2023 Training Camp Preview – Centers

Last but not least, let’s take a look down the middle.

The LA Kings have built their lineup around the center position. It certainly helps when you have a homegrown, top-line center at the core, but the Kings have also invested heavily at the center position through free-agent signings, trades and draft picks, creating what should eventually be the core of the 2023-24 squad. It’s still a new group, considering the moves made this offseason, but it’s a group the Kings believe is strong and a group they can build around moving forward.

Who They Have
Phillip Danault, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Samuel Helenius, Anze Kopitar, Blake Lizotte, Francesco Pinelli, Alex Turcotte, T.J. Tynan

*As noted in the wingers article, the Kings have several players who can play multiple positions up front. A player like Jaret Anderson-Dolan was included in the wingers article, because he played there more regularly than center last season, but he came up as a center and has played both positions early in his career. The same can be said in reverse about a player like Alex Turcotte or Francesco Pinelli above, who can both feature on the wing, as Turcotte did with the Kings a season ago.

Where They’re At
The Kings have invested in the center-ice position.

Whether it be draft picks, trades or free agency, the Kings have prioritized centers when building out their roster. Naturally, the conversation still begins with Kopitar, who has been there and done that. The Slovenian led the team in scoring a season ago, as he tends to do, and the first-round pick invested in 2005 is certainly not missed. To support their captain, the Kings have gone external to add two additional veteran centers into the mix, giving the team what they feel is a punch down the middle that can compete with just about any team around the league. In 2021, the Kings signed Phillip Danault as an unrestricted free agent. This past summer, Pierre-Luc Dubois was acquired via trade. Add in Blake Lizotte as the team’s fourth-line center, formerly signed as an undrafted free agent, and the Kings have explored four different avenues to bolster their center depth. Actual returns remain to be seen, but it’s a group on paper the organization is quite confident in.

Beyond those four names is a versatile group of players at various stages in their careers. T.J. Tynan is a two-time AHL MVP and is arguably the best player in the American Hockey League. A veteran and team captain at that level, Tynan has a few NHL games to his name and has typically been given some games during the preseason. Were there a longer-term injury at center, Tynan would be among those considered for a callup. Alex Turcotte was typically the second-line center in Ontario last season when healthy, though opportunity has come more regularly at wing so far in his short NHL career. We certainly know about Turcotte’s injury history but we’ve also seen an effective AHL player when he’s been healthy. A full season goes a long way towards finding out what the Kings have in a player who still has a lot to offer. Beyond those two are Pinelli, an exciting first-year pro, and Helenius, a big-bodied player who the Kings forsee growing into a bottom-six role in the NHL when all is said and done. Six of the eight players were selected in the top two rounds of their respective NHL drafts and there is some pedigree shown in this group. A lot of resources have been invested and we’ll see how things play out on the ice.

Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What To Look For
At the NHL level, this is arguably the least exciting battle during training camp. The top four centers are established NHL players. The order in which they line up could be debated, though, and that will likely depend on chemistry with certain wingers.

Barring an injury or a suspension, we know that Kopitar, Danault and Dubois will be the top three centers on the team and we know that Lizotte will be the fourth-line center come opening night on October 11. As noted in the wingers article, there is ample reasoning as to who might start alongside those players on Day 1 of training camp, but how they start is not necessarily an indication of how they will end. The Kings believe their group of four ranks among the league’s top elite. They’re confident in those players and excited for how that group could come together.

Kopitar, Danault and Dubois are all top-six centers in the NHL based on production and abilities. When you have three centers who are capable of playing those types of minutes, against a high level of opposition, the distribution of minutes is a storyline worth watching, as is the composition of their respective lines. Kopitar’s strongest numbers and metrics last season came when playing with Adrian Kempe and Quinton Byfield, which ranked as one of the NHL’s strongest lines. If you forecast those metrics over 82 games, he wins another Selke Trophy. Danault has centered Viktor Arvidsson and Trevor Moore for the bulk of the last two seasons, a line that logged more minutes together than any other Kings trio during the 2022-23 season. That leaves a very exciting pair of Dubois next to Kevin Fiala, with Arthur Kaliyev leading the pack as a possible third piece. Fiala has expressed interest in finding a more permanent line this season and Dubois represents a highly-skilled option to play next to him. All speculative at this point and there’s a lot of time between now and Game 1. It’s not much to talk about as far as who makes the team, but in terms of who plays with who, we’ve got something to think about.

Then, the question changes. Once you sort out the lines, how do you manage those minutes? Kopitar averaged more than 20 minutes per night last season, while Danault and Dubois were both over 18. When you factor in a more than competent fourth-line center in Lizotte, who will play on the penalty kill and merits time at even strength, then something’s got to give. It’s a storyline that will probably play out more in the regular season than during training camp, but that distribution of minutes is something to look for as the games begin.

Beyond those four players, there is opportunity for a player like Turcotte to make the team as an extra forward, or as a versatile forward who can play anywhere across the forward lines. The same was said for an Anderson-Dolan in the winger article and there’s always that surprise during camp who works his way into the mix from off the radar. Lots to compete for in that area, but only a couple of spots available.

A Look Ahead
We’re off to camp! Rookies are on the ice on Thursday and off we go. Lots of storylines to focus and we’re not far off from seeing how they play out on the ice.

Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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