Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.
Want more on the Kings? Check these posts out:
[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]
1. Can Jonathan Quick do it again?
After a tough 2016-17 campaign where he was limited to just 17 games played, Jonathan Quick produced a very nice 2017-18 season. It was one of the American netminder’s best in the NHL; while his 33-28-3 record didn’t blow anyone away, Quick generated a nice .921 save percentage.
Such work was especially notable because, after hogging the puck under Darryl Sutter, the Kings opened things up – by their standards – thus making life a little tougher on their goalies. They were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed (according to Natural Stat Trick), for instance. This isn’t to say that they turned into Swiss cheese, yet there was a give-and-take, and Quick handled the change well.
Can he do it again in 2018-19? And if he cannot – or if Quick gets hurt – will the Kings crumble?
For much of last season, the Kings enjoyed strong backup work from Darcy Kuemper, but the team traded him to Arizona before the deadline.
It’s plausible that there could be a bigger drop-off from Quick to everyone else, then.
If nothing else, though, the Kings have options behind him. Jack Campbell showed some of that first-round promise, albeit in a small sample size, so he might help here and there in a pinch. The Kings also brought back Peter Budaj. On one hand, the journeyman goalie is already 35. On the other, he’s not that far removed from success with Los Angeles, as he surprised with a .917 save percentage over 53 games in 2016-17.
2. Will veterans deliver or hit the wall?
Quick, 32, isn’t the only Kings player who’s accrued a lot of mileage, yet will be counted upon to carry them down the road in 2018-19.
Drew Doughty is still in his prime at 28, but any sign of decay would provide some concern with that eight-year, $88M extension not even kicking in until 2019-20.
Jeff Carter, Dion Phaneuf, and Dustin Brown are all 33. Anze Kopitar is 30, while we discussed the risk-reward scenario regarding 35-year-old addition Ilya Kovalchuk here. Alec Martinez is 31, and even Jake Muzzin could lose a step at 29.
The margin between victory and defeat can be pretty small in sports, so even moderate slippage can be a concern for the Kings.
3. More days of the new?
The Kings picked up the pace last season, and they also saw some young players emerge. Head coach John Stevens must continue to strive for the ideal balance between putting veterans in a position to continue to succeed, allowing young players to thrive, and adapting the team’s structure to be more modern than what was seen under Darryl Sutter.
(After all, it would be silly to throw out everything Sutter put in place, considering how effective the Kings previously were at hogging the puck.)
When it comes to seeing youthful talent ascend, some of that may come down to giving more ice time to someone like Adrian Kempe.
Training camp could also be crucial for the growth of Gabriel Vilardi, an intriguing forward who slipped – slightly – to the Kings at the 11th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.
“Gabe, he’s got a big presence out there,” Kings front office member Mike O’Connell said, via NHL.com’s Dan Greenspan. “He sees the ice really well. He finds his teammates. He’s going to be a tough guy to stop. He still has work to do, as most players do when they first start, but it looks good. It’s a good foundation. I think he should fit right in.”
If the Kings can integrate Vilardi into the lineup, then they may finally get some supporting scoring to go with what has frequently been a top-heavy offensive approach. An injection of young talent could go from a nice luxury to a bare necessity if question 2 doesn’t work out so well for the Kings, too.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.