At the half-way point of last season, the lowly Kings were 15-25-2 and already eliminated from the playoff contention. Yet this was no surprise to the Kings management, and forever loyal fan-base.
Players such as Kyle Calder, Michael Handzus, and Ladislav Nagy were brought in as "bridge players," second tier players brought in to ease the learning curve of the organization's budding stars (Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jack Johnson).
Along with a a revolving door system of goaltenders, which supplied occupation to a league high seven goaltenders, the Kings were considered nothing more then a dark horse to make the 07-08 playoffs.
Boy have things changed in La La Land.
With another year under their belt, the organization decided to give their young stars a larger role in the direction the team was heading, while limiting the role of character players and veterans.
The opening day roster included 17 players under the age of 26 (including three rookies: Drew Doughty, Wayne Simmonds, and Oscar Moller).
This year's version of the Kings, although still not a favorite to contend for a playoff spot, is a respectable 17-19-6 and consistently flirts with the .500 mark. Winning games over the lower-tiered teams, while showing they can still contend with the leagues elite (with big wins against Anaheim, Philidelphia, and Chicago).
Jason LaBarbara won the starting goaltending position out of training camp, but has since been traded to Vancouver for a seventh round pick (which many consider payback for the Cloutier deal prior to the 06-07 season).
These days, the Kings find quality goaltending from the tandem of sophomore Erik Ersberg and AHL call-up, Jonathen Quick. Terry Murray, the first-year head coach, has instilled a defense-first system, which has the team posting a league low average of 26.2 shots per game (up from 28th overall last season).
What makes this even more impressive is that the team has been without defensive cornerstone Jack Johnson, who injured his shoulder two games into the season.
However, this defense-first system has come at the expense of a once high-powered offense. The Kings have been held to one-goal or less in 14 games so far this season, while not employing a player near a point per-game average.
So much is to be expected from a team that traded away two of their top offensive talents, Lubomir Visnovsky (to Edmonton) and Mike Cammaleri (to Calgary), in favor of defensive stallwarts Matt Greene and Jarret Stoll (in the deal with Edmonton) and prospects.
Becoming defensively responsible is one of the building blocks of a winning team, and the Kings seem to be taking the proper precautions, one baby step at a time.
With enough salary cap space to take advantage of the mass salary dump predicted for the trade deadline (names like Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa, Johan Franzen, and Henrik Zetterberg), the Kings of Los Angeles are looking forward to bringing in their own era of Purple Reign.
In an effort to find the right balance of offense, Coach Murray has juggled his lines more often then optimal. This often halts the team's ability to gel and learn each others' tendencies, which some would argue does more harm than good.
The Kings often find success when individuals are chipping in from all four lines, rather then being dependant on the top two.
The season thus far has shown us a great deal of highs and lows, surprises and disappointments. At the halfway point of the season, my awards go as follows:
Team MVP: Dustin Brown. So much more can be said about leadership aside from the boxscore. By leading the Western Conference in shots on goal and hits, Brown is leading this young team by example and passion.
Biggest Surprise: Kyle Quincey. Many would assume that rookie-standout Drew Doughty would win this award with his over 22 minutes of ice time per-game. But Quincey came as a waiver-wire pickup from Detroit, and has provided three goals and 20 assists.
Biggest Goat/Whipping-Boy: Denis Gauthier/Jason LaBarbara. This award is shared by two individuals who just haven't found their way in Los Angeles (LaBarbara has been forced out of town due to a logjam at Goaltender). Gauthier has continuously made "brain fart" plays that seem to effect the team at key points in the game.
Biggest Bright Spot: Wayne Simmonds. Once again, most would look towards Doughty's veteran-like confidence as a beacon of light. But with pre-draft comparisons to Ray Bourque, big things were expected.
Wayne Simmonds on the other hand, had been a strong, dependable, exciting, and responsible player, while logging nearly 15 minutes per game alongside Handzus and Alexander Frolov.