L.A. Kings off to hot start

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In a sprawling interview with The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun (sub required), former Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi notes that he predicted a hot start for his old team.

Few others saw a 10-2-2 start coming for an aging roster that missed the playoffs in two of the last three seasons and hasn’t won a playoff round since their 2014 Stanley Cup run.

This post takes a look at 1) the factors playing into such a hot start and 2) what might continue versus what should change.

Stars reborn

Most obviously, Jonathan Quick has been healthy, and he’s been absolutely brilliant.

With a blistering .939 save percentage through 11 games, the American-born goalie is matching great numbers to his considerable athleticism in a way that he hasn’t always been able to manage during his polarizing career. (Mainstream types sometimes overrated Quick, while analytics-minded folks might have gone to excessive extremes to refute such praise over the years.)

With all that was going on for the Kings, it’s easy for some to forget that Quick only appeared in 17 games last season.

If healthy, Quick is a difference-maker, but he’s almost certain to slip from his lofty perch; his career save percentage is .916, and he’s come in that range for the past four seasons.

Much has already been made about the resurgence of Dustin Brown, as you can see here and here. Chances are, a lot of his success will be tied to whether or not he can stick with a revitalized Anze Kopitar on the Kings’ top line.

Expect some of the Kings’ top scorers to slip, at least to an extent, as Kopitar (18.9) and Brown (13.3) are shooting at a higher percentage than they have in some time. The drop-off may only be extreme for Adrian Kempe, though, as he’s connected on a third of his shots on goal so far.

The most fascinating transformation may be for Drew Doughty.

For years, Doughty’s all-around work has made him one of the go-to examples for a player who’s “better in reality than fantasy.” So far, Doughty has 10 points in 14 games, putting him in a position to match or exceed his career-high of 59 points. Doughty’s 6.8 shooting percentage is right in line with his career average of 6.3, so … maybe we’ll see him put up the box score numbers he’s often lacked?

The future

OK, so let’s consider team-wide elements of this Kings’ run.

Not your older brother’s Kings?

Looking at team-based possession stats from Natural Stat Trick, the Kings may not be the puck-dominant squad under John Stevens that they once were under Darryl Sutter. After leading the pack for years in stats like Corsi For Percentage – sometimes by significant margins – they’re currently in the middle of the pack.

It will be fascinating to see if this carries through 82 regular-season games, and if this ends up being “all by design” to increase high-danger chances at the expense of volume.

Some luck, no doubt

As you might expect with a team exceeding expectations, the Kings are getting a lot of bounces in their favor.

Their PDO (a team’s shooting percentage plus save percentage, which is a leading indicator of luck) is 102.3 at even-strength according to Natural Stat Trick, putting them high among the NHL’s ranks.

While their shooting percentage should come down, it’s the work of Quick & Co. in net that will be the toughest to keep going.

Not all negative

One bright spot for the Kings is that they’re on this roll with Jeff Carter either limited or out of the lineup altogether.

Carter is coming off a magnificent 32-goal, 66-point season, which marked a third consecutive year where he generated 60+ points for L.A. So far, he had three assists and zero goals in six games. With Carter turning 33 on New Year’s day, there’s some concern that he may finally be hitting the wall many snipers splat into.

Still, even if he might dip a bit, you could reasonably expect that Carter might help ease some of the regression if the bounces stop going the Kings’ way. Perhaps low-shooting-percentage guys like intriguing youngster Alex Iafallo and solid winger Tanner Pearson may heat up during times when things aren’t going so smoothly for Kopitar, too?

***

One thing people often forget is that, even in the best of times, the Sutter – Lombardi Kings rarely did things the easy way.

Putting Sutter on the bench saved the Kings’ season in 2011-12, and L.A. was ranked third in its division during both of his championship runs. This franchise hasn’t won a division since it was labeled Smythe.

The greatest value in starting 10-2-2 might be the simplest: those wins and standings points are already in the bank. Theoretically, the Kings could be run-of-the-mill for long stretches and still enjoy one of their best regular seasons in memory.

Such a stretch might allow the Kings to rest their aging core players like Kopitar, Brown, Quick, and Doughty if (in a rare event) they don’t need to scratch and claw just to clinch a playoff berth.

Actually, the real fun could also come during the trade deadline: will GM Rob Blake push the right buttons with a team whose ceiling is still difficult to measure?

Overall, the Kings are playing over their heads, but maybe not enough to soothe their haters.

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.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced Friday that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.

Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

“I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

“It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

“We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”