LOS ANGELES — The Kings enter this season, set to begin Tuesday, with burgeoning promise but also with more than their share of uncertainties.
Here are five burning questions that the men in black and silver will answer over the course of 82 games.
Will the power play finally produce?
Even at their peak, the Kings’ power play was not exactly menacing. In fact, since their second Stanley Cup season of 2013-14, the Kings have the sixth-worst cumulative power-play conversion rate in the NHL.
But hope springs eternal at the start of each campaign, and there may be justification for optimism. Phillip Danault saw more time with the extra man late last season, top-unit fixture Drew Doughty has recovered from wrist surgery, rookie Brandt Clarke is already among the Kings’ most creative playmakers, and Kevin Fiala figures to add oomph to the offense in every situation whether it be the power play, even-strength action or three-on-three overtime action.
The braintrust of the Kings was also slightly reconfigured. Marco Sturm, who ran the power play last season, will guide the Kings’ top minor-league affiliate this year. Jim Hiller worked under Stanley Cup winner Mike Babcock in two different cities and under another Cup champion, Barry Trotz, in New York most recently. Hiller has been tasked with finally making the Kings more opportunistic with the extra man.
“Jimmy brought a fresh set of eyes to our video from last year. It wasn’t tainted with opinion or frustration or joy,” coach Todd McLellan said. “He shared a lot of thoughts and ideas with us, so we adopted some of those things. He’s been around some good players and good power plays.”
Who are these guys, really?
Danault enjoyed a breakout 2021-22 campaign and so too did his linemate Trevor Moore. While it wasn’t as a King, Fiala did the same with the Minnesota Wild, exploding for 85 points to obliterate his previous season high by 31. He did so with low-key linemates and somewhat limited power-play time.
While several Kings clearly have room to improve their production — for example, sniper Arthur Kaliyev shot just 7.2 percent last season — those three could either continue to advance or be prone to regression. Moore’s 48 points more than doubled his career total, which had been 41 in 123 games. Danault scored 27 goals, more than twice as many as he had in any NHL campaign and more than he even notched at even the minor-league or junior levels.
“There’s always a place for progression, no place for regression,” Danault said. “I don’t want to think that way, being scared of regression. I just want to get better as a team and as a player, and I’ll do whatever I can to win a Cup here.”
How much will Brandt Clarke play?
Regardless of how many prospects pan out or players step forward, the Kings always seemed to be linked to adding a defenseman of late, one with skill, toughness or both. They may have made internal additions, though, not only with veterans Drew Doughty and Sean Walker recovering from injuries but with the emergence of 2021 eighth overall pick Brandt Clarke.
Clarke played extensively in the preseason. He could play up to nine games without burning a year off his entry-level contract, but would then have to return to his junior team, the Barrie Colts, rather than refine his game in the minors. Where the Ducks already assigned top defensive prospects Owen Zellwegger and Pavel Mintyukov to their junior clubs, Clarke has managed to hang around and could make a similar push to extend his stay beyond the course of a provisional regular-season stay.
“He doesn’t lack confidence and he doesn’t portray arrogance. That’s a pretty good quality to have,” McLellan said.
Blue chips or red flags?
Such trial runs are common in the NHL. Quinton Byfield had a six-game cup of coffee two seasons ago before Alex Turcotte came up for eight matches last year. Both were top-five picks, but neither has fully justified their draft standing just yet.
Turcotte sustained two severe concussions last season and has not participated fully in team activities since. Byfield, who went through a setback last season with a broken ankle, has been healthy across the summer and fall, save for a brief illness. Yet he has too often blended into the background and seldom produced statistically.
“I know I can make plays, so I just need to be more confident in myself and in my game. The rest will follow,” Byfield said.
Can the Kings make the playoffs?
A 99-point campaign and playoff appearance last season, one that came despite multiple significant injuries and countless moving parts, was more than any reasonable observer could anticipate. But the results of last season are erased all but completely, except for the fact they have raised the bar for this year’s Kings.
Kings need faster start to meet higher expectations
John Gibson’s injury casts shadow over Ducks’ preseason finale
Ducks, Kings facing tough decisions in final stretch of preseason
Injured Kings, Ducks taking steps in the right direction
Kings breakdown midway through training camp
Edmonton still boasts arguably the two best players on the planet. Darryl Sutter’s Flames lost two stars but gained three more in a whirlwind offseason. Vegas should be healthier, theoretically. The Canucks will have a full season under the regular-season under coach Bruce Boudreau, who has the fifth highest winning percentage in NHL history among those who have coached 250 or more NHL games.
That’s just in the Pacific Division, and the Central accounted for five of last year’s eight Western Conference postseason qualifiers. All five teams remain formidable on paper, while the Winnipeg Jets could be poised for a bounce-back effort.
For the Kings, however, what remains in their control is whether they can bridge the gap between two-time champion veterans Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty and the next generation of aspiring players. Quick is in the final year of his contract but wants to stay beyond this season, while backup Cal Petersen’s raise just took effect. Kopitar is also approaching the final year of his deal, 2023-24, but eschewed any discussion of figures, whether it was statistics or salary.
“We’re on the old side of things right now, but me, Quickie and Drew, I think we still have quite a bit left,” Kopitar said. “With the young guys developing as fast and as good as they did, I think it’s most definitely an opportunity to win again.”