NHL 2014-15 preview: Los Angeles Kings

Marian Gaborik impressed in the playoffs. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.

A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.

Los Angeles is our sixth-ranked team.

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Los Angeles Kings
Division: Pacific
2013-14 finish: 46-28-8, 100 points, 10th overall; Stanley Cup champions
Leading scorer: Anze Kopitar (70 points)
General manager: Dean Lombardi
Head coach: Darryl Sutter
Captain: Dustin Brown
Opening night starter: Jonathan Quick
Key acquisition: Adam Cracknell
Key departures: Willie Mitchell, Colin Fraser

Off-season grade: B-. Thanks to some shrewd planning by GM Dean Lombardi, the Kings had a small to-do list this summer. It went as follows:

1.) Re-sign Marian Gaborik: Check. The rich got richer, as the Kings managed to lock up their leading goal-scorer in the playoffs to a cap-friendly deal.
2.) Re-sign one of Willie Mitchell or Matt Greene: Check. Lombardi opted to go with the younger, cheaper player in Greene.
3.) Party like a champion: Check.

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Greatest strength: Having the best team in hockey. From top to bottom, there’s no better team in hockey – two Stanley Cups in three years attests to that. The Kings have an elite Selke-nominated centre in Anze Kopitar, a No. 1 centre playing second fiddle in Jeff Carter, with Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll anchoring the bottom six. They have both bangers and possession wizards, making the Kings the rare unicorn revered by both the analytics community and the old-time hockey folks. They have a future Norris winner in Drew Doughty manning the league’s stingiest defensive team, and a Conn Smythe goalie in Jonathan Quick. Simply put, this is a team with few holes that should once again challenge for hockey’s Holy Grail.

Greatest weakness: Scoring. Even the best teams aren’t without their flaws, and in the case of the Kings, their biggest weakness last season was scoring goals. The Kings finished with the fourth-fewest goals scored at five-on-five with 134, while the team’s power play also struggled at 15.1 per cent, good for 27th overall. But it’s not like they weren’t generating offence — the Kings led the league in Corsi for (CF%) and fired the seventh-most shots on goal league-wide. They just couldn’t capitalize. It didn’t help that four of the team’s top players – Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, Marian Gaborik and Justin Williams – were well below their career average in shooting percentage, while the team as a whole finished 29th overall in that department. With essentially the same group returning next season, it will be interesting to see if the team’s scoring levels improve, or if putting the puck in the net continues to be a concern in L.A.

Biggest story to watch: Will Richards and Brown bounce back? Although Mike Richards and Dustin Brown bring a number of intangibles to the table, the Kings need more offence from the high-priced duo than they received last season. Brown had the worst statistical season of his 10-year career, finishing with 15 goals and 27 points. Richards, meanwhile, had his lowest offensive output (11-30-41) since his sophomore year, excluding the lockout-shortened season. As mentioned, shooting percentage played a factor. Richards, who hadn’t shot below 10.5 per cent in his last six seasons, finished the year at seven per cent. Brown had a 7.7 shooting percentage last year, well below the 11.7 clip he averaged over the previous three seasons. Given their track records offensively and as leaders, expect a bounce-back year from the veteran forwards.

2014-15 prediction: The Kings will make the playoffs and go up 3-0 against the Sharks in the first round before losing in Game 7 thanks to four unanswered goals from Joe Thornton. Yeah, probably a stretch — Kings are a major threat to repeat as champs.

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