Phoenix Coyotes v Los Angeles Kings

2011-2012 season preview: Los Angeles Kings

2010-2011 record: 46-30-6, 98 points; 4th in Pacific, 7th in West.

Playoffs: Lost to San Jose 4-2 in Western quarterfinals

If you believe fans and the actions of management, the time is now for the Kings. After building expectations last season, the team acquired former Flyers captain Mike Richards (for a package that included prized prospect Brayden Schenn) in an offseason trade and signed Simon Gagne as an unrestricted free agent. After signing 21-year-old restricted free agent Drew Doughty to an 8-year deal worth $56 million in the final days of training camp, management signaled that the Kings are clearly in ‘win now’ mode.

Offense

Over the past few seasons, the main question marks around the Kings forwards have been their left wings and second-line center position. Despite expectations at the beginning of last season, the voids at both positions made some insiders wonder if they’d have what it took to make the next step. They didn’t. But management has done their best to address the void in full: Richards steps in as the undisputed No. 2 center behind Anze Kopitar, while Gagne and deadline acquisition Dustin Penner  fill the top two spots on the left wing. Combined with the likes of Dustin Brown and Justin Williams, the Kings have a legitimate top-six that can compete with just about any team in the league.

Defense

There were clouds of uncertainty as the Kings prepared to head to Europe for their first two games without Doughty. Just about all of the clouds disappeared when Doughty and the Kings reached a last-minute agreement. He’ll join defensive stalwarts Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi on the blue line as the Kings are built on strong defensive play. For the Kings to take the next step though, they’ll need Jack Johnson to step up and play like the player everyone thought he’d be when he was drafted No. 3 overall by Carolina in 2005. He was undoubtedly the weak link on a strong blue line last season — if he can take the next step mentally, the Kings could have the strongest defense in the Western Conference.

Goalies

There aren’t many young goalie tandems like Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier. Quick was given the reins to start last season and never did anything to allow the coaching staff to pull him from the crease. His 2.24 goals against average was among the league’s best and his .918 save percentage was a career best. He’ll need to continue the stellar play because Bernier is breathing down his neck. After a slow start to begin last season, Bernier pulled his game together and was a rock down the stretch. For people that say that healthy competition is a good thing — the Kings are in a good spot.

Coaching

Terry Murray has helped the young players within the organization mature from a collection of NHL hopefuls to a team coming off back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in a decade. The next step for Murray will be to teach the players within the locker room to be able to play with expectations. Murray has proved that he knows how to lead teams to the playoffs at every spot throughout his long coaching career — now he’ll need to help them grow into a dangerous playoff team.

Breakout candidate

Penner was an absolute disaster after he was acquired by the Kings in a deadline deal from Edmonton. Most people forget that he scored in six of his first seven games with the Kings because he went the final 12 games of the season without a point. Between learning a new system, losing his playmaking center, and horrific conditioning, Penner fell apart and eventually found himself in a fourth-line role in the playoffs. This season, he’s in the best shape of his career (as he enters a contract year), he’ll have Kopitar feeding him the puck and he has a better idea of what the organization expects of him on the defensive side of the puck. Look for a career year for the reenergized and motivated Penner.

Best-case scenario

For the first time in their 44-year history, the Kings don’t have any glaring weaknesses. If newcomers like Richards and Gagne can smoothly make the transition to the Western Conference, Kopitar can continue his assent to elite center status, and Doughty can rediscover his Norris Trophy finalist form of 2009-10, the Kings will have all the pieces to make a deep run in the playoffs. If everything falls into place, this team could have fans in Los Angeles having flashbacks to the memorable run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993.

Reality

The reality is that the Kings have never had these kinds of expectations. They’ve had times when they were expected to be one of the better teams in the Western Conference, but this season the Kings are looked at as possible Stanley Cup contenders. It’s a different animal for a team to play with expectations. Assuming all of the new players can seamlessly fit into their new roles and the team can avoid the ill-timed injures of a season ago, the Kings have the type of team that can win the Pacific and finish second in the conference.

Here’s your TV schedule for the Stanley Cup Final on NBC Sports

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 01:  The Stanley Cup trophy sits on a table during a ceremony before the Chicago Blackhawks tsake on the Washington Capitals at the United Center on October 1, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Capitals 6-4.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) NBC Sports is switching up its broadcast schedule for the Stanley Cup Final.

In recent years, Games 1 and 2 had been on NBC, with Games 3 and 4 on cable partner NBCSN. If necessary, the final three games returned to NBC.

This season, Monday’s Game 1 will air on NBC, but Wednesday’s Game 2 will be on NBCSN. NBC Sports announced Friday that if the series between Pittsburgh and San Jose is tied 1-1, Game 3 will be on NBC, putting that pivotal matchup on the main network. Game 4 would be on NBCSN.

But if one team leads 2-0, Game 3 will air on NBCSN, with a possible championship-clinching Game 4 on NBC. The potential final three games will remain on NBC.

schedule

The Canucks preached patience, then made a ‘right now’ trade for Gudbranson

2015 NHL Draft - Round One
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A few months ago, when the Vancouver Canucks’ miserable season was drawing to a merciful close, club president Trevor Linden went on the radio and said, “When we look at getting ourselves out of this situation, it’s about drafting and developing, and that’s where our focus lies.”

Linden’s remarks were music to the ears of a large segment of the fan base that felt the Canucks had been too impatient, too focused on trying to make the playoffs with an aging roster that was in dire need of a rebuild.

“What we really need is patience,” Linden said at a season-ticket holders event. “It’s going to require some patience from our fan base and some patience from us.”

