October 4, 2018 | 12:51pm ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
KINGS’ WINGS CLIPPED AS SEASON OPENS
LOS ANGELES, CA -- Another glorious season of hockey is upon us and it’s one of the most important seasons in recent history for the Los Angeles Kings.
Under new management, the Kings got back on track last season with a return to the playoffs in spite the disappointing four-game playoff sweep at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights to end the season on a sour note.
Looking at the season from a glass half full view, the seasons produced by four core players – Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick and Dustin Brown was the highlight of Coach John Stevens return to an NHL bench. In lockstep with Stevens, General Manager Rob Blake transitioned successfully from his apprenticeship under deposed GM Dean Lombardi by getting the front office aligned, injecting some badly needed youth into the roster and demonstrated a willingness to change his roster via trade during the season.
When the Kings offense came up snake eyes in the first round of the playoffs against Vegas, Blake stepped up and outbid for the services of returning sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, a man clearly motivated to do what his countryman Alex Ovechkin did last season – win the Stanley Cup to secure his legacy as one of the game’s best.
Although Blake came up short on his daily double when he couldn’t construct a Max Pacioretty (I call it a Path to a Patches) deal, his promise to improve the offense was hypothetically filled by adding the Russian sniper to a middle-of-the-pack offense that was iced last season. But funny things happen on the journey from the opening of training camp to Opening Night. All teams suffer injury setbacks but the one that the Kings encountered was unique. This injury bug has buzzed continually around and through the Los Angeles’ right flank since the dog days of summer.
Gabe Vilardi, lauded as the best prospect in the Kings system in a decade, cannot get his back to cooperate with him. What once was a nuisance is now a serious concern, as the front office has admitted the ailment may be one that Vilardi will have to play with throughout his career. While no one has pronounced this as a death knell to an NHL career, I see a parallel to what Rick Nash had to manage throughout his career. While Vilardi has skated in full gear lately, the optimism is muted are muted regarding the expectations of him being a player of consequence this season.
Jonny Brodzinski was the next man up, a gifted goal scorer at every level but unable to find his way into the varsity lineup over the parts of the last two seasons. This was to be his best and possibly last shot to make it as a King, but his window slammed shut when he fell into the boards during a preseason match in Vancouver, sidelining him for the next three months.
While extent of Vilardi and Brodzinski’s impact was uncertain, a major blow was struck in the Kings’ last preseason game against the Anaheim Ducks. While trying to screen Ducks goaltender John Gibson on a Los Angeles man advantage, Dustin Brown’s finger got in the way with a shot from the stick of Anze Kopitar. Kopitar’s attempt came off a rolling puck and lacked its usual velocity but it was still hard enough to cause a fracture that required surgery and will sideline Brown for at least a month.
Three right wings down. Not a punk band of the eighties, but the current Kings forwards depth chart.
With the Kings’ right wing depth chart significantly clipped, Stevens line-juggling was activated before a singular minute of regular-season play elapsed. What would have been an intriguing combination of Kovalchuk-Jeff Carter-Adrian Kempe as a second line has been dashed in favor of Kovalchuk being installed with Kopitar as most suspected when he signed on in June. This installation finds Kovalchuk filling Brown’s spot on the right side as that battler, Alex Iafallo maintains his hold on the left side. The free agent find of last season, Iafallo ripped up the ticket he was handed for third line duty to reclaim his spot on the first line. He has turned in a solid camp and the organization quietly believes that with a full year of NHL experience under him and solid off-season work will elevate his output from the nine-goal total of last season – a level that must increase if Iafallo plans to stay with the big boys. When you ask Iafallo’s line mates how why he’s in sync with Brown and Kopitar, they only offer this quote: “It just works.”
Kovalchuk, who is more accustomed to playing on his off left wing (he’s a right-hand shot), played some of his best hockey in his limited preseason appearances on the right side. It does not matter which side Kovalchuk plays as his steely focus since the opening of training camp has been on this Friday night against San Jose. The most consistency he’s shown in September has been how dismissive he’s been of the preseason games during interviews, mostly offering that little matters until “October 5 against San Jose.”
The biggest effect of the Brown absence (and Blake has yet to determine if he will place him on Long Term Injured Reserve) is the reuniting of “That 70’s Line.” Carter will once again be the pivot for the two wingers who have the most to prove this season, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli. Stevens had toyed with installing an intriguing second line of Kempe-Carter-Kovalchuk through a stretch of the preseason. Had injury had not beset Brown it would have been interesting to observe, not only for the flexibility it would have given Carter (who could have flipped to right wing with Kempe in the middle) but to see how Pearson and Toffoli would have reached to a demotion to a third line that was centered by Michael Amadio.
Yet again, the two players whose destiny appears to be intertwined for the balance of their careers, Toffoli and Pearson must pick up the slack in the early going to make up for the loss of production from Brown. Regardless of where they play and who they are paired with, they must eclipse the 39 combined goals they posted last season. While they neither are in a contract year if Toffoli plans to get a long-term big money extension this summer and continue as a King, he will need to prove he’s a multiple-season 30 goal scorer. Less is expected of Pearson but like Toffoli he must establish if he is a 20+ goal scorer deserving of top six minutes or a sturdy mid-teen goal scoring third line left winger.
