Kings’ Roster Stable, Lineup Changeable

“Hello, yeah, it’s been a while. Not much, how about you?” That’s what the 70s song by England Dan & John Ford Coley said, but it might as well have been what Kings’ fans called out to their team Thursday night  and Saturday afternoon as they came back from a trip which saw them out of town since January.

Fittingly to the 1970s motif, the team was wearing its throwback colors, the purple and gold of the Rogie era, on Thursday night. Actually, the costume was in honor of Bob Berry, former player, coach, and scout for the team.

The current Kings, looking like the old Kings, responded with a win. A day and a half later, they were at it again, with the Colorado Avalanche in town for an afternoon Saturday game. The lineup was essentially what it had been over the past month, with the notable exception that Marco Sturm, who came from Boston earlier in the season, was gone.

Gone? The guy hadn’t been here that long, but after a stumbling start due to knee surgery after last season, he took a big handful of games off to nurse knee tendinitis. However, he came back last week and played on the first line, notching an assist in two games. His salary is $3.5 million, and the team decided that they would waiver him in order to clear space for a potential trade.

But they said that if he cleared waivers, he would be back—on the top line.

He didn’t—Washington grabbed him.

But if the lineup was largely unchanged, the lines themselves were shifted all over from what they have been. The first line was the trio of Dustin Brown, Ryan Smyth, and Jarret Stoll. Or maybe the first line was Anze Kopitar, Brad Richardson, and Wayne Simmonds. Or maybe that was the third line, since third-line duties are what Simmonds often does. Or maybe it was the fourth, since Richardson often plays down there…

Well, not the fourth—that was easy to call Saturday, as Kevin Westgarth was put with Trevor Lewis and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Westgarth wasted no time in engaging David Koci, whose jaw he had broken in the pre-season. Their fight was mostly a hold-on-and-push affair, which went on for quite a long while.

The game’s first goal came when that Kopitar line took a puck into the Colorado zone on a chip-and-chase by Simmonds. He got a touch on it, and Richardson brought it out from behind the net, where he got a shot. The rebound was right out there for Kopitar. So no matter whether that’s the first line or the third, they were playing well.

You’re keeping track, right? And you know that one line hasn’t been mentioned. That would be the line of Michal Handzus, Kyle Clifford, and Justin Williams. Now, you want an odd group—there they are.  Handzus is one of the best shutdown centers in the league, and quite good on faceoffs, winning 65-percent of his draws (119-for-183).

Williams has shed his reputation for having a paper body, having played all of the team’s games this year after various injuries in earlier seasons sidelined him. But he’s not shutdown material—he’s fast and tricky with the puck, not exactly a dangler, but a scoring winger. And Clifford is a young bully with the most penalty minutes on the team (98 coming into the day) but his plus/minus of minus-11 is tied for worst on the team.

Don’t read that to say that he’s not useful. He’s got the grit factor down, and he fights when the tough guy (Westgarth) is not in the lineup. It’s just that he’s not exactly the kind of player one might imagine on a line with Williams. Handzus, maybe.

Anyway, Clifford was instrumental in the second period on a goal by Alec Martinez from the point. He had dug the puck out along the boards and flipped it behind him to the point. Martinez took a rising shot which eluded everyone, and which the goalie didn’t seem to see.  It was thus 2-0 with about seven minutes to go in the middle stanza.

The Avs, by the way, had notched five shots in the first period, and to this point in period two they had just one. Perhaps that’s why coach Joe Sacco called a timeout at that juncture and chewed their butts out on the bench. It worked to rally them for a while, especially with Simmonds in the box for boarding. They got a few shots on goal, but gave the man advantage back when Paul Stastny went to the box for hooking trying to stop a Brown shorthanded breakaway.

The shots by this time had climbed to 26-10 in the Kings’ favor, and goalie Brian Elliott must have been wondering whether he would have been this busy had he stayed on in Ottawa rather than being traded a week before.

The Avs, for their part, just seem to have given up. They don’t clear the puck hard. They don’t defend well. They just let their goalie stand in and take the shelling. Elliott plays mid-deep in his net, legs slightly spread, and he’s mobile and active with his gloves. But poor guy, getting stuck with this bunch in front of him the way they’re playing right now.

Despite Colorado’s poor effort, the game ended up 4-3 as the Avs got a couple of goals within about forty seconds, then a third with half a minute left. All of this was in the third. The last goal was lucky—a puck that Paul Stastny was trying to work to the front of the net went off Stoll’s skate and in.

Kings’ coach Terry Murray was critical of the team’s late efforts after the game.

“Good teams don’t let that happen,” he said as he suggested that things will be different should the situation occurs again.

In the past, Murray has been reluctant to criticize his guys when they won. Now, he seems to recognize that they can bear some chiding when they deserve it.

So what happens next, especially with the trade deadline coming and Detroit in town on Monday? All season long, the Kings have been trying to find a winger for Kopitar, who now has 60 points in 62 games after tallying a goal and an assist.

But early in the first period, he had passed up a chance when the puck had come through to him as he went to the net. He passed up a shot, perhaps because he was in too close to goaltender Elliott. Kopitar sent the puck across the crease, and it was missed by his teammate. A backhander would have done the trick.

Find a winger. What possibility of that is there before Monday? Fans hope a big one. Most know that there aren’t a million prospects out there. It was speculated in the press that the reason for putting Sturm on waivers was that the team could have space on the roster so that they could add without giving up their current players. There was also a rumor out there that Dustin Brown was on the trading block.

Really? The team captain, the longest-tenured member, the guy who kept the core in LA a couple of summers ago to train and bond? If Dean Lombardi gives him up, no matter who he gets, he’ll find the building empty when the team plays Detroit Monday night.

The other rumor is that Brad Richards is coming to LA. This, of course, has something to do with Dallas’s ownership situation making a Richards dump a good idea.

The quality of the player is beyond question. But honestly—if Lombardi gets a guy who is concussed and not even playing today, then he just hasn’t been paying attention to the news about head injuries, and it’s just not likely that that’s the case. Richards is not someone to give anyone up for, to my way of thinking.

Anyway, the way things have been going, with the Kings on one of the best rolls in team history and the mid-season doldrums behind them, maybe the move, if it comes, will be considerably more conservative, a mid-level player. Or maybe, nothing will happen at all.

At least from Murray’s point of view, that’s the more likely scenario. He said after the game that he thought the team had the chemistry it needed, and that moving guys in and out can endanger that. He also said that he’s content to stick to his job coaching the players provided for him, rather than being concerned with what the GM does, so if he needs to make some adjustments, he will. But again, it seems less likely minute by minute.

Kings Notes

The other lineup change was Davis Drewiske out on D for Martinez, who scored, as noted.

Peter Harrold, who plays both wing and defense, was also scratched. He has played just once since Christmas, and that was on January 6th against Nashville.

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