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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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: What happens if Preds don’t turn season around?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

It’s no secret that Predators general manager David Poile felt like his team needed a signficant change or two heading into this season. During the summer, he went out and unloaded some big money and he spent some on the free-agent market, too. But now that we’re four months into the season, we can say that those changes haven’t really worked.

The first significant move the Preds made was unloading P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils. The trade didn’t net Nashville a big return, but it was clear that they were just looking to offload his $9 million cap charge and that’s exactly what they did.

Poile then turned around and used that money to sign free-agent center Matt Duchene to a seven-year, $56 million deal. Duchene was one of the top players to hit the open market and the Predators clearly needed an upgrade up front and down the middle. No one questioned the fit because it filled a need.

Trading Subban proved to be a wise decision. His play in New Jersey has left a lot to be desired and you have to wonder whether or not a previous injury has slowed him down for good. But giving Duchene $8 million per year hasn’t exactly paid off yet either. Through 45 games, the 29-year-old has 10 goals and 32 points.

It’s not just on Duchene though.

Poile has already fired head coach Peter Laviolette and his replacement, John Hynes, is 3-4-0 with his new team through seven games. Sure, that’s a small sample size, but coaching changes are supposed to give teams new life. Sometimes that burst lasts a short while, sometimes it goes on longer, but the Preds haven’t really seen a change in their results.

“Every year and every team you go through different challenges, and there’s different things that present teams positively and negatively,” Hynes said, per the Nashville Post. “Right now our biggest task from the coaches to the players is finding a way [to] put multiple games together, [to] put full games together.

“So, it’s on everybody — the coaches and the players. The good thing is we know what the challenge is. It’s not like you’re at a dartboard. I think we know exactly what we have to take care of, and that’s part of what our challenge is as a group and that’s what we have to overcome.”

Heading into tonight’s non-conference game, they find themselves six points back of Vegas for the final Wild Card spot. The good news is that they have four games in hand on the Golden Knights. The bad news is that they have to leap over four teams to get into a playoff spot.

So, what happens if they don’t turn the season around?

On a somewhat positive note, the Predators have most of their own picks in the upcoming NHL Draft. Unlike San Jose, they didn’t sacrifice their first-round pick in any trade. On the contrary, they added a second-round draft pick from New Jersey in the Subban deal.

Still, this is a team that had long playoff aspirations this season.

Would Poile get the boot? It’s possible, but unlikely. This is the first time the Preds would miss the playoffs in a while and you’d have to think that the long-time GM would get the benefit of the doubt.

Whether they keep him or not, they’ll have some interesting roster decisions to make.

Is Ryan Johansen working out? How can they unload Kyle Turris? How much do they pay free-agent to be Mikael Granlund? Can they address their bottom pairing on defense? Is the Pekka Rinne, Juuse Saros duo good enough?

These are all legitimate questions that will need answering this summer if these players don’t get things turned around.

Johansen is arguably the most intriguing case.

He has five years remaining on his contract at a cap hit of $8 million. He’s still just 27 years old and if they wanted to move him, they could probably do that. But that still leaves them lacking a productive centerman.

What they really need to determine is whether or not their Stanley Cup window is closed. That will impact how they answer all the other questions on our list. With the way the roster is built and the age of some their players, it’s hard to envision the Predators thinking they don’t have a chance to turn things around quickly. Blowing this up after this year is a little premature. But if they don’t make the playoffs, something has to give. They’re going to have to fix the blemishes on the roster and that won’t be easy.

Liam McHugh will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Anson Carter and Keith Jones and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Mike Tirico will handle play-by-play duties for Caps-Preds on Wednesday Night Hockey alongside analyst Mike Milbury and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Brian Boucher from Capital One Arena in Washington D.C.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Our Line Starts podcast: All-Star reactions, handicapping the Pacific Divison

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Liam McHugh, Anson Carter, and Keith Jones give their impressions of All-Star Weekend, including rave reviews on St. Louis as a host city. Pierre McGuire interviews Dallas GM Jim Nill, and Anson tells you what Rodney Dangerfield and Ben Bishop have in common. Plus, the guys handicap the uber-tight Pacific Division entering the stretch run.

