Thursday, 12 July 2007

Not Quite Royalty Yet

It was once upon a time in a magical land far, far away that Hollywood starlets and overachieving B-listers would flock to an arena to see players like Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille, Tomas Sandstrom, Paul Coffey and Kelly Hrudey take to the ice. Gone are those days as the Los Angeles Kings have been in a rebuilding holding pattern since the mid-1990s. The Kings have found themselves signing older players for ridiculous contracts with little return for quite some time. However, some shrewd drafting has started to turn the Kings from a laughing stock to a franchise with huge potential. How far can the Kings go this year? Are they playoff bound? These questions will be answered below.

The Los Angeles Kings have had, in the last 15 years, a number of starting goaltenders. The names aren't very impressive in terms of who has stood between the pipes. Picked up off the scrap heaps of other teams were Kelly Hrudey, Byron Dafoe, Stephane Fiset, Jamie Storr, Felix Potvin, Roman Cechmanek, Dan Cloutier, and Mathieu Garon. They ended last season with Sean Burke in the net, and he didn't provide solid goaltending either. Over that 15 years, the Kings have given up on Cristobal Huet and Manny Legace, both who are now starters for Montreal and St. Louis, respectively, and very good goaltenders. Goaltending will continue to be a problem this season as the Kings will open training camp with Dan Cloutier, Jason LaBarbara, and Sean Burke, if he re-signs, vying for the starting role.

As bleak as this goaltending situation may sound, the numbers for Burke and Cloutier last season were worse. Burke posted a 6-10-5 record with a 3.12 GAA, a .901 save percentage, and one shutout. Comparatively, Cloutier was an abysmal 6-14-2 with a 3.98 GAA and a .860 save percentage. LaBarbara didn't play in an NHL game last season, but went 11-9-2 in 2005-06 with a 2.89 GAA, a .900 save percentage, and one shutout. My gut instinct says to sign and let Burke start, have LaBarbara back him up, and put Cloutier on the waiver wire. Cloutier probably shouldn't be in the NHL any longer. That's just this writer's opinion, though.

Jonathan Bernier, Erik Ersberg, Daniel Taylor, and Jonathan Quick should be allowed to develop their games in Manchester of the AHL or in the ECHL.

The Kings' record last season was a good reflection on their problem stopping the puck. The Kings posted a 27-41-8-6 record with 227 goals-for versus 283 goals-against. While the Kings got excellent production from a few youngsters, increased scoring was on the docket for general manager Dean Lombardi while trying to shore up the defensive situation through free agency. Lombardi has made strides to bring excellence back to Los Angeles, but it may not yet be enough to make the playoffs.

The Kings have a defensive stud in 37 year-old Rob Blake. Blake scored 14 goals and 20 assists in 72 games last season, but was integral on the defensive side of the puck as well. Blake plays in all situations, and is the leader of the young Kings' team. Lubomir Visnovsky was rewarded with a new five-year contract extension a few days ago after posting his best season. Visnovsky finished fourth in Kings' scoring with 18 goals and 40 assists over 69 games. The 30 year-old appeared in his first All-Star Game, and will be expected to continue to produce offensively while being defensively responsible in his own end. 36 year-old Jaroslav Modry is expected to add some spark to the powerplay in Los Angeles. Acquired by the Kings from the Dallas Stars in the Mattias Norstrom trade at the Trade Deadline last season, Modry put up eight assists in 19 games. More importantly, Modry plays well in his own end, and will be another threat from the blueline.

Dean Lombardi made more noise by adding Brad Stuart and Tom Preissing this off-season, and both are expected to help.

Stuart was drafted by Lombardi in 1998 while Lombardi was the GM of the San Jose Sharks. Stuart struggled in Boston last season, posting a brutal -22 plus/minus rating over 48 games. Stuart improved after he was traded to Calgary, and Lombardi knows Stuart can be better after watching him in San Jose. Stuart will be expected to be better defensively, but will not have to be the "go-to" guy in Los Angeles with the likes of Blake, Visnovsky, and Modry already playing on the powerplay.

