LOS ANGELES –– A day before the puck dropped on a new campaign Tuesday, Kings general manager Rob Blake offered some searing answers to the burning questions for his team.
Blake said the Kings were diminishing concerns, increasing depth and generally putting themselves in a solid position to advance and build.
“Progress, again, continued progress,” said Blake of the organization’s goals for this season. “We made a big step getting back in the playoffs, now we’ve got to hold that level and keep going.”
Righting the special teams ship
Blake twice identified both the power play and penalty kill specifically as areas where the Kings could make strides. Coach Todd McLellan wanted a proven assistant to run the power play and got one in Jim Hiller, though fresh faces in the lineup like Kevin Fiala and Brandt Clarke could ultimately contribute to its turnaround as well.
“It’s another year of adding a couple different younger players into that equation, and then the addition of Fiala gives you a different look on that,” Blake said. “So you can see a little bit different movement on our power play than we’ve had in the past.”
Regression to the mean or raising the bar?
Fiala was one of several Kings players to see an abrupt leap in production last season. Phillip Danault and Trevor Moore went from trusted role players to core producers, while Adrian Kempe became a much more consistent force as he potted 35 goals, obliterating his previous career high of 16.
“We saw glimpses of that,” Blake said of Kempe. “The more complete player has come out of him throughout the years.”
Blake said that Danault elevated standards for himself offensively after spending his career as a shutdown center, and also integrated himself as one of the leaders in the Kings’ dressing room. Similar “buy-in” from newcomer Fiala and some of the younger Kings would be a welcome sight, he said.
New kid on the block
Clarke, 19, seemed to face an uphill climb to make a roster that featured four other right-handed shooting defensemen, but he did just that. Though he did not dress in Tuesday’s opener, Clarke, like Sean Durzi and Sean Walker, had experience on the left side. Durzi played there Tuesday while Walker may need some more time to reacclimate after a serious knee operation last season.
Clarke’s ability to play the left side, competitiveness, receptiveness and capability to kill penalties, as well as his “deception and hockey IQ,” all factored into the Kings’ evaluation, Blake said. They concluded that they could offer him enough ice time to make his inclusion worthwhile for both team and player.
“It comes down to making sure that, when he does get in the lineup, he’s going to get the right amount of minutes to keep developing,” said Blake, who added that Clarke’s assessment was ongoing. “His play through rookie camp and training camp put him to a level where we want to see him in the NHL.”
Blake also spoke of other prominent young Kings. Alex Turcotte, the fifth overall pick of 2019’s draft, sustained two concussions last year. He was “on track” in his recovery before sustaining “a setback in summer hockey,” Blake said. Medical evaluations next week could put him on a path toward progressing from skating alone to participating in limited on-ice activity with the team, Blake said.
Quinton Byfield, taken second overall in 2020, was flanked by Alex Iafallo and Gabe Vilardi on the third line Tuesday. Byfield missed time during camp due to an illness and a significant period last year between a broken ankle and time on the COVID list. Blake said he looks forward to seeing Byfield in a consistent, somewhat prominent role.
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“Both times he’s come into camp ready to go and looked to us like he could earn that spot. He’ll get his chance there now,” he said.
A crowded field
Competition from the rest of the Pacific Division and Western Conference may intensify this season, with the Kings being far from the only team with high hopes entering the campaign.
“We understand we’re going to be in a battle to get in, just like we were last year,” Blake said.