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2011-12 NHL Season Preview: San Jose Sharks

In Hockey on October 6, 2011 at 10:50 am

WARNING: For those of you that have been reading each of these, get ready. If you thought the Canucks’ preview was lengthy, this one is going to eclipse that one in terms of size. Also, if I sound a little biased in any of this, let it go. This is my favorite team and I’m not perfect when it comes to hiding my bias. Hope you enjoy reading this, because writing this much may have taken a month off of my life.

Off we go.

San Jose Sharks

A Look Back at 2010-11
I know that I’ve had plenty of time to think about what I thought about the Sharks’ season. Yet, I still can’t quite wrap my head around it. On one hand, the Sharks fought off a pair of very good playoff opponents to reach the Western Conference Finals for the second straight year. At the same time, the Sharks got off to an awful start to their season and were forced to play catch-up with the rest of the Western Conference in order to win their fourth consecutive Pacific Division title. So while I shouldn’t be upset about either of the two items I just mentioned, I can’t help but think that this team should have done better. I feel that every hockey analyst in the world is nodding in agreement with me. How, you might ask? I’d be more than happy to answer.

The fact that the Sharks got off to such a putrid start meant that by the time they got to the playoffs against LA, they may not have been as rested as a team like Vancouver was. Throw in the fact that they were unable to put a team like the short-handed Kings away in five games or fewer, and that’s time lost to rest up your injured or tired players. Then came the greatest playoff series I have ever seen against the Red Wings. I was happy that the Sharks were able to knock off Detroit (again) and move on, but that series should have been over in five games. Only  the Sharks couldn’t finish the Wings off in the third period of that game, and Detroit had life.

Combine the fact that they had to play absolutely perfect hockey over the last four months of the year along with dragging out a pair of playoff series that should have each been over in five games, and it’s no wonder the Sharks got taken out in five games by Vancouver.

Speaking of that series, the Sharks were in every game with the exception of the second game. They gave up the first game in the third period because the Canucks had lively legs while the Sharks were dragging for most of the game. They nearly gave up game three because Jamie McGinn tried to staple Aaron Rome’s head to the glass, leading to the Canucks nearly evening up that game on his major penalty for boarding (even in victory, I was still pissed about that game). Game four saw the Sharks commit a slew of bad penalties that led to three consecutive power-play goals (two while the Sharks were down two men), as well as a hole the Sharks couldn’t dig themselves out of. Then there was game five. San Jose worked their butts off, fired a ton of shots at Roberto Luongo, held a lead late, and with 13 seconds left, I felt like the season was basically over when Ryan Kesler tied the game. That was the right cross to the jaw. Then the Canucks hit me and the entire Sharks’ fan base with a haymaker, when that puck took a fluky bounce off a stanchion right to Kevin Bieksa and eventually to the back of the San Jose net. First time I’ve ever collapsed because of the result of a game. Painful. Let’s move on.

While I have sat here and focused on much of the negative, of course there were positives to the season. Logan Couture cemented himself as one of the league’s top young players, earning a nomination for the Calder Trophy in the process (he got robbed!). He finished second on the team in goals scored, and he’s expected to take over as the team’s top center when the time comes for Joe Thornton to relinquish some ice time.

Speaking of Jumbo Joe, I’ve always been extremely critical of him in the past for his inability to show up in the playoffs. He proved me and the rest of the hockey world that he can step his game up in the playoffs this past season. He’s not the offensive force he used to be, but his defensive game has gotten so much better over the last few years, and last season was his finest performance yet. He’s the captain of this team, and a pretty damn good one if you ask me.

Finally, I think that the Sharks finally shed their label of ‘choker’ this past season. If they truly were chokers, then Detroit would have won game seven of that series. They were underdogs against Vancouver, and not many people were picking them to beat the team of destiny in 2011. So while they did a great job of shooting themselves in the foot in that series, they still showed that they deserved to be where they were at the end of the year. Of course, they’re expected to be an elite team, but still.

