The Kings have a problem. It’s the good kind. There are too many solid young players looking to break into the club but not enough roster spots. For Clifford and Schenn, the game to game clock is ticking. Clifford is at 7 games, Schenn at 8. Once they hit 9, the Kings must choose to keep them and burn a year of their pro contract or send them back to their respective junior club. For the 123rd overall pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft, the questions are the same but different as Andrei Loktionov goes to Manchester if sent down and the 9 game rule does not apply.
Let’s look at the team’s need and each player’s respective fit but before we do, let me preface this journey with a caveat – I don’t have the answer. I am comfortably in an “I don’t know” state of mind on the questions posed here. It is important however to ask the right questions if you intend to find the best answers. Let’s do exactly that.
SECOND AND THIRD LINES: The Kings have the forwards to fill numbers two and three. From the bottom up, Ponikarovsky, Handzus and Simmonds are the shut down line that can pop in goals. Smyth, Stoll and Williams are the speedy (latter two), sneaky (Ryan) secondary scoring line that thrives on the transition game and puts opposing defenders on its heels. This is a line that can cycle, maximize puck possession and so long as Jarret keeps that backswing low as he has been, consistently put shots on net.
THE FIRST LINE: The first line is Kopitar, Brown and…yes, there is a hole there ready to be filled by Richardson, Parse or one of the three rookies above. We have already seen Lokti fill that role for a few games. Let’s look at this carefully.
Who on that line is the speedy forward that keeps the puck on his stick and draws defenders to him? Give up? Nobody yet. Last season, that player was Justin Williams.
Who is the forward on that line that parks his behind in front of the net game in and game out and makes a living on garbage goals? Brown you said? Consistently? That’s being generous.
Who is the big body, playmaker and can bury the puck when he shoots? Anze Kopitar.
Brown is the complimentary power forward who isn’t going to dazzle you with his stick handling ability or high end skill but will shoot and shoot often and, when the play gravitates to the crease, end up there to pick up the rebound. Thus, what you have is a different makeup of a first line. Smyth-Kopitar-Williams were a force last season because they brought very specific complimentary traits. Williams carried the puck with speed and stick handling skill. He opened up time and space for Kopitar. Kopitar, could then play deeper in the offensive zone and use that wicked shot to light the lamp. Smyth was there to pick up a rebound if Kopitar and Williams’ bids didn’t end up in goal. The line had synergy.
A first line of Kopitar and Brown is missing two of those key elements – the body that goes to the net and the winger that opens time and space for Kopitar. I know what you’re thinking. Kopitar must get better and create that time and space for himself. I agree with you but what you seek is a work in progress. If you want success now, then the players have to compliment each other today, not what you want Kopitar to ultimately becomes in a couple of years. It’s unfair to put the burden of a 7 year veteran on Anze and expect him to play like he is in his prime. He isn’t. He is still very much learning and impressionable. Smyth and Williams, two intelligent veterans, made Kopitar a better player. Brown won’t.
That brings me to the questions: Is Loktionov a fit on the first line? He isn’t the front of the net presence but he is an intelligent playmaker. Is he, at this development stage, ready to play on a solid Kings’ team as a 1st line left winger. The question is not whether he can do it on occasion but is it likely we will see success there on a consistent basis? If you answer no, that likely places one of Richardson or Parse on the 1st line wing and if I were a betting man, I put Parse there after his return. Murray may ease him into the game through fourth line duties but eventually (unless Scott Parse lays an egg) he is headed to the Kings’ top line. I am not sure he will last there either but the first line as a whole is another article for another day.
Do Schenn and Clifford fit the first line duties? Ask yourself this – If Murray intended that at any point, would we have seen it by now?
A TRADITIONAL FOURTH: Our coach has already told us that he likes his fourth line old school. Hard hitting, energy, with one enforcer. He wants them to pot in a few goals here or there but that isn’t their focus. The focus is maintaining momentum and sometimes taking it back from the other team through battles.
That all but secures Kevin Westgarth’s role as right wing on the fourth line. I like Kevin. Surly does as well. But as a hockey player on this team, I choose to remain dubious. If we are to assume one of Richardson or Parse takes the fourth line duty, then the question becomes who plays the other center / wing? Can Kyle Clifford play center? Schenn can and has played both. Schenn also comes with a better offensive upside. While Kyle has had a good last two games, he has zero points in the ones has played and is a -5 for the season. I love Kyle Clifford, mostly the player he is going to be one to two seasons from now. As for today, ask yourself whether you think he should go back to junior and work hard on his offensive game. Will developing that upside separate him from the pack or is that man’s body in a boy’s head enough to hold fast on the fourth line as a wing with Parse or Richardson as the center?
Does Loktionov have any role on the Kings’ fourth line? You put him at center or wing and you have Westgarth on the right and one of Richardson or Parse at center or left wing. Does that sound like the traditional fourth line Murray has expressed he wants?
THE FORGOTTEN LEWIS: I actually haven’t forgotten him. Our coach has. Trevor Lewis has played two games. I have no idea what the team’s plans with this 23 year old center are. If Murray liked his game, I assume we would see him more. Does Terry already know what he is getting with Lewis such that he wants to use the first 9 games to see the three kids instead? Does that sound like Murray?
So, who stays and who goes?
I am still thinking about it but here is a question for you. Do you think we have asked the right questions or are there others that help direct us to this answer?