Sep 232008
 

It wasn’t too long ago that the Pens were a lock to finish in the bottom 5 of the league. The Kings are headed down this road for the foreseeable future. But, at least the future looks bright. Very bright. The Kings are blessed with enough talent, and this year will be a audition of sorts for many of the young kids to crack the lineup for next year. However, the most important thing for the Kings is to be patient. The wins will come when the time is right.

Offense is not a problem for the Kings. The hard-hitting Dustin Brown, talented Anze Kopitar, and the slick Patrick O’Sullivan form one of the most talented and feared top lines in the league. Sniper Alexander Frolov, long-time King Derek Armstrong, and the hard-shooting Jarret Stoll also forms a solid second line. However, the bottom two lines are where it starts to get messy. First, there’s Kyle Calder and Michal Handzus, Dean Lombardi‘s ill-advised signings and $7m mistake. The two veterans were complete busts for the Kings, and will be counted on to have comeback years, especially on the defensive end, where Handzus was a team-worst -21, despite being noted for his strong two-way play. Then it starts to get interesting. The Kings aren’t short of energy players to put on the fourth line. The problem is figuring out which ones to play. Former Cornell University standout Matt Moulson led the charge with 22 games played, but it’s sniper Teddy Purcell who will get the most looks after an impressive 83-point campaign in his first pro season with Manchester despite having spent only one year at the University of Maine. It’s a little known fact that the 6’3″ Purcell, who has created much buzz in the Kings’ front office, was actually undrafted and was not even the leading scorer in his one year at Maine. There’s a hoard of players for Terry Murray to pick from, from the tough as nails Raitis Ivanans to “veteran” Matt Ellis to Andy Murray‘s son Brady Murray to the speedy Brad Richardson to the forgotten Marc-Andre Cliche. This is one area Lombardi and Murray are happy to have the headaches.

As a side note, as of today O’Sullivan has yet to re-sign and does not appear on the Kings’ roster on their website, although management has made it publicly known that it is merely a formality and that they do not allow players to attend camp without a contract. It’s been reported that O’Sullivan is possibly holding out for a better contract and the Kings do have a lot of cap room to spare, but it’s also been suspected that a couple teams have made inquiries about O’Sullivan, possibly stalling contract talks.

The acquisition of Matt Greene was an excellent move for the Kings, having gotten rid of the older and disgruntled Lubomir Visnovsky. For a defense that isn’t particularly physical and whose top defenseman, Tom Preissing, is only 5’11”, the 6’3″ 235 lbs. Greene will definitely help stabilize the blueline. Greene averaged almost 17 minutes a game with Edmonton, and as arguably the Kings’ best shut-down defenseman, expect that number to balloon to as much as 22 minutes a game. Jack Johnson rounds out the top three, and while he has fallen behind former teammate Erik Johnson in terms of development, Jack can still put up some good numbers and plays with a level-head, evidenced by his 21 minutes per game average under former coach Marc Crawford, who doesn’t like to use his rookies often. It’ll be open season for the remaining spots, but look for Denis Gauthier, who spent the season with the Flyers’ AHL affiliate, and Peter Harrold, who saw action in 25 games last year, will be the front-runners. The main intrigue at camp, however, is Drew Doughty. The Kings’ first round pick in this summer’s draft was signed to a pro contract a month ago, and many are wondering if Lombardi means to keep the 18-year old around for the season. Some people have said that Doughty’s heads and shoulders above the competition in the OHL and has the size and strength to make the jump, but others have argued that Doughty would be better off playing 20 minutes a night in a winning environment rather than 10 minutes a night for a team that could potentially lose 45 games.

Jason LaBarbera, a cast off from the Rangers, enters camp as the Kings’ number one goalie, but he’ll have to have a strong showing at camp or risk losing his job to either Erik Ersberg or Jonathan Bernier, who is not expected to return to his junior club this year. LaBarbera, at 28 years old, has only 79 games of NHL experience under his belt, and while he did play spectacular hockey for stretches last year, he’s not consistent enough. But that’s not what Lombardi’s worrying about – for all he knows, LaBarbera is merely a stop gap until either Bernier, Ersberg, or even Jeff Zatkoff can handle NHL duties full-time. Lombardi simply wants LaBarbera to hold up for as long as possible so that their young goalies won’t have to shoulder the load and risk injury, burnout, or being labeled as a “bust.”

Murray returns as head coach after an 8-year hiatus, and was best remembered as the coach who led the lowly Panthers to a club record 98-point season. Murray definitely comes from the right bloodlines – he’s the brother of Senators GM Bryan Murray – and having been part of the Flyers coaching staff for the past four season he knows all about the ups and downs of hockey. The Flyers’ collapse two years ago will provide some experience for Murray and motivate the Kings to play hard every night to just get through the season despite not being expected to win anything at all.

Wait, scratch that. There is one thing the Kings can win: the John Tavares/Oscar Hedman sweepstakes. The Kings aren’t expected to stray far from the cap floor, which means that there won’t be any improvements to the team from outside of the organization. They could be sellers at the trade deadline and could dangle Calder (one year remaining on contract) or Handzus, if he has a good year, as bait. One thing’s for sure: the Kings have a very tough season ahead of them.

Projected lineup:
Dustin Brown – Anze Kopitar – Patrick O’Sullivan
Alexander Frolov – Jarret Stoll – Derek Armstrong
Kyle Calder – Michal Handzus – Teddy Purcell
Matt Moulson – Brad Richardson – John Zeiler

Jack Johnson – Tom Preissing
Peter Harrold – Matt Greene
Drew Doughty – Denis Gauthier

Jason LaBarbera – Erik Ersberg

scratches: Brian Boyle, Brady Murray, Raitis Ivanans

Coach: Terry Murray
GM: Dean Lombardi

Predicted finish: 5th Pacific, 15th West

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