Was I happy with how their season ended? Of course I was. Did I think the season was a total failure? No. But there’s no question that the goal in San Jose is the Stanley Cup, and they didn’t get that. I can’t help but play the ‘what if’ game with the Sharks.

What if the Sharks don’t limp through the first three months of the year? They challenge Vancouver for the top spot in the West
What if the Sharks put the Kings and Red Wings away in five games each?
What if Antti Niemi didn’t stumble out of the gate?

Lots of those questions, but for a grade, I can’t fail them, nor can I give them a higher grade. Grade: B-

A Look Ahead to 2011-12

Forwards
For the forwards, I’m going to break things down by the line combinations that I’m assuming the team is going to use. It’s a little different from what I usually do, so just accept it. By the way, if I’m wrong about any of these line combinations, feel free to let me know and I’ll change them accordingly.

Joe Thornton's overall game was outstanding last season

First Line: Patrick Marleau-Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski
Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi are out, and to the best of my knowledge, Joe Pavelski is going to have the chance to take over his spot on the right wing. I’ve already described exactly what Thornton got better with last season. Yes, his offensive numbers have dropped significantly over the last few years. But he’s still the team’s top play-maker and sacrificed some of those points to be better defensively. Marleau has picked his game up over the last few years since his move to Thornton’s wing, and he led the team in goals for the second straight year last season. Marleau still has a great shot and even at age 32, he’s still one of the fastest players in the league. It’s not absurd to think that Patty gets back to the 40-goal mark again this season. It’s no secret that Joe Pavelski is currently my favorite player in the league (until someone signs Owen Nolan), and to see him get more offensive opportunity on the top line thrills me. Pavs struggled through last season after a breakout 2010 playoffs, but he was a victim of Logan Courture stepping up and taking over the second line. Now, Pavelski has the chance to team with the Sharks’ top offensive players. He’s up to the task, and 30 goals isn’t out of the question for Little Joe.

Martin Havlat will be counted on to add speed to the San Jose lineup

Second Line: Ryane Clowe-Logan Couture-Martin Havlat
I love the thought of what this line is capable of. They have speed, grit, scoring touch and great hockey smarts. Clowe is the bruiser of the Sharks’ top six forwards, but he had a career year last year and there’s no reason to think he won’t be able to duplicate his production this year. Couture went from rookie to one of the Sharks’ top player last season, leading all rookies in game winning goals and finishing second on the Sharks in goals with 32. This team will be his one day, and I couldn’t be more excited because that. He’s so smart and sound with his all-around game, and that was on full display when he picked Henrik Zetterberg’s pocket and scored the second goal of game seven against Detroit. Joe Thornton called him the most complete 22-year old he’s ever played with. That’s pretty high praise for Couture. And on top of all that, he’s another Twitter legend who is always quick with his wits.

That brings us to the first newcomer to the team in Havlat. This trade infuriated me when it happened. But I found out about it at 1:30 in the morning, and I don’t need to explain why. So when I had the chance to calm down, pop a few Advil and think about the deal, I think the Sharks got a piece that they really needed. Havlat may not score as much as Heatley, but his speed was something the team sorely lacked last year. On top of that, Havlat is a better playoff producer than Heatley, and Heatley was invisible for most of last year’s playoff run. That’s huge. He could see time on the top line before the year is over with, but I assume he will start the season on the second line. Oh yeah, he also has to stay healthy, which has never been easy for the talented Czech winger.

