Every Tuesday for the next ten weeks Ryan Porth gets you set for a fresh NHL season with in depth looks at the Top 10 teams that will compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup in the 2012-13 season.
Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings stunned the hockey world last spring by barreling through a difficult Western Conference en route to their first Stanley Cup – as a No. 8 seed. Everyone knew they were talented, but they never fulfilled their potential until the playoffs. It was one of the most impressive playoff runs in NHL history, capped by a six-game series win over New Jersey.
With the Cup-winning roster intact, Darryl Sutter’s club now enters the 2012-13 season with a target on their back. No longer are they "ready to take the next step" or a "sleeper in the West." They are "Stanley Cup Champions" and 29 teams will be aiming to knock Quick and company off their throne.
Here are three reasons why the Kings are and aren’t primed to repeat:
Trent Hunter, he of seven points in 38 games in 2011-12, was the Kings’ biggest offseason loss. Seriously. GM Dean Lombardi successfully re-signed Jarret Stoll, Dustin Penner and Colin Fraser, the team’s most important free agents. Lombardi also didn’t make any additions, so the Kings’ entire band of brothers is back for another run at the Cup – not only this season but for years to come.
When you think of the ingredients for being a Stanley Cup contender, the Kings have them all: good goaltending, depth down the middle, size up front, balance on defence and quality coaching. Search for a flaw on this team and you’ll be hard-pressed to find one. From Anze Kopitar to Willie Mitchell to Dwight King, this is one of the most balanced teams the NHL has to offer, which made them so tough to beat in the playoffs.
One characteristic (of many) that makes this team so good is their depth at centre. Now that Pittsburgh has traded Jordan Staal, do the Kings possess the NHL’s best trio of centres? You can make a case that they do.
Kopitar has evolved into an elite two-way centre, and never was that more on display than in last spring’s playoffs. Mike Richards is also effective in all three zones and, one would assume, should improve on his 44-point output from 2011-12, a bad offensive year by his standards. Stoll was out of place as the second-line centre before Richards arrived, but fits right in on the third line and is consistently good defensively.
Kopitar, Richards and Stoll all win faceoffs, produce offensively and are tough to play against. Opposing coaches envy Darryl Sutter, who is able to slot these centres 1-2-3 on his depth chart.
Speaking of Sutter. The cattle farmer is in the saddle for a full season with the Kings, which can only be a positive. Not only did the team go 25-13-11 after he took over for Terry Murray in December, but Sutter’s laid-back demeanor had a great effect on the Kings’ stunning 16-4 playoff record.
"The system didn’t change a whole lot when he got here," Kopitar said in March of Sutter’s arrival. "He just wanted us to be a little more aggressive in pursuing the puck. If you do that properly you have more chances to make plays with the puck."
With Sutter’s system fully in place heading into the season, expect the Kings to have a better regular season than they had in 2011-12. They will be the unanimous favourite to win their first division title since 1991.
When it comes to defending champs, the Stanley Cup Hangover is annually brought up as a reason why they won’t repeat – so why not use it as an excuse why the Kings will come up short in 2012-13? No team has repeated as champs since Detroit did it in 1997 and 1998. Since the lockout, five of the six Cup winners have failed to advance beyond the second round.
Teams that sip from Lord Stanley spend most of the summer celebrating their title and letting heal the bumps and bruises of the two-month playoff grind. By the time they can start their off-season workouts, training camp is around the corner. At the start of the season, those teams gaze up the mountain and realize how hard of a climb it was to get to the top.
Some are convinced the Cup Hangover is real. Some believe it’s a myth. But it’s impossible to ignore.
The Kings don’t win the Cup – nor would they have made the playoffs – without Quick’s stellar play in goal. What he did from start to finish was remarkable, winning the Conn Smythe and finishing second in the Vezina Trophy voting. But can he repeat that banner season?
Quick posted a career-best 1.95 GAA in the regular season, and followed that up with a miniscule 1.41 GAA in the playoffs. It was very similar to the eight-month stretch Tim Thomas put together for Boston in 2010-11. Last season, a year after winning the Conn Smythe and Vezina, Thomas saw his peripheral statistics (GAA, save percentage) regress. In fact, every Vezina finalist dating back to 2008 has seen their GAA drop by an average of 0.34 the following season.
For a team that struggled to score goals for most of last season, Quick’s importance to the Kings was immeasurable. If they find a way to produce more offence in 2012-13, Quick, fresh off a 10-year extension, won’t need to sport a sub-2.00 GAA for the Kings to be a Cup contender.
Quick’s career GAA going into last season was 2.44. Somewhere between his career average and 2011-12 campaign would go down as a good season, but don’t expect Quick to repeat his banner season.
The Kings’ offensive output was putrid until the team turned a corner in the later stages of last season. They finished the regular season 29th in the NHL in goals, yet their aforementioned offensive depth was a major strength in the playoffs. So which group of Kings forwards will show up this season?
Between Jeff Carter’s full-season presence and an expected natural improvement to the mean, most assume the Kings’ prolonged goal-scoring droughts – from Nov. 23 through Dec. 23 last season, they went 14 straight games without scoring more than two goals in regulation – are behind them. While that very well could be the case, the Kings boast some streaky producers who underachieved in 2011-12.
If Sutter’s gang struggles to score goals for a second straight year, a repeat will not be in store.
Prediction: Los Angeles is a force for most of the year in the West and wins the Pacific but stumbles early on in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.