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Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Who bears the brunt of Kings' collapse?

By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate who’s to blame for the Los Angeles Kings’ recent slide.

Burnside: Well, my friend, things are not going so swimmingly on the West Coast for the Los Angeles Kings, are they? After a strong start marked by Jonathan Quick’s franchise-record three straight shutouts, the Kings have fallen to the bottom of the Western Conference playoff bracket (eighth) after Monday’s disappointing 4-2 loss to your Stanley Cup favorites, the San Jose Sharks. The Kings have just one win in their past seven games and have been shut out twice during that stretch. In spite of what should be a nice, balanced offense, they have scored just 13 times over this seven-game stretch and are 28th in the NHL in goals per game. Yikes. The Kings entered the season with significant expectations, and at least on paper, they look like a team ready to challenge the big boys in the west. Are you seeing any similarities between the Kings and the St. Louis Blues, another team with high expectations that got off to an uneven start to the season? Of course Blues GM Doug Armstrong made what he hopes was a pre-emptive strike this week, firing Davis Payne and bringing in former Stanley Cup winner Ken Hitchcock. Should Kings coach Terry Murray be looking over his shoulder?

LeBrun: Certainly, Murray is bearing the brunt of Kings fans on Twitter, that’s for sure. My thought, though, is that GM Dean Lombardi would look to make a trade before making that kind of move. Improvement from within also would help. Franchise defenseman Drew Doughty has struggled since signing his eight-year, $56 million deal, although a shoulder injury didn't help things. The 21-year-old has four assists in his nine games this season and is minus-3. He's the key to the transition game, special teams and really all facets of the game plan for Los Angeles. Until he's back on board, the Kings won't be going full tilt. Of course, no player has disappointed more for the Kings this season than winger Dustin Penner, who has one assist in 12 games and a minus-3 rating. I think the Kings' patience with him is wearing thin. Luckily for them, he'll be an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Burnside: Well, Penner has been a monster disappointment, but he’s not the only one. Mike Richards, Dean Lombardi’s big offseason acquisition, has just two goals, and it’s clear that the offensive depth that will be needed to go on a long playoff run -- assuming the team makes the playoffs at all -- hasn’t materialized. The other thing I’m curious about has been the apparent lack of confidence in netminder Jonathan Bernier. You were at the Kings’ training camp, and much of the discussion was about whether Bernier would push Quick for the starting job. Bernier took the loss at the start of this seven-game segment, and since then, Quick has played in the past six games. Quick hasn’t necessarily played poorly, but to me, it’s strange that with the team struggling, Murray hasn’t mixed it up a bit more.

LeBrun: Quick has arguably been the team’s MVP (Anze Kopitar being the other candidate) so far this season, so on that one, I’m with Murray. With the team mired in a 1-4-2 slump, Bernier will get the start Tuesday night against the Nashville Predators, who visit the Kings at Staples Center. The Kings then host the powerhouse Vancouver Canucks on Thursday night, followed by a visit from the red-hot Minnesota Wild on Saturday night. It’s not getting any easier for the Kings. But they are deep in goal; moving Bernier might net them the necessary asset up front. That would be my point of focus if I were Lombardi right now.

Burnside: Really? Here’s my issue with Quick: In spite of his nice start to the season, he hasn’t proved that he can be a franchise goalie. His play in the playoffs the past couple of years was mediocre, and he did have a long stretch late last regular season when he was likewise pretty ordinary as the Kings bounced around within the Western Conference playoff bracket. Maybe Quick becomes the elite goaltender the Kings will need to make good on all of the promise this team represents. But I’d like to see a bigger sample before I deal a kid like Bernier, who looks like he has all the tools to be an NHL goaltender once he gets that chance. If I were Murray -- and it’s only on rare occasions that I pretend to be the Kings’ head coach -- going with Bernier is a good way to mix things up Tuesday night. Get a win and keep riding the kid. We’ve seen the Minnesota Wild do the same thing with Josh Harding, the Blues with Brian Elliott and the Lightning for a time with Mathieu Garon, as those teams went outside the goaltending box to help get things turned around. Why not the Kings? After all, the results couldn’t be any worse, could they?

LeBrun: Scotty, I hope you’re not dipping into the rum this early in the morning. Quick’s .936 save percentage is sixth-best among NHL starting goalies. He’s hardly the guy to point at whatsoever for the current struggles. But I agree. It's the right move to play Bernier in a back-to-back situation. If not, you’re really telling the kid you have no confidence in him. Either way, the heat is on for the head coach in Los Angeles. He’s done a marvelous job teaching a young team how to become competitive. But the pressure is on to win this season.
Until tomorrow, my friend.