I promised I wouldn’t do this anymore. I quit for an entire year. I resisted temptation though it was all around me. All my friends were doing it. Surly was doing it for a while…daily. This morning, I finally broke. I am off the wagon. Let’s do some lines, LA style.
The additions of Mike Richards and Simone Gagne, coupled with the subtraction of Michael Handzus, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Wayne Simmonds mandate a fresh look at our top six and depth at the forward positions.
WITH A HEALTHY TEAM:
Who are the top six? As of this minute and until Kyle Clifford shows otherwise, they are Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams, Dustin Penner, and Simone Gagne. What to do, what to do…there is no first or second line center between Kopitar and Richards. They are both first line centers. Some of the same holds true with Justin Williams and Dustin Brown. You could place them on the first or second line. They are interchangeable. Dustin Penner and Simone Gagne is easier. Gagne is clearly the more skilled left wing. So, the only division we have between a purported first or second line player is Gagne and Penner. Does that mean Gagne goes on the alleged first line? I don’t think so and the reason is, there is no first line. Stay with me…
Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards are different kinds of centers. Kopitar is not a banger. He is not a physical presence. He uses his size and reach well and is very difficult to knock off the puck but nobody will mistake him for a freight train. Kopitar will need a physical presence on his line, someone willing to go to the net. While Gagne does check, that is not his primary game and Richards isn’t going on Anze’s left or right. As such, Dustin Brown moves to Kopitar’s right. Now, who goes left? Dustin Penner. He plays a game that compliments Kopitar, as we already saw for the short time Penner was successful last season. If Dustin Brown wills his way to the front of the net (where he has been the recipient of many of his rebound and/or garbage goals that
pad rightfully boost his stats) and Penner can rediscover his soft hands, Kopitar and the defensemen can fire at will while Penner and Brown pick up the garbage. Thus, we have big play making center (Kopitar), sniper (Penner), physical presence (Brown).
That leaves Richards centering Justin Williams and Simone Gagne. Why do I love this line? I love it because it brings the same balanced element (physical presence in Richards, playmaker in Justin Williams, and sniper in Simone Gagne) but with one critical piece missing from the other line – speed through all three forwards. This is a line that can wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Each of these players can skate with the puck, stick handle, pass and bury the biscuit. A final element this line brings is inherent chemistry. We already know Mike Richards and Simone Gagne played well together in Philadelphia. The fact Justin Williams’ game compliments each of them should bring a renewed enthusiasm, especially playing with his good friend (Gagne). I see this line as the more consistent of the top two lines. I see three 25-35 goal scorers on this line. I see two first lines or, if you must, a 1a and 1b.
The third line has even more options but, for me, it’s easy. Andrei Loktionov and Jarret Stoll take the center and/or right wing positions. I can play with this line to see who plays the center role. Remember, that a center has to cover more ice than the other forward positions and must possess speed, superior on ice vision and be an excellent passer. I can hear you say, “Lokti!” Size and strength matter of course but if you get the prior three attributes + size and strength, then you have a top 6 center and, right now, we are talking about the third line. The left wing is Kyle Clifford although, as written earlier, I expect Clifford to have a break out season. More on this below.
Fourth line is Trevor Lewis centering Brad Richardson on the right and Scott Parse on the left. Lewis took his game up a notch but he isn’t quite ready for prime time. Ideally however, playing on a line with Richie and Parse will have the elements of a pseudo top 6 line. Nobody will mistake those three for bruisers. Each brings speed and a fair degree of offensive skill. Lewis has proven himself defensively responsible, as has Scott Parse. Richardson’s production and contribution on both ends of the ice has been inconsistent.
Remember, this is my fourth line, not that of Terry Murray.
Where is Kevin Westgarth? When we play a team that requires Kevin’s presence, he can substitute in for Parse. When is that? Er…
That is four lines that bring speed, offensive skill (each, in its own right), a physical game and are defensively responsible.
BREAK OUT SEASONS
If the lines remain consistent and Terry Murray doesn’t go ape with the line shuffling, three forwards I expect to have break out years are Clifford, Brown and Williams.
Unexpected positive playoff performance often becomes a catalyst to a young player taking the “next step.” It infuses confidence (“I belong here”) and maturity. Kyle should come into the season with both. That coupled with an inherent intensity and well-adjusted hostility toward everything that doesn’t wear the crown should prove my prediction of a young Adam Graves with fists as progressing toward its potential.
Dustin Brown no longer has to be the man. He will wear the C of course and he should but the burden of carrying the team is no longer on his shoulders. The additions of Mike Richards and, to some extent, even Simone Gagne, ensures that. Look for Brown to keep his game simple, force far less plays (for the love of God) and, something he must do more to be effective, pass the puck and look to get it back around the net.
Justin Williams’ breakout year should come from playing with the skill set of Richards and Gagne. Williams is rarely the weak link on any line. He has shown flashes of brilliance the past two seasons before injuries derailed him. Give him consistent line mates that can bury the puck and you may see Justin’s assist totals reach 45 while his goals climb to 25-30.
THE TERRY MURRAY FACTOR
It’s a new season and everyone gets a fresh start, including Terry Murray with me. Dean Lombardi has given him the gift of offense. This is now coach Murray’s chance to show all of us his system can produce consistently on both ends of the ice when he has the necessary talent. Lack of depth, lack of skill, lack of “finishers”, whatever the excuses were last season no longer apply. I am rooting for Terry Murray to show I was wrong about him and also show all others who have called him a “bridge” coach that he is far more and better.