Two days after the Los Angeles Kings ignominiously ended their non-playoff season last spring, they fired the coach and GM. They spent the off-season vowing that they would play a different, more up-tempo style and the hockey world was skeptical. After all, as they say, you are what you are. And the Kings were a big, slow team that was caught up in too many long-term contracts.
Well lo and behold, here we are at the start of the season and the Kings will open the campaign on home ice tonight against the Philadelphia Flyers with five Calder-eligible rookies in their lineup, with three of them making their NHL debuts. And just in case you doubted new head coach John Stevens and his vow to play with more speed, it should be noted that one of the players playing his first NHL game is a speedy winger by the name of Alex Iafallo, a college free agent the Kings signed this summer who will line up on the left side of the top line with Anze Kopitar at center and Dustin Brown at right wing.
Iafallo is joined by two unheralded defensemen, Oscar Fantenberg and Kurtis MacDermid, who will also be playing their first NHL games. In fact, there’s a very good chance that with Alec Martinez out of the lineup, those two players could very well end up making up the Kings’ third defense pairing. Jonny Brodzinski, who played six games with the Kings last season, will play on the third line with Adrian Kempe as his centerman, a Kings prospect who just makes the Calder cut by virtue of having played 25 NHL games last season.
So perhaps this just wasn’t all talk and that the Kings want to alter their identity. “When you don’t make the playoffs, you have to try to get faster and change a little of the way you play,” said Kings’ assistant GM Michael Futa. “We’re not going to forsake our commitment to our defensive identity, but we’re trying to play a little faster, a little more exciting. We’re not going to be exchanging alley-oops up and down the ice, but we want to play a little differently.”
The Kings have certainly changed their complexion. Along with the five rookies, Michael Cammalleri up front, Christian Folin on defense and Darcy Kuemper as the backup goalie, the Kings start the season with eight players who were not part of their core last season. With Cammalleri playing with Kempe and Brodzinski on the third line, the Kings have an entirely new look there. The second line of Jeff Carter between Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli has remained intact, as it should.
The most intriguing of all the new players, might be the 23-year-old Iafallo, a player the Kings scouted and recruited heavily when he was a senior at Minnesota-Duluth last season. Iafallo exploded for 21 goals and 51 points last season in his senior year, a total that was more than double any of those he posted in his first three collegiate seasons. Most importantly, he gives the Kings that speed up front that they’ve been talking so much about.
“He stood out in the rookie camp with his speed and his ability to make plays,” Futa said. “He kind of takes late bloomer to another level. This kid has worked hard. A lot of kids that age roll over and come up with a lot of excuses why they didn’t make it, but this kid seemed to find reasons why he should.”
Futa liked what he saw from Fantenberg at the Sweden Games last year, but was further smitten when he went to a KHL game shortly after to watch former Kings’ defenseman Slava Voynov play for St. Petersburg. Voynov’s team was playing against Fantenberg’s Sochi team and Fantenberg scored two of the three goals he scored last season in that game. Fantenberg, who turns 26 on Saturday, won over the coaching staff in training camp. “It’s not too often you get a kid who will leave the money in the KHL to come over here and sign a two-way (contract),” Futa said. “He thought there might be some time to adjust to the North American rink and there still might be. It’s early, but he’s done a really good job.”
If you’re starting to sense a trend here, you’re not alone. When you have one first-round pick in four drafts, you have to find your diamonds in the rough and the Kings are hoping they’ve done that with MacDermid, a tough two-way defenseman who has played the past two seasons for the Kings’ American League affiliate. Like Iafallo and Fantenberg, MacDermid was never drafted. At 23, he’s six-foot-five and 230 pounds.
“He’s a kid that, 10 years ago, would be making millions of dollars, but the way the game has changed he’s had to change his game and it’s been fun to watch,” Futa said. “It’s a work in progress, but he’s really learned to be a player. He’s blown the fitness tests away the past couple of years and his attitude is, ‘If I’m not going to play in the league, I’m going to die trying.’ ”
If the Kings are to return to the playoffs, though, it will take much better play from their core players. One of those players is Brown, whom Futa said has had an outstanding camp and has put last year’s disastrous season behind him. For him to even approach his previous form would be an enormous boost to the Kings. “He’s an exceptional pro who has gone through a lot,” Futa said. “Once he got over the off-ice stuff with the leadership transfer and the expansion draft being a little bit in his head, he’s in a good place. He’s going to play his 1,000th game this year and he’s going to do it as a King.”
Well, if everything, and we mean everything, pans out for the Kings, perhaps the rumors of their demise will be unfounded. It’s early and everything looks good right now, but who knows? Nobody would be terribly surprised if the Kings rose from the ashes this season.
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