Each day heading into their season openers Oct. 7 in Europe, ESPNLosAngeles plans to take a closer look at the Kings and Ducks. What are their strengths, their weaknesses? Which rookie will shine, and which is destined to be returned to the American Hockey League for more seasoning? We put the Kings back under the microscope today and attempt to answer a few key questions regarding their youngest players.
The rookie who will have the biggest impact? One of the brightest stories of the preseason has been the play of defenseman Slava Voynov. He brought impressive credentials to training camp, most notably his selection to the AHL All-Star game last season with the organization’s affiliate in Manchester. But heading into the preseason, the Kings were already crowded with offense-minded defensemen, even before Drew Doughty ended a two-week absence from camp while negotiating a new contract. As of this posting, the Kings still have one more cut to be made, but the skill set Voynov has displayed during the preseason has made it difficult for management to ship him back to New Hampshire. No doubt, they’ve been scratching their heads trying to decide whether it would be best to keep Voynov on the roster as an extra defensemen or return him to the AHL for guaranteed playing time. Either way, you’ll likely see a lot more of Voynov this season.
The player who will reach double digits in goals for first time in career? A year ago, Kyle Clifford was just happy to be with the Kings at the end of training camp. Still eligible to be returned to his junior team, many expected Clifford to play his nine allotted games before receiving a one-way ticket back to the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. But the 20-year-old left wing continued to impress day after day and ended up playing the entire season with the Kings, contributing seven goals and seven assists in 76 regular-season games. In the six-game playoff loss to San Jose, he tied for the team lead with three goals and five points. Along the way, Clifford also became a crowd favorite for his willingness to fight just about any opponent who dared challenge him to a scrap. Look for Clifford to build on his experience from last year and use his tenacity around the net to potentially double his goal total.
The first player most likely to be called up from the AHL? With highlight-reel offensive moves, many consider Andrei Loktionov to be a future top-six forward in the NHL. His only detriment this time around is that he’s a natural center, and the Kings were pretty well stocked at that position coming into camp. Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll are veterans of the NHL who bring their own unique skill sets, which left Loktionov in a one-on-one battle with Trevor Lewis to make the team as the fourth-line center. Lewis, however, has the edge because he’s bigger, stronger and a better defender than Loktionov. His size also limits his ability to survive on one of the wings, an experiment the Kings tried at the beginning of last season to no avail. Just before the Kings left Friday on a 16-day road trip to Europe and the East Coast, Loktionov was demoted to Manchester. Unless he bolts for the KHL, don’t be surprised if Loktionov gets a call back sometime this fall, especially if the Kings struggle to produce goals as they did for long stretches last season.
The first player likely to be demoted to the AHL? If it wasn't for an injury suffered in the opening preseason game two weeks ago, defenseman Jake Muzzin would likely be back in Manchester already. Muzzin was checked face first into the glass that separates the two benches and hasn’t been on the ice since. Muzzin, at 6 feet 3, 217 pounds, is a physical specimin whose skills would come in handy if Matt Greene, Willie Mitchell or Rob Scuderi went down with an injury, but for now it appears Davis Drewiske will continue backing up those players in that role. Muzzin, 22, came up early last season when Doughty went down with a concussion but was sent back to the AHL in mid-November and did not return to the Kings. He would gain more from playing in Manchester than the 26-year-old Drewiske.