Start-1:50 Intros
1:50-8:00 Reaction to All-Star Weekend
8:00-14:45 Battle of Alberta heats up again
14:45-26:30 Pierre interviews Jim Nill
26:30-32:35 How far can Stars go?
32:35-end Handicapping the Pacific Division

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

PHT Morning Skate: Weber’s comeback year; Where should Bolts upgrade?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• If the Predators continue struggling, they’ll have to ask themselves some tough questions. (The Hockey News)

• There’s several reasons why there should be concern in Winnipeg, according to Travis Yost. (TSN.ca)

• The Jets have an issue on defense and there’s no easy way to address it. (Arctic Hockey)

Chris Tanev has helped Quinn Hughes settle into the NHL. (Sportsnet)

Shea Weber is having a great comeback season and people around the NHL are noticing. (The Score)

• Dave Andreychuk answered five questions from NHL.com. (NHL)

Boone Jenner is playing big defensive minutes for Columbus, but is that working out? (The Cannon)

• How have the Bruins done in their own end this season? (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• It’s officially time to call the Canadiens sellers. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Which position should Lightning GM Julien BriseBois consider upgrading before the trade deadline? (Raw Charge)

• The Coyotes added Taylor Hall via trade in December. Is it time for them to keep buying? (Five For Howling)

• On the Forecheck breaks down the untouchables and the tradable players on the Preds roster. (On the Forecheck)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Blues edge Flames in shootout; Eichel sets new career high

The St. Louis Blues celebrate their 5-4 shootout win over the Calgary Flames
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Three Stars

1) David Perron, St. Louis Blues

After making the All-Star Game for the first time in his NHL career, Perron started the second half of the season with a two-game point streak. He added a goal, an assist and a shootout tally as the Blues defeated the Flames 5-4 in a back-and-forth battle that ended in the skills competition. The 31-year-old forward notched his 22nd of the season when he hammered home a loose puck in front to knot the game at 2-2 late in the first period. Perron also made a nifty pass to help St. Louis exit the zone before Zach Sanford tied the game early in the final frame. Additionally, the Blues snapped a three-game losing streak.

2) Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames

The Flames alternate captain is still a bit behind his 82-point total pace from last year after surpassing his previous career-high by 18 points set the season before. Monahan remains a critical piece in the Flames’ lineup as they prepare for a playoff push in the tightly contested Pacific Division. The 25-year-old recorded his 400th career point when he snapped off a wrist shot from the slot at 15:43 of the first period to give Calgary a 2-1 lead at the time. He would go on to record his second of the game, another wrister from the slot, early in the middle frame to even the score at 3-3.

3) Mark Borowiecki, Ottawa Senators

It’s not often an empty-net goal helps an NHL player land on this list, but Borowiecki’s game-sealing tally late in the third period was quite the play in the Senators’ 5-2 win against the Sabres. Ottawa’s alternate captain willingly went down on one knee in order to block a one-timer from Marcus Johansson to help preserve a one-goal lead at the time. After the block, Borowiecki quickly gathered himself, collected a loose puck and fired it off the boards into the empty cage. The Senators lead the NHL with 11 shorthanded goals.

Highlights of the Night

Blues forward Robert Thomas feathered a beautiful cross-ice pass between a couple of Calgary Flames to set up Alexander Steen to open the scoring.

In his 500th NHL game, Jaden Schwartz recorded his 17th of the season when he redirected a pretty pass from Brayden Schenn.

[RELATED: Predators facing difficult road in playoff push | How the Canucks climbed to top of Pacific Division]

Blooper of the Night

Who should get credit for this empty-net goal?

Stat of the Night

Scores

Ottawa Senators 5, Buffalo Sabres 2

St. Louis Blues 5, Calgary Flames 4 (SO)

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.