Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2017-18, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2017-18 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2017-18 Los Angeles Kings.
Puck Drop Preview: 2017-18 Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings finished the 2016-17 season fifth in the Pacific Division with 86 points. This result was a further step in the trend downward for the Kings after winning the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014. It marks the second time in three seasons the Kings have missed the playoffs since winning in 2014. This past season was a disappointment for a team that had grown accustomed to success after making the playoffs for five straight years from 2009-10 to 2013-14.
That the Kings fell short was not for lack of trying. At the trade deadline, the Kings made a push for the playoffs. They acquired Ben Bishop to fill in for the injured Jonathan Quick and veteran Jarome Iginla to bolster scoring. Despite this, the Kings fell eight points short of a playoff spot.
Most of their woes can be attributed to a lack of team scoring. The Kings were sixth worst in the league for goals scored with 199 team goals on the season. What is shocking is they gave up just 201, good for sixth best in the league, for the most part without the aforementioned Quick, who played just 17 games. The Kings lost by one goal in 17 games, four of those going to overtime. Add another four shootout losses, and it adds up to a team that lost a quarter of the season in one-goal situations. In fairness, they won 17 of their games by one goal, in overtime, or by shootout. Still, the Kings would rather play in games with an established lead, or have the firepower to be able to catch teams while trailing.
Moving forward, the Kings have declared their plan to revamp the team in order to play a more modern, faster game. In an open letter, President Luc Robitaille asserted the team’s commitment to “emphasize creativity, while focusing on implementing an effective offensive approach, as well as maintaining our stalwart defensive game.”
Front Office and Coaching Staff
Acting on that plan, the Kings made significant changes to the coaching staff and front office during the off-season. The Kings fired general manager Dean Lombardi. They also let go of head coach Darryl Sutter, who led the team to their two most recent championships. This regime emphasized a defensive style of play centered around heavy team play, stinginess in the defensive zone, and maximizing puck possession. While this approach allowed the Kings their moment of glory, the league is shifting to a more up-tempo style.
In order to cope, the Kings promoted Rob Blake to general manager and vice president and John Stevens as head coach. Both men move up the ranks having been already with the team. This means they are already familiar with the players they have, but will be on board with the team’s declared new direction.
The Kings also have “a newly created coaching role for NHL-great Pierre Turgeon, who will specifically focus on helping implement an up-tempo, attacking offensive style of play.” Turgeon has been brought in as an “offensive coordinator” of sorts. The Kings are all-in on scoring more goals.
The largest off-season changes came in the front office and behind the bench, but several players did move in and out of Los Angeles. The Kings traded pending unrestricted free agent Ben Bishop to the Dallas Stars knowing Jonathan Quick would return. They lost defenseman Brayden McNabb in the expansion draft to the Vegas Golden Knights. Also, Jarome Iginla‘s contract expired sending him to unrestricted free agent status, where he has yet to sign with an NHL team.
The Kings acquired Mike Cammalleri in free agency after he was bought out by the New Jersey Devils. They also signed free agent defenseman Christian Folin, presumably to replace McNabb, and goaltender Darcy Kuemper to add organizational depth at the goaltender position.
2017-18 Predicted Line Combinations*
Tanner Pearson – Jeff Carter – Tyler Toffoli
Marian Gaborik – Anze Kopitar – Mike Cammalleri
The offense looks much the same as last year’s team, with the addition of Cammalleri. Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik are on the downslope of their careers, and so the Kings will reply upon their relatively young players to score the majority of the goals. Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson will need to perform after their contracts were extended over the off-season.
Outside of the top-six, the Kings scoring potential drops off significantly. Nic Dowd just completed his rookie season in which he scored six goals and 22 points in 70 games, proving a solid depth center. Kempe has shown promise, and 2017 first-round draft pick Gabriel Vilardi may crack the Kings offense this year if scoring continues to be an issue.
Further analysis of these players comes below.
The Kings blue line will likely look much the same as it did in 2016-17, with the addition of Folin in place of McNabb. Derek Forbort has worked his way up the depth chart since premiering for the team in 2015-16. Last season, he played all 82 regular season games, paired with Doughty nearly 33% of the time.
Look for this duo to play massive minutes for the Kings. Doughty may well be the Kings best player, coming off another great season after winning the Norris in 2015-16. He has also shown great durability, completing his third season in a row playing all 82 regular season games.
