No Time Like the Present

Kings goalie Jonathan Quick   #32 bats away the puck at a NHL game on Nov 20th 2010. The Kings beat the Bruins 4-3 in an over-time shoot out.  (Inside Hockey/ Brian Fluharty)BOSTON – There is no question whatsoever that the Los Angeles Kings are on the verge of becoming one of the NHL’s finest teams, and some might argue that they’ve already reached that status.

They’ve got a very talented forward corps, a defense led by two of the game’s brightest young stars (Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson), and numerous top-tier prospects on the way, most notably Brayden Schenn. They’ve got a high-class problem in goal, where the ever-surprising Jonathan Quick is forcing head coach Terry Murray to keep all-world prospect Jonathan Bernier off the ice. And they’ve got a GM in Dean Lombardi who proved beyond a shadow of a doubt during his time in San Jose that he knows exactly what it takes to construct a team that can be perennially competitive in the modern NHL.

But on Saturday night, the Kings’ two biggest flaws were exposed, as they squandered a 3-0 lead before pulling out a dramatic shootout victory. While on the attack, they clearly lacked the physical presence needed to keep Bruins goalie Tim Thomas off-balance. This was particularly noticeable when they played with the man advantage, cycling the puck around the perimeter but unable to generate traffic in front. It came as no surprise whatsoever that they failed to convert on any of their five power play opportunities.

Perhaps even more worrisome was what took place in their own end, where they lacked the grit required to keep the likes of Nathan Horton from crashing Quick’s crease at will. The 3-0 lead they took just under three minutes into the second period should have been commanding, but they allowed the Bruins back into the game by allowing them easy access to Quick. In the victory, Quick made 38 saves, many of the spectacular variety, and the Kings easily could have lost 7-3 (or worse) if not for the consistently excellent play of their goalie.

Looking back at his time in San Jose, the one thing that Lombardi failed to do was to identify the right window in which to capitalize on his stockpile of talent and add the pieces necessary to capture Lord Stanley’s cherished chalice. And with that in mind, it’s time to start wondering when Lombardi will pull the trigger on the moves needed to turn the present-day Kings into bona fide Cup contenders. For while it’s clear that most of the Kings’ building blocks still have some growing and developing to do, there’s a delicate balance to be had between moving too quickly and waiting too long.

Anze Kopitar skates up the ice.jpgOne perfect example is Anze Kopitar. Already one of the league’s top playmakers, Kopitar has acclimated well enough to North America that he’s been named an assistant captain in just his third season in the NHL. With all the progress he’s made in such a short time, one can easily project that when he’s full adjusted to North America, he’ll be in the discussion (along with Crosby, Ovechkin, and Stamkos) regarding the game’s finest player.

Although it’s certainly possible – and perhaps even probable – that Kopitar will reach that level if the Kings maintain the status quo, it’s hard not to wonder how much more quickly he’d develop if Jarome Iginla were riding shotgun on his line. In Saturday night’s game against the Bruins, it was painfully apparent that the Kings needed to put more traffic (and pressure) in front of Boston goalie Tim Thomas, and their failure to do so was a primary reason why they squandered their lead.

Boston center Patrice Bergeron #37 third period goal. at a NHL game on Nov 20th 2010. The Kings beat the Bruins 4-3 in an over-time shoot out. (Inside Hockey/ Brian Fluharty)Another example is Drew Doughty. He’s a dynamic puck-moving defenseman, capable of completely taking over games with his offensive prowess. But without a rock-solid stay-at-home rearguard playing alongside him, Doughty’s talents are suppressed. It’s inarguable that his own-zone skills are improving as a result of the team’s need for him to pay more attention to his own end.

Like Kopitar, Doughty would benefit greatly from the addition of a Flame, in this case Robyn Regehr. Just 30 years old, the hard-hitting Regehr would be the perfect complement to Doughty on the Kings’ top defense pair. And perhaps most importantly, he’s young enough to play that role for a significant chunk of Doughty’s career to come. With Willie Mitchell out of the lineup for an extended period of time with a fractured left wrist, the only real physical presence on their blue line in Saturday night’s game was Matt Green, and it wasn’t enough to prevent the Bruins’ hard-charging forwards from having their way in front of Quick en route to coming back from a 3-0 deficit.

A big reason for the Kings’ success this season has been the consistently strong play of their second line of Jarret Stoll, Justin Williams and Ryan Smyth, and that trio was absolutely dynamite on Saturday night. Smyth is 34, while both Williams and Stoll are rapidly approaching 30, so what they’re doing now likely represents the best they can be. And while it’s easy to get intoxicated with the potential of prospects like Bernier, Derek Forbort, Andrei Loktionov, and Thomas Hickey, the Kings should start kicking the tires on prospective deals for the likes of Iginla and Regehr. If the Devils proved anything by their jumping-the-gun acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk last January, it’s that waiting until the trade deadline doesn’t necessarily lower the cost of acquiring the asset.

Iginla skates.jpgWith $4.2 million in cap space, the Kings have the financial flexibility to maneuver themselves into Cup contention. They’ve got plenty of talent on the ice, and still more waiting in the wings. Surrendering a first round pick (or two) along with a mid-level prospect to add Iginla and/or Regehr would severely upend the balance of power in the Western Conference.

Indeed, making such a move in mid-season – when other Cup contenders won’t have the cap room to make such a trade – could give the Kings a huge leg up. And perhaps most importantly of all, adding a player like Regehr in January would give him and Doughty some time to develop chemistry (likewise Iginla with Kopitar), whereas waiting until the trade deadline could put undue pressure on both players to learn each other’s tendencies too quickly for true comfort.

There’s no easy way to decide when “the time is now.” But with the Kings battling for the top spot in the Western Conference, and with two of their most important building blocks already playing at a rarified level, it’s hard not to wonder whether it’s already time for Lombardi to make the moves needed to turn is club into a bona fide Cup contender.

For while he might be concerned about the possibility of losing one of his building blocks by putting his team into a challenging salary cap situation, he might also be missing a golden opportunity to turn this dynamic young team – and $4.2 million in cap space – into a favorite to win the Cup this coming Spring.

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