ESPNLosAngeles plans to take a closer look at the Kings and Ducks each day heading into their season openers Oct. 7 in Europe. Where are their strengths, their weaknesses? Which star player will continue to shine, and which might struggle to maintain their previous levels? We put the Kings under the microscope beginning today and will attempt to answer the same questions regarding the Ducks on Friday.
What area will the Kings likely show the most improvement? The way some fans moaned and groaned about the lack of success on the power play last season, you’d think other teams intentionally gave the Kings a man advantage just to prevent them from scoring. But, in reality, there were eight other teams even worse on the power play a year ago. The Nashville Predators, for example, and they finished as one of the top four teams in the Western Conference. But, no doubt, there is room for improvement in Los Angeles. The Kings converted on just 16.1% of their chances, letting plenty of teams off the hook. Their problems had more to do with structure than personnel, but both have new looks this season. Mike Richards was acquired by the Kings in the offseason and he brings the kind of fluidity and playmaking skills that keeps penalty killers on their heels. Based on the preseason, the Kings are showing more movement than a year ago, and Wednesday night they netted three power-play goals against the Colorado Avalanche.
Where will they likely slide? In some areas, the Kings can’t help but take a dip. Jonathan Quick finished with a 10-0 record in shootouts last season, the best mark ever by a goalkeeper. Jarret Stoll set another NHL watermark in the shootout, converting on nine of 10 attempts. The team’s 20 overall shootout goals also led the league. But a potential decline that could have the biggest impact is on the penalty kill. The Kings wiped out 85.5% of the power plays they faced last season, which was fourth-best in the league. They also tied New Jersey for the fewest power-play goals allowed at 40. But the organization lost one of their top penalty killers when Michal Handzus signed a free-agent contract with San Jose in the offseason. Handzus led the Kings in short-handed ice time last season and the Sharks can certainly use his skills after finishing 26th in the league on the penalty kill. Of course, if the preseason is any indication, the Kings will keep right on killing. Through five exhibition games, they’ve wiped out all 18 power plays they’ve encountered.
When is the toughest stretch of the season? The Kings don’t have a road trip to begin the season, they have a cross-continental journey. Starting on Friday night with a preseason game in Anaheim, the Kings will be on the road for 16 days, covering four states and three different countries. Following their final exhibition game Saturday night in Las Vegas, they're scheduled to fly overnight to Europe, where they’ll prepare to play their season opener Oct. 8 against the New York Rangers in Stockholm, Sweden. The next night, they face the Buffalo Sabres in Berlin, Germany, then fly back to the United States. They’ll stay on the East Coast and attempt to get their bearings in time to play at New Jersey and Philadelphia with one day of rest in between. Meanwhile, the Devils will have played their first two regular season games at home, and the Flyers will be playing just their second game in a week, both on their home ice. The Kings have opened the season overseas just one other time, in 2007-08, splitting those games in London with the Ducks. They came home and looked like a very weary team, allowing 22 goals in a four-game losing streak. The Ducks weren’t much better, losing four of five upon their return. There’s no doubt this is a different Kings team than four years ago, but excessive travel is excessive travel. Throw in the potential absence of one of their best players, defenseman Drew Doughty, who still isn’t budging on his demands for a new contract, and it could be a rough start to the season.
When is the Kings best opportunity to move up the standings? By contract, the Kings will be doing a lot of sleeping in their own beds later this fall. During a stretch from Nov. 3 to Dec. 6, the Kings play 11 of 16 games at Staples Center and two of those road games are in Anaheim. They also make a quick trip to San Jose and another departure for back-to-back games in St. Louis and Dallas. Other than that, they won’t need to step on a plane. Playing at home was a big advantage for the Kings last season. They finished with a 25-13-3 record at Staples Center, which tied for the third most home wins in the NHL. If the Kings can avoid falling in a hole early in the season and possibly denting their morale, they have a good opportunity to stash some points during the first third of the season.