Michal Handzus, minus that awesome salad, will lead the San Jose checking line this season

Third Line: Jamie McGinn-Michal Handzus-Torrey Mitchell
If the Sharks do assemble this line, I expect great things from the team’s checking line. I’ll start with Handzus, who comes over from LA to take a shot at winning a Cup. He’s no longer a fast skater, but Handzus is very good defensively and relies on his positioning and smarts to make plays. He’s also great in the faceoff dot, and that’s something teams can never have enough of. He’s going to be flanked by a pair of energy wings in McGinn and Mitchell. Mitchell has played very well over the last two years in a checking role, and enjoyed a great year last season playing with Pavelski and Kyle Wellwood. McGinn is a player the Sharks have been waiting on to break out over the last few seasons. He’s another energy guy, but there were a few times last year that McGinn showed poor judgement on the ice in the playoffs. He took a pair of major penalties that the Sharks were able to overcome and hang on to win, but you can’t put your team in that spot. He was also the victim of the hip-check of the playoffs in the Vancouver series. Tough year for McGinn. He’s got his roster spot, but I want to see more out of him this year. Stay out of the box and compete. That’s all you can ask for. (Note: It’s tough for me to forgive the front office for picking McGinn over Milan Lucic in the 2007 second round. Who would you rather have?)

Fourth Line: Brad Winchester-Tommy Wingles/Andrew Desjardins-Andrew Murray
I liked the signings of both Winchester and Murray. Winchester should fill the hole left by Jamal Mayers, but he did score 10 goals last year between stops in St. Louis and Anaheim. He’s another high-energy guy who isn’t afraid to drop the gloves. Murray comes over from Columbus and will be counted on for the usual fourth-line duties. Desjardins and Wingles have each paid their dues in the minors, and I wouldn’t be upset with either in the lineup. Wingles played great hockey for the Sharks this pre-season, but Desjardins did when given the chance in last year’s playoffs. They’ll each get their chance to stick in the Sharks’ lineup this year.

As far as depth, Benn Ferriero, John McCarthy, Frazer McLaren and Cameron MacIntyre will be waiting for their turn in the minors. The Sharks don’t have much in the cupboard as far as prospects, but the majority of this team is young enough to thrive. I would like to see them make a move for a third line winger as the season goes on, mostly because I don’t trust McGinn. I thought Ferriero deserved a chance this season because of his playoff heroics last year (Note: My reaction to this goal nearly got me kicked out of the bar I was at. The lesson, boys and girls, is don’t let your friends make your drinks. Ever.) But Coach Todd McClellan knows his team much better than I ever will, so I’ll wait to see Ferriero in the lineup later this year.

My biggest issue is whether or not they can make up for the goals lost when Heatley and Setoguchi were traded. I’m only expecting around 25 for Havlat, so the pressure will be on guys like Pavelski to score a few more goals. That, and they need to be better defensively as a unit. For now, I can’t complain. Grade: B+

Defense
Again, like the forward lines, I’m going to do this by defensive pairings. Here we go.

Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray will have more help this year on the Sharks' blue line

Dan Boyle & Douglas Murray
The top pairing from last year shouldn’t see any change this year, as these two have formed quite the pairing since Boyle arrived in San Jose. Boyle will turn 36 this year, but he’s still good for around 40 points while manning the top unit on the San Jose power-play. Boyle struggled at times during the playoffs last year, most notably in the LA series. But he was great against the Red Wings and helped set up the series winning goal. Good start.

Murray would easily be my favorite player if Pavelski didn’t play in San Jose. He’s a mammoth of a human being, delivers bone-crushing hits and handles the opposition’s top power-forwards every night. Murray’s biggest weakness is his speed, and that has been exposed in the last two West Finals. But this year, I expect Cranky to continue to punish opposing forwards. He’s always worked well with Boyle, and I would be shocked if they were split up at all this season.

Brent Burns was acquired from Minnesota over the offseason, and will look to fit in to the Sharks' attack

Second Pair: Brent Burns & Marc-Edouard Vlasic
San Jose needed another top-pair caliber defenseman to go along with Boyle. They struck the jackpot with Burns, who also comes over from Minnesota. Burns is a big body, physical, big shot, great skater, great speed and charismatic personality that has already made him a hit in San Jose. His addition might have been the biggest in the conference in the offseason. Even bigger than the Mike Richards trade in LA. Top centers aren’t easy to trade for. Top defensemen are even harder. Burns could play the point with Boyle on the Sharks’ top power-play unit, or he could drop down and play in front of the net, leaving Joe Pavelski to keep his spot on the point. Yes, my head has been spinning thinking of all of the ways to use Burns. Great addition to a unit that needed another top defender.

