Kings need faster start to meet higher expectations

Last year’s Kings surprised pleasantly, defying sportsbook odds and snapping a string of three non-playoff seasons before bowing out against the Edmonton Oilers in a grueling seven-game series.

This year’s group, which remained almost entirely intact and added a point-per-game winger in Kevin Fiala, enters the season with bigger billing and higher expectations.

“We’re not sneaking up on anybody,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said. “There are teams in our division that want our spot, and we’re ready for that challenge.”

As it did last year, the Kings’ journey will begin against the Vegas Golden Knights, whom they will host Tuesday at Arena.

Last season, the Kings routed Vegas 6-2 on opening night but then careened through a season-worst winless streak of six games. McLellan cautioned that the Kings could not stumble out of the gate this season against a more competitive Western Conference. He also doubted the Kings could bank on being able to walk along the razor’s edge and win close games as frequently as they did last year, leaving them with a goal differential of just plus-three when the East’s playoffs qualifiers were all at least 30 goals in the black.

“Plus two or three doesn’t get you into many postseasons,” McLellan said.

Rather than emphasize a single area, McLellan and his staff, including new assistant and power-play guru Jim Hiller, are seeking to “move the needle” in every aspect of their game. McLellan said he wanted to see improvements on both the power play and penalty kill, as well as five-on-five fierceness in all three zones. While firm benchmarks and statistical barometers have never been favored by McLellan, he seemed to suggest he’d like to see a double-digit reduction in goals for and goals against over the course of the campaign.

Special teams alone could offer a significant boost. If the Kings were to have scored the median number of power-play goals for an NHL club last season, they would have potted nine more. They also surrendered four more goals while shorthanded, four above the league median, meaning average special teams play would have given their goal differential a net boost of plus-13.

In both man-advantage and even-strength situations, Fiala offers promise. He finished in the top 10 leaguewide by scoring 67 of his 85 points at even strength. Meanwhile, the Kings hope he improves on his 17 power-play points given an opportunity with their first unit and higher-caliber linemates in Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe.

Like Kempe, who broke out last season with 35 goals, Fiala excels on zone entries and in any position on the power play. The flank, the point, the wall, the bumper and everything in between could be considered comfort zones for both players, and the Kings have found some success in the preseason with a fluid, five-man attack that has greater movement and more positional switches.

“Not just us two but all of us can interchange, and I think that’s what good power plays do,” Fiala said. “You don’t have a spot, you see how it goes, fill in wherever you are and play from there.”

The Kings started the preseason by allowing just eight goals in their first four games, five in three if one were to exclude a choppy outing in Ontario that featured poor ice conditions and three separate delays to replace plexiglass panes that came loose. They proceeded to allow 11 goals in their next two contests before concluding with a 6-3 win over the Ducks that saw them get goals from six different players.

“We’ve been struggling a little bit throughout the preseason, and that’s something you obviously don’t work during the summer because you’re not trying to hurt guys or anything like that,” No. 1 defenseman Drew Doughty said. “That’s something that you need to get back through preseason, because you can’t work on it, it’s probably the main thing: defending for real and net play.”

Goalie Jonathan Quick will enter the year as the Kings’ No. 1 goalie, likely to make his 13th opening-night start in 14 seasons. Cal Petersen, now earning $5 million a season against the cap, enters the year as Quick’s backup but should have plenty of opportunities to increase his workload.

Despite some touch-and-go situations on defense — Sean Walker is coming off reconstructive knee surgery, Sean Durzi’s shoulder operation kept him out of most of the preseason but he turned in multipoint efforts in his two appearances, and Alex Edler, 36, endured a broken ankle and hastened recovery last season — the Kings appear ready to open the season with seven defensemen.

They all but certainly will include 2021 lottery pick Brandt Clarke, at least initially, as Jordan Spence and Tobias Bjornfot were sent down before Jacob Moverare was placed on waivers for the purpose of reassignment.

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Up front, Lias Andersson cleared waivers, and Viktor Arvidsson, initially believed to be a couple of weeks away from a return to full-speed competition, not only got into an exhibition game but may be ready to start the regular season.

Gabe Vilardi and Jaret Anderson-Dolan appear set to return to the roster after both spent most of last season toiling in the minors despite having earned significant playing time the prior campaign.

Where the Kings have continued to add — they followed the superb addition of Phillip Danault in free agency with the shrewd acquisition of Fiala — Vegas lost bodies this offseason. It had to trade a top-line winger, Max Pacioretty, to Carolina for future considerations because of a salary cap crunch, and also had to cast Evgenii Dadonov aside, though they replaced him with veteran Phil Kessel. It faces an uncertain situation in goal after trading Marc Andre-Fleury under similar cap duress and now will play a full season without his successor Robin Lehner as he recovers from an elaborate procedure on his hip.

But Vegas hopes to get full campaigns from marquee players like center Jack Eichel and right wing Mark Stone, in addition to better all-around health than last season, when it missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Vegas at Kings

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Arena

TV/Radio: ESPN/ESPN+, IHeartRadio, Tu Liga 1330 (Spanish)

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