Kings: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Pierre LeBrun
The Los Angeles Kings have been building for this moment. After years of careful rebuilding produced one of the most talented young teams in the NHL and back-to-back trips to the first round of the playoffs, the Kings feel ready to take that next step as a contender.
They want to challenge for the Pacific Division title. They're not afraid to say "Stanley Cup." But as training camp and preseason wore on, the specter of star defenseman Drew Doughty beginning the season on the sidelines while still unsigned was an unsettling threat, one that had the potential to blow up what otherwise should be a special season.
Thankfully for the Kings and their fans, Doughty agreed to an eight-year, $56 million contract on Sept. 29 to end the standoff that had dominated NHL headlines all month long. Everyone in L.A. could breathe again.
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Atlantic: NJD | NYI | NYR | PHI | PIT
NE: BOS | BUF | MTL | OTT | TOR
SE: CAR | FLA | TMB | WAS | WPG
Central: CHI | CMB | DET | NSH | STL
NW: CGY | COL | EDM | MIN | VAN
Pacific: ANA | DAL | LAK | PHX | SAN
1. How effective will Doughty be early on?
Doughty was skating in his native London, Ontario, with the Ontario Hockey League's Knights, but that's not an NHL camp. By missing most of camp, how much will that affect his performance early on?
"I've been through it before with other players in the past," Kings coach Terry Murray told ESPN.com before Doughty was signed. "Some have turned out to be the right decision to miss training camp and get the deal done and come in in great shape and ready to go. And a couple of other guys, I remember it's a concern coming back in after missing a lot of time with your teammates and practice and the extra work that we do with the skating."
We believe the Kings could have still made the playoffs without Doughty, but they could not contend for the Stanley Cup without their best player in the lineup. And that's what this season is supposed to be about -- taking that next step to challenge Detroit, San Jose, Vancouver and Chicago in the conference for a championship run. In the end, the Kings did what they had to do to sign Doughty.
2. Rich in goal
Jonathan Quick was outstanding last season. Jonathan Bernier was equally as good in the second half when he pushed him. The Kings arguably have the best 1-2 goaltending punch in the Western Conference and it appears to be a healthy relationship.
The key with these two is that they compete, but they pull for each other and that's what is critical," Kings GM Dean Lombardi told ESPN.com. "Last year in the final 40 games, they were all critical games, and both of them won big games for us."
So now what? Quick did nothing to show he can't carry most of the load again this season, but Bernier is pushing hard. So the Kings will allow the goalies' play to decide their starts. Last season, Murray penciled in starts ahead of time until Christmas. This time, he's left it open. Murray said Quick will get the first shot at it out of camp, with Bernier waiting eagerly behind.
Eventually, the Kings will have to decide which goalie they want as their No. 1 man, just like Montreal had to choose between Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak. The Kings will get valuable return for Quick or Bernier.
3. Upgrading the middle, big time
The blockbuster acquisition of Mike Richards gives the Kings the kind of depth at center they haven't had since Lombardi began his rebuild years ago. After losing in back-to-back years in the playoffs to Vancouver and San Jose, respectively, it was obvious to the Kings they were inferior down the middle and had to act.
Michal Handzus will be missed as the No. 3 center, but dropping Stoll from the second line is a nice luxury to have. He brings more offense than Handzus did, even if he'll be less physical. Stoll is also an excellent faceoff man.
"That's a real good look for us," said Murray. "Basically we have two No. 1 centers in Richards and Kopitar, and I think this is going to be great for Jarret Stoll to fit into that No. 3 position. He's a great checker and I think it's going to give him more minutes in the long haul because that's the look I go to against the top opposition."
4. Penner's last chance?
Dustin Penner struggled after coming over from Edmonton late last season and the Kings believed it was because he wasn't in good enough shape -- an issue that has dogged Penner his entire career. The Kings challenged him in exit meetings to devote his summer to conditioning.
"Penner has come in in great shape," Murray said told ESPN.com during camp. "Can it be better? Yeah. There's still a level he can get to and that will have to be pushed by me through the regular season. But his commitment over the summertime was good. He was coming in here three days a week working with our strength and conditioning guy. And I watched him work out. I was real happy for him. I had some meetings with him and you feel the energy he's bringing. He's doing good things out there."
Penner, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent, gets to start the season on the top line with Kopitar. He loves living in Southern California, so there is a lot of motivation here for a big season.
5. Kings add yet more character
The Lombardi/Murray regime has been big on adding character players to its young core and it did it again this past offseason.
"You add guys like Mike Richards, Simon Gagne and Ethan Moreau; those three guys in particular have been leaders on teams they've been on," said Murray. "We got good character and good players brought into the locker room. It's pretty exciting; it raises the expectations for the hockey club and we're all looking forward to that."
Even before those additions, Lombardi believed his team showed some moxie this past spring when it battled down the stretch (even after losing Kopitar for the season) and made the playoffs.
