30 Teams, 30,000 Thoughts: Los Angeles Kings

• The Kings have no offensive identity. I read an interesting quote from LA Kings GM Dean Lombardi in which he said his team is still looking for its identity offensively. It’s ironic he’s the one to mention that, seeing as a big reason it’s missing is because he traded it all away in the offseason! (Or let it leave through free agency).

Allow me to explain. Last season, the L.A. Kings were very good at dumping the puck in on offense and cycling the puck behind the opposition’s net. Their offense still struggled overall because it was practically the only way they knew how the generate offense, but at least they had an identity. And the reason they cycled so well is because, last season, they had the players to do it, lots of big bodies who were great at protecting the puck along the boards and keeping puck possession. Anze Kopitar, Ryan Smyth, Dustin Penner, Wayne Simmonds, Michal Handzus, Alexei Ponikarovsk (in a 4th line role), these were six of their best at it. But notice four of those six names are gone. Handzus has been replaced by Mike Richards, a player half his size, and Smyth by Gagne, a similar scenario. Simmonds and Ponikarovsky haven’t been replaced at all.

The Kings identity on offense is gone because players like Ryan Smythe and Michal Handzus were the Kings identity. It doesn’t mean they were their best players or most skilled, but they were perfectly molded for Terry Murray’s system–they allowed it to function. And whatever their shortcomings as individual players, together mixed in with the other forwards they became more than the sum of their parts.

Now they’re gone, and the Kings aren’t the same team. They look worse now than last year, not better. It seems like they no longer have the size up front to be a good cycle team, and even though the additions of Richards and Gagne have upped the team’s finesse skill quotient, they still don’t have enough to be a good finesse team either.

And even if they did, Terry Murray wouldn’t be caught dead coaching a flashy team anyway. They are caught in-between now, without an identity like their own GM admitted.

However, unlike Lombardi who thinks they just need to find it, that it’s all mental, I think the problem might be a lot bigger than that. Their top six has always lacked many qualities most offensives deem important: speed, creativity, finishing ability, true top line wingers, but somehow they still managed to get by. They at least had the big bodies who could be relied on to cycle well and crash the net hard for point shots. They got a lot of mileage out of that.

But now, I’m just not sure they still have the roster makeup to play that style anywhere near as effectively. And without the cycle, what do they have? No elite finishers, their one guy with top speed is Simon Gagne and he seems to be declining not improving. I’m a little down on this team right now. I mean, you take away the Blackhawks speed and skill, what are they? You take away the Red Wings’ passing and puck-possession skill, what are they? Well, you take away the Kings size, cycling, and grit, it’s the same thing. What are you left with? Right now, not enough. (Although, since writing this two weeks ago, Mike Richards has upped his game to a new level and the Kings have played slightly better. Still, a consistent identity is lacking, as well as a consistent means of scoring goals).

• Mike Richards has fantastic edge control and hockey sense. It seems that Richards top speed has declined since his career seasons in 2009 (maybe a result of too much partying and not enough time power skating?), but he still has some of the best edges in the NHL. He is never off-balance on his skates, he can wiggle in wherever he wants. He moves with such calm and precision. Combine that with his hockey sense, vision, and passing ability, and you have a very unique player who is one of the better play-makers in the league. He will have to keep the goal-scoring up to go along with the assists if he wants to continue being considered among the true elite, but it’s so far so good for Richards in L.A. There is no doubt he is an integral part of the Kings, and an excellent addition by G.M. Dean Lombardi.

But is he enough? Opinions will differ, but to my eye it’s not even a difficult question. No, not nearly enough. The Kings still have many holes on their roster.

What holes? I am a big fan of Justin Williams; he is an excellent two-way player, but his 57 points last year in almost a full season simply is not top-line material. Problem is, he’s not only been playing on the Kings top line, he’s actually the best winger on their whole team. That’s a problem. Likewise, whoever is the second winger on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams on a given night, whether it’s Simon Gagne, Dustin Penner, or Dustin Brown, is also not good enough. The Kings have 2nd line wingers playing on their first line, and that’s a big problem with any roster. It’s no wonder the Kings are 24th in goal-scoring for the NHL.

Another issue with the roster is that the Kings top three forwards, Kopitar, Richards, and Williams, are all more playmaker than goal-scorer. None of the three have ever scored more than 35 goals in their careers. In fact none even topped 25 last season. Someone has to put the pucks in the net. Dustin Penner was supposed to help with that when the Kings acquired him at least year’s trade deadline, but he has been a colossal disappointment. Dustin Brown has also had a slow start to this season. These factors all add up to equal a poor offense. Other issues such as paying an AHL defenseman in Matt Greene 2.5M per year to play significant minutes for the team, and having a poor bottom-six forward group passed Jarret Stoll also do not help the team at either end of the ice.

• Slava Voynov is an excellent young defenseman, and a huge upgrade over Alec Martinez. It just goes to show how much coaches and GMs know that Terry Murray and Dean Lombardi decided to start the season with Alec Martinez on the big club and Slava Voynov in the minors. Voynov is a better skater, with better hands, a better shot, and perhaps most importantly, he just seems to be a really smart player on the ice. In fact, he might very well be the Kings best power-play quarterback. If you read my blog on Drew Doughty about a week ago, I talked about how hockey sense and reads are extremely important when running a power-play. No doubt Drew Doughty is more physically talented than Voynov, but Voynov seems to have the smarts on the power-play that Doughty is lacking.

For all these reasons, Voynov’s potential is very high. He will never have the thoroughbred physical talent of Doughty or even Jack Johnson, both of whom are much bigger than Voynov, but I’m not so sure Voynov won’t develop into the second best defenseman on the Kings, ahead of Jack Johnson. Certainly a great find for the Kings, and an important one too. The Kings third pairing of Alec Martinez and Matt Greene was a distinct weakness for them last season. Greene is still on the roster, but with Voynov on the roster instead of Alec Martinez, you’ve at least fixed part of the problem.

Something else to like with Voynov is that he appears to be a great trade chip. I would not be looking to trade him, but the Kings desperately need to add a star goal-scorer, and if the GMs are as impressed with Voynov as I am, he could go a significant way in landing them one.

That’s it for the L.A. Kings, a very interesting team to monitor and discuss. Not always so much fun to watch, but definitely an intriguing and unique squad. Between this blog and the blog on Drew Doughty, I hope I’ve given Kings and NHL fans some interesting thoughts to discuss and think about.

Check back tomorrow for my thoughts on the Dallas Stars, another very interesting team.

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