And on the first day of training camp, lo, there were injury updates.
-Say, remember Jeff Carter? The 904-game, 352-goal forward was back at his familiar perch as a center flanked by wingers Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli. It’s a familiar vantage point to the one he spent in the 2014 postseason and the plurality of his minutes since then.
Carter, whose lower leg was lacerated by Jeff Petry’s skate early in the 2017-18 season, missed 55 games and though he potted 13 goals in 21 regular season games after his return, didn’t exhibit the same game-breaking explosiveness that had defined so much of his offensive reputation prior to the injury. There are so many more layers to Carter’s game offensively, defensively and cerebrally than his offensive ability, but in order to return to peak effectiveness, Carter spent much of the summer invested in both training and rehabbing, particularly at the end of the summer, as John Stevens noted.
“With his increased activity off the ice with his training, I think he had to work through some of the issues with his leg just because he’s not just skating, he’s doing all this training to get ready for the season,” Stevens said. “But I think he really made good progress in terms of getting back to a state of normalcy with his leg. I don’t think it’s ever going to be like it was, but he put in a lot of work in this summer and he made big strides in getting closer back to where he was before. A little more explosive out of the hole, doesn’t have much irritation around the joint that he had before. I think he’s a lot further ahead now than he was when he came back last year and played.”
It represented some of the highly concerted off-season strength and rehab work that kept the 33-year-old particularly busy.
“We basically threw everything at it, see what helped. We did a lot of work on it, a lot of strength training and stuff like that, I think all things considered it went pretty well,” Carter said. “We’re still working on it, but it’s been good.”
Carter said that he still has “a little bit to go” towards regaining total comfort and confidence in his lower-body returning to where it had been, but everything was “trending in the right direction.”
His injury has healed, but there’s still scarring in the lower leg, as Stevens noted. Carter dealt with an ankle injury in 2012, a broken foot in 2013 and an arm injury in 2015, putting an end to the mythical idea of perfect health for an NHL player.
“It might not feel exactly perfect, but he still is a high-level player,” Stevens said. “I think the big thing with Jeff is he’s always had really good acceleration out of the hole, and he’s always had an extra gear that allows him to get some separation that puts him in situations he could really take advantage of. I think we’re starting to see that type of explosiveness in his game again that was probably missing when he came back.”
Carter confirmed that he’ll play in the preseason – not that his participation would be in doubt. “It’s nothing like that,” he said. It’s just for myself – I still have to work on some things.”
One area where he’ll draw attention in the preseason is his work alongside Pearson and Toffoli, both of whom will look to boost their overall production alongside their familiar pivot.
“They’re smart guys, they realize that,” Carter said. “I think you go back to a couple years ago, they had a lot of success, right? Maybe as young guys, when you have that success, for whatever reason, sometimes it drops a bit the next year and it’s a learning experience, a wake-up call. It’s hard to do every year and I think, by watching them the last couple of weeks here and today, you can tell they put the work in this summer and they both look great out there. Hopefully we can all stay healthy and have another good year.”
The attention then turned to the Kings as a whole. Are they ::dramatic music:: CONTENDERS?!
“I’m going to give you the same answer I give you every year – we believe that we’re contenders,” Carter said. “Not a whole lot has changed in our room. We’ve added Kovalchuk, who I think is a big add, and we’re looking forward to getting going.”
-Derek Forbort is dealing with a back injury that confined him mostly to the periphery of the rink during Group A’s early skate. After 30 minutes, he returned to the dressing room. There’s no timetable on his return yet – there rarely ever is until the player fully rejoins practice – but there doesn’t appear to be any undue concern over when he’ll ultimately be available.
On Friday, Daniel Brickley skated alongside Drew Doughty, while Alex Lintuniemi skated primarily with Alec Martinez, Dion Phaneuf alongside Paul LaDue and Jake Muzzin alongside Oscar Fantenberg.
So, if the Kings need to improvise for a little bit, there are options available.
“We want a left shot with Drew,” Stevens said. “Fantenberg’s had some time there and he actually did a pretty good job there. Muzz has moved up there and did a good job there. It just depends. Dion was new last there, they haven’t played together a whole lot. Brickley’s going to get a chance to play with him in preseason there and maybe get an opportunity to play a game with him there and practice with him. So, performance over the course of training camp will tell us what needs to happen. Even Marty can go back on the left side. He’s played with Drew and had very favorable numbers with him. It seems like everybody who plays with Drew does well.”
“We’ve got several guys that can play on the right side that are left-shot players. Fantenberg can do it, Phaneuf can do it, Martinez can do it. Even young kids, we’ll get a look at training camp. Clague’s going to get a look at training camp. MacDermid’s been here before. He’s going to get a look at training camp, obviously. That’s to me what I love about training camp. You get a chance to see these guys, see where their game’s at, how far they’ve come along and who’s ready to help us, who might need a little more time.”
Asked whether he could envision a scenario in which Brickley plays with Doughty, Stevens took a bigger-picture view that provided similar context.
“I don’t think we would’ve sat here last year and thought that Iafallo would’ve played with Kopitar. You guys would’ve all asked for my resignation if I’d have said that,” Stevens said. “You just never know. He’s a big guy that defends well. If you look at the people that Drew’s played with and done extremely well with, Jake Muzzin was his partner in ’14, and I’m telling you right now, the year before, if you saw Jake playing in the American League, there’s no way any body in hockey would’ve thought that was possible. And Jake’s game’s came around unbelievably well, and those two were a great pair for us and a big reason we won the Cup that year. You had McNabb coming up out of the minors and ended up being a really good pair with Drew, and then you had Forbort, who spent multiple years in the minors, come up and be a really good player with Drew. I wouldn’t count anybody out at this point on Day 1 of training camp.”
-Gabe Vilardi did not skate on Friday as he attempts to rebound from his back injury, and Stevens cited the work Vilardi has been putting in with the training staff and Director, Player Health and Performance, Dr. John Meyer, in vying to become game-ready once again. There’s no timetable beyond his week-to-week diagnosis.
But given the fact that Vilardi is 19 years old and would need to amass the requisite amount of playing time to be considered for the final roster, is there concern that the team won’t have enough time to evaluate him in NHL games, once he’s ultimately cleared to play?
“Quite honestly, we can’t start speculating what’s going to happen,” Stevens said. “Our number one concern for Gabe Vilardi right now is to get him healthy, and until he’s a healthy player, we’re not going to put him in a situation, we’re not going to fast track him back to get a look at him because we want to make sure he’s healthy and is going to stay healthy. We know he’s a terrific kid and a really good player, so until he’s a healthy player, we’re not concerned about seeing him in a game, we’re concerned about him getting healthy.”
-Lead photo via Adam Pantozzi/NHLI