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.

WATCH LIVE: Arizona Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 07:  Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks skates with the puck against the Oliver Ekman-Larsson #23 of the Phoenix Coyotes in the second period at Jobing.com Arena on February 7, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
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Winners of seven of their past eight, the Chicago Blackhawks are back home on Thursday night to take on the Arizona Coyotes.

The Blackhawks have been on a roll lately, especially offensively, scoring 34 goals in their past eight games. They have scored at least four goals in seven of those games. Captain Jonathan Toews has been doing a lot of the work offensively lately and is having a huge second half after a disappointing start to the season offensively.

On Thursday they host a Coyotes team that has shown a lot of improvement in recent weeks, putting together an 8-4-1 record since Jan. 20.

Puck drop for Thursday is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET and you can catch all off the action on NBCSN or on our Live Stream.

Click here for the Live Stream

Preview: Jonathan Toews looks to stay hot against Coyotes

Penguins’ Rutherford would prefer to keep Fleury this season

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 11:  Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins makes a pad save on a shot from the Arizona Coyotes during the first period of the NHL game at Gila River Arena on February 11, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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For the better part of the past year it has always been a matter of when, and not if, the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to part ways with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Matt Murray has taken over as the starter, and given his age, salary, and the fact he has simply outplayed Fleury since the end of the 2015-16 season he is going to continue to be the starter for the long-term.

But through months of speculation and rumors Fleury has remained with the Penguins. With the NHL trade deadline less than a week away, general manager Jim Rutherford addressed the situation on Thursday and said that it continues to be his preference to keep Fleury with the team through the rest of the season.

“I’m going to say what I’ve said all along. I’d prefer to keep him,” Rutherford said, via NHL.com “We play a lot of games in March. You don’t know when players are going to get hurt. He’s handled the situation very well. I’m going to have some communication with him in between now and the [deadline] and see exactly where he sits and how he feels. That will play a part in the final decision. But I’m not going to get too far ahead of myself because he very well could be a part of our team going down the stretch.”

That all very well could be true.

Fleury is a great safety net to have on the roster in case something happens to Murray (Murray has been injured on more than one occasion in the early part of his career), but he still carries a significant salary cap hit and the Penguins, pressed right up against the cap, would probably still like to make another addition or two before the deadline.

Even though it is almost certainly not on the Penguins’ radar at the moment, there is also the expansion draft issue over the summer.

Trading him sooner, rather than later, would clear out a lot of potential headaches and give them some short-term flexibility when it comes to adding to a team that is already a Stanley Cup contender.

But even if the Penguins would want to go in that direction right now the biggest obstacle in actually completing a trade before the deadline is just how soft the market is for starting goaltenders. Looking at the teams that are in a position to be buyers there are really only one or two that would be in the market for a starting goalie — Calgary, and maybe St. Louis. Pretty much every other playoff team — or potential playoff team — is set in net.

It takes two teams to make a trade, and right now there might not be another out there that makes sense as a partner.

Ducks prospect Max Jones suspended 10 games in OHL for cross-check

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Max Jones celebrates with the Anaheim Ducks after being selected 24th overall during round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Anaheim Ducks prospect Max Jones is in some trouble in the OHL once again.

The league announced on Thursday that Jones, selected by the Ducks in the first round (No. 24 overall) of the 2016 NHL draft, has been suspended 10 games for a cross-checking incident that occurred during Friday’s London Knights-Owen Sound Attack game.

He has already served two games of the suspension.

The incident happened in the third period of the the Knights’ 6-1 loss just after the Attack’s Jonah Gadjovich scored his third goal of the game. Jones ended up getting ejected from the game along with a five-minute major for cross-checking.

Here is a look at the incident.

This is not the first time Jones has been hammered with a double-digit game suspension in the OHL. He was also suspended for 12 games during last year’s playoffs for a nasty head shot on Justin Brack in a game that was also against Owen Sound.

Jones is a talented player that has averaged close to a point per game the past two years in the OHL (including 32 points in 29 games this season) but he has also shown a tendency to cross the line when it comes to physical play. Along with these two suspensions that have totaled 22 games the past two years he has also been assessed 166 penalty minutes. During the 2014-15 season when he was a member of the U.S. National Under-17 team he picked up 112 penalty minutes … in 21 games.

Pre-game reading: Clayton Keller tops a good list to top

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— Up top, Bob McKenzie explains how the bye week is going to work next season, and why it’s going to be changed.

— Who are the best prospects who have yet to graduate to their NHL teams? TSN’s Craig Button has put together his list of the top 50, and it’s headed by Coyotes draft pick Clayton Keller. Writes Button: “Keller’s sleight of hand is matched by a creative mind that allows him to be dangerous every time he’s on the ice. The Arizona Coyotes prospect is an electrifying player who is highly productive.” (TSN)

— In which Mike Babcock admits he’s “said lots of dumb things and handled situations fairly poorly at times.” The Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach also shares his philosophy on the job, and talks about how to handle the pressures of being a bench boss. (Sportsnet)

— What is the market for Ottawa’s Curtis Lazar? At first glance, it doesn’t seem all that strong. The 22-year-old former 17th overall draft pick has no goals and just one assist in 32 games for the Senators this season. Hence, all the trade rumors. But as noted by TSN’s Travis Yost, Nino Niederreiter went through a similar year with the Islanders, and he’s turned out pretty well since being dealt to the Wild. (TSN)

— Why the Vancouver Canucks need to be sellers at the trade deadline, by Postmedia’s Jason Botchford, who writes: “For another season, the retool has been exposed a fraud, and there aren’t any options left this week. The Canucks have to rebuild their player base, and the next step in doing it has to be trading veterans for assets — preferably draft picks.” (National Post)

— What’s it like to be a general manager on deadline day? Here’s how Flames GM Brad Treliving puts it: “The trade deadline is like five lanes merging into one. … With each hour that goes by there’s an excitement level building, but you have to block all of that out and be methodical in your approach and then have a sense of when it’s the right time to strike.”  (Yahoo Sports)

Enjoy the games!