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October 4, 2017 | 10:00pm ET
Back in the saddle

LOS ANGELES, CA -- Itís great to be back. Our last on-ice connection was late into the June night when Sid, Geno and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins pulled off back-to-back Stanley Cup championships deep in the heart of Middle Tennessee.

Since then, thereís been a snoozer of an unrestricted free agency period and meager trade activity.

Without question, the best summer offering was bearing witness to the creation of the NHLís 31st team, the Vegas Golden Knights. The process of the expansion draft and the subsequent deals that followed were more compelling than the roster that starts the season, but itís exciting to see the building of a franchise from Day 1.

Have fun facing all that rubber, Marc-Andre!

As for one local side, the word that defines the Los Angeles hockey club since they departed the ice for the last time on April 9 is CHANGE.

I give the Kings credit: when they decide to do something, they do it large. Three seasons of uninspiring and underachieving hockey brought forth a broom the size of LA Live in April and vaporized the brain trust (Dean Lombardi and Darryl Sutter) that created a hockey legacy with one giant push.

But despite the seismic change in team management, the core of this team was left unscathed. That Marian Gaborik buyout never came and the trigger on the Dustin Brown trade was never pulled as new General Manager Rob Blake placed his first bet on the PASS line. His hope is that with new bench leadership and a different approach, his charges will return to the post season.

The biggest noise of the off-season came from a core playerís comments which raised both eyebrows and heart rates of the fan base. Drew Doughty, who has played every pro game in a Kings sweater and made good on Lombardiís draft day promise of bringing multiple Stanley Cups to Los Angeles, appeared to put the organization on notice by stating he was all about winning championships regardless of where he played.

To no oneís surprise on the first day of Kingsí training camp, Doughty granted multiple interviews backing off his original comments. His current narrative: he loves Los Angeles and his goal is to win additional titles only on the corner of 11th and Figueroa. The initial comments were written off as ďDrew being Drew,Ē some regrettable words from a cat whose acumen for breaking up an odd man rush far outweighs his media savviness.

Having the privilege of watching the ascension of this player from the early bad days to reaching the pinnacle of his sport both individually and with his team, I think this story still has miles to go and hereís why:

Does Drew Doughty love LA?
- Of course, heís making $7 million a year and lives steps from the beach during the season. Youíd love it too.

Is Doughty all about championships?
- Indeed, his drive and thirst to win is equal to the greats of the todayís game like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. I have little doubt he places winning over money (though he will cash in big on his next extension) and individual achievements.

Is his preference to remain in Los Angeles on a long term deal?
- If I had to bet today, my money would be on Doughty to sign a max term deal and remain a King.

Is it true that some players donít have the appetite to come home to the pressure of the Toronto media cauldron with the mission of smashing the 50 years of championship futility?
- Ask Steven Stamkos.

That said, is it a forgone conclusion that Doughty remains in Los Angeles and resists the temptation of exploring free agency in the summer of 2019?
- No.

And thatís because all the boxes havenít been checked to make Doughtyís future in LA secure. Peering into my crystal ball at the time his contract expires itís not a stretch to think Toronto will be far closer to a Stanley Cup than the Kings and the need for a 1D would be the final piece in the Leafs championship puzzle.

But before Kings fans start wringing their hands in contemplation of what life would be without Drew, the reality is this:

It doesnít matter what Doughty said in August, says on Opening Night or will say whenever this season ends. Heís not a malcontent, hasnít asked for a trade and his competitive fire is as highly stoked as it was when he took two twirls around the Staples Center ice with Lord Stanleyís Cup.

July 1, 2018 is when it matters -- thatís the day that he is eligible to sign his last big money deal to stay in Los Angeles. Itís at that point where his thoughts and words matter and why it makes this coming Kings season so damn intriguing. For Los Angeles to keep their generational defenseman, they need to return to contender status and with Game 1 of 82 is thankfully upon us, no one really knows what this season will bring.

Blake is betting big on his core players -- a prime example was resisting the temptation to trade Jake Muzzin or Alec Martinez for a legitimate scoring forward. If preseason is any indication, heís won that wager as that combo looks to have shrugged off a lackluster season and should be key assets in Stevensí new offensive scheme.

The GM also tabled a substantial wager on bounce back seasons from Anze Kopitar and Tyler Toffoli -- the duo combined for 28 goals last season and if they can revert to expected form, asking for 50 combined scores is realistic. That total would make things much easier for an expected top 10 ranked defense and would put them in the middle of the expected Western Conference playoff position dogfight. Itís also fair to expect the same level of production from Toffoliís line mates -- Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson.

So, while itís reasonable to assume improved offense one essential need to be present not to repeat another 86-point season.

