL, playing 20 games for the Winnipeg Jets last season, scoring two goals and five points.

The 2015 first-round pick hasn’t yet experienced the same success at the NHL level, although he’s about to get another opportunity with the Jets after getting recalled on Monday. The move comes after Winnipeg placed Mathieu Perreault on injured reserve. He’s expected to miss up to four weeks.

Perreault has yet to play a full 82-game schedule with the Jets because of injuries, but he’s been an important player when available, with consistent production and strong possession numbers. That said, the 20-year-old Connor is a promising prospect with the potential for significant upside, especially considering the role he should find himself in.

Per NHL.com on Monday, Connor skated on the wing with Bryan Little and sophomore scorer Patrik Laine. That, it would appear, is Winnipeg’s second line, which gives them a difficult top-six group of forwards — the top line consisting of the red-hot Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler — for the opposition to face.

“Speed. That’s the big piece that he can add to that line,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “Patrik’s such a great shooter. Bryan’s a really quick player. What Perreault did well was he got in and he got on it. He was quick enough to get in there to create some offensive zone time and allow those guys to do the things they do well and Kyle should be able to add that.”

The Jets have won three in a row, with Connor Hellebuyck giving them a trio of impressive performances in net. They host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, although according to Sara Orlesky of TSN, Steve Mason is expected to get the start.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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