5 Reasons the Kings Can Win the Pacific Division
In recent years, the #1 seed in the Western Conference has been synonymous with both the Pacific Division and the San Jose Sharks. It would seem likely that this will be repeated again in 2011.
This article will suggest that not only will San Jose not take the first seed in the West, they will not even win their own division, as it is now the time for the Los Angeles Kings, who finished 3rd in the Pacific Division and 6th in the Western Conference in 2009-2010 with 101 points, to do just that.
Here are the five reasons that the Kings can take their rightful place on the throne in the Pacific:
Reason #1: Goaltending
The Pacific division is no slouch when it comes to goaltending. Ilya Bryzgalov was a Vezina finalist just a few months ago, and should show no signs of slowing.
Jonas Hiller is one of the best young netminders in the league, posting a .918 save percentage in his first season as the official starter in Anaheim.
But there are some new faces that haven’t seen most teams very often, and that could be a factor. Kari Lehtonen had spent his entire career with the Atlanta Thrashers before coming to Dallas via trade and is primed to be the franchise backstop until Jack Campbell is ready to step in.
Most notably, the San Jose Sharks acquired two new marquis goalies in Antero Nittymaki, and Antii Niemi. Nittymaki was primed to take the starting role for the Sharks. That was before Niemi was signed after getting the boot for committing the heinous crime of delivering a Stanley Cup to Chicago. Both players have shown the ability to be not only NHL starters, but that they can be among the best in the league. This will no doubt be a formidable tandem that will help the Sharks success again this season.
Where does that leave the Kings?
Jonathan Quick has earned the starter’s slot, setting the franchise mark with 39 wins last season. He gave the Kings a chance to win every night, made some huge saves routinely and is especially great with rebound control. He is also great in the shootout, far better than the Kings are offensively in the one-on-one game.
The only reason his role for the upcoming season is at all in question is another Jonathan, the man who has been considered the Kings’ goalie of the future since he was drafted 11th overall 4 years ago.
Jonathan Bernier has been in development and doing so beautifully- even though he felt entitled to be on the big club when he was called up two seasons ago. He then reported to camp last year with a ‘where do you want me?’ attitude, to which Kings management replied, “Go to the American League and be the best goalie there.” Bernier was named the AHL goalie of the year last season. Nothing more can be asked of Bernier except to back up Quick and compete for the starting job, and he will assuredly do what is asked of him once again.
The Kings are now a very responsible defensive team, which is something any goalie needs in order to be successful. With top notch skaters Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, defensive stalwart Rob Scuderi, and bruisers Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene busting heads in front of the crease, any competent netminder can put up decent numbers between the pipes in L.A.
The fact that the Kings have two options that are much more than just competent will be a huge asset to the Kings’ success in the coming season.
Reason #2: Style of Play
It is widely known that Terry Murray has focused on defensive play since taking the head coach job in 2008. What is counter-intuitive about this strategy is that his focus has been on forwards, perhaps even more than on defensemen.
This focus has led to some changes in personnel at the forward position. Most recently the Kings let forward Alexander Frolov walk, and a previous article here outlined my satisfaction of that decision. Frolov was benched for a game early in the 2009-10 campaign for his lack of effort and poor decision making with the puck, two areas in which defensive minded forwards must not slack.
The strategy has been successful. Last season the Kings were among the fewest top 10 in goals against in the league, a huge improvement from third worst in the category the year before Murray took over.
Sure, this style doesn’t always make for the most exciting product on the ice when fans want to see red lights flashing. Just ask Minnesota Wild and New Jersey Devils fans (at least in years past). But change is in the air on this front.
In an interview on Frozen Royalty, Murray stated the team is ready to take it up a notch in terms of focusing on more offense.
“Offensive production is going to be important to improve on this year. The five-on-five, four-on-four is going to be real important from a team aspect… I think we have the ability to improve there… to have a better attack game, a better possession game as we come through the middle of the ice.”
This does not mean a lack of attention to the fundamental principle of defense first. Murray says that the system itself will not be changing, simply the emphasis with the puck entering the offensive zone, “…getting a forecheck and cycle game going… I want to add onto that.”
Terry Murray has made good on virtually everything he has claimed in his tenure in Los Angeles: his first year it was to improve defensively; last year it was to make the playoffs. I have no reason to assume that the five-on-five offense, the team’s most glaring statistical and frequently addressed problem, won’t improve either.
Reason #3: Acquisitions
“The right fit”.
This is Dean Lombardi’s favorite phrase when it comes to adding players to his squad.
It is the phrase Dean Lombardi has thrown out when responding to questions about going after high-end free agents, and more specifically, the decision to not going after certain players.
When Dany Heatley was ‘available’ in the summer of 2009, the possibility of acquiring the winger from the Senators sounded good to most Kings fans. But when asked about the possibility of such, Lombardi implied that he may not be ‘the right fit’, presumably due to his reputation as a bad locker room guy and prima-donna. His performance in last year’s playoffs should confirm this assumption.
