LOS ANGELES KINGS SEASON PREVIEW: FORWARD THINKING, 1ST LINE OF ATTACK
“The best defense is a good offense.”
As we squirm in our comfortable seats at work, we pine for the crammed quarters of Staples Center. The groundhog is groggily awakening, and hockey is finally transitioning from its prison of free agency and trade talk to something that is played on the ice.
Last weekend’s rookie camp was just a carrot dangling on a string shorter than Brandon Kozun. I kid the little speedster, because along with others such as Tyler Toffoli, Jordan Weal, Andrei Loktionov, Kyle Clifford and Linden Vey, the level of offensive skill as an organization is starting to trend upwards for the first time since Michael Cammalleri left town. With that in mind, and the real training camp about to begin, its time to take a look at the forward make-up of this team going into the season (which is less than a month away!… sorry, I’ll focus).
As Bobby outlined, there are some questions at defense in the 6 and 7 spot, and for a month, Greene’s box at #5. The offense however poses some much more curious, and debatable decisions.
But those can wait.
The 1st line is set.
Anze Kopitar “To infinity, and beyond.”
As certainly Drew Doughty will lead the way on defense, Anze Kopitar is once again without question the prime forward going into the season. Anchoring the 1st line, Kopitar is the backbone and the amphetamine for the Kings’ on offense. At less than a month older than 23, and coming off a personal best 81 point season (34G, 47A), Kopitar has plenty of room to improve. Look for this season to be the one that affirms those warm, fuzzy feelings we gushed when Kopitar diminished the lumbering troll Chris Pronger in his first NHL game. Look for that signature move to be used much, much more.
The Los Angeles Kings’ 2010-2011 season largely rides on two factors; Kopitar’s confidence and fitness. A physically and mentally conditioned Kopitar is a killer. He is an offensive weapon without barriers or limitation. This confidence went up and down in previous years. At the top of last season with Ryan Smyth, Anze blew by the entire league, scoring at an elite 1.58 PPG in his first 19 games. Then Smyth went down with injury and Anze’s scoring dwindled as Kopitar felt the effects of losing his first true mentor so early in the campaign. This season is a very different ballgame. Whereas Smyth had a highly lackluster playoffs to end the season, Kopitar proved to the world, and most importantly to himself, that he is fully capable of running the show on his own.
The other factor, his conditioning, is something Dean Lombardi has pushed Anze towards for years. Last season was step one. This season will tell how far he can push himself. This being his 4th NHL season, and having finally tasted the rigors of the playoffs, the excuse bin is run barren and the pancake batter better be bone dry. He now knows what it takes, not to just get through 82 games, but to win most of them and soldier on into the post season. It is time for Anze Kopitar to leap from this star to the super nova with Pavel Datsyuk, Jonathon Toews, Joe Thornton… wait, scratch that last one… and yes, even Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Kopitar can be that good. We have seen that he is that good. The only question is, do you believe he can stay that good game in and game out?
Ryan Smyth “An old dog doesn’t need new tricks.”
The left side of the Kings’ first line of attack will most undoubtedly be Ryan Smyth. Sure, you can think Scott Parse will get some time up there, maybe even Alexei Ponikarovsky, and at some point they may, but to start the season Smyth will be glued to Kopitar.
Captain Canada must maintain his 20+ goal scorer status, doing the dirty work in front of and behind the net. Recently at the GM Breakfast during Hockeyfest, Dean Lombardi said that Smyth was coming into camp “in the best shape of his career.” Taking this statement at face value, look for Smyth’s war-torn body to hold up at least as well as it did last season. The Kings’ need, at minimum, 65 games from Smyth. If they can get closer 75, the top line is in good shape. Though Kopitar may carry the line, Smyth provides a steely and fearless veteran’s game that coaches adore, opponents respect and goalies abhor. Will Smyth live up to his hefty $6.25MM cap hit or will his play decline along with his actual salary? While an improvement on his 53pt performance would be beneficial, a repeat will suffice. The only question mark surrounding Smyth is his durability.
Justin Williams “Something to prove.”
Speaking of durability.
Justin Williams is the only player on the Kings’ top line that can even remotely be called a question mark. The question is not whether he will play on the right side of Kopitar or Smyth. He will, at least to start. Though Williams found himself on the 4th line or in a suit and tie during the playoffs, much of this can be attributed to a hasty return from a nasty broken leg. Justin is the gray area in the debate of what makes a player injury prone. He is a well conditioned player, however he has found himself on the wrong end of freaky accidents a few too many times. From unfortunate falls to errant slap shots, Williams’ has missed 116 games over the last three seasons, only playing in 49 during the 2009-2010 campaign. The Kings need Williams to stay healthy for 20-25 games more than that.
At the top of his game, which the 29 year old is still fully capable of playing, Williams is a unique and gritty player. Often going under the radar and racking up secondary assists while the flashier Kopitar and in-your-face Smyth glow in the spotlight, Williams epitomizes the term “complimentary player.” Though some like to use this term derogatorily, a backhanded way of saying a skater can’t generate or perform at a high level on his own, I say it purely as, well, a compliment. Justin has mastered the art of the little play. The two-foot touch pass from the defensive blue line to break out his center. The extra second of stick handling to draw a defender away from the front of the net. The deft swipe to free the puck from a scrum in the corner.
Can Williams pot 20 goals this year? Better yet, can he show us the 30 goal scorer we hoped to acquire in the first place at the expense of Patrick O’Sullivan?
The Unit “We Three Kings”
Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Ryan Smyth broke out of the gate last season and tore through their opponents like a warm knife through a tub of ‘I can’t believe its not butter.”
We would like to see them repeat the scoring pace that put them at the top of the NHL. More importantly, we would just like them to stay together. They don’t need to outscore Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, but they do need to outlast them. Chemistry must have stability, lest everyone end up with debris in their pores.
Should one of the big three go down for any length of time, the Kings’ do have replacement options, at wing – if Kopitar goes down for more than a handful of games you can go ahead and write off the season. Many adamantly believe Wayne Simmonds should claim Justin Williams’ spot. Scott Parse has shown he has the offensive razzle-dazzle to play in Smyth’s stead. Perhaps all Oscar Moller needs to score 25 goals in the NHL is the opportunity. Chances are, the opportunities for usurpation will be there at some point for the eager youngsters.
However we will not discuss these players further at this time. That will came later, when we discuss the lower lines, where they will spend the majority of their season.
For now, the Kings’ top line is primed and ready to reclaim their throne.