Vlasic has always been an interesting player to me. He’s been with the team since he was 18, yet he hasn’t been able to take the next step and be that top-pair defenseman that everyone thought he would become. Yet he remains one of the team’s top performers in the San Jose zone, finishing as a plus-player in every season but one of his six-year career. I love the thought of him and Burns together as a pair of young defenders that could be the second coming of Boyle and Murray.

Third Pair: Jason Demers & Colin White
Think of this pair as a poor-man’s version of Boyle and Murray. Demers struggled last year with his development, and that was a problem because he was expected to be the next best option behind Boyle to provide offense. He should have some of that pressure taken off of him with the arrival of Burns. But Demers needed to work on his defensive game, and he should have a chance to hone his craft with his new defensive partner.

I loved the signing of Colin White. He’s won a Stanley Cup and provides the defense with another big body that isn’t afraid to dish out  punishment. He should also be a calming influence in the locker room, as he has been at each end of the hockey spectrum during his career. He won’t play top minutes, but that’s just fine with me.

White may split time with Jim Vandermeer, who was brought in to provide more sandpaper and add some protection for the Sharks’ star players. It was another move that I had no problem with, and Vandermeer will get his chance to compete for a Cup at the same time. Justin Braun will have another season in the minors as he continues to prepare for his eventual move to the NHL for good. Braun saw time last year thanks to all of the injuries on the San Jose blue line, and he impressed when he was able to play.

Experts (see: not me) have said this might be the best defense the Sharks have ever had, and some have even said their defense is the best in the league. Hard for me to disagree with the statement that they’re good in all areas. Grade: A

Antti Niemi enters this season as the Sharks' top goaltender

Goaltending
Antti Niemi will be back in the San Jose net as the undisputed starter this season. He was atrocious early last year, but he played great hockey when Antero Niittymaki went down with a groin injury. Niemi was great at times in the playoffs, but there were a few games that he was REALLY bad in. Despite that, he earned my trust because of how hard he battles every night. He’s a lot like Tim Thomas in that way. He has had to work very hard to get where he is today, and his Stanley Cup ring is nice to have. Yes, he was on a stacked Chicago team, but he stole games when he needed to for the Hawks that year. I expect him to improve upon his numbers from last year.

Antero Niittymaki kept the team’s head above water when Niemi was struggling last year. Then, he suffered another bit of bad luck and got hurt, opening the door for Niemi to snag to top job. I’ve liked Nitty since he came into the league (Seriously, say his last name. It just rolls off the tounge), but he’s been so close to being a number-one goalie in Philly, Tampa and now San Jose, yet it seems like injury always bites him at the wrong time. But make no mistake, the Sharks might not have survived the LA series last year if not for Niittymaki’s performance in relief of Niemi in game three. This year, he’s hurt again to begin the season. Tough break for Nitty, I hope he can come back at full strength and contribute.

San Jose has been known as a goaltending factory over the years. The team produced Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala as NHL starters. Johan Hedberg and Henrik Karlsson are two goalies that were once in the San Jose system before moving elsewhere to play. Entering the season, San Jose is already in a little bit of a pickle in net. Niemi didn’t play in the preseason because he has a cyst removed, although he’s likely to be ready for the opener. Niittymaki is out with his surgery. That means that former backup Thomas Greiss will have the chance to earn the playing time I felt he deserved last season. Greiss was great in the pre-season, winning all but one of his starts. Harri Sateri and Alex Stalock will each be in the minors, preparing to possibly be the next Nabokov of Kiprusoff. But for the current goalies, they just need to get healthy. Grade: B+

Prediction
They’re similar to Vancouver, and now they have the squad to contend for a Cup. The regular season is only the prequel to the test that faces them in April. They can play with anyone and should have a huge chip on their shoulders after what happened last year against Vancouver. They’ll be there come playoff time, but that’s when we’ll find out if this team is capable of bringing home the Cup. I certainly hope they are. 1st in Pacific, 3rd in West.

