INSIDERS. A good afternoon to you from Toyota Sports Center. After a recovery day, the LA Kings held a morning skate in advance of their Hockey Night in Los Angeles affair with the Chicago Blackhawks (7:30 p.m. / FOX Sports West / FOX Sports app / LA Kings Audio Network) and aligned as such:
— The vitals: Jack Campbell was the first goalie to leave the ice and is projected to start in net. He’s never faced Chicago in his career. Dion Phaneuf and Sean Walker remained on the ice for extra work and are not projected to be in the lineup, while Willie Desjardins confirmed that Ilya Kovalchuk will remain out of the lineup. “He won’t be in tonight, but there’s a good chance we’ll see him here soon,” he said.
Kovalchuk was on the ice with the group, skating with them for the first time since they returned from their three-game Western Canada trip. General Manager Rob Blake shared in Calgary on Monday that the decision for the star forward to remain at home was made by the player upon learning that he wouldn’t get into the lineup during a road trip that didn’t contain much in the way of practice time, and was supported by management and staff.
Kovalchuk skated with team development staff while in Los Angeles. He came out of the lineup when the team went to an 11-forward, seven-defenseman alignment, and though Kurtis MacDermid was an extra defenseman who appeared in only 3:43 in the first of the most recent games in which Kovalchuk was scratched, MacDermid has earned a slightly longer leash and has appeared in six of seven games since re-entering the lineup. More on that shortly.
While the impetus behind such personnel decisions are based partly on getting a look at younger players both up front and on the back end, Desjardins also referenced the results-based approach to coaching. With Kovalchuk in the lineup this season, the team’s points percentage is .408 (22-33-5). Without him in the lineup, it’s .471 (6-7-4). Kovalchuk totaled 11 points in 13 games under John Stevens, a stretch in which he was on the ice for a good amount of goals both for and against while sporting a possession rate in the red compared to his teammates. Under Desjardins, a 47-game stretch in which his numbers have been affected by a .968 PDO, he’s been on the ice for a smaller share of goals-for, scoring chances and shot attempts.
“You look at results, you find ways to win, and we’ve been winning a few games lately,” Desjardins said. “That’s kind of what we look at.”
— Their vitals: Corey Crawford is the projected starter; he’s 9-6-2 in 17 career regular season games against Los Angeles with a 2.74 goals-against average, a .904 save percentage and one shutout. Head Coach Jeremy Colliton confirmed that Drake Caggiula (concussion) will return to the lineup after a 13-game absence, replacing Kings-Coyotes Rookie Game Legend Brendan Perlini, and defenseman Carl Dahlstrom will replace Slater Koekkoek. Patrick Kane is expected to play the 899th game of his career.
The Blackhawks, who skated at Toyota Sports Center Saturday morning, are 16-9-1 since the All-Star break, and their 55 points since December 12 are tied for the fourth most in the Western Conference. They’re seven points out of a playoff spot with a game in hand on the three teams they’re chasing.
“However things shake out in the standings, we’re still alive and we want to get points and we want to drag this out as long as we can and be alive and play important games as long as we can,” Colliton said. “More so it’s the mentality that we’re not going to quit. When things are dark, when things are going against you, it tells you a lot about the character you have, how you respond, and so I would like to think we have a lot of character on our team, and now’s the time to show up.”
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) March 30, 2019
— Los Angeles is vying to sweep the season series with Chicago for the fifth time in franchise history and first time since winning all eight games between the teams in the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons. They’re 8-2-0 in the last 10 head-to-head match-ups.
— There are five games remaining in the season, and after returning home from a road trip in which a noteworthy story centered around Ilya Kovalchuk’s absence, there were some questions in which Desjardins was asked to be introspective and gauge the challenges the team has faced. “There were a lot of challenges this year coming in,” he said. “I think we had some good stretches where we played pretty well and we got ourselves right in the hunt. We’re in a spot that we had to move guys at the deadline, and I think that hurt us. But the organization has to make some tough decisions this year, so I’m certainly not looking at those – that’s decisions that you had to do. But I think from a coaching spot, it makes it tougher to find ways to win. My job is just to find ways to win, and I think it’d be a little different when players look at it. You always wish that you were a little bit better at times.”
— An example of Austin Wagner’s ability to adapt and add layers to his game has been evident in the types of goals he’s scored. They’re coming from closer range and off longer in-zone sequences than they previously had.
“In junior I created a lot of chances, and Brooksie (Adam Brooks) back then would honestly feed me for two, three breakaways a game there, and it’s a different league here where the D-men are faster, stronger and they’re a lot smarter and they know how to play my speed, so a lot of my goals have come from a hard area.”
He does have several breakaway goals that have come from his speed, but teams can adapt to that, as noted, and will be more prepared to deny him similar looks – or the puck at all – as they become more familiar with him. Like his recent goals – in Vancouver on Thursday, at home against Nashville at the start of the last home stand or off a loose puck down low in Tampa Bay a month ago – he’s getting to tough spots and has been rewarded for a skill set that goes beyond his point-to-point speed. He’s also a good forechecker and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty along the perimeter, allowing him extra opportunity to get to those soft spots in the attacking end.
