It’s all theory until they actually play the games. So it is that the LA Kings have to go out and prove that they are a better team than they were last year, when a third-place finish in the Pacific gave way to a one-round playoff exit versus the Edmonton Oilers in six games.
What is up for contest? Everything from a powerful new forward to an untested but promising defenseman to a goalie experiment. A goalie experiment? Well when you’ve got two guys who dent the payroll for only 2.5 million bucks in tandem, you’re not exactly going with prime-of-the-career guys and superstars.
Fans will remember that the Kings had a great run out of Pheonix Copley last year, a lengthy, season-saving performance that was instantly forgotten when the team got Joonas Korpisalo in early March. He immediately took the net, and held it going into the playoffs. To many eyes, he was not amazing. Copley, meanwhile, soldiered on in the baseball cap for the series versus Edmonton. He played in one game to the other netminder’s six (of a six-game series). Korpisalo won games one and three but dropped two, four, five, and six to end his run with the Kings. In July, he signed in Ottawa.
Now Copley’s back, alongside Cam Talbot. How’s that going to go? As one insider told me this week, “I just can’t see a long playoff run with this as the pairing.” We’ll see. It may depend on how the goaltending tandem is going to split the duties, or whether one will surge to the forefront. (Conversely, what happens if this seems like a very bad idea at some point in the season? Will the Kings be willing to spend or trade at the deadline for a second year in a row?)
There are a bunch of other questions about the rest of this team, some of which are represented here: Will Quinton Byfield come into the full flower of his hoped-for abilities? How will the summer’s prized acquisition, Pierre Luc Dubois, perform after coming over from Winnipeg? His prior numbers look like this 302 points in 405 career games, but he tends to fly the coop rather rapidly. His tenure in Columbus was three years and five games, and that in Winnipeg three years. He’d worn out his welcome in both places. The Kings are excited to have him, though, and he did show some offensive brilliance, albeit in moments rather than periods, in their season-opening loss to Colorado.
Byfield is getting as good a chance as he could hope for, manning the left wing on a line centered by Kopitar and also featuring Adrian Kempe. How much production, how fast, will be an acceptable level of contribution for the former number two overall draft choice?
He started the year well, scoring a goal in the Kings’ season-opener versus Colorado at home. But he’s still leaning in with his stick rather than going full-body after the puck. You can’t teach size, but you can teach what to do with it. He’s gotta finally learn. Note that his coach is positive: “The points will come, as we saw tonight, but I think that ever since he went to the wing and got some confidence, played with better players and knew he was going to keep going, his play has really evolved. He’s matured as a young man, too, like he’s bigger, he’s stronger, he gets what’s going on now. He’s just growing up a little bit. We think he’s going to have a really good year and a really good career.”
He had prefaced this by deliberately putting the focus on Byfield just prior to this. “You know the other young player who I thought had a really strong night, maybe his best game as a King? 55 [Byfield]. I thought he was all over the ice. He looked confident. He made great plays, not only offensively but defensively.”
The defense is still anchored by Drew Doughty, but there are some people to watch. One pair of those is Matt Roy and Vladislav Gavrikov, the most visible pair in the team’s opening game. After Doughty, Gavrikov had the most ice time, 20:42, narrowly beating out Matt Roy and Mikey Anderson.
Then there’s Brandt Clarke, the youngster who has been noted as a top defensive prospect on the Kings’ depth chart since he was drafted with their first pick, eighth overall, in 2021. With cap issues already being cited by Coach McLellan as an issue hampering decisions, several youngsters, not just Clarke, will make appearances this year. And if they prove themselves, they might play more than they otherwise would.
There’s lots to see and lots to prove. This is only the start.
Brian Kennedy is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and the author of Growing Up Hockey, amongst other books.