From a Position of Strength to Weakness
In previous seasons, it seemed as though no team could come close to matching the center depth the Los Angeles Kings had. The Kings center depth was such a position of strength, all four offensive lines rolled as an offensive powerhouse. Like a Marvel Comic character having ancient mystic powers over a universe of fictitious characters, the Kings centers were a Juggernaut in the league that no team could match. No opponent had it easy and the Kings grinding style seemed indestructible.
However, due to an onslaught of enigmatic play and inconsistent scoring, the 2014-2015 season was like watching the Juggernaut lose those mystical powers he was so accustom to having.
Two Number One Centers
There still may not be a one-two punch as formidable at the center position as Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter. While Kopitar had a bit of a down year in terms of offense, he was still recognized for his outstanding overall play.
A truly disciplined player, Kopitar was nominated for the Lady Byng this season along with other nominees Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings and Jiri Hudler of the Calgary Flames. Members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association submit ballots at the end of the season of players who they think most exhibit sportsmanship. Gentlemanly conduct (whatever that means) is another trait required for a player to be considered for the trophy.
Anze Kopitar was also nominated for the Frank J. Selke Award again this season with fellow nominees Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews. In fact, the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association nominated the same three as they did in 2013-2014. Bergeron and Toews have traded off the last three seasons (Bergeron (2012)-Toews (2013)-Bergeron (2014)) and Kopitar has yet to win the award.
While he was the top-ranked forward when it came to puck possession, it did not translate into points as Kopitar was limited to his lowest regular season goal and point totals since his rookie season (excluding the shortened lockout season of 2012-2013).
Kopitar is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2016, however, negotiations can begin July of this year. Regardless of the decisions that need to be made this offseason, that is a major lingering factor as to how the salary cap will be dictated for years to come.
Jeff Carter was one of the few things that went right for the Kings in the 2014-2015 season. Centering between Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson or Toffoli and Dwight King, he matured as number one center on a team with two number one centers.
Second to only Kopitar in overall point production, Carter led the Kings in goals with twenty-eight on the season and sixty-two points. He achieved superstar status helping the Canadian National Team win an Olympic gold medal in Sochi in 2014 and this season only helped maintain his position on the Kings.
The Regressive Play of Stoll and Richards
Both Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll had forgettable seasons. Mike Richards was close to being scratched, sent down to the AHL, cleared waivers, and was a scratch when the salary cap and roster capacity was no longer a factor. When recalled, a lot of Kings fans were hoping to see a revised Mike Richards. That did not happen and his role reduced to the point of nonexistence. Richards has been a headline darling because of these things, but, it puts the Kings in a bind contractually moving forward.
Jarret Stoll had a season plagued with bad penalties, mediocre faceoff percentages, and (now) bad publicity. The judicial system is a tough nut to crack, especially when in comes to the possession of any measurable amount of narcotics. Stoll was never called upon to lead the charge offensively, however, he was relied upon to provide secondary scoring at some point. Another one of his previous attributes was his role as a checking forward, but, this season there was an increase in the total shots allowed from opponents during his shifts. Stoll’s role was really in question prior to the Las Vegas pool party.
Both Richards and Stoll had made such an impression for themselves as core players at one point. They were players that would do whatever it would take to win and there seemed to be no stop to the juggernaut that was the Kings center depth. And while the two still may have that mentality when it comes to professional sports, there was not enough production to warrant another chance to make the impact they once had for the Kings and the team’s center position.
Positives and Negatives in Development
If there was any salvation in the lack of production from the bottom-six center position, it was the consistent strong play of Trevor Lewis and progressive development of Nick Shore.
Lewis has never put up a lot of offensive numbers. He has never broken the ten-goal mark in the regular season and 2014-2015 was his career high with nine. However, in between the average ice times of Stoll and Richards, Lewis was able to post a humble twenty-five points.
With Lewis, the intangibles are what set him apart from other third-line checking forwards in the league. Tireless effort on the fore-check and back-check, the versatility of playing any forward position on any forward line, and his work on the penalty kill validates Lewis’ spot on the Kings roster for another year until he is an unrestricted free agent in 2016.
Nick Shore’s short time with the Kings this season proved to be another positive step in development. Shore only had one goal during his time up with the big-club, but he would win one-on-one battles along the boards and improved drastically in the faceoff circle as the season progressed ending with a faceoff percentage close to fifty-four percent. He would also replace Richards on the fourth-line at the end of the season when points were crucial.
Andy Andreoff struggled to stay in the line-up the few chances he had. He showed that he has the ability to play in this league, but it may not be with the Kings. Head coach Darryl Sutter inserted Nick Shore into the line up when it counted while Andreoff sat in the press box. There was reasoning behind Sutter’s logic in analyzing Andreoff’s development. Like Shore, Andreoff will be a restricted free agent this offseason.
Both Lewis and Shore could be ready to take on the roles that Richards and Stoll could leave behind. That is if Richards were to be bought out or traded and Stoll does not resign.
Doubt is something Kings fans have not had to deal with in a long time. And when it came to the center position and the contracts Dean Lombardi would obtain, there should have been no doubt for a long, long time. But, with what has transpired in an offensively starved season and the disappearing act of two strong centers, the juggernaut that was the Kings center position is now sitting in Charles Xavier’s house searching for a second Cyttorak Gem.
Cole R. Querry resides in Southern California. Having played hockey through college and a background in science and math, he promises to bring an objective analysis to the team and sport he loves.