February 4: Pionk's decision; injury updates; Martinez-Fantenberg pairing - LA Kings Insider

INSIDERS. You again! I suppose you’re interested in what happened at today’s morning skate. Let’s recap, starting with the line rushes:

Iafallo-Kopitar-Brown
Leipsic-Carter-Toffoli
Hagelin-Kempe-Kovalchuk
Clifford-Amadio-Wagner

Forbort-Doughty
Martinez-Fantenberg
Phaneuf-LaDue

Notes!

–The vitals: Jonathan Quick was the first goalie to leave the ice and is projected to start tonight against New York, against whom he is 5-4-0 in his career with a 2.45 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage. Jonny Brodzinski (shoulder surgery) skated in a yellow non-contact jersey and remained on the ice with Trevor Lewis, Nate Thompson, Matt Luff, Sean Walker and Jack Campbell. Thompson, who was late joining the team to start this trip due to illness, is nearly game-ready. Because he hadn’t been with the team since January 21, “that’s a big step where you haven’t had any practices to come right in and play,” according to Willie Desjardins and will likely sit tonight. “If it’s not right away, we’ll see him tomorrow.” Lewis (foot fracture) is “still not quite there yet, but he’s getting close,” while Brodzinski isn’t expected to play on this trip. Desjardins acknowledged that Ilya Kovalchuk could be moved up to Anze Kopitar’s line, similar to Saturday’s game on Long Island, a night in which Desjardins liked his star winger at both ends of the ice. “You look at the second goal, he was the guy that came down in the slot and helped out low, and then it turned and went the other way.”

–Their vitals: The King will face the Kings. Henrik Lundqivst is 5-6-2 with a 2.68 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage in 13 career games against Los Angeles.

Defenseman Frederik Claesson is on IR with a shoulder injury and skated in a no-contact jersey this morning, while forward Brett Howden is out with a knee injury. Expect the Rangers to line up with Kreider-Zibanejad-Zuccarello, Buchnevich-Hayes-Fast, Chytil-Shore-Namestnikov and Nieves-Vesey up front with defensive pairings of Skjei-McQuaid, Staal-Pionk and Smith-Shattenkirk with Tony DeAngelo, who has a goal, three points and a shootout game-winner in four career games versus Los Angeles, skating as the seventh defenseman.

–The Kings will get another look at Neal Pionk, signed by the Rangers during the 2017 off-season while L.A. had embers in a ton of fires – Alex Iafallo, Oscar Fantenberg, Cal Petersen, Will Butcher and Pionk, to name several.

“There were a few options. It was a hard decision,” said Pionk, a right-shot defenseman who has five goals and 20 points while averaging nearly 22 and a half minutes for New York this season. “It was splitting hairs at the end of the day, but I’m happy I picked the Rangers, and I’m happy I’m here.”

He’s also happy that his former Minnesota-Duluth teammate Alex Iafallo has also thrived through the midway point of his own sophomore season. “I’m always following him, a couple other guys I’m close with. Al and I were pretty good friends in college. It’s fun to follow along, and then to get the chance to play against each other is great,” Pionk said.

“I always said in college he was the hardest guy to take the puck away from. He’s got it all. He’s got the speed, he’s got a little bit of size to him, and you get the puck protection, too. In practice it was ridiculous – in college you couldn’t take the puck away from him, and then he did it in the games, too, and it’s translating into this level.”

The two will face each other for the second time in their careers tonight after Los Angeles’ 4-3 win over New York at Staples Center in October.

–Paul LaDue has played in the team’s last two games, logging 11:40 while netting the game-winner against St. Louis on January 21 and earning 13:23 in Saturday’s strong team effort on Long Island that resulted in a regulation loss. He skated to the right of Dion Phaneuf in both games, and as he gets a look in the lineup, the team wants to see the 26-year-old move the puck, provide offense, and “use his skating a little bit more,” according to Desjardins. “I think it’s natural for him, and I think he can do it.”

“He’s had a tough role this year. He hasn’t had a lot of games strung together. I’m sure he always feels if he makes a mistake he might be out of the lineup. It’s tough when you play that way, so we’re trying to put some time in, give him some time where he gets a chance to show what he can do. I thought his first game back was good, I thought he played well in that game. Maybe the last game wasn’t quite as good as the other one, but that’s a tough game. I’m certainly not evaluating him just on that, but I think he did well, though, I think he’s been good.”

