Camp preview: forwards
OK, let’s get this going. Of course, training camp doesn’t start for another 10 days, but the rookie camp starts in three days, and from that point on, I’m sure we’ll be deep into discussions about the Kings and who has the potential to make the team, etc. So I thought I’d take the next three days to preview training camp and look at some of the more compelling story lines, going in. As the prospects show what they’ve got, no doubt this will evolve, but here are some initial thoughts…
Twelve months ago, the most logical question about the Kings was, “Who will be the second-line left wing and provide scoring depth?” Despite the progress made last season, collectively, that remains the question at the start of the 2010-11 season, somewhat shockingly so.
An ill-fated pursuit of Ilya Kovalchuk and a virtual swap of Alexander Frolov for Alexei Ponikarovsky essentially has left the Kings exactly where they were at this point last year, hoping that a player can step up and fill a top-six void.
Ryan Smyth is the clear first-line left wing. His presence in the lineup was substantial last season, and received deserved credit for the career year turned in by Anze Kopitar. Beyond Smyth, though, there are significant questions.
Ponikarovsky, signed to a one-year, $3-million contract, seems destined for a third-line role alongside Michal Handzus and Wayne Simmonds. Who, then, will fill the spot that presumably exists alongside Jarret Stoll and Dustin Brown?
Last season, the Kings hoped Teddy Purcell would fill that role. He didn’t. This time, hopes might rest with Brad Richardson or Scott Parse, and in neither case do the Kings have a sure bet.
Richardson played himself into an important role last season and was one of the Kings’ best all-around players, but he has never scored more than 14 goals in a season, and his playing style suggests that of a successful grinder than that of a potential 25-goal scorer. Richardson did have some success in this role last season, however, and might be able to bring more offense out of Brown.
The other option brings even more questions. Parse impressed at times last season, and had 11 goals in 59 games, but also held down a regular spot in Terry Murray’s doghouse because of inconsistency on the defensive end. If Parse can smooth out his game, he has the potential to be a good fit here, but that’s a big “if.”
Beyond that, there aren’t many obvious answers. The second-line role would be a natural fit for Oscar Moller, but first he will have to prove that he can consistently play at an NHL level. It will be a huge training camp for Moller, who can also play center. Kyle Clifford has the potential to earn a fourth-line spot and will also be watched closely. And what will become of Trevor Lewis? Can be finally take the next step?
There’s plenty of depth here. Kopitar is coming off the finest season of his young career, with 34 goals and 47 assists, but Murray and Dean Lombardi will be looking for more. Kopitar had a midseason dip in production, one largely attributed to the absences of Smyth and Justin Williams, but in order to be recognized as a top-line center, Kopitar will have to be a scoring threat all season long.
In Stoll and Handzus, the Kings have two “2 1/2” centers. They’re players that teams would be thrilled to have centering their third line, but might be a little nervous about on the second line. Stoll had 47 points last season while Handzus had 42. That’s a steep drop-off from Kopitar’s 81 points on the first line.
Handzus is a rock on the third line, and seems to improve the performance of every winger who plays with him. A duplication of his past two seasons will make the Kings very happy, and Handzus, at age 33, is entering the last year of his contract.
It’s no stretch to say that Stoll will be one of the Kings’ “make-or-break” players. He’s a very responsible two-way player and is usually excellent at face-offs, but he has yet to crack the 20-goal plateau in two seasons with the Kings. When Murray talks about improving 5-on-5 scoring, he has one eye on Stoll. It would certainly help if Stoll had a bigger scoring threat on his left side.
The battle for the fourth-line center spot should be one of the most compelling of camp. Brayden Schenn, Andrei Loktionov, Moller, Marc-Andre Cliche, Lewis and Corey Elkins all have realistic chances to win the spot, and there’s no clear favorite at this point. All things being equal, the Kings would probably like to see Schenn force their hand and win the spot, but it should be a compelling fight until the end.
This is the position with the most clearly-defined pecking order, it seems. Williams, Brown and Simmonds are clearly the top three on the depth chart at right wing, and, as illustrated above, the Kings could go in any number of directions on the fourth line.
For Williams, the issue is (surprise, surprise) health. He has missed 116 games over the past three seasons with various injuries, and while he made a valiant attempt to return from injury late last season, it didn’t go well, and the Kings put themselves in the awkward position of having to make Williams a healthy scratch in the playoffs.
This is a contract year for Williams, who will need to show teams that he can play a full season if he hopes to get any type of decent long-term contract. The potential is there, and Williams seemed to have great chemistry with Kopitar and Smyth. When healthy, of course.
Is it possible that Brown might inherit the “enigma” tag one put on Frolov, his longtime former teammate? In Brown’s case, no one questions his desire and work ethic. He’s a respected leader and a tireless worker on and off the ice. But what happened to the production? After a breakout 33-goal season in 2007-08, Brown put up only 24 goals in each of the past two seasons. A return to prior form from Brown could go a long way toward improving 5-on-5 scoring.
It’s difficult to predict what the Kings will do on the fourth line, or who would play which position, but Rich Clune and Kevin Westgarth would both appear to have good chances of making the roster. Westgarth stands to inherit the “enforcer” role, vacated when Raitis Ivanans signed with Calgary, and Murray has long stated his desire to regularly have an enforcer in the lineup.
Clune is a scrappy agitator, in the mold of Sean Avery (minus the destructive attitude), who can also skate well. If Clune can draw more penalties than he takes, and provide consistent physical play, there’s a role for him on the team.