Puck Drop Preview: 2020-21 Los Angeles Kings

2020-21 Los Angeles Kings
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Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, 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 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick.  Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Los Angeles Kings.

2020-21 Los Angeles Kings

2019-20 Season

After another season of being in rebuild-mode, the Los Angeles Kings finished in the NHL’s basement once again. They finished in 28th place, slightly improving upon their 30th place finish the year prior. While they may not have had a good record, there were noticeable improvements in the Kings’ play from the 2018-19 season to the 2019-20 season.

NHL free agent frenzy

Coaching Change

The first place to look for these improvements would be in coaching. After Willie Desjardins, the team’s interim head coach in 2018-19, did not mesh well with the Kings, they decided to try someone else. Todd McLellan was hired as management decided he would be the perfect fit to lead their youth movement. He has valuable experience coaching young teams, as he was behind the bench for Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey.

After playing a shortened season of Kings’ hockey, the players had a more positive reaction to McLellan compared to Desjardins. McLellan’s changes were noticeable to viewers as well. The system looked faster-paced and more suited to fit in the modern NHL. The team morale in general was clearly higher.

Saying Goodbye

Kings general manager Rob Blake had several tough decisions to make over the course of the season. He had to accept the fact that the team is in the midst of a rebuild, which means letting go of some veterans. Blake ended up trading several key pieces of the Kings’ Stanley Cup core. The players that netted the biggest returns were as follows:

Toffoli Trade

After being once known as a future core player for Los Angeles, the plans changed as we saw Tyler Toffoli shipped off to the Vancouver Canucks. Toffoli left off on a high note, however, as he was traded shortly after scoring a hat trick in the Kings’ stadium series game against the Colorado Avalanche. While seeing the third and final piece of  “that 70’s line” depart stung, the return perfectly fit the model of what the Kings are trying to accomplish. They acquired prospect Tyler Madden, the 51st pick in the 2020 NHL draft, and centre Tim Schaller. Madden had a productive season with Northeastern University in the NCAA. He finished fifth overall in points per game. Regarding the pick, it got packaged for the Kings to move up to pick 45 and select defenceman Brock Faber.

Martinez Trade

Possibly the most heartbreaking trade the Kings made was sending Stanley Cup hero Alec Martinez to the Vegas Golden Knights. The defenceman scored the biggest goal in Kings’ history in 2014 to win them the Stanley Cup. While the trade once again took an emotional toll on Kings’ fans, the return gave them substantial draft capital. For Martinez, Vegas sent over the 60th pick in the 2020 draft and their second-rounder in the 2021 draft. The Kings were able to flip the 60th pick for prospect Lias Andersson, who was selected seventh overall in 2017. Andersson is currently playing for HV71 in the Swedish Hockey League.

2020 Offseason

For the most part, the Kings had a quiet offseason. They are hoping to improve internally mainly through player development. While they didn’t do much, there were still a few small moves made.

For starters, they sent prospect Brad Morrison to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenceman Olli Maatta. Rob Blake made it clear that left-side defence was an area he wanted to improve upon, which he did with Maatta. Other than the Maatta trade, the Kings made some small additions, mainly for their AHL team. They signed defenceman Mark Alt and goaltender Troy Grosenick to add some depth to the Ontario Reign. Each was signed to a one-year deal with a cap hit of $7oo,000. A notable subtraction was losing forward Trevor Lewis, whom they had tried to move at the deadline, to free agency.

Probably the biggest move the Kings made was the addition of forward Andreas Athanasiou. They inked him to a one year contract with a cap hit of $1.2 million. Having scored 54 points and 30 goals just two seasons ago, this is a low risk, high reward addition for Los Angeles.

Lineup Projections

Forwards

Alex IafalloAnze KopitarDustin Brown

Adrian KempeGabriel VilardiMartin Frk

Andreas Athanasiou –Blake LizotteJeff Carter

Carl Grundstrom – Jaret Anderson-Dolan – Austin Wagner

Top Six

The Kings top-six will lead off with the top line that they have been using for years now. The combination of Iafallo’s speed, Kopitar’s all-around play, and Brown’s grit makes for a well-functioning line. The three of them have developed good chemistry over the past few seasons and have been the Kings main source of offence. They will be looking to once again lead the charge offensively.

Where things start to get interesting is the second line. It should be centred by Gabriel Vilardi, one of the team’s top prospects. In just 10 games in 2019-20, Vilardi posted three goals and four assists for seven points. He will look to expand upon his sliver of NHL action and has the potential to be one of the Kings’ main offensive contributors. Flanking Vilardi will be Adrian Kempe and Martin Frk, two prime breakout candidates.

Between Kempe’s speed and puck-skills, Vilardi’s passing and puck possession abilities, and Frk’s 109.2 mph laser-beam of a shot, the three of them have all of the makings to be a scoring line. Vilardi and Frk also have already developed chemistry, as they played many games together with the Ontario Reign. If all goes well for the three of them, the Kings will have a top-six where both lines can contribute. This would be something they haven’t had since “that 70’s line” was together with Tanner Pearson, Jeff Carter, and Tyler Toffoli in their Cup days.

Bottom Six

The main reason this Kings’ team should be a major improvement from the season prior would be its bottom-six. The team has lacked secondary scoring for years, and will finally gain some in this upcoming season. Their third line, in particular, will be of major importance to their success. While he might not be a legitimate top-six NHL player anymore, Jeff Carter can still prove to be a valuable third-line scorer. The other winger on the line, Andreas Athanasiou, will provide some speed and goal-scoring touch that the Kings have been missing. After having a down year in Detroit, Athanasiou will look to rebound in what will be another contract year. If he could produce anything like he did in the 2018-19 season, this Kings’ roster could potentially turn a corner sooner rather than later.

