Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2018-19, where Last Word On Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2018-19 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Los Angeles Kings.
2018-19 Los Angeles Kings Preview
The Los Angeles Kings kept in line with their new trend last season. They put together a solid team but fell short of any sort of success. The 2017-18 season saw the return of John Stevens as head coach. Stevens coached the Philadelphia Flyers from 2006 to 2010, never finishing higher than third in his division. He went on to coach the Kings for four games in the 2011-12 season. He got his chance to coach a full year in Los Angeles last season, setting a record of 45-29-8 in the process. This was good enough to barely sneak them into the playoffs. They didn’t last long in the post-season, being swept by the Vegas Golden Knights.
For the fourth season in a row, the team relied heavily on Anze Kopitar, Tyler Toffoli, and Drew Doughty; with a few other players getting in the mix as well. Still, the Kings have relied heavily on the same handful of players for years now, the youngest being Toffoli and Tanner Pearson (25). They also let starting goalie, Jonathan Quick, play in 64 games. He set a record of 33-28-3.
The Kings had a fairly quiet off-season, minus one signing. Los Angeles signed Ilya Kovalchuk, the highly touted winger from Russia. Kovalchuk, who scored 63 points in 53 KHL games last season, has teased returning to the NHL for a few years now. He started his summer by visiting prospective teams, teasing. After a tense month of visiting multiple teams, including the San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings, Kovalchuk announced he signed a three-year deal with the Kings on July 1st. He’ll make a modest $6.25 million a year, placing him at the same monetary level as fellow Russian Alexander Radulov.
Kovalchuk already has 11 seasons and 816 NHL games under his belt. In those, he scored a total of 816 points, with 417 being goals. He left for the KHL after the 2013 summer, three years into a 15-year contract with the New Jersey Devils. Since he left mid-contract, the Devils had the right to his likeness up until this summer. Now, five years and 262 KHL games later, Kovalchuk is back in the NHL.
The Kings also made a big re-signing, when they agreed to an eight-year extension with Doughty. The franchise defenseman will have a cap hit of $11 million every year.
Other than those two deals, the Kings remained fairly silent throughout the last three months. They traded away Andy Andreoff, sending him to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Peter Budaj. They also lost a handful of minor league players, including Tobias Rieder, Kevin Gravel, Christian Folin, and Jordan Subban. None of these deals will make a huge impact on the NHL team this season.
Spares: Jonny Brodzinski and Sheldon Rempal
The Kings offence is one of the biggest juxtapositions in the league. While they have six proven NHL scorers, they also have six players all needing to prove they deserve an NHL roster spot.
The top-six is an amazing group of NHL veterans. This is made even better with the addition of Kovalchuk and with Carter coming back from injury. The other four that make up the top-six scored at least 40 points last year. They collectively led the team in scoring, with defensemen Jake Muzzin and Doughty also in that mix. Put together, the group could combine to be one of the most dynamic and productive in the league.
Then there are the bottom two lines. None of these players have much attention on them. Kempe is arguably the best of them all after he scored 37 points in 81 games last year.
Kempe’s line could be very lethal when it comes to depth scoring. Vilardi is one of the top prospects in the league and could make the team to start the year. He will miss the rookie tournament with a back injury, but there has not been a lot of news on how far into training camp or preseason he will be out. Vilardi is a talented player who should have a role when he is healthy. He was a prolific scorer in the OHL, totaling 58 points in 32 games last season. Combined with Kempe, who showed glimpses of offensive-potential last year, and Iafallo, another young and speedy winger, the third line could turn out to be a dream come true for the Kings.
On the fourth line, Trevor Lewis leads the way. He put up 14 goals in 62 games last year. He could be moved to the third line if Vilardi is returned to the AHL. Amadio was fairly inefficient in his NHL games last year. He played 37 but only scored eight points, evenly split between goals and assists. Brodzinski scored 30 points in 29 AHL games last season, but only six in 35 NHL games. They sneaks their way into the roster simply because of their potential. Both players averaged over a point per game in the AHL last year and are fairly young when it comes to the Kings roster. With such strong scoring coming from the top two, potentially three, lines; the roster has plenty of room to test out some young talent with the fourth line.