6. How will Gagne fit in?
Simon Gagne joins his third team in three seasons, but at least the veteran winger has found some familiarity in Richards, his old Philadelphia teammate.
"He's played with Richards before, so hopefully there's some chemistry that can kick in right away," said Murray.
Gagne is only 31, but injuries have limited him to back-to-back 17-goal, 40-point seasons. This was a 40-goal man twice earlier in his career. Can the Kings find that old game in him?
"I think with all the injuries that have happened over the last couple of years to him, conditioning was a little bit of an issue," said Murray. "He's in good shape, he tested well overall we're going to do a lot of hard work in camp with the skating in particular and keep encouraging Simon to push through some areas that maybe he hasn't been in the last couple of years."
7. Kopitar's health
Kopitar looks fully recovered from the broken right ankle that ended his season, but how long will it take for him to find his game shape early on?
"He started off real well the last two years, led the league in scoring early on two years ago," Murray said. "Being away through the playoffs with his injury, I hope it's not a slow start. But I know he's in great shape. It's just a matter of getting games under your belt and starting to get that personal confidence."
8. Jack Johnson needs to be consistent
Jack Johnson, the Kings' No. 2 blueliner, showed flashes of brilliance last season, but the club wants to see 82 consistent games out of him.
"He took some big strides early in the first half, was one of the top scoring defensemen in the league," said Murray. "I thought his play without the puck was really good. He tailed off in the second half. That plus-minus started to build up again. To me, when I look at his game, he got away from being a hard player to play against in the sense of being physical."
9. Off to Europe again
The Kings played the first Premiere Games in September 2007 against the Ducks in London. Now they get to start their season overseas again. Over the past few years, some clubs have privately griped about the trek, but the Kings insist it's a positive thing.
"It doesn't concern me," said Murray. "I like the opportunity to go over there; it's going to be good for our team. We've got a bunch of new guys on the team and it's going to be about building chemistry and bonding and getting out to dinner and being with each other for a couple of weeks at the start. The message from the NHL is clear and it's a great message to the European community."
10. Power play
Despite their riches in offensive talent, the Kings ranked only 21st on the power play in the 2010-11 regular season. They need to kick that up a notch to contend with the big boys.
"Some of those areas we have to work out," said Murray. "Young guys were in a position to be successful at times last year and we missed some critical opportunities. With Richards and Gagne and Kopitar and Doughty, we have the people in place to have a good power play. Getting a little more movement and having more of a shot mentality, I think, is the first step."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering 14th NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Terry Murray enters his fourth season behind the Kings' bench. A terrific educator and communicator, Murray has helped guide his team from a struggling, rebuilding club to a pair of first-round playoff appearances. Now he needs to show them the way to the next level.
He told ESPN.com during camp that one of his big objectives is to try to avoid the kind of midseason slide the Kings had last season by identifying those red flags early and tackling them right away so it doesn't spiral into a month-long malaise. -- Pierre LeBrun
Best bet: Anze Kopitar
With five seasons under his belt and an improving Kings roster, Kopitar may be on the verge of that 100-point 'I Have Arrived' season. Kopitar's one glaring weakness for fantasy owners was his plus-minus, but he shed that negative with a plus-25 finish last season. The Kings now boast a top-six forward crop that most teams in the NHL will envy, and Kopitar will be at the center of it all. -- Sean Allen
Risky pick: Jonathan Quick
Quick started 60 games last season, winning just four fewer than a season before (in 12 fewer starts), and improved his ratios by significant margins (2.54 to 2.24 in GAA; .907 to .918 in save percentage). So will this be the season that Jonathan Bernier takes over? Though Quick appears to still be on the rise, it's not impossible. With that uncertainty in play, Quick is a risky choice as a No. 1. -- Tim Kavanagh
Sleeper pick: Jonathan Bernier
To say the Kings have an embarrassment of riches in net would be a bit of an overstatement, but Bernier is good enough to be a starter elsewhere. It would not be crazy to believe that Bernier could take a bit more of the starting load off of Quick's shoulders this season, but it's equally likely the Kings roll with the same plan for the two. -- Tim Kavanagh
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Kings:
• June 23: Acquired C Mike Richards from Philadelphia for RW Wayne Simmonds, C Brayden Schenn and 2012 second-round pick.
• June 26: Acquired C Colin Fraser and 2012 seventh-round pick from Edmonton for LW Ryan Smyth.
• July 2: Signed LW Simon Gagne.
• July 8: Re-signed D Alec Martinez.
• July 13: Re-signed C Brad Richardson.
• July 15: Re-signed C Trevor Lewis.
• Aug. 18: Signed LW Ethan Moreau.
• LW Ryan Smyth (traded to Edmonton)
• C Michal Handzus (unrestricted free agent, signed by San Jose)
• LW Alexei Ponikarovsky (unrestricted free agent, signed by Carolina)
• RW Wayne Simmonds (traded to Philadelphia)
• C Brayden Schenn (traded to Philadelphia)