Dpring weather in Southern California is known as May Grey and June Gloom, with two months of dreary skies preceding the summer sunshine. Lately, Los Angeles hockey during those months could be described the same way, as the Kings have won just one playoff game since their 2014 Stanley Cup.
A bright new day might be dawning in Los Angeles, where the Kings believe Todd McLellan, their third coach in less than a year, can be the organization’s Mr. Sunshine. McLellan will be charged with transforming the Kings from aging grinders into a younger group that plays with skill and pace.
McLellan inherits a strong core, but Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter and Jonathan Quick are coming off disappointing seasons. With a five-year deal, McLellan has a long leash to deal with some down years as the Kings get younger. He’ll need it, because a turnaround could take a while.
Finding a way to get production out of Ilya Kovalchuk is paramount – the Russian sniper has 433 career NHL goals but had just 16 in 64 games last year. Veterans Kopitar, Carter, Dustin Brown and Tyler Toffoli all figure to be better, while Nikolai Prokhorkin will get every opportunity to make an impact. He arrives from KHL St. Petersburg, where he was a point-per-game player last season.
Adrian Kempe, Alex Iafallo, Michael Amadio and Austin Wagner have all shown promise, but top prospect Gabriel Vilardi remains an unknown entity due to a back injury. Youngsters Rasmus Kupari and Jaret Anderson-Dolan are on the cusp of providing help.
Team defense has been a Kings trademark, but last year it was barely respectable, as L.A. ranked 22nd in goals against. The Kings are bent on getting younger and more skilled, and the blueline is no exception. They traded Jake Muzzin in January and bought out Dion Phaneuf in the summer, leaving vets Doughty, Alec Martinez and Derek Forbort to team with Paul LaDue, Sean Walker and Joakim Ryan as the likely top-six rearguards. Kurtis MacDermid, Matt Roy and Kale Clague, a second-round pick in 2016, are also in the mix, while Mikey Anderson and Sean Durzi are a year or two away.
A return to Norris-Trophy form for Doughty would do wonders. He had a respectable 45 points, but only so much can be expected with a limited supporting cast.
Quick was uncharacteristically porous last season, posting his first losing season to go along with an ugly .888 save percentage. The Kings considered moving Quick, but his $5.8-million cap hit over four more seasons made that impractical, and that might be a blessing. He is one year removed from the Jennings Trophy, and he could easily return to form. Jack Campbell is locked in as the backup and posted terrific numbers in 31 appearances.
After leading the NHL in penalty killing in 2017-18, the Kings dropped to 29th. L.A.’s special teams struggled at both ends of the ice throughout 2018-19. The power play sputtered badly and ranked 27th, which not surprising for such an offensively challenged team. McLellan likes volume shooting on the power play and believes a turnaround there could carry over to the team’s even-strength offense. With 142 career PP goals, Kovalchuk could singlehandedly change the fortunes of the power play if, at age 36, he can turn back the clock. That is, of course, a big if.
Veterans Brown (34), Kopitar (32), Carter (34), Quick (33) and Doughty (29) all experienced slippage last season, but all are proud Cup champions. Was last year the start of a downhill slide or merely a dip in the road? If the five pillars of the team’s Cup winners have something left in the tank, they could provide a bridge to the next era. If not, the Kings will try to unload bloated salaries.
Russian import Prokhorkin will be given every chance to slot in on a scoring line, while Anderson-Dolan, Kupari and Blake Lizotte of St. Cloud State will also get long looks up front. Clague, 21, is the team’s top defense prospect.
Banished to the press box by coach Willie Desjardins last season, Kovalchuk has two years left on his contract at $6.25 million per season, so he figures to stick around. If McLellan can help Kovalchuk find his touch, it will go a long way toward an in-house solution to the Kings’ offensive woes.
GM Rob Blake played for McLellan in San Jose, so he knows firsthand what the coach brings to the rink. As Blake’s third coaching hire in a little over two years on the job, McLellan needs to pan out if the organization is to have stability behind the bench and upstairs.
– Doug Ward
Stanley Cup Odds: 80/1
Projection: 8th in Pacific
A back injury ruined Gabe Vilardi’s season, and with Jaret Anderson-Dolan heading back to junior after a five-game trial, the Kings’ future was put on hold. While his season was truncated by a hip injury, 2019 first-rounder Alex Turcotte was lightning when he was in the lineup for the NTDP, racking up the points. The Wisconsin commit is a fierce competitor and an excellent skater. Turcotte and Rasmus Kupari will be a great antidote to the plodding Kings once they arrive.
1. Alex Turcotte, C
Age 18 Team U.S. NTDP (USHL)
High-level offensive player can also handle defensive responsibilities. Injuries are a concern.
Acquired 5th overall, 2019 NHL ’21-22
2. Rasmus Kupari, C
Age 19 Team Karpat (Fin.)
Small but can really fly, using his elite speed to create chances. Working on finishing them off.
Acquired 20th overall, 2018 NHL ’20-21
3. Gabe Vilardi, C
Age 20 Team Ontario (AHL)
Development stalled due to injury. But he can win that back with a growth year or two in the AHL.
Acquired 11th overall, 2017 NHL ’20-21
4. Tobias Bjornfot, D
Age 18 Team Djurgarden (Swe.)
Solid, reliable and does everything well. Seen as high character with good leadership qualities.
Acquired 22nd overall, 2019 NHL ’21-22
5. Akil Thomas, C
Age 19 Team Niagara (OHL)
Dynamic offensive talent who saw it come together with a very productive season.
Acquired 51st overall, 2018 NHL ’21-22
6. Jaret Anderson-Dolan, C
Age 20 Team Spokane (WHL)
High-IQ player with great wheels. Combines his speed with a hard and accurate shot.
Acquired 41st overall, 2017 NHL ’19-20
7. Kale Clague, D
Age 21 Team Ontario (AHL)
Offensive blueliner made progress with decision-making in own end. Good second half to season.
Acquired 51st overall, 2016 NHL ’20-21
8. Arthur Kaliyev, RW
Age 18 Team Hamilton (OHL)
Sensational goal-scorer with nose for net and ability to finish. Still plenty of warts to clear up.
Acquired 33rd overall, 2019 NHL ’21-22
9. Mikey Anderson, D
Age 20 Team Minn-Duluth (NCHC)
A reliable third-year defender who does well in all three zones. An impressive leader to boot.
Acquired 103rd overall, 2017 NHL ’22-23
10. Carl Grundstrom, LW
Age 21 Team Ontario (AHL)
A hard-nosed winger who has a willingness to get to the tough areas and create offense.
Acquired From Tor, Jan, 2019 NHL ’19-20