Los Angeles Kings season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 7:43 PM ET
ESPN.com

Los Angeles Kings

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

Three years down the road, we may be talking Cinderella or dark horse or up-and-comer when we talk about the Los Angeles Kings, especially with Dean Lombardi's brilliant acquisition of potential blue stud Jack Johnson late in training camp from Carolina. Now, though, there's just the vague notion of a foundation amidst the rubble of a team that's missed the playoffs for three straight seasons and hasn't won a playoff round since 2001. Their best player, Pavol Demitra, was dealt for a prospect. They have no defined No. 1 goalie. They lack any kind of offensive depth. They are coming off a season in which their power play was ranked 29th and the penalty kill was ranked 30th. Hmmm. No wonder the L.A. Times stopped covering the team on the road.

Offense: There are three legitimate offensive players up front in Alexander Frolov, Craig Conroy and Mike Cammalleri who followed up a stellar lockout season in the AHL with 26 goals last season. He can't afford to tail off. After that, well, let's just say it's uninspiring. Watch for Marc Crawford to give Alyn McCauley, one of the game's consummate two-way players, more offensive leash. McCauley had 20 goals in 2003-04 for San Jose and will have to return to at least that level to help nudge the Kings toward a playoff berth. Patrick O'Sullivan has a ton of skill and will be the future of the Kings down the middle coming over from Minnesota for Demitra. He had 93 points in the AHL a season ago and will get a chance to prove he's NHL-ready this fall. The diamond in the rough offensively is Anze Kopitar, another center, selected 11th overall in the 2005 draft. It might still be too early for him, but if he's half as good as scouts think, he and O'Sullivan make a nice one-two tandem down the middle.

Defense: The blue line is where you'll find the Kings' pinning their playoff hopes this season, and now with the acquisition of Johnson, for the future. Rob Blake, putting the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame career at age 36, rejoins the franchise that drafted him back in 1988. Blake struggled out of the gate a season ago, but by the end of the season was back in All-Star form. He will help shoulder the load with captain Mattias Norstrom, one of the most underrated defensemen in the league. Veteran Aaron Miller played in only 56 games last year as injury took its toll, costing the Buffalo native a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. But if he can return to his steady form and last year's breakout defender of the year, Lubomir Visnovsky, can build on his team-best 67 points, the Kings will be OK on the back end.

Goaltending: Coach Marc Crawford brought along former Vancouver netminder Dan Cloutier to Los Angeles, which further muddies a pretty murky goaltending situation. When he's been on, Cloutier's put up impressive numbers, winning 97 regular-season games over a three-season period for the Canucks leading up to last season. But the highly strung Cloutier has never delivered playoff success and he has a history of breaking down physically. Last season, he played in just 13 games, although he was 8-3-1. Given his history with Crawford, look for Cloutier to have an edge over the streaky Mathieu Garon, who has a leg up on former AHL MVP Jason LaBarbera, a former Ranger prospect. The problem will be that none has a collective leg up on opposing scorers.

Coaching: There's no doubt Crawford can coach. He's got a Stanley Cup on his résumé to prove it from his days in Colorado, where he broke into the head coaching ranks. But he could never quite get a talented Vancouver team to reach its potential and the team came apart last season, missing the playoffs after four straight postseason appearances. One wonders if Crawford can summon the energy to motivate a team that is a long shot to make the playoffs. The other question is what kind of system he'll impose for a team that is far less talented up front than the Canucks.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
15th Not enough scoring and not enough goaltending will doom the Los Angeles Kings to a fifth-place finish in the Pacific Division, a 15th-place ticket in the Western Conference and a chance at the first-overall draft pick.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Down
Stock down. The Kings were 12th overall in average attendance. Not making the playoffs for three straight seasons won't create much of a buzz around the team, and unless they pull off a season-long Miracle on Manchester, that's not going to change.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
There will be big roles for Mike Cammalleri and Alexander Frolov, and a great shot for rookie Patrick O'Sullivan to step in and make an immediate fantasy impact. But there are plenty of key veterans to help guide them, including perhaps the best power-play quarterback in the game in Rob Blake, and another scoring specialist on the blue line in Lubomir Visnovsky. Despite the addition of Dan Cloutier, though, avoid the goalie mix for fantasy. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Kings:
1. Anze Kopitar, C, 19, Sodertalje
Statline: 47 GP, 8 G, 12 A, 28 PIM
2. Lauri Tukonen, 20, RW, Manchester (AHL)
Statline: 62 GP, 14 G, 22 A, 20 PIM
3. Patrick O'Sullivan, 21, C, Houston
Statline: 78 GP, 47 G, 46 A, 64 PIM
4. Konstantin Pushkarev, 21, C, Manchester (AHL)
Statline: 77 GP, 19 G, 19 A, 95 PIM
5. Brian Boyle, 21, C, Boston College (HE)
Statline: 40 GP, 22 G, 30 A, 90 PIM
• Subscribe to The Hockey News

Los Angeles Kings
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record42-35-5 (89 points)
DivisionFinished fourth in Pacific
ConferenceFinished 10th in West
PlayoffsDid not qualify/td>

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Patrick O'Sullivan
The rookie of the year in the AHL last season has oodles of talent and now comes with no small measure of pressure having been traded for the Kings' best player, Pavol Demitra.
Winger: Alyn McCauley
McCauley is smart and has better-than-average skill. He'll quickly become a leader in the Kings' dressing room.
Defense: Lubomir Visnovsky
The talented Slovak fairly exploded last season with 67 points. His 17 goals more than doubled his best NHL season. If he takes another step forward folks will be chanting "Norris, Norris, Norris."
Goalie: Dan Cloutier
First, can he stay healthy? Second can he play well enough if he's healthy to keep the Kings close? What was the first question again?

Key Moves
GM Dean Lombardi was clearly thinking down the road when he dealt Demitra to Minnesota for O'Sullivan and his acquisition of the blue chip Johnson was a coup. Signing McCauley to a long-term deal will also solidify the leadership situation into the future. Rob Blake will certainly help although fans will wonder where the years went. The player they'll most miss is likely to be defenseman Joe Corvo now in Ottawa. Corvo was Visnovsky's partner and a big part of his success.

SportsNation
Rating the Kings
The Los Angeles Kings finished 10th in the Western Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Kings in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
Vote now, SportsNation!