October 2, 2019 | 12:30pm ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
TY FIT TO BE UNTIED?
LOS ANGELES, CA -- The Chosen 23 are set for the Los Angeles Kings when they open their 2019-20 regular-season at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Saturday. There is not a more fitting place for Coach Todd McLellan to start his Southern California bench duties than the spot he met his demise almost a calendar year ago.
When appointed in April, the Toddfather (yep, we’re swiping that nickname for use from the New York Mets’ Todd Frazier) admitted his return to Northern Alberta would have more juice for him than the average game and the scheduling crew at NHL Headquarters obliged him for Game One of his regime.
He goes to battle with a group that will look very different when we reach Game 82 – expectations are as low as they have been at Staples Center since the formative days of the Dean Lombardi era. Most season predictions have the Kings in the bottom three of the league and the USA Today expert dartboard landed on 54 points and 24 wins, totals that had some veterans privately scoffing.
That is not to say Kings fans should start an escrow account for post-season tickets. While I expect a lift from the major upgrade behind the bench, the defensive depth chart is painfully thin when it comes to proven NHL talent.
General Manager Rob Blake had to scramble in camp just to bring in veteran defenceman Ben Hutton and just days into his arrival, he was top-four on the depth chart. Hutton is a reliable sort; he’ll consistently give the blueline 20 minutes a night, but the group of six who stand defend will surrender a high volume of shots requiring the netminding duo (for now) of Jonathan Quick and Jack Campbell to continue their strong pre-season showing.
Even with a season of redemption from Drew Doughty (he needs one, the team needs one, the GM who gave him $11 million per for eight-years needs one), the prospect that fresh-faced Swedish rookie Tobias Bjornfot will line up next to Doughty and across from Connor McDavid this weekend tells you all you need to know about the state of the defence.
Better days are coming for sure – those inclined to fight the traffic on the 10 West through Irwindale to Ontario will be rewarded for their journey, the potential of that group is one of the major selling points of this rebuild.
But back to the varsity – the intrigue around this team as relates to trade activity surrounds its forward group. As many as three veteran forwards could depart by the trade deadline, but the focus is on who is here now.
McLellan has wisely maintained some continuity amid his commitment to wiping the slate clean from a disastrous last season. The No.1 line – by execution but also by default – is the Alex Iafallo-Anze Kopitar-Dustin Brown trio. Iafallo showed more finishing ability in his sophomore campaign by raising his goal total to 15 and continued to create havoc on the forecheck (chemistry is a prime component to their success), but when your first-line left winger puts up a 33-point season, it’s no surprise there is a “30” league ranking for goals for. No doubt a rising tide on Kopitar’s productivity will stand to lift Iafallo and keep Brown at a 25 goals plateau (pro tip: bet the over on Anze’s season point total at 66.5).
It’s the middle six forward group that have people scratching their heads, there are multiple bullet point questions without clear answers:
Is Adrian Kempe just a placeholder 2C for Alex Turcotte or Jaret Anderson-Dolan? He’s getting a full shot to start the season; McLellan likes his size and skill, but he will have to show he can score consistently against teams not named Montreal. The contract he received from Blake ($6 million over three seasons) is not prime time player money.
The Ilya Kovalchuk undertaking is no longer an experiment. Yes, I thought as did Blake it was a reasonable add to a 98-point team a season ago. The discord between the Russian Sniper and deposed coach Willie Desjardins made it impossible for Kovalchuk to live up to his price tag, but with a far more accomplished coach, the same issues remain – ones that make you question how much due diligence was done prior to the signing. His shot is still there and when put in a position to use it, it still can be deadly, but the player’s insistence to play a rover position rarely allows him to execute it. That will be problematic for McLellan, who was brought in to provide structure and stability.
The talk about Jeff Carter being refreshed – OK, I’ll believe it when I see it. I have begged the team to move Carter to the wing for multiple seasons as his skills and motivation (to be fair, some impact due to injury) faded as the team drifted further away from its championship seasons. The move to right wing is the right move but does cause a trickle-down effect on that flank.
And finally, the player impacted the most by the Carter move and has the most to gain by a bounce-back season, former top-six winger Tyler Toffoli. Of all the question marks, Toffoli has the greatest chance for redemption. He’s in the prime of his career (turns 28 at season’s end), has demonstrated 30-goal scorer ability (unlike Kempe) and is the only offensively-minded player in the walk year of the deal.
