RELOCATING THE OFFENSE
By Surly Jacob.
Defense wins championships, but goals help.
With the 2009-2010 season less than two weeks away and the preseason in full swing, the Kings look to build on last year which saw a huge improvement in team defense. Stressed by Dean Lombardi with draft picks and by Terry Murray in X’s and O’s, the Kings have come a long way since the “all-in” approach to defense by previous coach Marc Crawford. That Kings team of a not-to-distant past scored some exciting goals, and a lot of them, but most games were lost in the final frame, with what appeared more a demonstration of auto-erotic asphyxiation than an NHL team protecting a lead.
The new and improved Kings under coach Murray and defensive strategist Mark Hardy demonstrated an incredible ability last season to play strong defense and hold on to leads, despite having a defensive core that most thought would be one of the worst in the league. With an emphasis on positional play and a much larger back checking responsibility on the centers, the team spent most of the season with one of the best ‘shots against averages’ in the league and a respectable ‘goals against per game’ average of 2.76, good for 11th best in the league by season’s end.
They also set a franchise record in being shutout.
After finally solidifying the defense and having a goaltender we could trust, all of a sudden the team forgot how to score goals. The fans wanted a sniper. “We need someone to bury pucks!” they cried. What they wanted was Marian Gaborik or Marian Hossa. What they got was Ryan Smyth.
Captain Canada, as he is called, will never be confused for a sniper. He is expected to score his fair share of goals, but more than put the puck in the net himself, Smyth was brought in as a real estate agent. His specialty is occupying the scary parts of hockey town that the rest of the team dare not enter, that terrifying but prime location; the blue paint.
Maybe it’s the gangs filled with the likes of local tough guys Dion Phaneuf and Greg Zanon roaming the streets. Maybe it’s the unexpected and malicious tire slashings from irritable goalies like J.S. Giguere. Maybe they just don’t want to break a nail. Regardless of the reason, there were not many Kings’ players last year who were willing to pay the price of staking their claim in the NHL’s most hostile district. When Kyle Calder is one of the best on the team at anything, you know you’re in bad shape. One has to wonder if the Kings wouldn’t be better off getting a taste of the hard life first hand playing at the Forum in Inglewood.
So while the fans were clamoring for a fancy boy, like Gaborik, to dance around the ice and let wristers fly, Lombardi addressed the real problem by adding Ryan Smyth to the lineup. The long time Oiler and former Avalanche is here to instill the mentality and work ethic of a warrior in the Kings young, but at times, timid, group of forwards. It is his task to lead us to that promised land where offense is created.
While no discussion of the Kings’ offense this season is complete without a mention of Justin Williams, who will be heavily relied upon to put the puck in the net, it is Smyth who is here to teach our boys how to be men.
“They’re just getting their feet wet in the NHL,” Smyth said about the group of children masquerading around Staples Center as hockey players in a recent interview with nhl.com. “They’re great hockey players, but they still got another level. I think they are very capable of getting to it.” Lombardi, along the rest of us who share by proxy in the exuberance of Kings’ victories, hope that Smyth’s biggest impact is on 22 year old top line center, Anze Kopitar, a player that everyone can see has that next level within him. The Kings’ season, and dare I say, future, rides largely on whether or not, and how soon, Kopitar can upgrade his game to the deluxe model. Ryan Smyth’s true success as a King lay in this task. His goals will help, but his influence on Kopitar is paramount.
Another player that could learn a thing or two from Smyth is Captain Dustin Brown. If there was a player on the Kings who should already have “Blue Paint” on his driver’s license, it’s Brown. We’ve seen it from Brown before, and we saw it in flashes last year. However it was hard for one not to think that the letter stitched in to his jersey affected Brown’s play to some degree last season, as Brown showed more interest in shooting and dumping the puck than crashing the net.
Brown’s re-emergence as a true power forward this year will go a long way to helping the team climb up the standings. This team needs Brown to provide as much offense as he does devastating hits. They also need him to lead, no small order. Smyth has dealt before with the monumental task of being not just the leader of a hockey team, but the leader of a nation as well, as he was captain of Team Canada in the World Championships for four years, from 2001-2005, winning one silver and two gold medals.
Smyth will be looked upon to further infuse Brown with the right demeanor, convictions, and quite frankly, the balls, to lead a team past the 82 game mark.
The talent is there in the Kings’ forward core. We have all seen Kopitar dazzle us with his vision, Frolov dangle his way to unseen pockets, Purcell sweep a puck on net with lightning speed and accuracy, Brown deflect impossible shots. All they need now are the directions to the vacant properties inside the opponents crease and the bulb on the red lamp will quickly need to be replaced.
As much as we hope that Smyth will rub off on the youngsters, the youngsters have already rubbed off on him. “It’s nice to be feeling young again with these guys. We just want to have fun and build that camaraderie, build that open relationship to communicate and talk about the play or the situation that arises.”
Good. Feel young. Have fun.
And let’s see a lot of this in a Kings uniform.
The Kings offense depends on it.