The Season Preview will be a running column on questions and thoughts for the upcoming season. Individual teams will be highlighted in each post. CLICK HERE for the full list of Season Previews.
If I was hog-tied and forced at gunpoint to give a one word description of the LA Kings (Hey! these things happen. At least I’m prepared), I would have to go with inconsistent. However, I would also politely ask for a second word so I could say, maddeningly inconsistent!
They’ve toyed with greatness, like a cat with a ball of string. Because make no mistake, this team has not achieved greatness yet. The Pittsburgh Penguins and their back to back finals appearances and many division titles, the Red Wings and their many recent cup victories and President’s trophies, the Chicago Blackhawks and their two cups in four years… that’s greatness. That’s what separates a hot goalie with a deep gritty team going on a dominant unexpected playoff run and a truly great team. It’s that annual success that makes fans on other teams go “hey, remember those 90s Avalanche? They were something.”
The LA Kings just don’t have it yet. They were the only team in the Pacific Division not to win the division since the 2004 lockout, and only finished in the top two in the division once in that time (last year’s shortened season). The excuse we have been given for this is that the Kings are a team built for a series. They aren’t good enough to steam roll you game to game, but their size, depth, and scoring will eventually overpower you in a series. But even that supposed strength turned out to be flawed last postseason. They beat a Blues team that had been pretty awful for parts of the season before rediscovering and then re-losing their team identity. The Kings started looking very mortal in the second round against the Sharks. The series pushed the Kings to the brink and exposed their deep cast of scorers to be more than stoppable. This carried over to the semi-finals when the Kings were easily eliminated by a superior Blackhawks team. It was an awful playoffs for the Kings on the offensive side of things (though Jonathan Quick was still strong in net and the defense was good). I know what you’re saying… how is making the conference finals a sign of taking a step back? The Kings were not a balanced team, because they were all defense and no offense. And that’s not a good thing, because it never consistently works to try to win every series with defense alone (right, Dale Hunter?).
You know your offense has dried up when your playoff leader in points and goals (tied with Jeff Carter) is young defenseman Slava Voynov. He was the lone bright spot on an otherwise putrid offense for the Kings last playoffs. Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar (2012′s offensive heroes) were especially bad, combining for 13 points and 6 goals in 15 games… which is one less goal and the same number of points as Slava Voynov alone. What looked like the league’s most intimidating collection of talent in the 2012 playoffs looked frustrated and out of answers in last year’s playoffs… much like they were during the 2011-12 regular season.
So, the only question really facing the LA Kings, is… what are they? The core of the team is largely the same. Brad Richardson, Rob Scuderi, and Dustin Penner are gone, and the Kings added Dan Carcillo, Jeff Shultz, and Brian O’Neill. With the continued development of younger players like Tyler Toffoli and Kyle Clifford, the Kings have basically matched departing pieces with new ones… it’s the big names that need to rebound, the depth did its part last year in the playoffs by keeping the Kings alive through low scoring games when the stars failed to deliver.
One of the things that must change is the play of Anze Kopitar. I’ve been a proponent of Anze Kopitar being one of the league’s best players for some time now (prior to the cup run too), but last year was a step back. At 26, he should be putting up his best numbers, at least if he follows the trend set by most stars (like Selanne, Ovechkin, Gretzky, etc). There were times when he looked like he could enter the Hart trophy conversation, or at the very least win a Selke. It was said that he was playing through injuries during the disappointing playoffs performance, but the Kings desperately need him to be good. He is perhaps the most important factor in this team’s success not named Quick. If he can bounce back and lead his team through this post-cup funk, they could finally develop the consistency necessary to enter that “greatness” conversation.
I think this season will tell us a lot about what the Kings actually are. We’ll have a better answer for whether they’ll contend for years to come, or if their success was a blip on the radar and they’re actually the 5-8 seed they’ve often looked like. It will need to be a much more impressive performance than the one put forward by the Kings last season if they even want to get to the Western Conference Finals, let alone become the great team they’ve threatened to be.