This summer, the opportunity again arose to add a sniper to the left-wing hole in the lineup. Of course we all know about the Ilya Kovalchuk debacle and how that turned out. Since after Kovy the drop-off of scoring talent was reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, the Kings focused on adding a couple role-players instead of marquis superstars.
The first addition was Alexei Ponikarovsky, a gritty left-winger with good size, if not a superb scoring touch. He is so often labeled as ‘Alexander Frolov’s replacement’ because he was acquired on the same day that Frolov signed with the Rangers, and for an almost identical one year, $3.2 million contract (Frolov’s is $3.0). Oh and he’s a Russian left-winger.
Because of this, his performance on the ice will be constantly compared to that of Frolov’s, for better or for worse. Offensive production aside, I am confident that Ponikarovsky will bring a more tenacious, physical aspect to the Kings’ game that Frolov could never have, and that may prove to be far more instrumental than Frolov’s occasional big goal and stellar puck possession skills. Of course the hope is that Poni can chip in a timely goal here and there as well, but either way it will be nice to see someone who doesn’t slack off because they aren’t good enough to be placed on the top line.
Then there’s big Willie. Willie Mitchell is the defenseman that Dean Lombardi has been talking about adding for months.
After the initial frenzy on July 1 and the following days, the biggest names on the defensive market were Andy Sutton, Ruslan Salei, and Willie Mitchell. Mitchell was not offered a contract in early July because he admitted that he was not completely rehabilitated from his season ending concussion, and wanted to be sure he could play a full season before agreeing to a contract. That is exactly the type of thing a ‘right fit’ type of guy would do.
In terms of roster spots, Mitchell is replacing the departed Sean O’Donnell, and whether or not that’s an upgrade is not even a question. Sure, O’Donnell was always responsible defensively and was a terrific veteran presence, but the additional mobility and grit from Mitchell will be sensational.
Reason #4: Attitude
Broken record time:
“The right fit.”
Of course, finding a player that has the right on-ice abilities for the team’s needs is an important factor when looking to add talent to a roster. But this phrase mainly refers to the attitude and work-ethic of an athlete.
Throughout the course of the Lombardi rebuilding project, he has been known to answer simple questions with long-winded answers that discuss the issues from a more philosophical perspective than most interviewers intend. But his reasons for doing so are reflective of his mentality for building a franchise.
For example, if he is asked about the next step for a young player to grow, he usually responds with the concept of becoming a winner and all the things that go into it, such as learning to lose and gaining a sense of responsibility.
More significantly, Dean Lombardi has preached the concept of the organization building not just a pool of talent, but a winning attitude. He wants the ‘Kings’ to be synonymous with success, such as the Yankees in the Bronx and fellow Staples Center tenants the Lakers are in their respective sports. Obviously, that is a very long-term and lofty goal, but finding players loyal to the cause has been a priority for Lombardi.
What he has gotten in return are prospects and players that are not only talented but hard-working, motivated, have no sense of entitlement and are dedicated not only to the team but to the Kings franchise as a whole. This prevents having any players that are just playing for a pay day or to be in the spotlight, and helps overall team unity.
This strategy has resulted in having quality personalities in Kings uniform, or as Dean Lombardi puts it: “I don’t have one jerk in that locker room.”
Reason #5: Drew Doughty
If you’re reading this then you know the facts about Drew Doughty:
- 2nd overall pick
- 2nd ever 20 year-old Norris trophy nominee (Bobby Orr was the 1st)
- 3rd in defensive scoring as a 2nd year player
Did you also know that according to LA Times reporter Helene Elliot, he offered his number to the veteran Mitchell after he signed with the Kings? Mitchell and Doughty both wore #8 last season. It seems Doughty has been drinking from the team-first Kool-Aid as well, which shouldn’t be a surprise, but considering that he is emerging as not just only the best young defenseman but the face of the franchise, it is rather remarkable indeed.
Personality aside, Doughty is perhaps the best two-way defenseman in the league.
I’ll say that again.
Drew Doughty is the best two-way defenseman in the league.
Certainly, Duncan Keith would have something to say about this, and as the reigning Norris trophy winner, rightfully so.
But to my knowledge, I haven’t seen Duncan Keith step in and take over offensively like Doughty has. I watched him from the fifth row at Staples Center as he took the puck in overtime against Colorado, look at Craig Anderson and beat him glove high cleanly from the blue-line with a slap-shot, on a play that was designed to have Jarret Stoll get the shot.
A 20 year-old in the NHL should not have that much gall, that much confidence, that much ability, and still so much potential.
The most exciting part is that the best is yet to come from Drew Doughty, and concurrently, from the Los Angeles Kings.
With these changes made in the summer of 2010 combined with young players both already on the Kings roster and potentially joining the team, the Kings are poised to make a run at the Pacific Division crown.
If everything comes together as it looks like it should, 2010-2011 could be the year.
◊ Reed Kaufman