Over the last couple years you’ve had a feeling that it’s only a matter of time before the Los Angeles Kings become bonafide contenders in the Western Conference. Well, that time is now.
In 2010, the youthful Kings snapped a near decade-long playoff drought and finished 6th in the conference. This past season they scratched and clawed their way to a playoff spot. But if things go according to plan in the 2011-12 season, Terry Murray’s gang should not have a problem making their third consecutive postseason appearance.
GM Dean Lombardi is not known for making big splashes in free agency or at the trade deadline, but he has done both in this calendar year. This summer, Lombardi unloaded key assets to acquire Mike Richards from Philadelphia. Veteran winger Simon Gagne was also signed. The off-season moves came on the heels of trading for Dustin Penner in February. Those three additions give L.A. one of the NHL’s most complete top-six groupings.
That group is led by Anze Kopitar, who was unable to play in the playoffs due to a broken ankle suffered late in the year. Kopitar is the one of the most underappreciated centers in the league. He has produced at just shy of a point-per-game clip in the last two seasons, racking up a +31 rating in the process. He is now surrounded by the likes of Richards, Gagne and Penner, along Dustin Brown and Justin Williams, in what should make for a dangerous man advantage.
The acquisition of Richards allows Jarret Stoll to play on the third line, a role that suits him better than the second line. 20-year-old Kyle Clifford, who showed some promise in the playoffs, could potentially join Stoll.
One of the Kings’ bigger strengths is in net. Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier combined to surrender the sixth-least amount of goals in 2010-11; neither has reached its prime. Quick polished his game a bit and performed better than he did in 2009-10. Bernier played his first full season in the NHL as backup to Quick.
RFA Drew Doughty still remains unsigned, but he’s not going anywhere. He has the skills to become a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman one day. Doughty needs to rebound from an inconsistent campaign, though, that saw him tally 19 less points than in 2009-10. The rest of the blue-line is strong, with Willie Mitchell and Jack Johnson leading the way after Doughty.
With a complete roster, the Kings are viewed as a favorite to not only win the Pacific Division, but to give Vancouver a run for its money atop the conference. The biggest reason for that is Richards.
Opponents can’t just pin their best defensive center against Kopitar now. Richards is a legitimate top-line center that will be on the second line, which will give fits to defenses without depth. And without the pressure of being captain in a media-crazed city, Richards can just relax and play hockey.
Gagne was also a shrewd pickup by Lombardi. Even if he can’t play a full 82-game schedule, Gagne has proven that he can still produce at a moderate level. If he happens to stay healthy and rekindle some magic with Richards, ex-teammates in Philly, look out!
We’ve all been waiting on this young Kings team to take that next step from playoff team to Cup contender. Since the youngsters have a little more seasoning, along with the off-season additions, they look poised to do just that this season.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.