2017-18 NHL Team Preview: Los Angeles Kings

Los Angeles Kings center Jeff Carter, right, celebrates with defenseman Jake Muzzin after scoring during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild in Los Angeles, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017. (Chris Carlson/AP)

Wither the Kings? That’s a heck of a question, isn’t it?

Not long ago a regular at the Stanley Cup final, change has thrust itself upon California’s eldest National Hockey League club in a fashion we see more and more in the NHL’s cap system. Ex-GM Dean Lombardi’s loyalty has resulted in a couple of contracts that have become anchors in L.A., then a couple of injuries and a sub-par season by your captain, and before you know it you’ve missed the playoffs for two of the past three seasons.

New GM Rob Blake promoted long-time assistant John Stevens to the head coaching job when Darryl Sutter was fired, after the most successful coaching run in franchise history. The jump from assistant to head man can be difficult, but if superstars like Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik all bring their ‘A’ game this fall, the Kings could compete for third/fourth place in the Pacific.

UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH

Every year young Swedish players take the next step in the NHL, leaving us all to look up their background to ascertain where, exactly, they came from and how they got so good. In L.A., they’re hoping, by about Christmas we’ll be doing that same exercise with Adrian Kempe.

A product of that Swedish hockey factory Modo, Kempe is ready for his first full NHL season in 2017-18. The 6-foot-2 left-winger was drafted 29th overall in 2014, has two AHL seasons under his belt, and now it’s time to help a team that is notorious for its inability to score enough goals.

The hope in L.A. is that the stars play better, Stevens opens up the system a tad, and a young player like Kempe emerges to help L.A. score alongside Edmonton, Calgary and Anaheim in the Pacific.

WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE

When you are the Kings, it simply has to start with the playoffs.

Coming off of two Stanley Cups in three seasons from 2012-14, the Kings dutifully locked up some veterans with big contracts. It wasn’t just a reward for past performance though — those players are expected to continue to produce. Well, Brown fell from being a 56-point player from 2007-2012, to a 29-point player over the past five seasons. Gaborik has been a 22-point player for two years now, which is unacceptable for that level of talent. Mike Richards had his contract terminated.

Today, L.A. isn’t like Pittsburgh, where the top-end stars are pushed by young, cheap players who round out the team and stoke that internal competition for ice time. It’s the expensive players who need to play better, or it won’t matter what guys like Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli and Derek Forbort do.

BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION

The biggest question here is in goal. More specifically, the health of Jonathan Quick.

Quick is a Top 3 goalie in the NHL when healthy, and can hide a lot of flaws. He won two Cups while the Kings ranked 26th and 29th in regular season goals scored. But Quick has had back issues, and now serious groin issues that limited him to 17 starts last season.

If Quick isn’t right, it’s no different than Carey Price in Montreal, Henrik Lundqvist in New York, or almost any team, really. The Kings can’t make the playoffs without their ‘A’ goalie. It’s as simple as that.

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