But as the season nears, Toffoli looks to start on a third line with Austin Wagner and Blake Lizotte (who know what the combinations look like once McLellan gets a better feel for his team) – not optimal for production in a contract year.
Regarding his pivotal season, the player has said little other than he believes in himself and is not worried about his contract situation. The approach is fine – the want to eliminate the distraction of playing in a situation that stands to impact his long-team future is acceptable – but McLellan’s lukewarm statements about Toffoli still being a big-time goal-scorer makes it sound like Toffoli is destined for close to a 15-goal season than 30.
Tyler is healthy as this season starts and he’s been sturdy – he’s registered consecutive 82-game seasons as he enters this one. His release is still one of the best – during exit interviews last April, he noted that part of his underperformance was due to shooting in bad luck. The claim has some merit and it’s this point that the team should focus on to help Toffoli re-establish himself as a dangerous offensive force. While the raw numbers (shooting percentage 5.8% - lowest for any Kings forward playing 45+ games) suggest a lift goal production this season, assistance from his coaching staff could go a long way as well.
After reading a column penned by Mike Kelly, analyst for NHL Network (see his work at www.thepointhockey.com), about shot optimization, I asked Mike to expand on his notion that Toffoli’s choice of shots was a significant factor in his lack of production.
Toffoli’s chart over the last three seasons at 5-on-5 play is above and the abridged explanation follows:
His expected goals were 23.7 – the greatest under performer in the NHL last season, so his claim that he should have more goals is fair, but the issue with this player is that he shoots too much from bad spots. Given how well he scored from in front, below the hash marks (the +60.9 noted), he (and the coaching staff) should find ways to get him there more often.
To use an NBA analogy, he’s clearly not a 3-point shooter and has to get into the paint to earn his green.
So, with millions at stake as he enters his eighth NHL campaign, perhaps with a little help from his friends, Tyler Toffoli can continue his career on the corner of 11th and Figueroa.
KINGS OF THE PODCAST
When it comes to podcasting, my thought was “everyone has one, who needs one more?”
Clearly and resoundingly, L.A. hockey fans did.
Just one month into the Kings Of The Podcast project with my co-conspirator The Mayor John Hoven, the great fan reaction (and the stats to validate them) tells us that our spinoff of the Kings of the Roundtable series filled a void for the underserved fans in the L.A. market – and actually beyond. The numbers for a podcast in its infancy are stunning and it is not limited to North American listeners.
KOTP is trending #1 in Finland for sports news podcasts – thanks Christian Ruuttu!
Where it leads, who knows, but I do know that what you expect from me and the Mayor on websites and through social media becomes three-dimensional through our voices. Chemistry is a difficult thing to achieve in media but given our longstanding relationship and our passion for this sport and its amazing people has translated well into this vehicle. And on this very short journey through some amazing podcasting technology, I’ve become TFP’s resident podcasting authority.
Old dog, new tricks.
Towards that end, TFP welcomed the O&B Puckcast as the official TFP Philadelphia podcast last week, they are featured prominently on TFP’s front page as well – this week’s episode features the Courier Post’s Dave Isaac as they tee up the season on the corner of Broad and Pattison in South Philly.
If your podcast has an interest in joining the TFP family, you know where to find me.
THE HOT STOVE
And finally, since we’re all about different platforms for our brand, Editor-In-Chief Dave Pagnotta and myself will return for a fifth season on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio this Saturday. Slotted in our customary 11AM-1PM ET time slot, we return with a rebranded show and a new running mate.
Expect more of the same as The Hot Stove, powered by The Fourth Period, debuts this Saturday. Ryan Paton, a veteran of the SiriusXM NHL Network airwaves, has decided against better judgment to join us weekly for two hours of great hockey talk. Paton replaces Nick Alberga, who stepped away from the network at the end of last season. We plan to hit the road in support of our show with the first stop being the Prudential Center on October 19, where we’ll be broadcasting live prior to the New Jersey Devils facing the Vancouver Canucks.
For those who lack an SXM subscription, TFP will be podcasting (can’t get away from that word these days) the show weekly.
Abbreviated picks – check out the full list of Season Predictions on TFP .
Stanley Cup favorite: Vegas Golden Knights
Stanley Cup sleeper: Florida Panthers
Coaches that must come through: Mike Babcock, Toronto. Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay (huge pressure to win it all).
First big-name player to be traded: Patrik Laine, Winnipeg