Preissing was underutilized in Ottawa, and will get a chance to shine in LA. The 28 year-old showed that with increased ice-time comes increased production from the smooth-skating Minnesotan. He scored 38 points for the Senators last season while posting an impressive +40 rating, showing that his defensive game does not suffer while scoring points. His +40 rating was as good as four-time Norris Trophy winner Niklas Lidstrom last season, which speaks volumes about how good Preissing can be defensively. That will go a long way in Los Angeles.

Their sixth defenseman comes in the form of 20 year-old blue-chipper Jack Johnson. The big American figures to be a fixture on the Kings' blueline for a long time, and should be a quality replacement for Rob Blake when he decides to retire. Having Blake, Visnovsky, Modry, Stuart, and Preissing around him, Johnson should be able to adapt to the NHL game without a ton of pressure on him to be the next star in Tinseltown. Jamie Heward should round out the defensemen as LA's seventh man, but Oleg Tverdovsky could challenge for a roster spot after having a great season in Manchester after being demoted last season. Mike Weaver is also looking for a spot.

2007 first-round draft pick Thomas Hickey is probably three to four seasons of AHL action away from joining the Kings.

Up front, the Kings boast some of the best young talent in the game. Mike Cammalleri, Alexander Frolov, and Anze Kopitar provided a ton of highlights last season for Kings' fans. Kopitar showed off his skills at the Young Guns Game at last season's All-Star Game, and looks to be at the same level of exciting play as Ovechkin and Crosby. It is expected that these three young stars will carry the Kings for some time.

Joining the Kings up front through free agency are Kyle Calder, Michal Handzus, and Ladislav Nagy. Handzus is probably the best signing of the three free agents, but all should bring intangibles to the table.

Handzus is one of the more underrated players in the NHL. Handzus wins faceoffs, scores goals, sets up other players, and does it all quietly. He doesn't put up huge numbers, but will provide Kopitar and Frolov will a competent centreman who can get either player the puck.

Calder will bring size and grittiness to the Kings. The winger is a good compliment to the flashiness of Kopitar and Frolov, and provides the Kings with another power forward alongside Cammalleri. The Kings will expect more scoring out of Calder than what he's turned in over the past few seasons.

Nagy is more of a project at this point. He showed flashes of brilliance with Phoenix over the past few seasons as he led the Coyotes in scoring. However, his trade to Dallas last season exposed his lack of any sort of defensive responsibility. The Kings need his scoring touch, but also require him to back-check more often than he's known for. If Nagy can develop some sort of defensive game under coach Marc Crawford, he could be the break-out story of the 2007-08 season.

As a supporting cast, the Kings boast Patrick O'Sullivan, Jamie Lundmark, and Raitis Ivanans for scoring. Dustin Brown, Derek Armstrong, and Scott Thornton should be playing for the Kings next season as well after solid campaigns this past season. Brian Willsie, Marty Murray, Lauri Tukonen and Shay Stephenson should fill the remaining spots if training camp goes well.

All in all, the Kings have certainly improved their team from a year ago through free agency and trades. While the goaltending situation remains the biggest hole - and we're talking a Grand Canyon-sized hole - the Los Angeles Kings have taken steps forward. While the playoffs at this point are a pipe dream this season, if GM Dean Lombardi can pull off another magical trade for a solid goaltender, the playoffs could become a reality. The Kings have solid scoring, a decent defensive group, and a solid farm squad.

The reality of the situation is that the Kings are probably two to three years from being a solid playoff team, depending on their goaltending situation. Like the Blue Jackets, the Kings have a solid young nucleus of talent. They are just missing a few key pieces before they start taking steps towards realizing their potential.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Debbie Machalow said...

I completely disagree with your statement that Sean Burke didn't give the Kings solid goaltending. So he had a bad night here and there, but he was there to solidify the position of goalkeeper. And in comparison to the other options they had, he was by far the most stable. He gave the team confidence to play that they didnt have when another goalie was in the net.

Teebz said...

Sean Burke was out of shape, and had to be pulled from a few games due to a variety of ailments.

In comparison to the other options, he was their best choice, but he is a far cry from being a good choice.

If there is one place the Kings need vast improvement, it's between the pipes.