A healthy Jonathan Quick makes this team a far more confident one. For the balance of his career, the debate will rage on being ďeliteĒ and 2 Stanley Cups and 1 Conn Smythe have me on the Yes side of the argument. But Quick is one of those athletes whose performance improved proportionally with the importance of the game, a money goaltender, if you will. His warrior mentality between the pipes was something this team missed as they drifted through an uninspired and unproductive 2016-17 season. By the time he returned for the Kingsí stretch run it was too late, the team had spit the bit and had nothing left to give.

But what lies outside the core is what will make this team a fascinating watch; no one knows what this team will deliver once they drop the puck for real.

Michael Cammalleri, who most assume would line up next to Kopitar and Dustin Brown, looks to be starting the season on the third line. Alex Iafallo, another under the radar find by the amateur scouting staff after a four-year college career at Minnesota-Duluth, has impressed and surprised through preseason to grab the left-wing slot with the current and former captains. But if you had Iafallo in the pool as Gaborikís replacement on opening night... youíre lying. Iafallo and Swedish import via the KHL Oscar Fantenberg were the surprises of the preseason, but itís not all good news in the prospects area.

The heralded next generation of Kings that didnít get the promised run in Sutterís last bench season was given every opportunity to emerge this preseason and off the early returns, will have to show far better.

Paul LaDue, who in some corners is the player that will end the long search to replace Slava Voynov as top four right defenseman, showed so little that failed make the 23-man roster out of camp. Adrian Kempe and Jonny Brodzinski will be Cammalleriís third line running mates to start, but that decision looks more like a ďprove-itĒ one than by merit. Even with a return to form by the core, itís likely these three playersí contributions that hold the key to the fate of the season. When times were great in LA, the Kings got legitimate contributions from their depth players and the lack of production over the past three seasons was a major reason this team has shifted in reverse.

The formula of tried and true has been substituted with one containing ingredients of potential and youth and regardless of its outcome, the commitment it is the right choice. Will this mix of veteran talent and unproven potential produce at minimum the 95-point season required to return to the post-season and make Doughty feel more secure about his ability to win more championships in LA?

Weíre all gonna find out starting Thursday. Enjoy the ride.

HERE AND THERE

Itís been a busy off-season for me and for those who donít follow on social media (and shame on you if you donít), a summary of what lies ahead for the coming season.

- Every Saturday from 11AM-1PM ET on NHL Network Radio (SiriusXM Channel 91), David Pagnotta and I have joined forces with Nick Alberga to present Off the Rush powered by The Fourth Period. The powers that be brought back our predecessor show, TFP Live for a well-received run last post-season and weíve been given the opportunity to have a full run for the 2017-18 season.

- Continuing the radio front, the good people at TSN 690 in Montreal have made me a staple over the past five years and for a guy who grew up in New York and witnessed the greatness of Jean Beliveau, Ken Dryden and Larry Robinson in the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge, itís both an honor and privilege to talk the fans in the Cradle de Hockey. Iíve appeared at all hours on the outlet, but this season Iíve nestled into a regular segment on Fridays at 1:30pm on Off the Cuff with Chris Nilan and Sean Campbell. Campbell has been an advocate throughout my run and any time you put a Bostonian (Nilan) and New Yorker (DB) together itís going to be fun.

- Made my debut last March on live television with a couple of appearances on NHL Network, a thrilling and terrifying experience wrapped in one. As it is with radio, Iíve signed on with NHL Net to start the season as one of their Los Angeles correspondents, one of the highlights of my sports media career. And yes, jacket and tie required.

- Iíve thrown my hat into the podcast ring by partnering with Josh Brewster, the Ducks post-game radio voice to produce the DJ Podcast. Weíll bang out about 30 minutes of chatter weekly and while Kings and Ducks will be frequent topics, weíll have some hot takes about happenings around the NHL. Check us out at Hockey Talk Radio.

- In 2010, we traveled with the Columbus Blue Jackets to Stockholm, Sweden for their two-game season opening Premiere Series against the San Jose Sharks. It was my first and only visit to Scandinavia and I had such a memorable experience I promised myself it wouldnít be my last. Iíve kept that promise seven years later as the plan is to cover the Ottawa-Colorado series in Stockholm in November.

- On the writing front, Iíve written game night reports for The Sports Xchange, a news service (think AP/CP) over the past couple of years. This season, Iíve been asked to run point for them for both Southern California teams, so look for my by-line there throughout the seasons. For me, it means more Ducks coverage as the lead writer for the service.

- Other than that, not much going on.

- My sleeper team: the New York Islanders.

- And yes, Iím fully stocked on Pittsburgh Kool-Aid: Iím picking the Penguins for a three-peat.

RADIO RADIO

This week, the segment of choice comes courtesy of TSN Winnipeg as I joined Kevin Oleszewski on Tuesday for a Pacific Division discussion. Have a listen.

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.

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Jun. 24, 2017 DB's Draft Day Nuggets

Apr. 25, 2017 A Brand New Day

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