Fourth Line

As far as the fourth line goes, there are multiple players who could end up playing their way onto it and cracking a spot. Starting at centre, Anderson-Dolan received high praise from his coach last year, Mike Stothers, and should be NHL ready. He is an impressive two-way player and is very detail-oriented. On the right side, Austin Wagner offers high-end speed, and if he can learn to finish off his scoring chances more, he could end up being a sneaky scorer for the team. Even if he continues to struggle to score, he is a solid defensive player and has great possession numbers, as he posted a Corsi of 55 percent.

On the left side, Carl Grundstrom could be another important piece of secondary scoring. Being one of the Ontario Reign’s top scorers last season, Grundstrom will look to translate some of his scoring to the NHL. They refer to him as “Goalstrom” in Ontario for a reason. He’s also capable of adding a sense of grit to the line, which should help balance it out.

It’s worth noting that while the Kings will try and compete this season, they will also be auditioning several players. At some point in the season, the fourth line could see any player rotated out for any one of: Michael Amadio, Trevor Moore, Matt Luff, Samuel Fagemo, Rasmus Kupari, Alex Turcotte, Lias Andersson, or even Tyler Madden.

Defence

Olli MaattaDrew Doughty

Mikey Anderson – Matt Roy

Kale ClagueSean Walker

Top Four

The Kings top-four will look relatively similar to the way it did at the end of last season. For the top pairing, Doughty will have a slight upgrade in his partner with the team’s addition of Olli Maatta. Maatta can add some playoff experience to the locker room and help the Kings while they try and transition from rebuilders to contenders.

The Kings are hoping Maatta can help Doughty bounce-back to the high-quality play they are accustomed to as well. Last season, Doughty did not necessarily have much help on the other side of the blue line. His most common linemate at even strength was Joakim Ryan, whom he played with 23 percent of the time. Having more of an NHL regular with him will certainly benefit him. Maatta is also coming off of a hot playoff performance, where he scored three goals and three assists for six points in nine games with the Blackhawks.

For the second pair, the Anderson – Roy combination worked out well for the team in the final few games of the season and should stick together. After getting a taste of the NHL, Anderson will know what he needs to improve upon to have an impactful rookie year. He is a player who has been trusted by his coaches and will look to translate his steady game to the NHL. On his right side, Matt Roy should look to improve upon his great 2019-20 season. He was voted Kings’ defenceman of the year, de-throning Drew Doughty.

Bottom Pairing

The Kings’ bottom pairing could definitely be their most exciting one. The smooth-skating Kale Clague will get a chance to finally prove himself at the NHL level. After being one of the Reign’s better defencemen last year, he is certainly ready for the role. Along with him will be Sean Walker, who just earned himself a new contract. This pairing will be full of speed and offensive talent, making them an entertaining one to watch. Keep in mind, Clague likely will not play the full season in the lineup. The Kings will mix in Kurtis MacDermid a fair amount as well, likely rotating between the two of them. MacDermid will add size and grit to the roster, as he stands at a whopping 6′-5″. Similarly, Tobias Bjornfot could see some time in the third pairing as well.

Goalies

Jonathan Quick

Cal Petersen

For the Kings’ goaltending, they will be icing a tandem of veteran Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen. The two of them will likely evenly split the starts this year, as the team seasons Petersen to officially take over the starting role from Quick. It’s only a matter of time before that happens and it is definitely a possibility to happen sooner rather than later.

Players to Watch

Gabriel Vilardi

After finally being fully healthy, Vilardi will be ready to make a significant impact at the NHL level. After not playing for nine whole months, Vilardi stepped into the AHL last year and performed very well for a 20-year-old. He scored nine goals and 16 assists for 25 points in 32 games in the role of the Reign’s number-one centre. He then continued his productive scoring in his short NHL stint.

For the 2020-21 season, Vilardi will be given a top-six role and the chance to capitalize on it. He will be flanked by two solid wingers, one of which he already has chemistry with. Do not be surprised if he takes this role and runs with it.

Adrian Kempe

It’s make or break time for Adrian Kempe. This will be the season that shows if he is a true top-six NHL player, or better suited for a middle-six role. He is a player who’s performance will dictate the success of the team. Kempe has all the tools needed to be a good player, he just needs to put them together.

Ever since his NHL arrival, he has lacked consistency. He’s been a very streaky player, who will go on to be a major part of the teams’ offence, but then become a non-factor. If he can put all of the pieces together in 2020-21, he has a chance to be one of the better and higher scoring players on this Kings’ team.

Prediction for the 2020-21 Los Angeles Kings

2020-21 will be a transition season for the Kings, but at the same time, they will look to improve upon last season. The team will hope to play some meaningful games at the end of the year. There is not a whole lot of pressure on them to do well, but they would like to try and avoid finishing towards the bottom of the league again. This year will be an evaluation year for the team, where they try and see what they have in their players.

While they may be in a transition season, it does not mean that they won’t look to be competitive. With the division realignment, the West Division in particular looks fairly weak. The top three spots will most likely go to some order of the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues, and Vegas Golden Knights. The fourth and final playoff spot will be up for grabs to any other team in the division. Do not count the Kings out, as they could surprise and come out on top of what will likely be a tight race.

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