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2011-12 NHL Season Preview: Phoenix Coyotes

In Hockey on October 5, 2011 at 10:49 am

Phoenix Coyotes

A Look Back at 2010-11
Once again, the bar was set low for the Phoenix Coyotes. They couldn’t score enough, and they were looking for someone to buy the team and either keep it in the desert, or move the team elsewhere. Yet despite all of the negativity surrounding the Coyotes, they went out and proved everyone wrong once again, making the playoffs for the second straight season. They were over-matched against Detroit in round one, getting swept by the Red Wings. The hits kept coming in the off-season, as they lost top goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to the Philadelphia Flyers as well. But if you want to look at how they did last year, you can’t say that it was a failure because the ‘Yotes showed how far hard work can get a team. Grade: B

A Look Ahead to 2011-12

Forwards

If he signs a deal soon, Kyle Turris could help the Coyotes offense improve this season

Once again, the Coyotes will come into this season without a bona-fide star forward. One of those hasn’t been in Phoenix since Jeremy Roenick was still with the team. This year will be no different, as the Coyotes will be counting on everyone in the lineup to produce offensively. While that’s not an ideal spot to be in, everyone will work hard every second they’re on the ice, and that’s something that most coaches would love from their team.

The Coyotes will be looking to their unquestioned leader, Shane Doan, to lead the team in scoring just like he did last year. Doan, Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata are the best options the Coyotes have scoring wise. The bad news is that those three all play on the wings, and the team is extremely thin up the middle. Oh, and to add insult to injury, the team’s most talented center, Kyle Turris, is currently holding out for a bigger contract that he doesn’t deserve. Ouch. That leaves Martin Hanzal and former Coyote Daymond Langkow as the team’s top options at center. Hanzal is a quality player, but he’s not what you would ideally want your top center to be. Langkow returns to The Desert at the back end of his career, and if he has recovered from his injury, he may still have something left in the tank for a team that desperately needs a second line center. One player that surprised many last year and could see top minutes this year is Lauri Korpikoski. Korpikoski is a former first round pick and put up a career-high 19 goals last year. If he can take a step towards the 25-goal range, that would be a major boost to the Coyotes.

Raffi Torres, Taylor Pyatt, Boyd Gordon and Kyle Chipchura are all energy players that are capable of putting the puck in the net. Torres is as big of a pest as anyone in the league, and he has showed in the past that he’s capable of delivering game-changing hits every time he is on the ice. I like that signing for the Coyotes. Twitter legend Paul Bissonnette will be in the lineup when the team needs his fists. I don’t mind that, as long as the dude keeps producing hilarious material.

This could be the season that Mikkel Boedker and Brett MacLean are given the opportunity to earn top minutes and give this team some much needed offensive pop. Boedker was given a new two-year deal this off-season, and here’s hoping he can step up for a team that made him the eighth pick in the 2008 draft. MacLean was taken a year earlier in the second round and has carved up the AHL over the last two seasons. If he can stick with the ‘Yotes, that offense might be better than everyone thinks. Until that’s known, however, they don’t scare anyone offensively. Grade: C-

