I'm an avid listener to XM 204, the NHL channel on XM Satellite Radio called "Home Ice," and probably one of a few dozen regular listeners in the Greater Los Angeles area.
One of my favorite hosts on the channel is James "Boomer" Gordon, who shares insightful opinions on "The Point" and on "Face Off." During the offseason, "The Point" featured a segment for each team in the NHL, called "Five Burning Questions." Each segment had an individual set of questions tailored to the specific team in question.
So, in the wake of my boy Dustin Brown being named the Kings' captain for the 2008-09 season, (please see my July 29 article Crown for the Taking: Who Will Wear the 'C' for the Los Angeles Kings?) I'd like to take this opportunity to share my version of the "Five Burning Questions" for the Los Angeles Kings in their upcoming 2008-09 season.
1) Is this a throw-away season for the Kings?
More specifically, do the Kings have shot at making the playoffs for the first time in seven years?
Most signs are pointing to no. Not just because the Kings lack a veteran presence at virtually all positions, but also because of how competitive the NHL—and specifically the Western Conference—has become.
The Kings have the misfortune of playing in one of the toughest divisions in the league, with San Jose, Dallas, and Anaheim all having some recent playoff success, and the Phoenix Coyotes improving tremendously this year as well.
Thankfully, this year the Kings will only have to play their division foes six times each, as opposed to last year's eight intra-division matchups. This definitely bodes well for the Kings, but the rest of the Western Conference is no walk in the park either.
The easy answer to this question is no, this is not a throw-away season. There is just no point to starting the season counting yourselves out. It is entirely possible that everything could click for the Kings, if they come out with two solid scoring lines and a revamped defensive system, and if their goalies swallow a talent pill.
Just because success is unlikely does not mean the mindset should be that of failure.
2) Is this the year for Jonathan Bernier to step in to the role of franchise netminder?
Jonathan Bernier is a former Team Canada goaltender and was one of the most highly-regarded goaltending prospects of his class. He has the potential to become a top-five NHL goalie—something the Kings haven't had since Rogie Vachon.
So with all the struggles the Kings have had in net lately, why not call him up?
All signs are pointing against this idea. Considering the growing pains the youth of the team should endure this year, it may not be smart to put another player though it as well—and definitely not one who will be relied upon heavily in the very near future.
It will be best for Bernier to develop in the minors for at least another year before taking the reigns between the pipes.
3) Will the Kings' young defensive corps be able to compete at the NHL level?
It has to be somewhat concerning that 21-year-old Jack Johnson is the unquestioned blue chip on the Kings' blue line, right? Not entirely. Johnson showed a lot of maturity last year, though many were quick to criticize his lacking offensive skills.
But Johnson was not brought in to replace Lubomir Visnovsky—or Rob Blake, for that matter. He was drafted to be Jack Johnson, a hard-hitting, smooth-skating defensive presence who can chip in on offense—if not every game.
The same will be true for Drew Doughty, who appears as though he will make the cut on this year's NHL roster. Terry Murray is bringing in a new defensive scheme that will be just that—defensive.
There is enough talent at the forward position to handle the goal scoring, so the defensemen can concentrate on keeping pucks out of the net—the main statistical issue that has kept the Kings below .500 for some time.
4) Who will play the wing on the top line alongside Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown?
Last year, Patrick O'Sullivan stepped up in a big way after Cammilleri struggled with injuries. He fit in well with Brown and Kopitar, and notched 53 points in his first full NHL season. Not too shabby.
But in reality, I don't think that anyone with two arms and the abilitt to skate could not fit in well with Brown and Kopitar. This is not a knock on O'Sullivan by any means, and I couldn't have been more relieved when the Kings reached a verbal agreement with him yesterday.
But Brown strikes fear into the hearts of even the toughest opposing defensemen with his unrelenting forechecking, and Kopitar does the same to opposing goaltenders with his indomitable offensive talents.
Cammilleri scored 10 goals in the first 10 games of the season. He is listed at 5'9"—which is probably while wearing skates. He basically loitered in the slot waiting for Kopitar to dangle past someone, or Brown to level someone and cough up the puck right to him. If someone of his tiny stature can camp out in the slot and roof top-shelfers, than anyone with a quick shot can do the same.
The point is that I'd not like to settle on Patrick O'Sullivan as the top-line winger. I'd like to give 6'7" Brian Boyle a shot at it this year, as well as AHL rookie of the year Teddy Purcell. I think either of these guys could put some pucks away on the top line, and O'Sullivan can contribute more as the second-line center with Alexander Frolov.
5) Will Terry Murray be able to guide this team in the proper direction?
When Terry Murray was first hired in July, and I have to admit that I was skeptical. He had never been a head coach in the NHL, and I was hoping the Kings would hire drill sergeant and charismatic spark plug John Tortorella, who was let go from the Tampa Bay Lightning. It's rare to find someone at his level speak so frankly.
But I have since seen Murray speak in a few interviews about the team and his goals for the season, and I am warming up to him like a stray dog being fed steak scraps outside a rickety burger joint. I know the stuff is good inside, but I'm just not sure about what I've been fed in the past.
Murray has been been saying that the team needs to listen, work hard, and focus on what they need to do to improve. He hopes to bring about a newfound attention to defense, and to help develop the young players. Jim Fox said that he is a patient teacher, and his lack of volume does not mean a lack of direction. Jim, as I've always said—I'll take your word for it.