These attributes have worked in concert to allow him to near his goal of recording 20 points in his rookie season. Wagner enters tonight’s game with 11 goals and 19 points.
“I made the team here and then my agent, after I went down [to Ontario] for a bit at the beginning of the year and got my game back said, ‘let’s focus on staying and try to get 20 points this year, and if you can get that, that’s a pretty reasonable goal,’” Wagner said. “We wanted 10 goals out of everything and I got that, but right now, I’m just trying to focus on playing hard and playing the right ways, and that’s forechecking, stopping their pucks. I probably would’ve had another assist last game if I’d made that pass to Juice there and I just fanned on it, so it’s just bearing down on stuff like that, but that’s part of the game. That’s part of learning and I’m just trying to learn from all that.”
— Though eyebrows were raised when Kovalchuk was scratched to play MacDermid as a seventh defenseman, the latter has given the coaching staff a reason to keep penning his name on the lineup card. “I think that he gives a presence out there that I think helps us sometimes,” Desjardins said.
And he has – while also adapting his massive frame and heavy skill set to a modern game that values skating, transition and pace. In the shootout loss to Vancouver, MacDermid registered a jarring hit on Troy Stecher but also showed a good reach in using his stick to break up a Bo Horvat one-on-one rush.
“Sometimes you’re not going to be able to play the body all the time, so you’re going to have to be able to have a good stick and defend the same way,” MacDermid said.
But the physical play is obviously still MacDermid’s calling card – and even if he’s not regularly using force to provide a jolt to his team, his presence, as Desjardins alluded to, discourages other teams from targeting some of the Kings’ key names.
“I think when he’s in the lineup and on our team, other teams are less likely to take liberties on our top players,” Drew Doughty said. “I think that he moves the puck really well. I think he’s played very well. He’s had some really big hits, he’s played very well defensively, and yeah, I really have liked his game.”
He gained the respect from his teammates not only because he’ll rally regularly to their defense, but also because he’s a low-maintenance player with a good work ethic.
“He is low maintenance, for sure,” Desjardins said. “Like, he just comes and he plays, which is good. I think he brings quite a bit to the lineup, too. The guys like him in the room.”
MacDermid went 13 and a half months between NHL games, allowing him to put in the requisite work to again be considered for a role on the parent club, and for the organization to continue to take stock of its defensive stable and how each player fits into the defensive rotation in advance of next season. He has one season remaining on his current contract, which comes with a $675K AAV.
For him to continue to earn NHL minutes, he’ll look to continue to build on his consistency and poise, which have improved since his last opportunity with the Kings.
“Good first pass – I think that’s something that I’ve really gotten better at, and making good, hard, simple plays and not rushing things and just calming down a bit,” he said. “I think I’m just a little more confidence and relaxed, but not too relaxed – just finding that fine line.”
— Via the LA Kings, Isaiah Mustafa is tonight’s Celebrity Guest of Honor. From the release:
Isaiah Mustafa’s interest in acting began in high school though it wasn’t until his departure from the NFL that he decided to pursue it professionally. In 2010 he gained massive notoriety for his portrayal in a myriad of television campaigns which earned him a place in People Magazine’s Most Beautiful People 2010, as well as an Emmy for Best TV Commercial. Mustafa still serves as the face for the brand and reprised his role in a Tide commercial alongside David Harbour (“Stranger Things”) which aired during Super Bowl LII.
He also stars as Luke Garroway in the Freeform series “Shadowhunters: Mortal Instruments” which is currently in its final season. Other credits include feature films such as “Horrible Bosses,” “After the Reality,” “Old Days,” “The Three Stooges” and Tyler Perry’s “Madea’s Big Happy Family.” He has also recurred on ABC’s “Charlie’s Angels” and CW’s “Nikita” amongst other comedies and dramas.
Mustafa is set to appear in the feature film IT: Chapter 2, in which he portrays Mike Hanlon and stars opposite Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader and Bill Skarsgard. The movie opens on September 6.
Upon graduating college Mustafa joined the NFL where he played as a wide receiver from 1997-00 on the Titans (1997), Raiders (1999), Browns (1999) and Seahawks (2000).
— That’s it for now, Insiders. There’s some good video to share, so be on the lookout for an LAKI post containing some recent Black and White episodes, courtesy of LA Kings Production. Tonight’s officials are referees Gord Dwyer and Kevin Pollock and linesmen Brian Mach and Ryan Gibbons. The Dustin Brown ceremony will take place on Monday, Anze Kopitar’s 1,000th game. The Kopitar ceremony will take place prior to the final game of the season, April 6 against Vegas. (1,000-game celebrations take place in the first home game after the player reaches the milestone, while the need for additional day-of preparation that isn’t afforded by the quick changeover after today’s Clippers matinee is behind the reason to schedule the Brown ceremony for Monday.) Pia Toscano will sing tonight’s national anthem. It’s 80’s Night tonight. Let’s talk soon, gang.
Congrats to my man @DustinBrown23 on becoming all time leader in games played in @lakings history! It has been an honor and an absolute pleasure playing alongside you!!! #kingofkings #mebad pic.twitter.com/rGSOB8kSva
— Anze Kopitar (@AnzeKopitar) March 29, 2019
— Lead photo via Andrew D. Bernstein/NHLI