Keith Yandle is the best defenseman you may not have heard of

Defense
For a team that has become known as a defense-first team, this unit remains the strength of the team. The major difference between this unit and those in the past two years is that Bryzgalov is no longer there to cover up their mistakes. That said, this group is going to have to work that much harder to keep the Coyotes in games. The Coyotes do have one of the league’s top offensive defenders in Keith Yandle, who earned new contract to stay in Phoenix and run the Coyotes’ power play. He’s going to be joined by Adrian Aucoin, Michal Roszival, Derek Morris, Rusty Klesla and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Could this be the year that Ekman-Larsson steps his game up and fits in with Yandle as another top puck mover? Only time will tell, but this team will but hurt by the loss of Ed Jovanovski, who returned to Florida. I like what the veterans bring to this unit and I love Yandle running this team offensively from the blue line. This unit should be good enough to keep the Coyotes in every game, but if they get hit by the injury bug, the ‘Yotes are going to be in a world of trouble, because there isn’t much depth with this team. Grade: B

Goaltending

Mike Smith has some big shoes to fill in Phoenix's goal

Ilya Bryzgalov is gone, and Mike Smith is coming in to take over in the Phoenix net. That’s a pretty significant hole for Smith to fill. I’m not trying to slight Smith, but he hasn’t shown in his career that he’s capable to taking the keys and driving a team to the playoffs. Tampa gave up on him, but he redeemed himself slightly when he stepped in for Dwayne Roloson in the East Finals and played very well when he had the chance. Pardon me if I’m a little skeptical, but I won’t but any stock in Smith until he proves me wrong.

Backing up Smith will be holdover Jason Labarbera, who provided capable netminding when he was called upon last season for the Coyotes. Labarbera has always battled to be a number-one goalie, and was for a short time in Los Angeles, but he’s not likely to be the top guy in Phoenix’s net. Curtis McElhinney was brought in as a depth move by the Coyotes and will spend much of his time in the AHL this season.

I know that Smith has earned his opportunity to be the top guy, but I still don’t trust the guy. That’s not a good thing for a team that leans so heavily on its goaltender. Grade: C

Prediction
They’re going to struggle to score and Smith isn’t going to be able to match Bryzgalov’s status. I hate to write off a team that works as hard as they do, but I don’t see them cracking the top eight in the West. This could also be the final season of hockey in Phoenix, as the team will struggle to put butts in the seats and re-location will be hanging over the team’s head all season. It’s a shame. 4th in Pacific, 10th in West.

2011-12 NHL Season Preview: Los Angeles Kings

In Hockey on October 5, 2011 at 10:48 am

Los Angeles Kings

A Look Back at 2010-11
Hockey was relevant in LA once again last season, as the Kings were considered by many to be dark horse contenders to make a push for the Stanley Cup. The Kings did make it into the playoffs, but they finished in the seven spot in the West and were bounced in the first round by the San Jose Sharks. There were two issues that prevented the Kings from making an even bigger push in the playoffs. The first was the loss of top center Anze Kopitar to an ankle injury just a few weeks from the start of the playoffs, leaving a gaping hole offensively that the Kings couldn’t fill. The second was game three against San Jose. I know there was plenty of youth on the team, but it is inexcusable to blow a 4-0 lead the way the Kings did in that game. Not that I was complaining, but that’s not the point of this preview. The Kings did show that they can tighten up on defense, and that’s a big step if they want to be one of the West’s elite teams. Had Kopitar not gotten hurt, the Kings might have gone deeper. Grade: B

A Look Ahead to 2011-12

Anze Kopitar should get some help with the arrival of Mike Richards

Forwards
Last year, the Kings weren’t quite strong enough up the middle, especially when Kopitar got hurt. This year, that’s going to be very, very different. Kopitar is healthy heading into this season, and will assume his spot as the team’s top center and best offensive player. But this year, Kopitar will have the luxury of having Mike Richards playing on the second line to take some hear off of him. I didn’t expect this move to happen in the offseason, but it made the Kings instant contenders. Richards’ two-way game is as good as anyone in the league, and I expect him to flourish in LA (as long as he avoids the nightclubs on a consistent basis).

