Kings’ 70s line dominates sorry Oilers

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When will the Edmonton Oilers’ rebuild end? It certainly didn’t look like it was nearing its conclusion while the Kings cruised to a 6-1 victory Tuesday night.

Edmonton was missing some key players in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle tonight, but the Kings were without Marian Gaborik, Trevor Lewis, and defenseman Jake Muzzin, so it wasn’t like the Oilers were the only ones hurting. Sure, it was a game that featured the defending Stanley Cup champions, but Edmonton also gave up four or more goals in regulation to Calgary and Vancouver in its previous two contests.

Perhaps the most depressing part of this game for Oilers fans was seeing the heroics of the Kings’ young players. While Edmonton has endured a series of losing seasons in an attempt to build through the draft, Los Angeles has been able to have its cake and eat it too.

The Kings had the 30th overall pick in 2012 because they won the Stanley Cup and used it on Tanner Pearson, who had two goals and an assist tonight. We’re only three games into the season, but so far he’s arguably been the league’s top rookie.

His linemate Tyler Toffoli — a second round pick in 2010 — added a goal and an assist, including this shorthanded gem:

Along with Jeff Carter, Toffoli and Pearson’s ‘That 70s line’ has been one of the best trios of the young season. Dustin Brown and Justin Williams also found the back of the net in the blowout.

Jonathan Quick came within a minute of earning a shutout, but Oilers forward Matt Hendricks managed to end his bid.

That goal might be seen by some as the silver lining for Edmonton tonight, but the bigger consolation is that the season has barely gotten started. There is still more than enough time for the Oilers to turn this around and have a respectable campaign, even if they haven’t had the start they were aiming for.

Oilers goalie Fasth (groin) exits after Kings score three goals

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Kings coach Darryl Sutter had some nice things to say about Edmonton before tonight’s game, but the Oilers certainly haven’t looked like a team that can compete with the defending Stanley Cup champions so far tonight.

Compounding the Oilers’ problems was their announcement that goaltender Viktor Fasth has suffered a groin injury and will not return Tuesday. That marked the end of a rough night for him.

That 70s line of Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli, and Tanner Pearson struck again early in the first period to give the Kings the lead:

It wasn’t long before Justin Williams followed it up with his first goal of the season. The Kings’ hot unit struck again at 9:49 of the first frame thanks to Toffoli’s superb effort:

Fasth turned aside eight of the 11 shots he faced.

After starting the 2013-14 campaign with a 1-6-1 stretch, Edmonton is in danger of dropping its third straight game this season.

Defending champ Kings claim their first victory

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After a lackluster start to the season against the San Jose Sharks and a narrow loss to the Arizona Coyotes, the Los Angeles Kings have finally forced themselves into the win column. They took the lead early against the Winnipeg Jets and cruised to a 4-1 victory Sunday night.

The Marian Gaborik-Anze Kopitar duo that was so effective in the 2014 playoffs combined for their first goal of the season, but it was the line of Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli, and Tanner Pearson that led the charge tonight. The trio accounted for the Kings’ other three goals with each of them finding the back of the net.

Pearson’s goal at 2:03 of the second period made it 3-0 and chased Jets rookie goaltender Michael Hutchinson from the contest. It was just Hutchinson’s fourth career NHL game.

At the other end of the ice Martin Jones was solid, stopping 29 of 30 shots to give starter Jonathan Quick a night off after he played Saturday.

The Kings will look to build off of tonight’s success when they face Edmonton on Tuesday. For Winnipeg, this concludes a three-game road trip. The Jets will get four days off before making their home debut against Nashville on Friday.

Risk Factors: Los Angeles Kings edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Los Angeles Kings

1. They’ve played a ton of hockey recently. The Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012, went to the Western Conference Final in ’13 and won it all again last year. That made for some long springs and short summers, which didn’t leave much for the requisite rest and recuperation needed to embark on yet another 82-game regular season.

It’s fair to say all that hockey took its toll. Jonathan Quick spent the offseason and a good chunk of the preseason rehabbing his surgically-repaired wrist, which came after a ’13-14 campaign in which he missed two months with a groin injury. (Quick also underwent back surgery following L.A.’s first Cup win.)

