The rebuild is over. That’s about the sum of what the LA Kings would have you know about their plans for the upcoming NHL season. Probably the wording is a little off there. Think “retooling” and you’d be closer to what the Kings have done.
What’s “retooling”? Well, it’s more than “tinkering around the edges” and less than “blowing it up.”
In came some players, out went others, and the team is left with one of the deepest groups of prospects in the NHL, especially down the middle. In fact, one story by a major news organization has the Kings’ player list including seven D men, eight wingers, and ten centers. Ten.
And this allowed the team, both management and various players, to feel comfortable making the above declaration about the rebuild’s conclusion. But are the LA Kings ready to compete for the Cup again? (Believe it or not, people out here are talking about the “long drought”—like they’ve forgotten the period between 1967 and 2012 or have never actually heard of the Toronto Maple Leafs (whose more than half a century of drought must feel really, really dry by comparison).
It would be more accurate to ask whether the Kings are likely to make the playoffs again, and the answer is a decided maybe rather than a firm yes. What quarrels do observers have with the idea that the Kings are ready to repeat 2012 or 2014?
1. The above-mentioned stockpiling of players doesn’t leave room for last year’s phenom, Quinton Byfield, to flourish. Clearly, the top two center spots are occupied (by Kopitar, and by Danault, discussed below). Where’s the guy who can’t go to the AHL this year going to play? Back in Junior? He might not be quite ready to dominate the NHL, but going back to Sudbury would seem a cruel alternative.
But hold the phone, because that’s not a question that matters now, because Byfield broke an ankle mid-week in a preseason game. Nobody’s fault—just went into the boards awkwardly, but he won’t be available until the season is well underway.
2. This discussion of center depth fails to mention other names in the vast Kings’ prospect and young player pool—ever hear of Jaret Anderson-Dolan? Blake Lizotte? Andreas Athanasiou? OK, I just threw the last one in for fun. He’s 27. But at least he scores in more than one in four games he plays in. Rasmus Kupari is another one to put in there. He got a seven-game taste of the NHL last year, with one goal, and he could explode at any minute. But note that Kupari and Lizotte will start the season in the AHL, both having been sent down last Thursday.
3. The biggest expenditure, new one at least, is for a guy who shuts people down but doesn’t score himself. Phillip Danault’s point total in nearly 400 NHL games—55-144-199, so about half a point per game. That would trend out to decent goal totals, but you can see that he’s far better at dishing the puck off than shooting it himself. His two best full years he had 11 and 13 goals, and his numbers project out to about 11. And that’s on a team that typically scores more than one or two a game, which has been the Kings’ MO of late. Well, for a long time, actually.
Danault’s strength was on full display in this past spring’s playoffs. But his goals totals in the post-season this year and last have been abysmal: a goal in each of two years. He was effective in extending Montreal’s post-season run to one Finals win in an ultimately losing effort, but the Kings are a team with excellent team defense. That doesn’t mean they don’t need what he offers. They could just use some balance going the other way and putting the puck in the other team’s net once in a while, rather than just keeping it out of theirs.
One thing the team has said they expect is that having Danault to play a strong defensive center role will alleviate some of that responsibility from Kopitar, allowing him to break out and do some more scoring. Last year he had 13 goals and 50 points in 56 games. So that makes for 70 points in a regular season, but they’re hoping for more. Maybe this new balance will be good.
On the flip side, the Kings have many hopeful signs.
1. In a media interview he did last week, long-time defensive star Drew Doughty said he’s more motivated and in better shape than ever. This, in part, is driven by speculation he’s read that he won’t be amongst the top choices for the Canadian Olympic team. His attitude? Get in better condition than in any prior off-season, and play his best minutes in the first half of the season, when Olympic management eyes are most on him.
2. The Kings, let’s be real, are not playing in the strongest Division in the league. Their competition includes the Sharks and Ducks. It won’t take as much as in other divisions, in other words, to be top three. Top three?
Well, chances are five teams from the Central will make the playoffs, leaving the relatively weaker West-Coast eight to fight over three spots. But if you discount the Sharks and Ducks, then that puts the Kings in sixth without even trying, and they’re at least as good on paper as Seattle and Vancouver, so move them up to fourth if they jump those teams. Put Vegas and Edmonton in the top two spots, and who’s left? Calgary.
Figure a three-way fight between Calgary, LA, and someone from Vancouver, Seattle, or maybe even Edmonton (if the goaltending holds up) for the third, and likely final, playoff placing from the Pacific.
3. Goaltender Cal Petersen might just be the real deal, and he is maturing right at the right time. Of the (in some minds) “aging” core—Doughty, Kopitar, Brown, and Quick—the one who’s the worst for wear is Quick. No wonder—you try exploding laterally across the crease, full splits, a few thousand times and see how your body holds up.
Despite the fact that geriatric goalies are now a “thing” (hello, Edmonton’s Mike Smith), Quick has played 666 games, and had several lengthy injury breaks. Last year, he played 22 and had an 11-9-2 record with an .898 save percentage. And that was not his first time under .900. He did that also two years ago, registering an .888 in 2018-19. Last season, this came in a weak Pacific Division. In short, he’s fading from the spotlight. His replacement, the long-expected wunderkind Petersen, just re-upped for three years at five million bucks per. It’s his time. Can he do it?
Petersen played in 35 games last season and registered career-highs in both save percentage (.911) and goals-against-average (2.89) while posting a 9-18-5 record. He is 26, by the way, with only 51 games played. All of his professional career has been spent in the Kings’ organization.
Following the season, Petersen represented Team USA at the 2021 IIHF Men’s World Championship in Riga, Latvia, where he helped the US get a bronze medal. In seven games, Petersen posted a record of 5-2-0, a .953 save percentage, 1.29 goals-against-average and two shutouts to lead the tournament in both save percentage and goals-against-average.
The Waterloo, Iowa native was signed by the Kings as a free agent on July 1, 2017. In the NHL, he has registered a 19-25-6 record, .916 save percentage, 2.79 goals-against-average and one shutout. He also appeared in three seasons with the Ontario Reign (AHL), where he totaled 116 games played, a 53-48-13 record, .904 save percentage, 3.32 goals-against average and seven shutouts while also being a two-time AHL All-Star (2017-18 and 2019-20). Petersen was originally selected in the fifth round (129th overall) by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2013 NHL Draft.
Five million bucks is not a hefty price for a goalie, but it’s not cheap, and though Petersen passes the eye test, somebody’s got a lot of confidence, and probably has his own job on the line, in making this call. It’s everybody into the pool on this pick, and if it doesn’t work out, the Kings better hope Quick has it in him to become the player he was when he led the team to two Cups a while ago, at least long enough to make a final push.
4. They have two other valued additions, namely Viktor Arvidsson, who should, amongst other things, help the power play, and Alex Edler, who brings a steady rock-like defensive game to an otherwise rather young blueline.
To sum up: What will the Spring bring? They’re saying playoffs, and it could happen. But before they and Danault show the way by keeping the puck out of their net, they need to put it into the other one. Last year, the Kings were bottom-five in the league in scoring, though slightly better than that in goals against.
The LA mantra has been something like “Boring wins hockey games” (unofficially), and that might be so, but leaky in goal and boring by not being able to score is a combination that won’t make fans happy, and won’t get them into the big show in the spring.