–Tonight’s game will be an interesting exhibition between two teams that certainly won’t be buyers heading into the trade deadline. The nature of the market may dictate how active the Kings and Rangers may be, or whether they may wait until the off-season to move several valuable parts.

Los Angeles, of course, has already made one significant move, trading Jake Muzzin to the Toronto Maple Leafs last week for a first round draft pick, forward prospect Carl Grundstrom and defensive prospect Sean Durzi. In the first game out of their extended, mid-season break, they constructed a solid team effort but fell, 4-2, after taking a 2-1 lead with under seven minutes to play.

“The silver lining, I guess, is that our process was good, and obviously if we play the way that we did the first 55 and carry that all the way through, we’re going to win hockey games going forward,” Alec Martinez said. “But … the time has passed for silver linings. We need points and we need results.”

Martinez is among the Kings who should see a little bit of an uptick in usage in Muzzin’s absence, and on Saturday that spike came on the power play. Though his usage on either power play unit had been limited as the team has more consistently utilized four forwards – Martinez had logged all of 17 seconds on the power play over his previous 11 games – he was back on the second unit on Saturday, logging 2:37 of time on the man advantage to give himself a boost over his regular per-game usage.

In the first game post-Muzz, Paul LaDue (+1:39), Oscar Fantenberg (+1:30), Martinez (+1:29), Doughty (+:57) and Forbort (+:10) logged more than their seasonal averages entering the game, while Dion Phaneuf (-1:13) registered a drop.

“Anytime there’s a trade where you add or subtract players, there’s going to be a slight change in roles,” Martinez said. “Guys are going to be playing a little bit more, maybe a little bit less, depending on the situation. But this isn’t anything that I’m not familiar with. In years passed and in the beginning of the season, I played all situations, so I’m used to it.”

14:18 of Martinez’s 18-plus minutes of even strength time were spent alongside Fantenberg, a defensive pairing of versatile players that should get an interesting and extended run, barring calamity.

“With Muzzin out, we’ve got to find another unit after the Doughty unit to play, so I think that’s a unit we’re looking for to getting some good minutes out of,” Willie Desjardins said.

There’s no real set, defined responsibility for either player – it’s more about reading plays and reacting, and using a skill set that highlights their work at both ends of the ice.

“I think Martinez is a little more offensive, and that’s why we’re trying to get him on the left side, maybe give him a chance to be a little more offensive,” Desjardins said. “They will both join, they both can move the puck and they both can defend, so that’s a good combination.”

Since making the jump to playing in North America, Fantenberg has spent just over 104 total even strength minutes alongside Martinez and has posted possession and scoring chance rates that both clock in above 50%.

“He jumps in the play, I jump in the play, he can make plays with the puck, I can make plays with the puck, he plays physical down low and I play physical, too, so it’s kind of give-and-take,” Fantenberg said. “We don’t want to have any set roles. You can’t read what’s going to happen in games before, so you just have to read and react to whatever goes on on the ice, and I think when you talk a lot, that’s going to help you, too. I think you can’t do much more than play the game the right way every day.”

The combination pushes Martinez back to the left side. Over the past four years, most of Martinez’s work has come on his off-side, and though he feels comfortable on the right, didn’t note any “hallelujah” moment where his versatility became second nature.

“It was something that I had to work at,” he said. “I guess as somewhat of a general rule as a D-man you want to make breakout passes on your forehand. For the most part, obviously, there are times where that’s not possible. That was something that I worked on my backhand and things like that, so I don’t think there was necessarily a particular point in time, but it’s not like all of a sudden one day [there’s a realization]. You’ve got to put the work in, and it’s hard. I touched on stick positioning. There’s a lot of little nuances that you kind of either pick up along the way or you kind of figure out.”

It’s one thing to talk about the way the teams want to play, and it’s another thing to go out and demonstrate it. Los Angeles put forth a solid effort in Long Island – one that still ended up in a regulation loss.

“I mean, it’s two-fold,” Martinez said. “It’s one that yeah, the process was good. I thought we played a good team game. At the end of the day, it’s not good enough. It’s no secret our backs are against the wall and we need results right now, we need points and we fell short.”

–More to come from Madison Square Garden, where I’ll be joined by Dion Phaneuf during the LA Kings Live pre-game show. Enjoy your Monday afternoon, Insiders. Let’s talk soon.