Fifty games down, 32 to go. The Kings are sitting in seventh place in the Western Conference standings coming out of the All-Star break, four points out of ninth and just two short of the Pacific Division lead. Here are the key areas to watch heading into the home stretch of the regular season.
1. Scoring, scoring and, well, more scoring – Look no further than league-wide scoring averages to pinpoint where the Kings need to improve the most. They’re still last in that category at 2.14 goals a game, a hole they’ve been dug into the last two months. The Kings had 143 goals through 50 games last season. They’re sitting at 111 now, more than half a goal per game less than a year ago. Probably not surprising, the numbers for the top three scorers from last season are also down. Anze Kopitar has 15 goals and 29 assists, compared to 16 and 33 through the same stretch last season. Justin Williams has nine goals and 25 assists. He had 18 and 21 through the 50-game mark a year ago. Dustin Brown has dropped from 17 goals and 20 assists to 13 and 14. Last season’s second-line center, Jarret Stoll, has seen his numbers fall the furthest. He’s sitting at five goals and nine assists after racking up 14 and 17 through the All-Star break last season. Even those who were playing elsewhere this time last year, Mike Richards and Dustin Penner, have seen their offensive stats tumble. Water always settles back at its natural level. Hopefully the Kings’ offense will too.
2. Voice in the room – The players seemed to receive a jolt when coach Terry Murray was fired Dec. 12 and replaced a week later by Darryl Sutter. They earned points in 14 of the next 15 games to climb into playoff contention in the Western Conference standings, but another goal here or there would have pushed them even higher. The Kings appeared to be falling back into old habits heading into the break, scoring five goals in four games before a 4-1 victory Monday against visiting Ottawa ended the skid. The lull may suggest that the honeymoon with Sutter is over. For the most part, he has defended his team’s unsteady play, placing a big chunk of blame on the demanding schedule that included two season-opening ‘home’ games in Europe, followed by a two-game East Coast swing. They haven’t had three days or more between games since mid-November. After an eight-day layoff, the Kings play a home game Wednesday against Columbus then embark on a season-long six-game road trip that could go a long way toward determining if they’re contenders or pretenders. They went 6-1-3 during the Grammy trip last season, catapulting them back into playoff contention.
3. Young guns misfiring – Every team in the league is aware the Kings have two of the top young defensemen in Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, both of whom are signed to long-term deals. They can defend, contribute on the offensive end, hold their own on special teams and have the type of stamina that allows them to log veteran minutes. But, like the top forwards, they’ve also seen their production take a step back this season. Doughty, 22, has three goals and 19 assists through 45 games, compared to four goals and 22 assists a year ago, when he played 44 games heading into the break. That’s not much of a difference, unless you compare it to his 45-game mark in 2009-10, when he had nine goals and 25 assists en route to his Norris Trophy nomination. Johnson, 25, has seen his goals increase from four to eight this season, but his assists have dropped dramatically, from 29 to 13. If the Kings are to make the playoffs this season and improve on their first-round exits from the last two years, they’ll need their young blueliners to produce like they have in the past.
4. No rest for the weary – In the final season of his last head coaching job, Sutter started Calgary goalie Miikka Kiprusoff in a league-leading 74 regular-season games. The Finnish netminder made it tough for Sutter to give him a break, finishing with a league-best 2.07 goals-against average and a Vezina Trophy in his back pocket. But the Flames, who finished third in the Western Conference that season, were upset by the Ducks in the first-round of the playoffs and Sutter stepped down a couple of months later. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick started 72 games during the 2009-10 season, but wore down at the end, getting pulled twice in the final eight regular-season games and losing his other six starts. He then allowed 21 goals in a six-game playoff loss to Vancouver. Last season, Quick started 60 games, losing the final two regular-season games to the Ducks, which cost the Kings home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Quick then allowed 20 goals in a six-game playoff loss to the Sharks. So far this season, Quick has started 42 games, putting him on pace to start 68. Sutter has a former first-round draft pick in Jonathan Bernier backing up Quick, but he continues to send out No. 32. This is one situation to watch closely down the stretch.
5. Trade winds a blowin’? – Bernier might be the shiniest jewel the Kings have to dangle as bait heading into the trade deadline next month. The Kings need to bolster their scoring and a top-six wing would fit perfectly alongside Kopitar or Richards, especially with Simon Gagne looking more like a long shot to return from his latest concussion. Jarome Iginla, who played for Sutter in Calgary, has been a popular name to come out West. The Flames seem to be in a selling mode after recently shipping 36-year-old center Brendan Morrison to Chicago for defenseman Brian Connelly, who has an AHL All-Star appearance on his resume but little else. Rick Nash of Columbus, a 30-goal scorer the last four seasons who signed an eight-year $62.4 million deal in the summer of 2009, could also hit the road as the Blue Jackets continue to be buried in last place and might look to rebuild with prospects and draft picks. Then again, the Kings made a big move at the trade deadline last season to acquire Penner and, thus far, it hasn't paid off.