If both players start well, it could be a solid start for the Kings; their October schedule is relatively friendly. There are a few tough games (the Sharks are always tough at Staples and Winnipeg and Toronto on the road will be no bargain), but if they hold the form of the 98-point team of last season, they could enter November with a 7-4-0 record. Not only does the schedule have winnable games but the level of competition should allow youngsters like Anderson-Dolan and Austin Wagner (my biggest surprise of the camp) get some NHL game action.
Los Angeles’ defense should be a solid as last season and Jonathan Quick’s preseason has shown that he’s ready to battle through another 65-70 game season. While much has been made of the increasing depth on the blueline, the core of Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez and Derek Forbort must maintain the level of play they delivered last season. With Drew locked in to his big money deal, there are be no distractions that prevents him to contend for his second Norris Trophy. Muzzin and Martinez’s play will vacillate and spark discussion on which one will be dealt for another forward for the balance of their time in Los Angeles. Forbort’s understated play may never be fully appreciated but his steadiness is needed. Dion Phaneuf has not taken a false step since arriving on the corner of 11th and Figueroa, but his body clock and pace of play in the league sets him up to be a solid third pair defenseman. He shouldn’t have a problem doing the occasional cameo in the time-on-ice high teens, but he’s best utilized as a mentor alongside a younger defenseman.
If I could have John Stevens take one suggestion from me it would be this: More Fantenburg, I Need More Fantenburg. The Swedish Oscar has never been an award winner in Stevens’ eyes, but hopefully his performance in the Vegas playoff series loss will get him more prime time play. His decision making with the puck improved over time as he acclimated himself to the NHL and he both blocks shots and gets his wrist shot to the net. At this point, he’s ahead of Paul LaDue and Daniel Brickley (yes, he’s in Ontario now, but is expected to be part of the blueline’s future) and I wouldn’t hesitate to put him alongside Doughty depending on the opponent.
Reviewing season predictions around the league, most seem to feel Los Angeles will regress six-to-eight points and be a bubble playoff team – the prevailing thought coming into Stevens’ first season. Stevens’ appears more comfortable in his second year of his second term as a bench boss and Blake will not hesitate to make a deal to kick start his team should they come out the starting gate slowly. While I don’t see them as the division winner (you have to anoint San Jose with the addition of Erik Karlsson on paper), I do see them as a 100-point team and in a battle for first-round home ice as the Pacific’s two seed.
MASS (HYSTERIA) MEDIA
I’m fortunate to be asked to talk puck on various outlets throughout North America. Though I’m far from being the most polished contributor on the airwaves, it’s my passion for the game and sense of humor which informs and entertains that makes gives me multiple opportunities to speak to the hockey masses. The rundown of where you can find me this season follows:
This Saturday starts my second season as co-host of SiriusXM’s “Off The Rush” on Saturdays from 11am-1pm ET. I’ll be reunited with Nick Alberga and David Pagnotta as we continue the chemistry we forged last season.
Additionally on the SiriusXM side, I will be an occasional contributor to the roundtable discussions on both Game Day (hosted by Scott Laughlin and Mike Johnson) and Power Play (hosted by Steve Kouleas and Matthew Barnaby) on Fridays and Mondays, respectively. The hour-long discussions cover topics throughout the NHL.
Continuing on the radio front, Fridays are always fun with Chris “Knuckles” Nilan and Sean Campbell on TSN690 Radio Montreal at 1:30PM on their “Off The Cuff” offering. The New York vs. Boston rivalry between myself and Knuckles is worth the listen alone as Sean keeps the boat from rocking too much. Additionally, you’ll hear me regularly on FAN590 (usually with Roger Lajoie) and TSN 1290 Winnipeg (with my good buddy, Kevin Olszewski) and in my second home, Las Vegas, with Brian Blessing on Vegas Hockey Hotline on KSHP 1400AM. On the team front, I will be returning to the Anaheim Ducks post-game radio staple, Duck Calls with Josh Brewster, and will sit in the guest chair this Saturday after the Ducks road contest in Arizona.
On the TV front, I was thrilled to be asked back as an LA correspondent for NHL Network TV. Though I struggle with the coat and tie look, you’ll see me with the NHL Now crew from 4-6pm Eastern with a special thanks to host E.J. Hradek for integrating me into the cast of reporters.
Finally, it’s a great honor and privilege to enter my first full season as Chair of the LA Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. A void in leadership of the chapter spurred me to approach President Marc Spector to throw my hat into the ring and the leadership of the PHWA gave me the opportunity to be the point of contact for the group. I’m proud to announce the chapter membership has more than doubled this season to a robust 11 members that includes one of the dean’s of the business, lifetime PHWA member Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times. Given I don’t come from a traditional writing background, it’s humbling to be included in a group with the finest reporters in the game.