It starts tomorrow for the Los Angeles Kings. The long offseason is over, and the 82-game march begins.
This season, the Kings are in no new position. A lot of the same questions apply to this team that have applied to many other LA Kings teams heading into the season. Despite an aging core, a disappointing second half of last season, the Kings are still a good team that should be right in the mix next year despite some of the overwhelming negativity the team has encountered this offseason. There are a lot of questions about this L.A. Kings roster, but none that are so overwhelming that we should take the Kings out of contention for a playoff spot, or even a division title for that matter. The Pacific is as wide open as ever, and with a roster that is largely unchanged (Minus the loss of Lucic) from their 100+ point campaign last year, it seems unlikely we see a huge step back. Again, with that in mind there still are big questions that loom for this team as we head into the NHL season.
Let's ask the five burning questions facing this Kings team.
5. How heavy do the Kings use Jonathan Quick this year?
Quick has been a workhorse for the Kings the past two seasons. In fact, no goalie in the NHL has played more games than Quick's 140 over the past two seasons. (Holtby has 139, Rask 134, Rinne 130.) While his .918 save percentage during the regular season has been more than workable in the Kings hardened defensive structure, his numbers have suffered harshly in the postseason. In the past two years, Quick has posted a .911 and .886 save percentage in the playoffs. Is it possible that the Kings are riding Quick too hard these days? The counter argument of course is that in 2011-12, Quick played 69 games and came away with a .946 save percentage in the playoffs and a Conn Smythe trophy. Nevertheless, we are talking about a Jonathan Quick that is no longer 26, but is pushing 31, and has had a couple of groin injuries. The Kings also brought in Jeff Zatkoff, who has played an upwards of 20 games as a backup goalie in his days with Pittsburgh. He played 14 last year. Do the Kings plan on riding Quick just as heavy as they have in previous years? Or are we going to start seeing an approach that puts him more in the 60 game range rather than the 70 game range for preservation purposes? Quick is a competitive guy and probably wants to play all 82 games, but at this point, is it prudent or necessary?
4. Who provides the spark from "The young guys"?
Kings need a spark from their younger roster players, there is no question about it. Carter is getting older, Gaborik is getting older, and you cannot expect the production to remain at a high level forever. The Kings however need some younger guys to close the gap between the upper end carrying the offense and the lower end.
With the decline of Brown (Possibly King) and the loss of Lucic the Kings have some room for elevation within the roster. Where does it come from though? There are numerous "Young guys" for lack of a better description who have an opportunity in the here and now. That is not always the case on an LA Kings roster that is so heavily ladened with veterans. Andy Andreoff showed a real spark at the end of last season, and was arguably one of the Kings better forwards coming down the stretch. Nick Shore has been lauded on this blog numerous times for his tremendous defensive prowess
, but his offensive numbers just have not matched up with the scoring chances generated. There is also Nic Dowd, who may figure into a middle six center job that needs production and scoring. Kyle Clifford is still just 25 and coming off perhaps one of his worst seasons to date. Tanner Pearson also stands as a player who could make a significant impact on this roster and he is still a bafflingly young 24. There are plenty of players that have the opportunity and that have shown the potential to step forward, but do they actually do it is the question.
3. Can Tyler Toffoli do even more?
31 goals was quite a feat for the young sniper. For a while he was even on pace for close to 40. It was exciting, somewhat unexpected, but is it repeatable? For those wanting to take the more optimistic approach, it looks entirely repeatable. Toffoli is just 23, still has an expanding skill set and things to learn, and last year he shot at just a few clicks above his career average percentage with ice time that still doesn't touch the 19-20 minute range. He SHOULD be able to push 30 yet again.
BUT, if you want to look at the detractors here, Toffoli will be without Milan Lucic on the opposite wing to distract opponents this season. When the trio of Carter, Toffoli, and Lucic were together they ran roughshod over opponents.
It was a line that gave up quite a bit, but also generated so much offense it was not surprising to see a burgeoning sniper like Toffoli pot 30. Can Toffoli do it again, but with perhaps Pearson? or even without Carter as his C? It is tough to say, but from the sample size we have, Toffoli seems to score with no matter who he is with. Like most of the Kings players, he is subject to midseason slumps that kind of derail bigger and better things, but perhaps this is the year where he avoids it and pushes into the 35-40 range. The Kings could use the few extra goals here and there, can Toffoli provide even more than his 31 from last year?
2. What happens to Dustin Brown?
This was an ad nauseum topic towards the end of last season and the beginning of the offseason. He was stripped of his captaincy, has seen precipitous decline in production, and is now one of the most toxic contracts on the team. The most frustrating thing with Brown is that when you consider everything he does game in and game out, he does not do all that much different than his productive mid 20's days except for one thing: Actually score. All of his underlying numbers point to a player that should, by all account, be scoring more than 11 goals. While expecting anything in the 20 range is too optimistic, Brown can still be a worthwhile third line player. He will never outlive his contract at this point, BUT he can be useful, positive, and overall a beneficial player to have still. Separating the player from the contract can help anyone wanting to feel positive about Brown do so. Nevertheless this is a year with a lot of trying questions and heavy expectations on Brown. He is no longer the focal point of the Kings locker room or media for that matter, but the expectation to at least be better than he has been is as heavy as ever.
His future, with an impending expansion draft, is a little bit uncertain. Even before that, if Brown cannot be a player that is beneficial to the roster by the trade deadline it is possible the Kings try to unload him in some manner of a package deal. However these are all hypotheticals at this point. The bottom line is this: Brown needs to show he can better. Only then can we begin to theorize about his future. However it is still one of the biggest questions coming into this year.
1. Are the Kings a contender?
This roster, on paper, looks similar to previous ones. It is defensively sound, lacks offensive punch, but is layered with multi-faceted, disciplined players and a coaching staff that knows how to get what it needs from said players. This team is going to win, despite the negativity that has seemed to envelope them this offseason. There are massive questions about offensive output, but let's be honest...when hasn't there been questions about that on a Kings roster? In 2011-12 and 2013-14 the Kings finished in the bottom 10 teams in the league in team offense. They make their mark defensively, and were last year one of the best possession and defensive teams in the league. Again. The roster has not changed much, the style and structure has not changed much, and unless the entire Western conference has decided to altogether shift to a Pittsburgh style speed game the Kings SHOULD BE fine.
In fact, Micah Blake McCurdy of Hockeyviz had the Kings as possibly one of the highest finishing Western Conference teams this year.
It is easy to focus on the negative aspects, the expectations, and the assumptions of downturn when it comes to some outlooks. However, the Kings have changed very few things this offseason, and the formula has worked before. Are they a contender in a Western Conference that has Nashville, St. Louis, an improved Minnesota team and San Jose? Who knows. All signs points to the Kings certainly being in the West mix late in the year, barring some sort of catastrophe.
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