With depth depleted, Kings in transition

How does the NHL work? You can win the Stanley Cup without having an elite roster. A few exceptional players and a lot of grit can get you to the top of the mountain. Look no further than the Pittsburgh Penguins last year for that.

So to begin with optimism, we can say the LA Kings begin the 2016-17 season Wednesday against San Jose with three, possibly four, exceptional players as that foundation. 

But then comes reality. That core will have to perform above expectations for this team to make the playoffs, let alone win the cup this year. It’s not that the so-called window of opportunity has closed as much as it is cracked, waiting to see if prospects will flourish in the next year or two to lift the team back to contending status.

The team has kept its core of defenseman Drew Doughty, goaltender Jonathan Quick and center Anze Kopitar. Also, Tyler Toffoli has the makings of a consistent all-star. Virtually the rest of the roster — particularly at forward — is in transition thanks to two painful realities.

One is payroll restraints: The Kings have just $57,000 in salary cap room. The front office is doing all it can to shoehorn one more player into the roster legally as I type — a left winger that could join their top line, Devin Setoguchi. Adding to that burden is the NHL salary cap provides little relief when players get injured long term. Setoguchi is seen as a replacement for injured sniper Martin Gaborik.

The cap limit was also part of the reason the Kings could not retain forward Milan Lucic, a bruiser that fit perfectly with their heavy style of play.

The second is cuts made due to some players’ off-ice behavior. The Kings let go of forwards Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards due to drug-related arrests. Slava Voynov was supposed to stabilize the defense for a decade with Doughty, but he’s back in Russia thanks to an ugly domestic violence arrest.

Currently, the third and fourth line of forwards are centered by Nic Dowd and Andy Andreoff, who haven’t impressed much. So LA’s offensive depth has been depleted, and this was a team that struggled to score in the first place.

The defense last year allowed the third-fewest goals in the NHL. It will have to at least equal that. There’s no reason to expect a slump from Doughty or Quick, but if there’s an injury, LA could be toast. And Quick has had injuries to the back, wrist and groin.

I can’t say with confidence the Kings can consistently match up with San Jose or Anaheim. The top three finishers in the Pacific Division are assured of playoff spots. They’re probably better than Vancouver, but Edmonton and Phoenix have added to their rosters and Calgary looms for a bounceback season.

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. 

The week in L.A. sports (6/16/16-6/22/16)

I post this every Thursday. It’s not Thursday in LA. Kinda don’t care about that. It’s Thursday here…

Dodgers: Here’s the problem with LA’s current winning streak, which stands at six games. The Giants have maintained a lead of six games as I type. Only one Dodgers team has ever rallied from more than seven games back to reach the playoffs. The team remains on life support and we still haven’t hit the halfway point of the season.

The Dodgers are so boring that while playing the Washington Nationals, broadcaster Vin Scully is talking at length about Jayson Werth being 37 years old. And that is a shame, because Werth is desperately trying to look like a hipster looking for Portland Timbers soccer tickets to scalp. Seriously, playa, the world has enough unemployed slackers disguised as garden gnomes.

Here’s a subtle indication of how idiotic the Dodgers’ “smartest front office in baseball” has been. The Dodgers traded one of their top pitching prospects, Zach Lee, to Seattle. For a shortstop. You think that scrub is going to replace Corey Seager, who hit his 16th home run of the season an hour ago? Good going, “smart guys.”

Lakers and Clippers: Reports circulated on major sports news outlets — reputable ones — that the 76ers will take Ben Simmons with the first pick of tonight’s NBA draft. Those reports were followed with the Lakers having allegedly decided on forward Brandon Ingram of Duke. Not that I’m a genius because I’ve told you that for a month or so. The internet loves a good conspiracy theory. Part of my life’s mission is to wipe that flotsam away.

As for who the Clippers will take? Who cares? Their lineup is set. The guess here is for an outside shooter to eventually replace the aging J.J. Reddick.

Kings: It’s been an awkward week, to say the least. On the plus side, Drew Doughty earned his first Norris Trophy, which goes to the best defenseman in the league. The minus side was everything else. The Venezuelan soccer team has a brighter future when it returns home.

The team has a new captain in Anze Kopitar, which is nice except that former captain Dustin Brown is still on the roster. Kopitar has played here too long to pretend he can’t understand English, while on his OK Cupid profile, Brown lists “likes to hit people for no reason” under hobbies.

Even worse, Milan Lucic, the big trade acquisition from last offseason, is likely to leave the team as an unrestricted free agent. It’ll hurt. Lucic can do a lot of things well, but the Kings only had about $7 million of salary cap space and had to sign five players for the roster.

Galaxy: The team has played twice since last week’s blog post and has yet to score. 

Come to think of it, I’m looking back over the teams I’ve written about so far tonight and if I could put a layer of frosting on this failure cake, it would spell out “All My Favorite Teams Stink.”

Rams: Somebody posted a meme tonight on Facebook that read “Less than two months until football season!”

Screw you, dude. Preseason football is even more unwatchable than the WNBA.

Other than that, the Rams literally had no news in the last week. See you Friday! 🙂