LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Kings made one significant addition during the offseason, but the question is whether it was enough to help them advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
The Anaheim Ducks’ run of five consecutive Pacific Division titles ended last spring. Their fall was then punctuated by a humiliating first-round playoff sweep by the San Jose Sharks.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
While the top teams in the Pacific Division were busy, the Kings mostly stood pat. Their only major move was signing Ilya Kovalchuk, who returns to the NHL after five seasons playing in Russia.
The 35-year old left winger fits a familiar blueprint for the Kings — he’s over 30, has a big body and can control the puck but lacks quickness in getting up ice. Kovalchuk joins what is one of the oldest rosters in the league with nine players who are 30 or older. He will be paired on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.
Kovalchuk’s addition should add some punch to an offense that has struggled to score goals. The Kings averaged 2.89 goals per game last season, which was 16th out of 30 teams, and their 155 goals in 5-on-5 situations was the third lowest of a team that made the playoffs. They had only four skaters score 16 goals or more. Only Arizona and Edmonton had fewer skaters with three apiece.
Coach John Stevens said at the start of training camp that he was happy with some of the improvements made last year, which included creating more in the middle of the ice and scoring off the rush, but that more progress needs to be made.
“I don’t know if I want to say we want to do a whole lot of things different, but we want to do some things a whole lot better,” he said.
With the addition of Kovalchuk, Kopitar thinks the Kings can continue to build on some of the progress they made last season. He said early in training camp that last season was the best hockey they’ve played in the regular season since winning their second Stanley Cup in three years in 2014.
“I thought we showed more positives than negatives,” he said. “We’re trying to look forward, draw on the positives and go about our business.”
Here are some other things to watch as Stevens begins his second season in charge:
KOPITAR’S ENCORE: Kopitar finished third in the Hart Trophy voting last season with a career-best 35 goals, 57 assists and 92 points. It is unlikely that he will repeat those numbers, but he shouldn’t revert to the form of 2016-17, where he struggled and had 52 points, which was the second-lowest of his 12-year NHL career.
SCORING BEYOND THE FIRST LINE: The Kings are hoping some of that comes from center Jeff Carter, who missed 55 games last season due to a lacerated ankle tendon.
Forwards Alex Iafallo (six goals, 11 assists) and Tyler Toffoli are expected to take another step. Toffoli (24 goals, 23 assists) was the only player not on the top line who had more than 16 goals.
COUNTING ON QUICK: Jonathan Quick was one of the league’s top goaltenders down the stretch last season with two shutouts and a 1.99 goals-against average in his last 11 regular-season starts. Managing Quick’s workload will be more of a priority this season as he usually ranks in the top 10 in minutes played.
Jack Campbell has emerged as Quick’s backup. He earned at least a point in all four of his starts last season and had a 2.47 goals-against average.
THE SCHEDULE: The Kings begin the season with home games against San Jose and Detroit before heading on the road for six of their next nine. They face Southern California rival Anaheim only once before March 9.
LAST SEASON: 45-29-8, 98 points. Fourth place Pacific Division. Lost to Vegas Golden Knights in first round.
COACH: John Stevens (second season, sixth NHL season).
ADDED: LW Ilya Kovalchuk
LOST: D Christian Folin, D Kevin Gravel, RW Tobias Rieder, D Jordan Subban, G Scott Wedgewood
PLAYER TO WATCH: Anze Kopitar. The center and Kings captain had a 40-point improvement last season, going from 52 points to a career-high 92 and finishing third in voting for the league MVP. He should be part of a formidable line with the addition of Kovalchuk — who returns to the NHL after five seasons playing professionally in Russia — and Dustin Brown.
OUTLOOK: The Kings have not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since winning the Stanley Cup in 2014 and could be hard-pressed to advance this season. They have one of the oldest rosters in the league with nine players who are 30 or older. They also remain challenged to find consistent goal scorers beyond the first line.
Faced with the severity of that verdict on their half-decade quest to reach the Stanley Cup Final, the Ducks didn’t mope. They also didn’t blow up a roster that has been agonizingly close to ultimate NHL success.
Instead, they decided to use their extra-long offseason to get faster and fresher.
“We’re trying to put in a new system and different line combinations, and that takes time,” said forward Adam Henrique, whose midseason arrival was one of the highlights of last year. “It takes some time to adjust to everything we’re being asked to do, but we’re already seeing flashes of it, for sure. For us, it’s a matter of just trying to get it into our games.”
