LOS ANGELES – When the NHL lockout finally ended, it looked like the Los Angeles Kings wouldn’t have many questions heading into this season. Well, at least not as many as their counterparts. After all, they were primed to be the first team in recent memory to return every player on their roster after winning the Stanley Cup.
That was before the Kings shipped forward Kevin Westgarth to Carolina for forward Anthony Stewart and a couple of draft picks. While the Westgarth trade shouldn’t have too much of an effect on the Kings’ on-ice performance (he hasn’t played since last February), there are a few other players from last year’s roster who are question marks for the Kings as the season begins. Their status and the status of the Kings' ownership are two of the many questions facing the team as they look to be the first back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in 15 years.
1. Will the Kings suffer a Cup hangover?
If there is one positive about the NHL lockout from the Kings’ perspective it’s that it has been seven months since they’ve won the Stanley Cup. There really shouldn’t be any excuses about hangovers or lack of rest with that much time off. Then again, it’s only natural for a team to have a bit of a letdown after being celebrated as champions for the past seven months.
The Kings have been around the world with the Stanley Cup for over half a year and will once again spend the day with it Saturday as they finally raise their championship banner at Staples Center before their regular season opener against the Chicago Blackhawks. Will it be hard to get motivated for Game 1 of the season after being patted on the back for an hour or so pre-game? Maybe, but the Kings also realize that in a 48-game, intra-conference regular season schedule, there isn’t much time to waste. Kings coach Darryl Sutter basically described it as an extended version of the playoffs.
AEG president and CEO and Kings governor Tim Leiweke said he has experience with championship letdowns after the Los Angeles Galaxy, also owned by AEG, won the MLS Cup in 2011 and started last season 6-11-2 before turning their season around and winning their second straight MLS Cup. The Kings will look to repeat that outcome while getting out of the gates with a better record.
2. How will the impending sale of AEG affect the Kings and their moves?
AEG, which owns the Kings, Galaxy, Staples Center, LA Live, Home Depot Center and hundreds of other assets, is currently up for sale. The sale process is in the early stages but is expected to be completed at some point during the NHL season. So will an ownership change during the season affect the Kings’ chance at repeating? Not at all if you listen to Leiweke, who said the company and whoever the new owner is will be just as committed to putting a championship team on the ice as Philip Anschutz was.
“We’re committed to winning,” Leiweke said. “[Kings general manager Dean Lombardi] has the green light to make any moves he believes will improve this team. Whether that’s signing a player or making a trade or whatever, we’re committed to winning the Cup again.”
Leiweke and AEG already showed their commitment in the offseason by keeping the team intact and inking most of their core players to long-term contracts.
3. How will Jonathan Quick respond to offseason back surgery and what will happen to Jonathan Bernier?
Another one of the positives of the lockout as far as the Kings were concerned is that it gave their goalie and Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Jonathan Quick, more time to recover from offseason back surgery. Quick had surgery in August and if the season had started on time he would have missed at least three months. Quick has been on the ice since the start of training camp and said he feels fine heading into the start of the season. Sutter also mentioned that as long as Quick feels fine he is going to lean on him more during this truncated schedule with the importance of every game heightened.
With Quick healthy and inked to a 10-year $58 million contract, backup goalie Jonathan Bernier, who could probably start on most teams, is looking for playing time elsewhere and hoping the Kings will trade him. The problem for Bernier is the Kings will likely take their time as they wait to see how Quick recovers from his surgery. If he looks fine they’ll probably take some more time evaluating what positions they need and what player or players they can get for Bernier.
In the interim, it looks like a win-win for the Kings who will have Quick back for the start of the season and the best backup goalie in the league waiting in the wings if anything happens to him.
4. How long will Willie Mitchell be out and how will that affect the defense?
Leave it to Sutter to just casually slip in some huge injury news in the midst of talking about a completely different subject. That's essentially how reporters found out that Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell underwent knee surgery in the offseason and is way behind schedule. In fact, he’s so far behind schedule that Sutter doesn’t even have a timetable for his return as the season begins.
Mitchell, who had surgery two months ago, was a vital part of the Kings’ Stanley Cup run and a veteran presence on their suffocating defense in the playoffs. He had five goals and a career-best 24 points in 76 regular-season games and one goal and three points in 20 playoff games. He actually averaged more ice time in the playoffs (25:19) than he did during the regular season (22:14).
As far as replacements go, defenseman Andrew Bodnarchuk was placed on waivers this week, clearing the way for Jake Muzzin to earn a roster spot while Mitchell remains sidelined. Muzzin played 11 games with the Kings during the 2010-11 season and will compete with Davis Drewiske for ice time in Mitchell’s absence.
5. Will a full season of Jeff Carter cure what ailed the Kings’ offense for much of last season?
Those who jumped on the Kings' bandwagon during the playoffs don’t remember how bad the Kings offense was during the season. It was actually beyond dreadful. In fact, it was so bad you had to feel sorry for Quick, who midway through last season had given up an average of 1.93 goals per game, making him one of just four NHL goaltenders with a GAA below two, but it was largely lost while playing behind the league’s lowest scoring team.
Even with a man advantage, the Kings had a hard time scoring as their power play ranked 16th and converted just 12.8% in the postseason. The Kings finished the regular season 29th in goals per game at just 2.29 per contest.
The Kings are hoping having Jeff Carter, who came over in a trade for Jack Johnson in February, for a full season will fix the Kings’ scoring woes early on. Not only will the Kings have Carter to begin the season but if Simon Gagne, who missed much of last season, can return to his old form and Dwight King and Jordan Nolan, who stepped up at the end of the regular season and the postseason continue to develop, offense might not be as much of a concern for the Kings this season.