The Kings defence is surprisingly uncertain. Doughty is the most trustworthy, made apparent by the hefty contract he signed this summer. His partner will likely be Muzzin, who ranked fifth on the team last year with 42 points. The duo will have to carry the rest of the defence but will have no problem doing that.
The second pairing is a bit underrated. Phaneuf has a career of being looked down on, despite being a fairly trustworthy scorer throughout it. Last year he only scored 26 points, though. On the bright side, 10 of those came with the Kings in only 26 games. If he keeps this trend going, Phaneuf will be a great addition to the roster and arguably one of the most valuable players. Martinez will play with him. The 31-year-old is an NHL veteran, with eight full seasons under his belt. He put up nine goals and 25 points last season. Martinez has scored 45 goals over the last five years.
Forbort mans the bottom pair. In his third NHL season, he put up 18 points. Forbort, 26, has successfully made the transition from NCAA hockey to the NHL. He can act as a mentor for Brickley, one of the top NCAA free agents last year, who signed with the Kings and played one game. Brickley’s strong two-way game gives him a shot at making the NHL directly out of college.
LaDue, 26, provides depth in the lineup. He scored three goals and one assist in 12 NHL games last year, showing his ability to contribute some offence from the blue-line.
The starting role isn’t any going to be any different for the 2018-19 season. Quick has been the team’s star goalie since 2007. He will be the team’s go-to for years to come.
The backup role is a bit more uncertain. Rumour has it that Jack Campbell, a first-round pick in 2010, will finally play his first full season in the NHL this year. He’s been bouncing between the AHL and ECHL since 2011. He was dealt to Los Angeles in a minor league trade during the 2016 summer. Last year he sent a record of 11-10-1 in 26 games played with the Ontario Reign. He also played five games with the Kings, going 2-0-2.
If Campbell can’t perform, Budaj will be quick to take his role. Budaj has been a reliable backup between various teams for the past couple years. In those years he has a record of 33-24-4 with a save percentage of .910 and a goals-against average of 2.36.
Players to Watch
It seems weird putting a player like Carter under this tab, but he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on. Last year, he was sidelined for all but 27 games after surgery. Still, he was able to score 22 points in those games. In the 2016-17 season, Carter led the Kings with 66 points. In the two years before that, he also scored more than 60 points.
Carter is 33-years-old but still remains one of the best scorers on the team. He’ll center a line of prolific scorers, whether that happens to be with Pearson and Toffoli or Kovalchuk and Brown. No matter who is on the wings, Carter should continue to produce points this year. Still, he is coming back from a surgery on his leg. It’ll be very interesting to see how he rebounds from it. If he comes back as strong as he was, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team rely heavily on him.
Vilardi is a much more obvious name to watch. The Kings took him with the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. He is a dangerous center, but will likely play a bit of wing just to get acclimated to the NHL. The team will likely let him play at least nine games to get a taste of their top prospect. At that point, the Kings will need to decide whether or not to keep the team’s top prospect or return him for one more year in the OHL. Vilardi is a dangerous two-way player who has a lot of potential. Los Angeles fans will get a first glance at the star 19-year-old when the season starts. LWOH’s Ben Kerr goes into more much depth on Vilardi, as well as the rest of the Kings top prospects, here.
Vilardi is currently injured and isn’t expected to attend the rookie camp. With that being said, he is questionable for the team’s main camp and should make the opening night roster if healthy.
The Kings could be a very productive team if all goes well for them. They’re adding the elusive Kovalchuk to their already productive top-six. If he, and Carter, are able to produce as much as they should be able to, the Kings will have no problem competing with fellow Pacific Divison opponents this year.
This isn’t a promise though. The team has had its fair share of injury issues in the past, and they don’t have much depth to fill those injuries. If they get a case of the injury bug, they could be in a lot of trouble. Combined with a defence that will either be great or subpar, the Kings might see their fair share of issues. At the very least, though, the Kings will be an aggressive contender for the Western Conference’s Wild Card this spring.
Main Photo: PITTSBURGH, PA – February 15: Los Angeles Kings Defenseman Dion Phaneuf (3) celebrates his first goal as new member of the Kings during the second period in the NHL game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Los Angeles Kings on February 15, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)