And so Canucks fans entered the offseason expecting the Canucks to be patient.

And then, on Wednesday, GM Jim Benning traded one of his top forward prospects in 20-year-old Jared McCannplus he threw in the 33rd overall draft pick this summer — for a 24-year-old, stay-at-home defenseman in Erik Gudbranson.

And how did Benning justify that move?

“I come from a scouting background, so to trade second-round picks away, it kills me,” he told Sportsnet’s Hockey Central (audio). “But where we’re at right now, I think we owe it to our fans to try to field the most competitive team that we can right now.”

You’ll note how Benning twice used the phrase “right now.”

And the Canucks wonder why their fans are confused.

To be fair, the Canucks are probably a better team with Gudbranson on it. They had a glaring hole on the right side of their defense, and Benning was determined to fill it. Also, it’s not like Gudbranson is old.

The worry, though, is that the Canucks are trying to serve two masters, the present and the future, and as a result, serving neither master particularly well.

A lot of people in Vancouver — not everyone, mind you, but a lot of people — see what they’re doing in Toronto, and they want the Canucks to do that. Trade veterans. Acquire picks. Lose now to win later, while accepting that there will be some “pain.”

What they don’t want is to travel down the same road the Maple Leafs had to travel — the years and years of mediocrity, or worse — before they finally tore everything down and started again.

In response to that line of thinking, the Canucks have used the Edmonton Oilers as the cautionary, tanking tale. Once a team accepts losing, it can be hard to get that winning culture back, or so the theory goes.

That’s why Benning acquired Brandon Sutter last offseason, and Gudbranson on Wednesday. To him — maybe not to others, but to him — those are “foundation” players, established enough to contribute in the present, while also young enough to be part of the future.

“Once we get the pieces in place from a team-building perspective, we’re going to hold on to those draft picks,” Benning promised.

We shall see.

Currently, Vancouver has just six selections in this summer’s draft, and only two of them are in the first four rounds.

Toronto, on the other hand, has 12 picks, including two in the first round, two in the second, two in the third, and two in the fourth.

Related: McCann’s frustrations illustrate ‘fine line’ Canucks are trying to walk

Need for speed: Sharks, Pens brace for ‘fast hockey’ in Stanley Cup Final

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 29: Brenden Dillon #4 of the San Jose Sharks skates with the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center on March 29, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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It will be speed vs. speed in the Stanley Cup final between the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins.

San Jose got through the Western Conference the same way Pittsburgh got through the East: with plenty of depth and speed to kill. The final will feature the three top playoff scorers in the Sharks’ Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns against Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“It’s going to be fast hockey,” Crosby said after the Penguins beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the East final Thursday night. “Two teams that want to play the exact same way, that want to get their D involved (and) their power play is really dangerous. … It’s going to be quite the series.”

The Sharks are in the Cup final for the first time in their 24-season franchise history and in Peter DeBoer’s first year as coach. The Penguins are back for the first time since winning it all in 2009 and made it after Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach in December.

In his first meeting with them, Sullivan challenged his players to be great and told them that’s how they win in the NHL. They’ve won in the playoffs on the strength of scoring from Crosby and speedy wingers Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Game 7 hero Bryan Rust, not to mention the goaltending of 22-year-old rookie Matt Murray.

Kessel is Pittsburgh’s leading scorer with 18 points on nine goals and nine assists after coming over from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade last summer.

“I don’t think you could dream about that. You never could expect this,” Kessel said. “This is a huge moment in my career and my life.”

San Jose is also rolling along thanks to a summer pickup in goaltender Martin Jones, who was the Los Angeles Kings’ backup when they won the Cup in 2014. Couture, Pavelski and Burns are piling up the points, but this run is about aging veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau finally breaking through.

Thornton and Marleau, the top two picks in the 1997 draft, made the playoffs together with the Sharks in nine of 10 previous seasons but had yet to make the Cup final until now.

Crosby and Malkin made it twice, losing in 2008 to the Detroit Red Wings before winning the following season. At the time, it looked like the young core that also featured defenseman Kris Letang would challenge for the Cup every year.

Now they have a chance to add to their legacy, but it won’t be easy even with home-ice advantage in the series that starts Monday night in Pittsburgh. The Sharks are the Penguins’ deepest opponent yet.

“The Penguins should expect a team that’s deeper, quicker than Tampa, and a team that’s playing with a lot of confidence,” NBC Sports analyst Ed Olczyk said.

Confidence isn’t lacking for either team. The Sharks knocked off the Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues to get here, while the Penguins beat the New York Rangers, Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals and defending East-champion Lightning.

Devils sign star French d-man Auvitu

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - MAY 05:  Rapahel Herburger (R) of Austria and Yohann Auvitu (L) of France battle for the puck during the IIHF World Championship group A match between Austria and France at o2 Arena on May 5, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
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New Jersey has won the Yohann Auvitu sweepstakes.

On Friday, the Devils announced they’ve signed Auvitu to a one-year, two-way, entry-level contract for the upcoming campaign. The 26-year-old Frenchman had previously garnered widespread NHL interest, largely due to a ’15-16 campaign in which he won the Pekka Rautakallio Trophy for the best defenseman in the SM-Liiga — an award that’s previously gone to the likes of Sami Vatanen and Brian Rafalski.

Auvitu had six goals and 15 assists in 48 games, then six goals and seven assists in 18 playoff games.

There were only three French-born players were in the NHL this season: Philadelphia’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Detroit’s Xavier Ouellet, and Dallas’ Antoine Roussel. It’ll be interesting to see if Auvitu can make it a quartet. He recently played alongside Bellemare for France at the Worlds, scoring three points in seven games.