EL SEGUNDO AND LOS ANGELES, CA — As the Los Angeles Kings skate through the second week of their 2010 training camp, most of their opening night lineup appears to have already been set.
Indeed, there are no surprises regarding the 37 players still in camp after the first round of roster cuts came on September 24, with more on the way after their next pre-season game on September 28 when they host the Anaheim Ducks.
Still up for grabs are spots on the fourth line, although some favorites are already apparent.
Perhaps the strongest candidate to center that line is the 5-11, 192-pound Brad Richardson, who scored eleven goals and tallied 16 assists for 27 points in 81 regular season games with the Kings last season. He also contributed a goal and an assist in six playoff games.
The 25-year-old native of Belleville, Ontario played both center and left wing last season, his versatility making him that much more valuable.
“I feel comfortable in any position,” said Richardson. “Whereever I end up, left wing or center, that’s fine with me.”
“I’ll do whatever I can and whereever I fit in, that’s fine,” added Richardson. I’ll just try to be a good teammate, and, hopefully, work my way up.”
Another option is 6-0, 199-pound center prospect Trevor Lewis, who made the Kings roster out of training camp last season, but was their extra forward and was a healthy scratch most of the time, so much so that he was finally assigned to the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate) on October 30, 2010.
The plan was for Lewis, 23, to get more ice time. But then there’s that old saying about the best laid plans…
“I started out up here and then got sent back down to Manchester, but I separated my shoulder and had to get shoulder surgery about five games in,” Lewis lamented. “That was tough. I was out for awhile. When I came back, it took a little bit to get my legs and timing back again. But, luckily, we went on a long playoff run and I started to get it back then.”
“I just think I didn’t get into enough games and they wanted me to play a little more,” Lewis added. “Unfortunately, I got hurt down there and didn’t get a chance to come back up. But, like I said, we went on a long playoff run and that was good for me.”
Lewis’ biggest challenge in terms of making it to the National Hockey League has been improving his play along the boards and in the corners.
“[I need to] stay strong on the puck and be more gritty,” Lewis stressed. “I was trying to do that, but things didn’t work out like that. But going into this camp, I know what I’ve got to do. I’ve just got to go out and do it.”
“Physically, from my first look at him, he has come a long way,” said Murray. “I saw him play three games in the playoffs at Manchester last year—very important player. [He] played very well.”
“His skating, his strength on the puck, his overall physical strength in battles has really improved big time in the time that I’ve known him,” added Murray.
Despite the improvement, in his first pre-season game with the Kings this year, Lewis often looked good on one shift, but a bit confused on the next.
“We’re getting back at it, there a little bit of change. maybe in tweaking what they were doing [at Manchester] at the end [of last season] and what we’re doing here,” Murray explained. “That’s not a concern for me. What I love is how he’s grown, how’s matured mentally. He’s competing in those one-on-one battles very well.”
“The hesitation that’s there [in his game]—we’ll correct that,” Murray elaborated. “We’ll get [him back on the right page] with the system. Overall, I’m looking forward to him going through this training camp and see where he is at the end of it.”
“His reads are getting better. There were a couple of situations tonight where if he’s going to play that kind of a role, he needs to be more consistent and instinctive. But there’s been a big improvement in his overall game.”
Similar to Richardson, Lewis is a versatile forward who can play center and right wing.
“With the people we have here, Richardson can play center,” said Murray. “He was a left winger often last year. Lewis—the same way. Talking with the Manchester guys here, he can play all three forward positions, but more center and right wing. There’s some great versatility from several guys.”
A third alternative is young center prospect Andrei Loktionov, who scored nine goals and contributed 15 assists for 24 points in 29 regular season games at Manchester last season.
He also recorded a goal with eight assists in 16 playoff games.
The twenty-year-old native of Voskresensk, Russia, started the season at Manchester so well that he was recalled by the Kings on November 23, 2009. The 5-10, 179-pound center led the Monarchs in scoring and was ranked third among AHL rookies with 17 points on six goals and eleven assists in twenty games at the time of his recall. Loktionov also ranked second among AHL rookies in assists.
But in his NHL debut at Edmonton on November 25, Loktionov, who was selected by the Kings in the fifth round (123rd overall) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, suffered a dislocated shoulder and ended up spending most of the season on the shelf.
After a long playoff run with Manchester and another summer of working in the gym, Loktionov came into training camp as one of the Kings’ top five in the team’s fitness testing.
“Loktionov has really improved on the physical side of the game,” Murray beamed. “He’s becoming a man out there. He’s very strong. He’s put in a great deal of time the past two years into the off-season program.”
Loktionov has been turning some heads in training camp.
“He’s a playmaker, he sees the ice, he’s got great awareness to make plays,” Murray noted. “As we see him move forward in his career, he’s only going to get better in that part of the game.”
“You can see that he’s such a focused guy,” Murray added. “When he’s out there, his total concentration is on the puck, and that’s why he’s such a great puck handler, because he really does work at it.”
Other players in the mix for a spot on the fourth line are Kyle Clifford, Rich Clune, Oscar Moller and Brayden Schenn, and since the Kings will carry an extra forward on the roster, at least one of them figures to be on the opening night roster.
But one position on the fourth line has already been locked up.
Indeed, enforcer Kevin Westgarth, 26, will be promoted from Manchester, where he scored eleven goals and added 14 assists for 25 points with 180 penalty minutes in 76 regular season games last season.
The 6-4, 228-pound native of Amherstburg, Ontario also recorded a goal with ten penalty minutes in six playoff games.
“He’s a heavyweight,” Murray noted. “He showed that in the [pre-season] game that he played in Colorado. I believe we need that kind of a player.”
“He’s paid his price and his dues down in the minors, so he’s one of the players who will fill that spot as a fourth line player,” Murray added.
Although improved skating and physical conditioning has raised his stock in the eyes of the Kings’ management and coaching staff, Westgarth is not taking anything for granted and knows that it is not all about dropping the gloves.
“I’m definitely excited and I think there’s a big opportunity here,” he said. “But I know haven’t earned anything yet. I haven’t played a season in the NHL, so nothing’s done yet.”
“I’m looking forward to showing them what I can do the rest of this camp,” he added. “Hopefully, my number gets called for that first game in the [Kings’ vintage colors], yellow and purple.”
“I need to come in and have a good camp like last year. To make the team, I have to make sure I never come out of the lineup by staying hard on pucks and doing all the little things right.”
At this point in camp, much of the fourth-line work has gone to Richardson, Lewis and Westgarth.
“So far, it’s been good,” said Richardson. “Louie [Trevor Lewis] is a good skater, he’s pretty hard-nosed, and everyone knows what Westie [Westgarth] can do. I think, between Louie and myself, we’ll be trying to create a lot of energy, a lot of skating. Westie will be going hard to the net and Louie and I will be doing a lot of the puck work.”