Pacific Division Preview: Los Angeles Kings hope addition of Kovalchuk will improve offensive consistency
The Kings will look to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
Now that the regular season has begun, we conclude our Pacific Division Preview series by taking a look at the Los Angeles Kings to examine how they fared in 2017-18, what moves they’ve made in the offseason and what their lineup will look like to start the 2018-19 campaign.
The Los Angeles Kings have been crowned Stanley Cup Champions twice this decade, but that doesn’t take away any disappointment following an unsuccessful attempt to re-claim the throne. Their recent first-round playoff exit unfolded under particularly frustrating circumstances, courtesy of the Vegas Golden Knights. Though minimal changes were made in the offseason, the Kings will have two offensive forces they didn’t have last year, which could go a long way towards their pursuit of Cup No. 3.
One of those forces was Jeff Carter, who sustained a lower-body injury early in the season that kept him out for most of the year. He put up 13 goals (six of which came on the man advantage) and 22 points in 27 games upon returning, but he was missed.
Fortunately, Anze Kopitar had a season to remember in 2017-18, scoring a career-high 35 goals, 57 assists and 92 points. His performance earned him a Hart Trophy nomination for most valuable player, and he took home the Frank. J. Selke Memorial Trophy for his strong two-way play.
Linemate and former team captain Dustin Brown had a monster bounce-back season, setting career highs in assists (33) and points (61), and defenseman Drew Doughty did the same with 50 assists and 60 points. The three veteran skaters led the way, helping Los Angeles finish in the middle of the pack in team scoring with 2.89 goals per game (16th), which was up from 24th (2.43) in 2016-17.
Jonathan Quick also came up huge for the Kings, adding another impressive performance to his resume as he went 33-28-3 while recording a 2.40 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and five shutouts. The .921 save percentage was his best since the 2011-12 season, the year in which the Kings won the franchise’s first Cup.
Quick, along with Los Angeles’ defense corps, held teams to a league-low 2.46 goals per game. The mid-season acquisition of Dion Phaneuf added to an already-strong blue line featuring Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez, Derek Forbort, Christian Folin, Oscar Fantenberg and Paul LaDue. The team also had the best penalty kill in the NHL, operating at a success rate of 85 percent.
Center Adrian Kempe showed flashes of why he was selected in the first round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft as he collected 16 goals and 37 points in 81 games in his first full season in the NHL. He played a significant role in Carter’s absence, though his production was inconsistent.
But when the postseason rolled around, Los Angeles ran into a giant brick wall: Marc-Andre Fleury.
As outstanding as Quick was in the first-round series against Vegas, Fleury out-dueled him. While Quick gave up just seven goals in the entire series, recording a 1.55 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage, the team in front of him only scored three. That gave him an 0-4 record despite the fact that he recorded his best postseason goals-against average since 2012 and the best postseason save percentage of his entire career. He even made 54 saves in Game 2 but still suffered a 2-1 loss in double overtime. Three goals in a playoff series is not going to cut it, and that lack of production is why the Kings’ playoff hopes ended prematurely.
The Kings’ primary move of the offseason was landing superstar sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, who returned to the NHL on a three-year, $18.75 million deal. Kovalchuk should give the Kings the scoring boost they need. In fact, he has 417 goals and 816 points in 816 career regular-season games in the NHL and has a career shooting percentage of 14.1. Though he has spent the past five seasons in the KHL, Kovalchuk has not lost his scoring touch and was one of the hottest free agents in the offseason.
The Kings also took care of a rather large elephant in the room by addressing Doughty’s future with the organization. Los Angeles took care of the No. 1 offseason priority by locking up its franchise defenseman to an eight-year, $88 million contract, which carries an average annual value of $11 million. That will be tied for the second-highest cap hit when the contract kicks in next summer; until then, Doughty will finish out the final year of his current contract, which carries an AAV of $7 million. He, John Tavares and Connor McDavid will have the three highest cap hits in the entire National Hockey League.
The Kings also re-signed LaDue to a two-year extension with an AAV of $825,000. Los Angeles traded for goaltender Peter Budaj, who played a significant role when Quick missed the majority of the 2016-17 season, though Budaj was recently waived; Jack Campbell will serve as Quick’s backup this season.
Notable departures include Folin (signed with Philadelphia as UFA), Nick Shore (traded at deadline), Marian Gaborik (traded at deadline) and Tobias Rieder (not re-signed).
Brown is out indefinitely after breaking his finger in the preseason. The good news for the Kings is that the projected timetable involves weeks rather than months, though it’s a tough blow to lose a top offensive player right before the season. Jonny Brodzinski is also on injured reserve after sustaining a shoulder injury in preseason play.
Taking Brown’s place on the top line likely will be Alex Iafallo, who appeared in 75 games last year, racking up nine goals and 25 points in the process. He and Kovalchuk will flank Kopitar, and the “That 70’s Line” of Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson will be reunited to fill out the top six.
On the back end, the Kings likely will go with 26-year-old defensemen Forbort and Fantenberg, with Doughty, Muzzin, Martinez and Phaneuf occupying the other four slots.
This is what the Kings’ lineup could look like to start the season:
Iafallo — Kopitar — Kovalchuk
Pearson — Carter — Toffoli
Austin Wagner — Kempe — Trevor Lewis
Kyle Clifford — Michael Amadio — Nate Thompson
Forbort — Doughty
Muzzin — Martinez
Phaneuf — Fantenberg
2017-18 Team record: 45-29-8—98
Position in standings: Division-4, Conference-7, League-12
Pacific Division record: 14-10-5
Record against Vegas: 2-1-1
Playoff result: Eliminated in first round by Vegas (4-0)
Leading Scorers: Kopitar (35-57—92), Brown (28-33—61), Doughty (10-50—60)
Top Corsi For % (min. 10 GP): LaDue (57.63), Muzzin (52.93), Brown (52.88)
Power play (NHL rank): 20.4 percent (17)
Penalty kill (NHL rank): 85 percent (1)
Goals for (NHL rank): 237 (16)
Goals against (NHL rank): 202 (31)
Team MVP: Kopitar (35-57—92)
Season opener: Oct. 5 vs. San Jose
The Kings enter this season with revenge on their minds after getting swept in frustrating fashion in the first-round series against Vegas. It was a particularly tough elimination to swallow as they managed just three goals in the entire series, but that’s partly why management went out and landed Kovalchuk, who should certainly help the team find twine more often.
It’s hard to ask much more of Quick, who was absolutely sensational in the playoffs. The team itself didn’t play poorly, as every game was competitive and tight. But as the Knights and Washington Capitals proved last year, teams must roll four lines to win in the playoffs. As always, the Kings will rely on their star players to lead them, but they’ll need much more consistency from secondary scorers and depth players if they want to make a true run.
The Kings have already shown that it doesn’t matter where in the standings you finish as long as you get there; the 2011-12 Kings became the first team in NHL history to hoist the Cup as a No. 8 seed. Considering Kopitar, Doughty and Quick give Los Angeles elite talent at each position, the Kings will remain a threat in the Pacific Division and Western Conference as they look to take another shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Golden Knights vs. Kings schedule
Dec. 8 @ Los Angeles
Dec. 23 vs. Los Angeles
Dec. 29 @ Los Angeles
Jan. 1 vs. Los Angeles
Apr. 6 @ Los Angeles