Six reasons why the Los Angeles Kings are Cup contenders once again
We're two years removed from Jonathan Quick raising the Conn Smythe trophy at centre ice of the Staples Centre in front of a raucous Hollywood-sprinkled crowd. The 2011-12 version of the squad was young, skilled, talented and confident. Contrast that with the 2013-14 version, whom are young, skilled, talented and….confident. In other words, the ingredients are still there to threaten for glory once again this season and for the foreseeable future. Not much has changed in La-La Land since the franchise's championship run.
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The long awaited trade of Jonathan Bernier this past off-season, in return for young speedster, Matt Frattin and backup Ben Scrivens, were the only notable additions to the roster. In fact, they got a little younger after the departures of veterans Simon Gagne and Rob Scuderi; the latter, a rather unfortunate loss. Although, the return of Willie Mitchell will be a huge boon defensively after having not laced up the skates since his victory lap with the Cup that spring night in 2013.
There are a number of reasons why Los Angeles is the lead contender in the Western Conference to challenge the defending champ, Blackhawks for their crown back.
1) Due to Dean Lombardi's shrewd cap management, Los Angeles became the first team in the Cap Era not to be affected by the Cap Crunch.
Emerging from the infamous 2004-05 lockout Tampa Bay were the guinea pigs in the banishing of the free market NHL. The Bolts were famously forced to part ways with all-star net minder, Nicolai Khabibulin, as well as important veteran, Cory Stillman. Anaheim was left with no alternative but to deal Joffrey Lupul. Pittsburgh had no cap room to retain impending UFA, Marian Hossa. Meanwhile, Chicago was affected the most in 2009-10, resigned to see the likes of starter, Antti Niemi as well as Dustin 'Big Buff' Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, defensive wiz John Madden, among others leave the Windy City.
Los Angeles meanwhile lost nobody off their roster of any significance heading into their title defense campaign last season. Hence their core and supplemental pieces remain in tact, having been in the trenches and through the battles together already. None of their established chemistry was put out to pasture with roster turnover.
2) Their 2013 Western Conference Finals presence reinforced their status amongst the League's Elite.
LA became the closest team to repeat since Detroit returned to the finals to defend their 2007-2008 title. Pittsburgh, for instance, have yet to win two rounds in a playoff run since their 2008-2009 run, whereas LA accomplished that feat on their first attempt. Chicago was certainly the class of the NHL this past campaign; though it's no mistake that they had to take out the defending champs– LA Kings, in the Western bracket of the final four, to get there. LA actually came ever so close to ending Game 5's double overtime and keeping it a close series; almost earning an opportunity to force a Game 7.
3) The emergence of rearguard, Slava Voynov, as a legitimate offensive threat from the blue line
In the lockout-shortened season, Slava has made the Kings' attack that much more versatile, as Drew Doughty is seemingly no longer the sole catalyst from the backend. His performances in 2013 were beyond fantastic for the young 23-year-old. He surprised analysts everywhere, outscoring Doughty in the regular season and equaling Jeff Carter for team scoring lead in their three round title defense adventure.
Los Angeles Kings 2013 Regular Season Scoring Leaders (Snippet)
Los Angeles Kings 2013 Playoff Scoring Leaders
Voynov's star has been on the rise for a couple seasons now, ever since lacing them up for L.A. for the first time in 2010 and ultimately winning the Cup in his rookie campaign. With a full 82-game slate ahead of Voynov for the first time, I absolutely expect him to continue to break out and set impressive personal offensive benchmarks across the board.
Also expect him to lead Doughty and the rest of the Kings' defensive corps in scoring once again and for the foreseeable future. (Poolies– Voynov's Power Play presence will increase as well, so don't think it's outlandish to select him before Drew altogether, in both keeper and one-year pools!)
4) Quick's Off-Year/Huge Bounce-back Potential
I'm not the least concerned about the fact Jonathan Quick experienced his worst season as a pro last year, with a .902 SV% , down from a career .922% rate. The truncated season was an anomaly; surely proving more difficult to get into mid-season form for those who didn't play overseas during the lockout. Case in point: With a late start, no pre-season, and further removed from many of his peers from pro action, mid-season (form) arrived later than usual for Quick.
Jonathan Quick's Career Regular Season Statistics
Due to the above factors, the condensed 48-game slate prevented him from really hitting his stride until the playoffs neared. By the time the post-season began, he was back the old Quick, excelling in big games all the whole cup run, back to a very Quick-like .934 SV%.
Jonathan Quick's Playoff Statistics (career averages highlighted red)
That's enough proof for me that last year's regular season was nothing to worry about heading into the new campaign. Not to mention he will be vying for the Team USA starting job in Sochi for added motivation in the first half of the season.
Moreover, Bernier's departure cements Quick's status as top dog status more than ever, making the club that much more dependent on him going forward. Mathieu Garon was invited to camp, but he will hardly challenge Scrivens at this point, let alone Quick.
5) Willie Mitchell is back
Willie was a defensive beast for LA in their 2011-12 season and Cup run, leading the team in plus/minus with a plus-20 rating. Mitchell was nowhere to be found last season, spending the entire year on the sidelines, nursing knee problems, proving to be somewhat of a key missing ingredient for the team. He is back in tow now. However, at 36 years old and returning from a major layoff it remains to be seen whether he can be even remotely close to as effective as he once was for the Kings.
6) Several in-house prospects waiting in the wings.
There are several kids champing at the bit who spent considerable time at Manchester last year, all of which had a strong offensive pedigree a on their way up the ranks. Most notable in this group is Tyler Toffoli, who already made the jump late last season. Toffoli won the 2010-11 OHL scoring race, edging out Nail Yakupov. Brandon Kozun similarly beat out Eberle in 2009-10 for the WHL Scoring Crown, while Linden Vey, who's having a strong camp thus far, also defeated RNH in the 2010-11 WHL scoring race— Hardly fun facts to rolls one's eyes at! The Kings will have a myriad of cheap options should their depth pieces falter or succumb to injury this season.
L.A. remains a threat to go all the way, or to at least give whoever does prove victorious a mighty run for their money.
~~~~ Give Anthony Lancione a follow on Twitter @Anthisdaman ~~~~
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