The success of the Kings defense rests on the back of Doughty, while Muzzin and Martinez provide a very respectable second-pair for the Kings. Gravel and Folin make up a serviceable bottom pair. Gravel has just 54 NHL games under his belt, but cemented his place on the Kings roster last season. Folin comes with 120 total games of NHL experience.
Darcy Kuemper/Jeff Zatkoff
The starting goaltender job belongs to Quick without a shadow of a doubt. He has led the Kings to two Stanley Cup titles and is still just 31 years old. Had Quick been healthy last season, there’s a chance the Kings would have cracked the playoffs, though Peter Budaj performed admirably in his absence. Kuemper and Zatkoff will likely compete for the backup position out of training camp and the preseason. Both see stretches as the Kings backup this season.
Players to Watch
Anze Kopitar is coming off of the worst offensive season of his career. He scored just 12 goals and 40 assists in 76 games last season. Kopitar signed an eight year, $80 million contract prior to last season, so he will need to step up and earn his money. At his best, Kopitar is among the elite two-way centers in the NHL. Look for him to bounce back this season.
Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli
Both Pearson and Toffoli signed contract extensions during the off-season. Toffoli experienced a down year last season. He scored just 16 goals in 63 games a year removed from scoring 31 in 82 games. Assuming he is able to stay healthy, Toffoli should score closer to 30 goals again this season, especially given the Kings new commitment to offense. Pearson will look to build on his most offensively productive season. The 25-year-old scored 24 goals and added 20 assists in 80 games last season. If he can match that production this year, the season will be considered a success. With Carter and Gaborik growing older, these two players will be relied upon to put pucks in the net.
Cammalleri will be the biggest wildcard on the Kings roster. After he was bought out by the Devils, the Kings snagged Cammalleri for one year at $1 million. The 35-year-old winger has scored 20 or more goals seven times in his career. If he can put up close to 20 this season, reasonable playing on a line with Kopitar, he may well be the steal of free agency.
Player on the Rise
Kempe, who turned 21 yesterday, was selected by the Kings at 29th overall in 2014. The 6’2″, 202 pound winger fits the mold of the big power-forward that the team seems to love. He played 25 games last season, scoring two goals and four assists. He likely has earned himself a permanent roster spot for this season. That stability should give him the chance to demonstrate his true ability. In 2015-16, Kempe scored 28 points in 55 games with the Ontario Reign of the AHL. Last season, he put up 20 points in 46 games, splitting time between the AHL and the NHL.
Players on the Decline
Despite scoring 36 points last season, his highest points total in four seasons not including the lockout, Brown is no longer the player he once was. His contract carries a nearly $6 million cap hit, with five seasons remaining. Brown was rewarded for years of service, but that show of allegiance has haunted the Kings ever since. Fortunately, the Kings seem to have young players such as Kempe and Vilardi coming through the system to replace the aging Brown. While they may be stuck with his contract, the Kings will no longer have to rely on his production.
Gaborik, 35, has shown, and continues to show his age. Since coming to Los Angeles, Gaborik has been a useful player, but a fragile one. He has not played a full NHL season since joining the Kings in the 2013-14 season. He may miss the beginning of this season with what is reported to be a chronic knee injury. While Gaborik was an elite NHL talent, his age and years of play are catching up to him, and his usefulness to the Kings may be limited if he cannot fully recovery from this injury and stay healthy.
2017-18 Season Prediction
The Kings dedicated themselves to playing faster, more offensive hockey. It remains to be seen, however, whether they have the roster to enact that change. Much of their 2016-17 roster returns. While Koptar and Toffoli are primed for bounce-back seasons, the rest of the top-end has grown a year older. Beside the addition of Camalleri, the Kings changes are philosophical and not tangible outside of coaching staff. If their current players are willing to change their play-style, the Kings may have success, but the team still lacks overall speed.
Adding to that obstacle, the Pacific division may be stronger than in year’s prior. The Flames and Oilers both grew stronger over the off-season. Los Angeles will still have to compete with its in-state rivals in San Jose and Anaheim. The Central division also looks tougher than ever, and could send five teams to the playoffs. The Kings best route into the playoffs will be to secure a divisional spot, and avoid scrapping for a wildcard position.
if the coaching change leads to more goals, instead of merely puck possession, the Kings may crack the playoffs again. Much also hinges on the performance and health of Quick, Doughty, Kopitar, Toffoli and Pearson. If he is deemed ready, Vilardi also may step up and help push the Kings back to playoff contention. In any case, the Kings fate will be determined in the final stretch of the regular season. Expect them to just make, or just miss, the playoffs.
*Projected line information sourced from chirphockey.com
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