Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Los Angeles Kings.
2021-22 Los Angeles Kings
The LA Kings were mired in their second year of a rebuild, finishing sixth in the West Division last season with a 21-28-7 record. It was the second consecutive year in which the Kings failed to reach the postseason. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2014, the Kings have only reached the playoffs twice, earning just one win in two first-round exits. However, it was very apparent the Kings were in a rebuild following trades of cup-era players like Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Jake Muzzin, and Jeff Carter over the past couple of years.
With those trades, came the development of prospects. The most notable, of course, is the 2020 second overall pick, Quinton Byfield. The Kings elected to let the prospect develop in the AHL with the Ontario Reign for most of last season. The youngster did suit up in six games with the big club, recording one assist. Aside from that, the Kings were led by three remaining Cup-era players: Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Dustin Brown. The latter, Brown, enjoyed one of his better seasons in recent years, notching 17 goals and 14 assists in 49 games.
During what was a busy NHL offseason, the Kings acquired some notable players to flesh out their lineup as they look past a rebuild and work towards a return to the postseason.
There’s no surprise captain Anze Kopitar will centre the top unit. He has led the team in scoring in all but one of his 15 NHL seasons. The Slovenian will play in the middle of two Swedes. Viktor Arvidsson was acquired from the Nashville Predators in the offseason for a pair of draft picks. The winger has averaged 27 goals per 82 games and offers speed and finishing ability for Kopitar’s playmaking. Adrian Kempe will be a spark plug for the line, using his 6’-2″ frame to battle for pucks in the corner. With a career Corsi rating of 54 percent, the 25-year-old will be a good complement on the top unit.
Gabriel Vilardi should be given the chance to centre the second forward line, at least to start the season. Entering his third year, the 22-year-old has found his way into the lineup in each of the past two seasons. With 10 goals and 13 assists in 54 games last year, Vilardi could be poised for a breakout season. Joining him will be veteran Dustin Brown, who, as mentioned, had a bounceback season himself. He should add some stability and leadership to the young centreman. On the other side, Alex Iafallo has all the makings of a second-line winger, registering double-digit goal totals in three of his four NHL seasons.
Los Angeles’ third line has the potential to be deceivingly good this year. The addition of forward Phillip Danault effectively turns the third unit into a checking line. That’s an important role in a division with players like Connor McDavid, Elias Pettersson, and Johnny Gaudreau. Andreas Athanasiou will provide breakaway speed which can come in handy on the counter-attack. And Trevor Moore has developed into a solid two-way player in his short career.
The fourth line will be a bit of a wild card for the Kings as they have an embarrassment of young talent. It’s not ridiculous to assume Quinton Byfield earns a spot on the starting roster for the Kings out of training camp. The fourth-line centre ice position would be the ideal spot, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he ends up on the wing in the top-six either. Joining him is Lias Andersson who is also looking to become a regular NHLer this year. Carl Grundstrom is in the same position as well. Any of these three players could be interchanged in the lineup with a handful of others like Jaret Anderson-Dolan or Brendan Lemieux.
Mikey Anderson – Drew Doughty
There’s no disputing Drew Doughty will be the anchor on the LA blue line. The Norris Trophy winner will be entering his 14th NHL season. While his offensive production has slowed, you can’t knock the experience and versatility he brings to the team. Joining him will be Mikey Anderson, who found himself in 54 games last season as a 21-year-old. That’s a lot of experience at a young age. It’s safe to assume he’ll build upon that alongside an experienced defender in Doughty.
Newcomer Alex Edler will see second-pairing minutes; however, it could be an easy switch to the top line if Anderson isn’t good enough. Edler adds a veteran presence, which is what the Kings are paying him to provide to an otherwise inexperienced defensive core. Matthew Roy could stand to learn a lot from the Swedish veteran playing alongside him.
The third pairing on LA’s blue line could be considered more of a “2A” pairing. Olli Maatta and Sean Walker aren’t that much of a drop off from the second unit, both with ample playing experience on the back end. In all, the Kings have enough experience on defence to hide some of their younger prospects. Although, these pairings are likely to be changed many times throughout the season.
The 2021-22 Los Angeles Kings don’t necessarily have a clear-cut number-one goaltender as it stands right now. Cal Peterson did get more of the load share of games last season and had the best save percentage. But Jonathan Quick was the only goaltender to post a shutout last year. Not to mention, Quick is a Conn Smythe winner, two-time William M. Jennings winner and two-time Vezina finalist. The Kings do need to look to the future though, considering Quick is 35 years old.
At almost 27 years of age, Peterson appears poised to be the goalie of the future in Los Angeles. It would be wise to give him the net and hope that he’s able to keep it. If he can’t, there are far worse backups in the league than Quick.
Players to Watch
There are a few interesting storylines on the Kings this season. Anze Kopitar is almost guaranteed to continue his elite-level play this year, which could bode well for Viktor Arvidsson. The new guy on the team has never played with centreman talent like Kopitar. With a bona fide playmaker, Arvidsson could have a career year with the Kings which would mean scoring over 34 goals.
The young prospects in the Kings’ organization will, if nothing, be entertaining this year. Quinton Byfield leads that conversation as he hopes to become an NHL regular. If he lives up to his expectations, Byfield could turn into the team’s next great number-one centre. And learning from Kopitar will only benefit his career. The former second overall pick is not only one of the more intriguing storylines on the team, but also in the league. Gabriel Vilardi is hoping to establish himself as an NHL-calibre centre, and Mikey Anderson is looking to do the same on the back end. Cal Peterson is also worth watching in net, as he hopes to cement himself as a true number-one goaltender.
Prediction for 2021-22 Los Angeles Kings
The Kings improved in the offseason by keeping who they needed and bringing in players to make them better. However, Los Angeles seems like a longshot to make the playoffs in a tough Pacific Division. The powerhouse Vegas Golden Knights will always be a tough matchup. Not to mention the Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl combination with the Edmonton Oilers, plus the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks both hoping for bounce-back seasons with healthy rosters. The NHL’s newest franchise, the Seattle Kraken, has a solid lineup too. That’s a lot of strong opponents to outplay for just a couple of available playoff spots.
The silver lining for the ones in silver and black is that they will likely be the best team in their state. The Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks are both mired in their own rebuilds and are at least a season behind LA in that respect. The Kings could have some fun this year and earn some big wins against tough opponents. But the experience isn’t there quite yet for another lengthy playoff run.