2008-09 Team Preview: Los Angeles Kings
Andy Devlin/NHLI/Getty Images
OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Scott BurnsideYou ever see a diamond when they dig it out of the ground? It doesn't look like the stuff the starlets are wearing on the red carpet on Academy Awards night. The Los Angeles Kings are diamonds in the rough, to be sure.
Few would debate that the Kings have assembled an enviable collection of raw young talent, including Jack Johnson, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov, Thomas Hickey and Colton Teubert. But what does it all mean when it comes to assessing the coming season? Can anyone say draft lottery again?
Last season, GM Dean Lombardi tried to accelerate the team's improvement by bringing in veteran free agents like Rob Blake, Kyle Calder, Ladislav Nagy and Michal Handzus. It didn't work out particularly well and now Blake, Nagy, Lubomir Visnovsky and Mike Cammalleri are gone along with former coach Marc Crawford. Veteran coaching figure Terry Murray comes in with a mandate to try and teach the kids something about two-way hockey with the hopes the fresh-faced Kings won't embarrass themselves too badly. "We're trying to grow together. When we get some experience, we'll be a pretty good team," Kopitar said in an interview before training camp. But it may happen sooner than people think, he said. "It depends on how we're going to rise to the challenge."
The thing about the Kings is they have the potential to light it up on any given night. Although they finished tied with Tampa for dead last in the league with 71 points, they were a respectable 13th in goals per game and 17th on the power play. Those numbers should remain constant, if not improve, with the continued growth of superstar-in-waiting Kopitar and the emergence of Brown as a top-flight winger.
Patrick O'Sullivan would be a big help, but he missed the start of training camp in a contract dispute. Johnson should also chip in more than the three goals and eight assists he did in 74 games as a rookie.
Jarret Stoll comes over from Edmonton in the Visnovsky deal and hopes to replicate his success during the Oilers' run to the Cup finals in 2005-06, when he had 68 points. Assuming O'Sullivan's appearance at some point, the Kings now boast a nice trio of centers with Kopitar, Stoll and O'Sullivan.
Everywhere you look, there's a top-notch defensive prospect in a Kings jersey. Or waiting to put one on. With Blake heading up the coast to San Jose and Visnovsky now in Edmonton, the resident Crash Davis is the one-time-hard-hitting Denis Gauthier, who bounced from Phoenix to Philadelphia and then ended up buried in the minors. Can he make a go of it as an NHLer again? If he can, he'll be a nice tutor for the young Kings blueliners. Still, this promises to be another long season for a team that ranked 28th in goals allowed per game and dead last killing penalties.
New coach Terry Murray recently announced former AHL goalie of the year Jason LaBarbera was going to be his No. 1 netminder even though he's failed to establish himself as a viable NHL starter in the past. LaBarbera, 28, is also coming off sports hernia surgery and a season in which he appeared in 45 games and recorded a 3.00 GAA and .910 save percentage. Jonathan Quick and Erik Ersberg are battling for the backup job, while top goaltending prospect Jonathan Bernier was recently sent down to the AHL for seasoning.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in L.A. is the knowledge that when this crop of youngsters starts to mature and find their way, the Kings' future will be bright. Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jack Johnson, Teddy Purcell, Thomas Hickey, Jonathan Bernier and 2008 first-round pick Drew Doughty are all solid building blocks, and it is just a matter of time.
New coach Terry Murray will have to find a way to bring them along as quickly and as smartly as possible. As I once discussed with then-Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella when Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Ruslan Fedotenko and Pavel Kubina were 20, 21 or 22 years old and we were trying to find our way, our challenge was to get them to think and play like 25-, 26- and 27-year-olds in less than the requisite number of calendar years. The same is true in L.A.; the faster it can happen, the sooner the Kings will become a playoff team.
The Kings also need a big bounce-back season from Michal Handzus. The big man is too talented and too good not be more productive. His return to good health is essential. Jason LaBarbera appears to have the inside track on the No. 1 goalie job and this may be the season he firmly establishes himself as a legitimate go-to goalie.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
• Kings Home
• 2008-09 Schedule
• Complete Roster
• Search: Kings IN REVIEW
• Record: 32-43-7
• Division: Fifth in the Pacific
• Conference: Last in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• If we were cruel -- and we're not -- we'd say the tough stretch begins Oct. 11 and ends April 11. But seriously, the Kings finish the regular season with 12 of their last 16 games away from the Staples Center. The good news is they finish at home. The bad news is it's against San Jose. Can you say No. 1 draft pick?
Experience: 11 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Terry Murray is 58 years old and has not been a head coach since he was dispatched by the Florida Panthers during the 2000-01 season. Although he was a popular assistant in Philadelphia the last four seasons, he remains a curious choice for L.A. He will be asked to teach a young, emerging team something about defensive team hockey, but it's hard to imagine Murray will be anything more than a caretaker until the Kings get good enough to challenge for a playoff spot in a couple of years.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Anze Kopitar
Perhaps because he plays on the West Coast and you don't see him in person all that often, you are struck first by how imposing he is physically. He led the Kings in scoring with 77 points as a sophomore and you can expect that trend to continue for a long time.
F -- Dustin Brown
The popular winger led the team with 33 goals playing mostly with Kopitar and he looks to play his way onto the American Olympic squad in Vancouver with another strong season. He led the NHL with 311 hits.
F -- Alexander Frolov
If Frolov ends up playing the other wing, the Kings will look to have as dynamic a first line as any team in the conference. Frolov (6-foot-2) led the Kings with seven game-winning goals.
D -- Jack Johnson
The third overall pick in 2005, Johnson has all the tools from a nice snarly side to a big shot and effortless skating ability. Now, he has to put them all together at the NHL level. Finished third among NHL rookies in average ice time. Missed the final eight games of the regular season with a fractured foot.
D -- Matt Greene
This may turn out to be the key piece in the Visnovsky deal as Greene, 6-foot-3, 233 pounds, was just starting to emerge as a standout stay-at-home defenseman. Johnson and Greene should complement each other well.
Answer: Good question. Right now, LaBarbera is the No. 1 man in net. Quick and Ersberg are battling for the backup job, while top goaltending prospect Jonathan Bernier was recently sent down.
After failing to add Mathieu Schneider despite making a handful of offers to Anaheim, perhaps GM Dean Lombardi will turn his attentions to Nikolai Khabibulin, who recently cleared waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks, but is likely on his way out. In short, no one knows exactly when or if the Kings will address their most pressing problem.
Bust: Kyle Calder, LW: Only on a rebuilding team such as the Kings could he still be considered a top-six player after notching seven goals, 13 assists and a minus-11 in 65 games last season.
Fantasy outlook: The Kings are moving ahead with a youth movement that won't get many wins, but will be good for player development and help their chances in the "John Tavares Sweepstakes" in the 2009 draft. The O'Sullivan-Anze Kopitar-Dustin Brown unit was a dangerous and productive line, but the trio's progress will be hurt the longer O'Sullivan sits.
Rookie blueliners Drew Doughty and Thomas Hickey will be thrown into the fire this season, and Jack Johnson will get a bigger role in his sophomore season. Steer clear of Kings goalies. -- Jim Wilkie