by John, Sheng and Chris
1. The top six.
You could make a strong argument that even the two Stanley Cup-winning clubs lacked the kind of quality the Kings will ice in their top six in 2015-16. The expected first line of Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Milan Lucic is a tantalizing mix of puck possession, scoring ability, speed and physical power. While Kopitar and Lucic are both coming off down years in production, it would be a surprise if they failed to rebound.
Simply put, this line has a chance to be one of the best in the West next season. Right below them you have Jeff Carter -- who has to be among the best second-line centers in the entire league -- along with two supremely talented youngsters in Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. Put it all together and the Kings’ top-six stacks up with any in the league.
From Drew Doughty on down, the Kings' blueline boasts an impressive combination of dominance and depth. Up top, Doughty and Jake Muzzin are the NHL's premier defensive pairing. As recently as two years ago, newcomer Christian Ehrhoff was a clear-cut top-pairing defender, and as recently as last year, he was still a viable second-pairing option.
As long as he stays healthy, he offers a solid floor and vast upside, and prospective partner Brayden McNabb should build on a promising first full season. At third pairing, Martinez and Greene are a decent bet to revisit the success that made them arguably the league's best bottom pairing during LA's deep playoff runs. On paper, the Kings' rearguard has no obvious weakness.
Last year, the Kings were the top Corsi For team in the league for the third year in a row. Since tracking started, they were also the first top team to miss the playoffs. (There's a first time for everything, eh?) Kopitar, the heart and soul of their possession prowess, is still exceptionally good, and was the leader in relative Corsi despite tough assignments last year. They did lose Justin Williams, who routinely posts exceptional numbers, but they also shed three of their worst possession players: Robyn Regehr, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards. Young players Toffoli, Pearson and McNabb all posted strong results and additions Lucic and Ehrhoff have had historically strong results, although they are both likely in decline and did have lackluster seasons last year.
by John, Robyn and Chris
1. The bottom six.
On the flip side of the Kings’ top-six, their projected bottom-six forwards leave much to be desired. A third line of Dwight King-Trevor Lewis-Dustin Brown isn’t the worst No. 3 line, but it’s hard to see that line chipping in anything resembling offense. Lewis & King have become well-known for low-event hockey that does not allow either team to score, and it’s tough to see Brown’s offensive downward trend turning around playing with them.
The fourth line is even more concerning; with the Kings seemingly unwilling to give a prospect with offensive upside like Adrian Kempe or Jordan Weal a real shot in camp, it looks like we’ll see either Nick Shore or Andy Andreoff centering Jordan Nolan & Kyle Clifford. It should be another offensively challenged line, and unlike the third there’s a great chance it gets buried in possession as well. Overall, there will be substantial pressure on the top six to score, because it’s tough to see how this bottom six will contribute much of anything at all.
The active roster, as it has been for the last few years, is pretty strong. But more than ever, LA might be worried if it gets bitten by the injury bug. In short, its injury replacements are either unproven or unexciting. For starters, Ehrhoff has solidified the Kings’ defensive rotation, but after that, injury replacements include Jeff Schultz and Jamie McBain. They don't really excite anyone. Derek Forbort is the top prospect who could step in, but he still has a ways to go despite being in the system since 2010.
The Kings’ two most productive AHL forward prospects (Jordan Weal and Brian O'Neill) are no longer waiver-eligible. Beyond the aforementioned players, no one really seems ready for a cup of coffee. Michael Mersch is the only other forward who could perhaps see NHL time this year, but that seems unlikely. The former Wisconsin Badger only has one season of AHL hockey under his belt, and the Kings are loath to rush any player (see Forbort). Finally, losing backup goalie Martin Jones is a bit nerve-wracking. Backup Jhonas Enroth is a pretty big step down, while No. 3 goalie J.F. Berube has no NHL experience and is already 24 years old, a year older than when Jones made his NHL debut.
If you had to point to one reason the Kings didn't make the playoffs last year, it's the shootout. The Kings only managed two shootout wins out of 10 contests, the worst percentage in the NHL. We know that the shootout is primarily luck-based, and if you allow the Kings a 5-5 record, instead of their 2-8, they grab third place in the Pacific last year. On closer inspection, luck isn’t completely to blame; the Kings' top players often tried the same tactics to break down or beat goalies as in previous years, and opposing goalies largely did their homework. Plus, the Kings have had dreadful shootout records in three out of the last four years. They'll be welcoming 3-on-3 overtime with open arms if it decides more games before the shootout.
1. Can Eastern Conference imports Milan Lucic and Christian Ehrhoff replace the Kings’ departed veterans?
2. Is the old Dustin Brown ever going to return?
3. Are Brayden McNabb and Tyler Toffoli ready to become core players?
BEST CASE SCENARIO
by Ryan, Battle of California
The Kings' top six is loaded with a lot of firepower, and the defense appears to be a bit more stabilized compared to last season. In a perfect world, Gaborik and Lucic thrive off of Kopitar, who signs a new contract extension early in the season. Tyler Toffoli’s meteoric rise as a scoring machine continues, and Tanner Pearson has a breakout year. The defensive depth isn’t tested, Brayden McNabb and Christian Ehrhoff become a powerful duo and Drew Doughty isn’t forced to play thirty minutes a game.
Jonathan Quick finally puts up great numbers again to the point that it finally is determined, yes, he is elite. Young centers Nick Shore and Jordan Weal anchor the bottom lines, and Dustin Brown regains his form alongside the playmaking of Weal. The Kings wind up making the playoffs again (probably just barely, because even in a best-case scenario that’s what they do) and make a deep playoff run. Dean Lombardi is able to convince the Blue Jackets to trade Cam Atkinson for next to nothing.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
by Ryan, Battle of California
Following their first game in Vancouver, Milan Lucic decides he doesn’t want to wait and wants to go to the Canucks immediately. The Kings are only able to get draft picks in return. Meanwhile, age catches up with Gaborik and he can’t stay healthy, while Shore and Weal fail to adjust to the NHL. The bottom six for Los Angeles has to be sheltered at all costs. Jamie McBain and Jeff Schultz have to be used regularly on defense, resulting in Doughty seeing 35 minutes of ice time each game.
The contract of Mike Richards stays on the books and the Kings can’t sign Kopitar, who signs with Arizona. Martin Jones shuts the Kings out in every game against San Jose and goes on to win the Vezina. The Kings end up getting eliminated from playoff contention by the Anaheim Ducks in the second-to-last game of the year while Edmonton somehow makes it in instead. Dean Lombardi decides to go for another rebuild and contacts Dan Cloutier to see what he’s up to. Ticket prices stay really high.