The Ducks intend to push the tempo and move the puck with uncommon speed when they return to the ice this season. Although any concrete description of tactics is tricky in this heavily improvisatory game, Anaheim’s focus will shift from bullying checks and defensive rigidity to aggressive offense and fluid attacks.
“Going out there and trying to think through the new system, it takes a little bit,” said Henrique, who returns with a lucrative five-year contract extension. “Things just aren’t fully in sync yet, but everybody sees what we’re trying to do.”
Much of the NHL made this transition years ago. The Ducks were having ample success playing their own way, but coach Randy Carlyle is ready to speed it up with his talented veterans alongside another influx of youth from Anaheim’s remarkable farm system.
“It’s a test to play that way at this level,” Carlyle said. “We’ve got the guys to do it.”
The change comes in the historic 25th season for the Ducks, who won the 2007 Stanley Cup and haven’t been back to the Final since. They’re a contender in the Pacific again, but their division is even more stacked with talent upon the arrival of San Jose’s Erik Karlsson, the emergence of Vegas and the continuing threat that the Edmonton Oilers will finally get it together — to say nothing of the perennial threat of the Kings across the Los Angeles metroplex.
The Ducks welcome the chance to try a new tactic in the same quest they’ve been on for years.
“We’ve got to find the way we can all play this way together,” defenseman Josh Manson said. “We’re working on it. If you want to play at this level, you have to pick up a system when your coach teaches it. If you play with a good structure, you’ve got a better chance to win a game.”
Right wing Patrick Eaves is expected back early in the year after missing all of last season with a prolonged, complicated health scare. The Ducks also hope to get a solid campaign out of center Ryan Kesler, who was limited all season by his arthritic hip. Both veterans are proven NHL talents, but their absence played a major role in Anaheim’s slow start to last season.
GIBBY IN GOAL
The Ducks feel a level of comfort in trying a new style because they’ve got John Gibson behind them. The stalwart goalie is back after agreeing to an eight-year, $64 million contract extension in the summer. Gibson overcame his early-career injury problems last season and turned in a stellar campaign. Gibson is still just 25 years old, and the Ducks believe he has even more room to grow into one of the game’s greats.
Francois Beauchemin’s retirement and Kevin Bieksa’s departure opened spots on the Ducks’ blue line, and Swedish youngsters Marcus Pettersson and Jacob Larsson would love to fill the roles. Anaheim’s biggest offseason free-agent addition was veteran defenseman Luke Schenn, and he’s likely to be the third-pairing partner for the winner of that competition. Pettersson and Larsson both have the potential to be the next breakout talent from a farm system that has produced the departed Shea Theodore and Sami Vatanen along with all four of the Ducks’ top blueliners: Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Manson and Brandon Montour.
The Ducks’ top 11 scorers from last season are all back, but the 12th — power forward Nick Ritchie — still hasn’t reported to camp. The 22-year-old restricted free agent is holding out and working out with the OHL’s Guelph Storm as he seeks a more lucrative new deal despite his modest 27-point performance last season. The Ducks and Ritchie have kept things civil in public, but his absence isn’t helping his prospects to contribute.
LAST SEASON: 44-25-13, 101 points. Finished second in Pacific Division. Lost to San Jose Sharks in first round.
COACH: Randy Carlyle (10th season, 13th NHL season).
ADDED: D Luke Schenn, D Andrej Sustr, C Brian Gibbons, RW Carter Rowney.
LOST: D Francois Beauchemin, D Kevin Bieksa, C Antoine Vermette, LW Jason Chimera, RW J.T. Brown, C Derek Grant.
PLAYER TO WATCH: RW Patrick Eaves. The veteran forward signed a three-year contract to stay with the Ducks last summer but missed the entire ensuing season with what he thought was an autoimmune nervous disorder, only to learn it was post-viral syndrome. The heavily bearded goal-scorer won’t be ready to play at the start of this season while recovering from his serious health scare and a more mundane shoulder surgery, but the Ducks are very hopeful he’ll be back soon to provide some much-needed offensive punch.
OUTLOOK: The Ducks’ run of five straight division titles ended last season, and the Sharks humiliated them in a first-round playoff sweep. Instead of shaking up the roster, Carlyle and Anaheim GM Bob Murray made no significant roster additions and decided to play a speedier style with their returning players and another influx of youth from the Ducks’ remarkable farm system. The heavy, bullying squad that made two Western Conference finals in the past four years will join the rest of the NHL in trying to push the tempo. The Ducks have enough talent to try just about anything, but the speed of their adjustment and their overall health will determine whether they’ve missed the window to win a Stanley Cup with this core.
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