The two centers are going to have plenty of help on their wings as well. Justin Williams and team captain Dustin Brown will be on the right side, while Dustin Penner and Simon Gagne are expected to play on the left side of the top two lines. How the wings are going to be spread out amongst the two lines, I have no idea, but Penner could be the biggest factor as to how good the Kings are thing year. If he’s good, he’s a force to be dealt with and will clear out a ton of space for the team’s skilled forwards to manuver. But he showed last year in his short time in LA that he’s easily capable of ending up in Terry Murray’s dog-house and stranded on the fourth line. The good news for the Kings was that youngsters such as Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lews played very well in their playoff series against San Jose and they could earn top-line minutes once again if Penner stumbles out of the gate.

While the Kings did gain some help for their top lines, they lost Michal Handzus and Wayne Simmonds from the checking lines. That’s going to give players like Lewis and Clifford more responsibility on those bottom lines. They should each have the opportunity to move up in the lineup, and I think that they will. But they need to show they can produce in the regular season the same way they did in last year’s playoffs.

Jarret Stoll, Scott Parse and Brad Richardson are back and will be playing on the bottom two lines. Stoll played rather well when he was forced to step up when Kopitar went down. There are worse options a team can have for a third line center. Joining those two  will be pickups Colin Fraser, Ethan Moreau, and Trent Hunter. Kevin Westgarth carries the heavy fists for the Kings and will be in and out of the lineup. Moreau was a great pickup, as he has been one of the league’s best leaders over the past few years. All in all, this group of forwards is much deeper and should be able to score more consistently than they did last year. However, there will probably be talk about the Kings getting another winger come the trade deadline. This lineup will be scary even before then. Grade: B+

Now that he's signed long-term, can Drew Doughty return to Norris Trophy form?

Defense

LA fans can breathe now that Drew Doughty has been re-signed. Defenseman like Doughty are few and far between, and he’s going to be a nightmare for opposing forwards to deal with for a long time now. However, Doughty needs to improve his offensive numbers this year. Since the Kings’ blue line doesn’t generate a ton of offense anyway, Doughty is going to have to improve on last year’s 40 points. Jack Johnson joins Doughty as the other defenseman that will be counted on to produce some points from the back end. Johnson should be good for 35-40 points once again, but he has to improve on a -21 last season. One player that could step into more of an offensive role this year is Alec Martinez, who gained confidence and more ice time as the season went on last year. Matt Greene, Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi are all solid, veteran stay-at-home defenders that were a big reason the team was so good on defense last year. Davis Drewiske is another young defender that provides depth for the Kings. I expect this unit to help the Kings be one of the league’s top defensive teams for the second year in a row. Grade: B+

Jonathan Quick enters the year at LA's starter, but he's going to be pushed for playing time by Jonathan Bernier

Goaltending
The Kings have one of the leagues best young goaltending tandems. While many are assuming the Kings are going to hand the keys to Jonathan Bernier, current starter Jonathan Quick is slowly becoming one of the best goalies in the NHL. Last season was Quick’s finest as a pro, recording career bests in save percentage (.918) and goals-against (2.24). Quick has struggled in the playoffs in his young career, looking overmatched at times against San Jose and Vancouver. But I like the guy because he battles hard and never quits on a play. He also leaves it all on the ice, and has a little bit of Tim Thomas in him from that standpoint. He should see the majority of the starts once again this year.

Bernier got off to a slow start last season before he picked up his game down the stretch. He gives the Kings a tough decision because of the raw talent that he possesses. But if he wants to become the LA goalie of the future, he’s going to have to push Quick for playing time once again this year. This team belongs to Quick, but if he falters in the playoffs once again, the Kings might not have any problems turning the team over to Bernier. For now, Bernier is going to have to be patient. This duo is one of the best in the league and will be once again. Grade: B+

Prediction
The Richards trade and their commitment to defense should see the Kings jump a few spots in the standings. There will always be questions about their ability to score on the wings, but the Kings are all but out of prospects to deal away to go out and get one. That doesn’t bode well if they want to try and land someone like Ales Hemsky. But to start things off, this team looks pretty scary. 2nd in Pacific, 4th in West.