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.

WATCH LIVE: Florida Panthers at Washington Capitals

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The Washington Capitals, fresh off of a 4-3 overtime win on Friday night thanks to Alex Ovechkin‘s NHL record 20th overtime goal, return home on Saturday night to host the Florida Panthers.

After winning their first two games of the season the Capitals have stumbled a little bit over the past couple of weeks winning just two of their past six games. They are looking to win consecutive games for the first time since those back-to-back wins to open the season.

The Panthers, meanwhile, are coming off of a 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night that cost them goaltender Roberto Luongo who was placed on injured reserve on Saturday afternoon.

You can catch all of the action on NBCSN. Game time is 7:30 p.m. ET.

Click here to watch live.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Red Wings trade Riley Sheahan to Penguins for Scott Wilson

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It was simply a matter of when, and not if the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to swing a trade in an effort to improve their center depth.

On Saturday, they finally completed such a deal.

They hope.

The Penguins acquired forward Riley Sheahan and a 2018 fifth-round draft pick from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for forward Scott Wilson and a 2018 third-round draft pick.

The move accomplishes something for both teams.

For the Red Wings, it helps them clear some necessary cap space following the new one-year deal for Andreas Athanasiou while the Penguins get some much needed center depth.

After losing Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen over the summer in free agency the Penguins did not make any corresponding moves to fill those spots. They opened the season with Greg McKegg and Carter Rowney occupying those spots. While they have done a solid job so far there was obviously still some room for improvement.

The question is whether or not Sheahan can help provide that.

Sheahan, 25, has had some reasonable success in the NHL scoring 27 goals between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

Since then, however, he has been mired in one of the most unbelievable goal scoring droughts in recent memory, scoring just two goals (both in the final game of the 2016-17 season) in his past 88 games. He has a shooting percentage of just 1.7 percent.

One way to look at it if you are the Penguins: He has to be due to bust out of that drought at some point because players that have shown the ability to score close to 15 goals in the NHL don’t typically lose that when they are still 25 years old. Perhaps a fresh start, in a new situation with better teammates around him can help him along. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that has happened in recent years with the Penguins (looking at you, Justin Schultz).

As for Wilson, he has appeared in 108 NHL games with the Penguins scoring 13 goals to go with 19 assists. He scored goals in 20 playoff games during the Penguins’ Stanley Cup run a year ago. Given the Penguins’ depth on the wings, as well as the potential for a mid-season callup for Daniel Sprong there just was not much room for him in Pittsburgh.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Simmonds goes from game-time decision to game-winner for Flyers vs. Oilers

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With extra protection on his face and at least a couple ailments slowing him down, Wayne Simmonds wasn’t even a sure-thing to play for the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday. In true hockey player fashion, Simmonds ended up being the difference-maker.

(That’s so hockey, right?)

Simmonds finished off some fantastic work from Jori Lehtera and Valtteri Filppula to score the decisive goal in the Flyers’ tight 2-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers this afternoon:

The gritty-but-talented winger also made his usual havoc in front of the net as part of Philly’s vaunted power play, ultimately getting the primary assist on Claude Giroux‘s goal:

This victory moves the Flyers to 5-3-0 in this young season, with three wins coming in their last four games. They’ve shown an ability to limit opponents lately, too; the Flyers have only allowed three goals in as many games and five in their last four.

While the Flyers stayed in the merciless Metro’s arms race, the Oilers feel punchless once again.

Their only goal was somewhat random, as Patrick Maroon made a great play, and a rare tally without the help of Connor McDavid:

It doesn’t really kill the trend of the Oilers relying far too much on McDavid and his top line. Maroon and McDavid fired eight of Edmonton’s 24 shots on goal in this contest, with another eight coming from the Oilers’ blueline.

Some of these top-heavy struggles come down to the structure put in place by GM Peter Chiarelli. Still, you wonder if head coach Todd McLellan needs to make some tweaks where he can, as the Oilers are asking a lot of a small group. (Ryan Strome continues to be a disappointment, as he didn’t register a single shot on goal after showing some life with nine SOG in his past two games.)

There’s also the impression that the Oilers sorely need Leon Draisaitl to carry his own line whenever he can return from concussion issues. Even in their slump-breaking victory on Thursday, they needed two McDavid assists, including one of the best you’ll ever see.

The Oilers close off a three-game road trip in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, then maybe they’ll get a chance to gather their wits with a five-game homestand (though their opponents aren’t always the easiest).

Meanwhile, the upstart Flyers aim to win four of five during a solid homestand. What a difference a goal (and Wayne Simmonds) makes.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Lundqvist sharp, Rangers scrappy against Predators to end slump

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Is it melodramatic to say that the New York Rangers needed this one?

Whatever weight you put on it, the Rangers finally broke a troubling five-game losing streak, managing a 4-2 win against the Nashville Predators at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. The Predators saw a streak end in their own right, as they had been on a 4-0-1 run.

MORE: Rangers are still in for a steep climb in the Metro

As much as this was a confidence-booster, it was sometimes a sleepy afternoon effort by the Rangers. After generating a 2-0 lead in the first period, New York snoozed at times, only firing six shots on goal on Juuse Saros during the final 40 minutes.

Whether it came down to sitting on a lead or the Predators pressing on the gas, Henrik Lundqvist had to be alert at times in stopping 23 of 25 shots. One of his best efforts came in snubbing Colton Sissons in close:

In winning his 407th career regular-season game, Lundqvist tied Glenn Hall for ninth all-time in NHL history.

The Rangers were opportunistic on Saturday, a positive sign for a team that hasn’t always been getting the bounces early in 2017-18.

Kevin Hayes exerted his will at times, assisting on the Rangers’ opening goal and powering past Matt Irwin for what would stand as the game-winner:

Impressive stuff by Hayes, even if it was almost an equally lousy showing by Irwin.

Ryan Ellis is clearly missed by Nashville, but moments like Irwin’s lapse and Alexei Emelin flailing badly on the opening goal make one wonder why, exactly, Samuel Girard isn’t getting more looks after some promising early showings. With Irwin and Yannick Weber logging less than 11 minutes on Saturday, both P.K. Subban (27:55) and Roman Josi (27:31) flirted with 28-minute workloads despite the contest ending in regulation.

The Predators likely cringed a little extra at the empty-net goal since it came via former Preds prospect Jimmy Vesey:

If the Rangers want to get back on track, they’ll need to win in a number of ways, even if they’re not always pretty ones like this one was.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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