LA Kings (14th in West) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (12-19-10, 12th in East)
Last 10: 4-6
Special Teams: 18.5 PP% (15th), 82.4% (T-12th); 184 Power Play Opportunities, 182 Times Shorthanded
Top Scorer: Anze Kopitar, 32 points
1st Half Most Valuable Forward: Alex Frolov
1st Half Most Valuable Defenseman: Drew Doughty
1st Half Best Goaltender: Erik Ersberg
1st Half MVP: Mark Hardy
1st Half Highlight:
I'm not quite sure how to feel about the Kings thus far. On the one hand, they are a lot better than I thought they'd be. They're on pace to cut their goals against by 40 goals and have made great strides on the penalty kill. They've gotten great performances by 3 rookies this season and managed to snatch a good young defenseman for free. The off-season trade of Lubomir Visnovsky has worked out pretty well and should only look better as the years go by. Terry Murray has been a great hire thus far and has instilled a sense of defensive responsibility that the Kings have never had. Overall, the Kings have exceeded expectations and actually look competitive with some of the best teams in the league.
But I can't shake the feeling that the Kings should have a better record than the one they have right now. Due to a competitive Western Conference, the Kings currently sit in 14th place. (If they were in the East they'd be in 10th.) Their best player (Kopitar) has played poorly for most of this season, they lost their best defenseman (Johnson) in the 2nd game of the season, and their #1 goaltender going into the season (Labarbera) ended up buckling under the pressure.* The problem, of course, is that the Kings have played 2/3 of their games this season at home (27 vs. 14 on the road) and that will flip during the 2nd half. The Kings will get Johnson back and Ersberg & Quick will combine to give the Kings better goaltending down the stretch, but those gains are going to be counterweighed by the tougher schedule. The Kings needed to be about 5 or 6 games above .500 through 41 games to have a shot at the postseason; they aren't, and now they're screwed.
*And I know about pressure; after all, I have kissed a man.
The biggest disappointment so far this season has been the production by the top offensive talent. Look at these projections: do they seem good to you?
Anze Kopitar: 64 points
Dustin Brown & Alex Frolov: 56 points
Patrick O'Sullivan: 46 points
Jarret Stoll: 41 points
Michal Handzus: 34 points
No one's total is anywhere near their career best. Of course, it's stupid to judge the play of a player purely by his point totals (and indeed, Frolov, Handzus and Stoll have all played well this season), but there does seem to be a little growing pain associated with some of the young guys. Kopitar has been the biggest disappointment of anyone so far. The 21 year-old Slovenian has been progressing well on the defensive end, but he looks tentative and insecure entering the zone. It's now well-known that Kopitar likes to take the puck to the outside on the rush and look for a pass through the slot or take it behind the net, and defenses have shut that part of his game down. Last season, he countered that by cutting inside and taking a shot, but this season he hasn't done that. Instead, he's skated a couple feet into the zone and then either flipped the puck to a teammate or shot it into the corner. It's like he's worrying about his defensive assignment before he has even entered the offensive zone. It's great Kopitar is adapting to Terry Murray's defensive scheme, but great offensive players need to know when it's OK to break protocol and go for broke. Look at a guy like Pavel Datsyuk: he's a great defensive player, but he also knows that sometimes it's best to make a move one-on-one and try to score. Sometimes it doesn't work out and the other team gets a good opportunity out of it, but a guy like Kopitar will make up for any deficiencies on the offensive end. I'm not saying he should not care about defense, but he needs to "selectively gamble," I guess. 64 points from a guy with Kopitar's talent is not acceptable.
The Kings' 2 secondary centers are Michal Handzus and Jarret Stoll, and they've done a great job of cutting down opposing teams' shots. Michal Handzus has been the Kings' best forward this season. Handzus has the highest quality of competition on the Kings (according to Behind the Net) and yet has been on the ice for only three less goals against than goals for (18 GA vs. 15 GF). He is the top penalty killer on the team as well and uses his reach and size to block lanes better than anyone else on the Kings. Jarret Stoll has won 56.9% of his faceoffs, good for 9th in the league, and is (I believe) responsible for the improved performance by Kopitar in that area. Neither center is ideal for a 2nd line role, much like Craig Conroy before them, but both are good defensively responsible veterans that set a good example for their teammates. I could see the two of them combined with someone like Wayne Simmonds or Oscar Moller to form an elite shutdown unit in the near future.
The depth guys for the Kings are a mix of youthful exuberance and aging grit. I think we will see more and more ice time for the younger guys (Moller, Simmonds, Boyle, Purcell) as they "earn" their ice time. (I think earning ice time is more about just hanging around for a while so the other guys in the locker room don't think a player is being handed the time.) Terry Murray has made comments recently that make it sound like Purcell and Boyle may finally be up for good, and guys like John Zeiler and Kyle Calder will probably see reduced ice time as a result. It will be interesting to see how the Murray juggles everyone's ice time to keep them happy, but if the problem on your team is that you have too many good young forwards to play then you're doing alright.