NHL on NBC analyst Pierre McGuire referenced Quick’s health during a preseason conference call:

“I think another compounding thing is you just don’t know the health of Kings goalie Jonathan Quick (who had wrist surgery in June),” McGuire said. “I asked Jonathan if he felt a lot of young people would try and copy his goaltending style over time because he’s proven to be so successful.

“He said they may try and copy it but they’re going to end up in the emergency room.

“He plays just super aggressive and as [NBCSN executive producer] Sam Flood once said about Tim Thomas, he plays the [goalie] position like a linebacker in football. Quick does the same thing, and I worry a lot about whether he’ll have enough juice left in the tank.”

Kyle Clifford, meanwhile, was off ice this summer recovering from a broken wrist suffered during the Cup Final; Drew Doughty was absent from a large part of training camp dealing with an upper-body injury; Marian Gaborik missed four exhibition games with a groin ailment.

Part of this stems from playing so many games — lest we forget that six Kings (Quick, Doughty, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Slava Voynov) also played in Sochi — but part of this stems from the way L.A. plays. Darryl Sutter’s offense is predicated on getting pucks in deep, grinding to retrieve them, then grinding some more while keeping possession. The Kings are a big, heavy team that doesn’t shy away from taking the body, but even the strongest wear down after time.

2. They’re thinner than before. Los Angeles returns most of the team that hoisted Lord Stanley’s Mug in June, but a few key contributors are gone. Once GM Dean Lombardi made re-signing Gaborik a top priority, the resulting cap crunch meant there was no room for Willie Mitchell, a vital cog in both of Los Angeles’ championships.

Not to overstate Mitchell’s importance, but do consider this: the season he missed (2013) was the one in which L.A. failed to advance to the Final; last year, the 37-year-old blueliner averaged over 20 minutes during the regular season then expanded that role in the playoffs, bumping his TOI to 22:20 while scoring four points in 18 games.

“I miss Mitchie here on this team,” Doughty said recently, per LA Kings Insider.

The Kings’ cap crunch also cost them promising youngster Linden Vey, who was flipped to Vancouver at the draft. Though Vey only appeared in 18 games last year, he was one of three youngsters who starred in AHL Manchester and seemed destined to do good things with the parent club. The other two youngsters, of course, were Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson — both now firmly entrenched in Los Angeles on “That 70s Line.”

The Kings lost veteran depth as well. Colin Fraser left to sign in St. Louis, while free-agent acquisition Adam Cracknell was scooped off waivers by Columbus.

3. It’s really hard to repeat. As most know, there hasn’t been a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion since Detroit turned the trick in 1997 and ’98. Heck, it’s been five years since the defending champion even made it back to the Final — that was Detroit in ’09 — though L.A. and Chicago have come close in recent years.

“It’s probably the toughest trophy to win,” Sutter said at the start of camp, per LA Kings Insider. “To do it back-to-back, especially in the salary cap [era] in a parity league – I mean, if we’d have lost Game 7 to Chicago in the conference finals, then we wouldn’t be talking about it.

“It tells you how close it is.”

Part of that difficulty comes from having a big target on your back. This year, the Kings aren’t defending their title like they did in 2012 — now, they’re the two-time champions (and some people are already throwing around the dynasty label.)

This summer, it seems the rest of the Western Conference adjusted itself accordingly. After watching how much success L.A. had with its four centers — Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards — several teams set about adding depth down the middle: Anaheim acquired Ryan Kesler, Dallas traded for Jason Spezza, St. Louis inked Paul Stastny and Chicago signed Brad Richards.

It made for something of an arms race, but the Kings remain convinced their biggest challenge will come from within.

”Seems like the West is loading up, but at the end of the day, I don’t think it’s going to matter much what the other teams do,” Kopitar said, per AP. ”It’s going to matter what we do.”

Risk Factors: Chicago Blackhawks edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Chicago Blackhawks

1. Did they really solve the 2C problem? Much was made of Chicago’s lack of depth at center last year, especially in the Western Conference Final when Michal Handzus — who gamely tried to fill the second-line center spot — was overwhelmed in the playoffs.

