The Kings’ quest: Maintain the defense

We interrupt our euphoria over the return of the NFL to Los Angeles and misery over Vin Scully’s retirement to discuss a team that brought recent championships to SoCal.

For decades, and the Los Angeles Kings are celebrating five of ’em this year, the franchise was one of many that had no discernible plan to win. In my opinion, sports franchises are like businesses. In competitive climates, you need a business plan or you’re in bankruptcy court. Your franchise has no plan, you rarely win titles. The Pittsburgh Steelers are an excellent example of this: Players change, sometimes coaches do, but the “blitzburgh” defensive philosophy doesn’t and they’re usually in the discussion for the Super Bowl.

Similarly, the Patriots had no such overarching plan until hiring Bill Belichik.

The Kings had no direction until hiring general manager Dean Lombardi. When he was hired in 2006, Kings front office employees were still using typewriters instead of computers. The office, indeed the entire franchise, was a blank canvas. So after a trip to Best Buy to outfit everybody with PCs, he set out to build the team with three relatively simple ideas:

1) Competition at goaltender,

2) The biggest, most capable defense possible,

3) On offense, centers before wingers.

Goaltender has been and will continue to be a done deal. Jonathan Quick won that competition years ago. Offense, while important, isn’t as important as what will lead the two-time Stanley Cup champs back into the picture for the third.

The Kings allowed the third-fewest goals in the NHL last year, mostly thanks to the Herculean contribution of Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty. Don’t be fooled: Doughty played more shifts than any other player in the league last year and the Kings can’t rely on Doughty being bulletproof in a violent sport every year. The belief was that Slava Voynov would be the guy who could alleviate the press on Doughty, but um… this happened. 

Much like the Kings have struggled to move on from that ugly split, I get the distinct feeling they would love to give at least one younger, cheaper player a shot.

In training camp, it appears four of the six defensive roster spots are locked up — Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez and Brayden McNabb. None of them are going anywhere for awhile. Muzzin and McNabb play with a bit of a mean streak. Muzzin takes more penalties than perhaps he should. McNabb has more room to grow at age 24. Muzzin is the oldest of the four at 27.

There are three players in their 30s with shots at making the team, but two are coming off of injuries and the third played for three different teams last year. Of the three, probably Matt Greene has the confidence of the fans, but that doesn’t carry into the front office.

Of three top younger prospects, what I’ve read is this is a training camp where the Kings have to make a decision on former first-round draft pick Derek Forbert. At 24, he’s had years to make an impression. Good luck standing out.

That leaves Zach Trotman and Kevin Gravel, and if you’re a casual fan you’re likely shrugging. Fair enough. The bottom line: Trotman is one of those underdog stories people love because he was literally the last player taken in the 2010 draft and eventually made the NHL. He’s considered a stay-at-home defenseman. NHL scouts say Gravel has “exceptional” defensive poise and a decent shot. They’re both about the same size.

I’m no hockey scout. You’re guess is as good as mine, but my belief is the Kings usually match one defenseman who takes offensive chances with a guy who camps out in front of the net. Doughty with Rob Scuderi or Robyn Regehr, for instance. I’m guessing they keep steady Matt Greene and match him with Kevin Gravel.

In a future post, I’ll take a peek at the offense.