LOS ANGELES KINGS SEASON PREVIEW: FORWARD THINKING, RULE OF THIRDS
Keeping in step with NHL tradition, the Los Angeles Kings third line is built to shut down and shut up the best of the rest. Returning to their checking roles are Michal Handzus and Wayne Simmonds. Joining them is the Kings’ lone forward mercenary for the year, Alexei Ponikarovsky.
Whereas the Kings’ top two lines of Smyth-Kopitar-Brown and Parse-Stoll-Williams are designed to put pucks in the net, the third line’s job will be primarily to keep them out.
In some regards, calling the ‘Zus’ line a third line is misleading. In all likelihood, this trio will in fact see more ice time as a unit than what we call the second line. During home games in which coach Terry Murray has the last change between whistles, Ponikarovsky, Handzus and Simmonds will be tapped on the shoulder every time the opposition sends out their premier scoring forwards.
What’s that? You think Joe Thornton is going to lift up your measly Sharks? Wayne Simmonds has a bone crunching check with his name on it.
Ryan Getzlaf to save the Ducks’ day? Michal Handzus has other plans.
Whose afraid of Taylor Hall, the Virgin Wolf? Certainly not the 6’4″, 226lb Ukranian monstrosity Alexei Ponikarovsky.
Together, these three Kings will bang and cycle their way through the pressure points of a hockey game. All with a similar purpose, each brings something different to the table.
Michal Handzus “The weight of the world rests lightly on the shoulders of a god”
They say you can’t teach size.
At 6’4″, Handzus needs no lessons.
You can however, teach defense.
But with 762 NHL games under his belt, Handzus does the teaching.
Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes (Michal is a very mythical player), in the last two years Handzus has endeared himself to a fan base that was largely skeptical of his signing of a 4-year, $16 million contract. And rightfully so, coming off major knee surgery in his first Kings season, Handzus belonged in a Hanna Barbera cartoon more than he did a Greek myth. Since that first year of recovery, Handzus has played as steady a game as anyone else on the team. Michal is a strong, smart, reliable veteran. He knows how to tie up the largest of opposing centerman. He frustrates defensemen with his relentless cycling abilities. He cuts down options with his back-checking. He wins face-offs more often than he loses them. He also knows how to plant himself in front of a net.
Though primarily a shut-down unit, the third line can score. Handzus has put up 42 points in each of his two seasons with the Kings, last year hitting the 20 goal mark for the 4th time in his career. Zus has been known to roof a shot here and there on an unsuspecting goalie, but more often you will find him deflecting pucks and smashing away at loose rebounds in the paint. Handzus is a more defensively minded, stronger version of Ryan Smyth. Assuredly Michal will see plenty more powerplay time this season, either as an insurance policy on the first unit or as the centerpiece of the second.
We know Handzus will provide stellar defense. We know he can be counted on in the dying minutes of a game. There is also every reason to believe Handzus will turn in a similarly productive offensive performance this year. There is even strong indication that those numbers will inflate.
That reason is Wayne Simmonds.
Wayne Simmonds “Not a surprise anymore”
In the “more of the same please” category, we have Wayne “The Night Train” Simmonds.
Well, sort of. More of the same, and then some.
The exemplar of work ethic, Simmonds is what you would call a pain in the ass to play against. At least I think that is the technical phrase. Some may use terms like ‘gritty’, ‘solid’, ‘dynamic’ or ‘a joy to watch’. Going into his third NHL season, and coming off a 40 point performance (16g, 24a), Wayne was made for the current NHL.
He is also a match made in heaven, or should I say Olympus, for Handzus.
Having played together for the large majority of Simmonds’ young career, the two combine for the groundwork of what can easily become the best third line in hockey. Handzus has ushered Simmonds into the NHL and instilled in him the defensive awareness and cycling acumen that makes Simmonds both responsible against the best the league has to offer, as well as a threat to score.
Absorption is the pillar of growth, and Wayne is a sponge. Those who have closely followed Wayne’s career will notice that he seems to improve in nearly every game he plays. Should this trend continue, 20 goals should be more than a goal this season for Simmonds. It should be expected.
But what of the unexpected, or the altogether new?
Alexei Ponikarovsky “Built for the West”
Suiting up in a Western Conference jersey for the first time, Alexei Ponikarovsky comes to the Kings to fill the void left by Alexander Frolov.
However any mention of, or comparison to Frolov ends there.
Ponikarovsky is another very large human. But unlike Handzus, who is not the fleetest of foot, Ponikarovsky can move. He can also shoot. A near lock to score 20 goals, Ponikarovsky gets the job done with a hard and fast slapshot and the willingness to rush the net. In this manner Alexei is a perfect match for Simmonds and Handzus. Poni’s big shot is one of the few elements missing from last year’s more Russian version of this line. The addition of it, along with strong board play from Ponikarovsky should only buoy the scoring potential of the unit without sacrificing defense.
That said, I must admit to being relatively unfamiliar with Ponikarovsky. Some criticism I have read is that he can be prone to untimely penalties and disappearing from time to time. Let us hope I was correct in saying there were no real comparisons between Ponikarovsky and Frolov.
From what I saw of Ponikarovsky at training camp on Monday, he is a smart player. He has a knack for being where the puck is going. He seems to read the play very well. Willing to throw his weight around, though not an overly physically intimidating forward, but hard to move.
The Unit “Bring it on”
There are some marquee forwards out there that this group must keep off the scoreboard regularly if the Kings’ season is going to be one to remember. While the top 5 even-strength goals against average the Kings posted last year is helped along by the quality of the defensemen, Terry Murray’s system and Jonathan Quick, Simmonds and Handzus deserves a large share of that credit themselves.
A never give up attitude prevails for this line and reaps tangible benefits on the ice. Get to know this line, and learn to love it, because you will be seeing it often. And while I do expect there to be some shuffling of the lines, with Ponikarovsky and Simmonds shifting up and down the top 9, this is one of the units you can more readily expect to stay in tact.
The same can not be said about the 4th line.