Zeus is gone now, though, and in his place steps Brad Richards, the New York Rangers castoff that inked a modest one-year, $2 million deal to join the ‘Hawks in July. On paper, Richards is a nice fit; a veteran presence with good playmaking ability that’s been to two Stanley Cup Finals, winning once.

But that’s on paper.

There’s no denying that Richards, 34, is in the twilight of his career. The Rangers opted to buy out the remainder of his nine-year, $60 million deal this summer following a tough postseason in which he scored two points over his final 10 games and was dumped to the fourth line during the Cup Final.

Chicago will rejuvenate Richards to a certain degree. He’s going to be surrounded by talent on a (projected) line with Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, and will run the point on the second powerplay unit. But in terms of strictly upgrading the 2C position, other contenders in the West did more.

The Anaheim Ducks acquired Ryan Kesler from Vancouver to slot in behind Ryan Getzlaf. The Dallas Stars traded for Jason Spezza to play behind Tyler Seguin. The Blues, who often used David Backes as their No. 1 center last year, added Paul Stastny to the mix. And lest we forget the quality tandems already in place in Colorado (Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene) and Los Angeles (Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter).

The Western Conference has become an arms race down the middle and if you can’t keep up, you could be out — just ask Stars GM Jim Nill.

“If you want to be one of the elite teams, you have to have it,” Nill told the Globe and Mail earlier this summer. “You look at the other teams that are winning on our side now, you need to have two elite centermen.”

2. The cap crunch. Per CapGeek:

source:

“[The salary cap’s] gotten a lot of attention, and rightfully so,” Hawks GM Bowman explained, per CSN Chicago. “But what I’ve tried to say all along is that we’re going to get it worked out and we’re going to be compliant come [the start of the season].

“It’s one of those topics where we’ve had a lot of discussions internally, we know how we’re going to make it work.”

Bowman wouldn’t reveal how Chicago will get cap compliant, though many have speculated one two defensemen — Johnny Oduya or Nick Leddy — will be traded. If that happens, it’s going to chip away at one of the club’s strengths; the next men up on defense are David Rundblad, Kyle Cumiskey, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Adam Clendening, and one of them might get called into action earlier than expected now that Michal Rozsival’s sidelined with an upper-body injury.

There’s another wrinkle to this cap situation. Compliance is one thing, but what about wiggle room?

Teams like to operate with some breathing space beneath the ceiling in the event something unforeseen happens. Injuries, slumps, ineffectiveness can often cause for a roster shakeup… and then there’s the trade deadline.

The ‘Hawks were hamstrung last year, resulting in Rundblad and Peter Regin being the lone acquisitions of significance — nice pickups, but ones that were relatively minor compared to what Los Angeles (Marian Gaborik), St. Louis (Ryan Miller, Steve Ott), Anaheim (Stephane Robidas) and Minnesota (Matt Moulson) did. Granted, not all of those deals worked out and the Kings were the only Western team to best Chicago, but the value of having trade deadline flexibility can’t be understated; during Chicago’s Cup championship in 2013, the Handzus pickup proved invaluable.

3. Age and health. Rozsival (36), Marian Hossa (35), Richards (34), Oduya (33), Patrick Sharp (33 in December) and Duncan Keith (31) have played an awful lot of hockey over the last two years, be it regular season — especially during the condensed ’13 campaign — playoffs, and international (everybody but Richards played in the Sochi Winter Olympics.)

At some point, it’s going to have an effect.

As mentioned above, Rozsival is currently sidelined with an upper-body injury. Hossa’s been dealing with a lower-body issue throughout camp and has a lengthy history of ailments while Sharp looked lethargic at times during last year’s run to the Western Conference Final, scoring just two goals in his first 14 games.

Health-wise, one of the more underrated stories over the last two seasons was the durability of Chicago’s regulars. Patrick Kane missed 12 games last year to a lower-body ailment, which was a rarity; he’s played 80 games or more four times in his career (and played 47 of 48 during the lockout-shortened ’13 season). Bryan Bickell missed 23 games with a variety of bumps and bruises, yet rebounded to show up when he often does — in the playoffs — scoring seven goals in 19 games.

But in the NHL, injuries are unavoidable. The grind and physical toll often wears down even the fittest of players and we’re talking about a collection of Blackhawks players that are getting older and have played a remarkable amount of games over the last 24 months.