Overall, the offensive unit has been subpar in the area of scoring goals but must also be commended for their improved commitment to defense. Last season, the Kings gambled too much and left their defense out to dry an awful lot; this season, it's almost the reverse, where the Kings are too cautious and need to open it up a little bit more. I expect the Kings to score more in the 2nd half of the season as players become more comfortable in the new scheme, but they will probably become more lax defensively as well.
Oh, and Raitis Ivanans has played in every game so far. Stop that.
Defensively, the Kings have been good. Not great, not outstanding, but good. They were missing that last season. When Jack Johnson gets back, hopefully they will contribute a little more on the offensive side of the puck and become a great defensive unit. The Kings have been getting good contribution at even strength (they're actually on pace to get more points from their defense than last year's team), but the defensive contribution on the power play has been non-existent. It's the price you pay when you substitute Lubomir Visnovsky and Rob Blake for Sean O'Donnell and Kyle Quincey: better defense, yes, but nowhere near the offensive acumen. That is just something the Kings are going to have to live with for the rest of the season unless, you know, they decide to let Tom Preissing play.
(It feels kind of nice to only write that much about the defense. Last season I think I wrote about 20x as much, and most of it was just, "GODDAMMIT JON KLEMM!")
Jason Labarbera... hey, did you know he didn't play that well? Nothing sets fans afire like mediocre goaltending, mostly because the position is zero-sum and hardly anyone has played it. Labarbera has been shipped off to Vancouver, where he is currently playing pretty well for his home territory. Meanwhile, the Kings have been running a duo of Jonathan Quick and Erik Ersberg. The Kings are actually in a pretty good position, goaltending-wise, because both goaltenders are on two-way contracts. The Kings aren't stuck like they were the past two seasons because, 1) they have flexibility if a goalie sucks, and 2) they actually have depth in the minors. Quick and Ersberg are both pretty good goaltenders and both are fighting for their jobs; if either one is poor for any length of time, the Kings can just call up Jonathan Bernier and give him a shot. They could even call up Jeff Zatkoff if they want to, since he's actually older than Bernier and has dominated every level he's been in. The Kings will get occasionally poor goaltending (like they did against the Devils) but overall I'd expect their team save percentage (.898, 24th in the NHL) to go up as the 2nd half continues.
The Kings are in the 3rd year of their 5-year rebuild. This is the season that young players begin to contribute and find their way as professionals in the NHL while the team begins to gel as a whole. One good thing about the Kings is that most of the people I hate aren't expected to be with the Kings much longer. Here are the people I can guarantee will be on the team next season:
Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Alex Frolov, Patrick O'Sullivan, Jarret Stoll, Michal Handzus, Oscar Moller, Wayne Simmonds, Ted Purcell, Kyle Quincey, Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson*, Matt Greene, Erik Ersberg
*Unless he gets traded, like Pierre McGuire keeps predicting. Why the Kings would do that, seeing as how Johnson hasn't played all year and would get nothing in a trade right now, I have no idea.
Notice anything? The only player that is currently a meaningful contributor on the team that is not on that list is Sean O'Donnell. All the major contributors on the Kings right now are good young players that will only get better. The only major contributor that is over 30 will be Michal Handzus, and the only ones that will be over 25 will be Alex Frolov, Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene. That's pretty amazing.
Here is how things are going to go the rest of the way:
The Kings will stumble a little bit during the 2nd half of the season and people will whisper that Kopitar and Terry Murray don't get along. The team will trade Tom Preissing and Kyle Calder for peanuts at the trade deadline and get criticized that they didn't make any other big moves to get to the playoffs. The Kings will pick in the 4-7 range in the entry draft and will take a dynamic offensive player like Jordan Schroeder. They will then surprise everyone by signing one of Marian Hossa/Henrik Zetterberg in the off-season and will enter next season ready to compete for a playoff spot. That whole "Kopitar and Murray don't like each other" will go away real quick.
OK, some of that probably won't happen (who would offer peanuts for Tom Preissing?) but it's all pretty reasonable. The Kings aren't making the playoffs this season. No buts, no caveats, they just aren't. However, they are making the strides that will help them win a Stanley Cup one day. The Kings need one more elite player to put them over the playoff hump and I imagine they'll get him, whether through a trade or free agency, next off-season. The Kings may not be very much fun to watch right now, but it's like dating a woman: yeah, you have to listen to her talk ("Oh really? Oprah said that? FASCINATING.") and do stupid stuff (nobody on Earth actually likes bowling) and everyone kind of laughs at you ("What, you would sit through Twilight too if it meant you got laid, don't lie!") but it's all worth it when you finally get to poo on her chest.
(That's how I'm ending this? Yes. Yes it is.)
Prediction: Kings win, 4-1. Goals by Doughty (x4), while Steven Stamkos watches from the press box.