The 2016-17 NHL season is just a few weeks away, which means the league’s 30 teams are shaking off the rust in training camps and preseason games across the U.S. and Canada. The Los Angels Kings are no different and have started skating at their practice facility in El Segundo, and have participated in several preseason games against some of their Pacific Division rivals.
As the preseason inches along and the regular season gets closer and closer, the battles for a spot on opening night rosters will only heat up. However, in recent years the battles for a roster spot in Los Angeles weren’t as intense or magnified because of the makeup of the Kings’ roster. A team with a fluid mix of young talent, veteran leadership and plenty of character didn’t leave much room for a youth movement to make any moves at training camp. This is no longer the case.
The veteran leadership in the Kings’ locker room has gotten older, and the once young talent has developed into the next wave of team leaders. Anze Kopitar, once the future in Los Angeles, is now the captain. Drew Doughty, the second overall pick in the 2008 draft, is fresh off a Norris Trophy-winning season. Tyler Toffoli is trending towards being the Kings’ offensive leader for the foreseeable future and Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin have developed into two of the most reliable d-men in the league.
The Kings’ drafting and development have come to fruition. All the young talent mentioned above played a role in some way to the Kings’ two Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and 2014 and were brought up through the Kings’ organization.
Along with the youth, the Kings had a strong veteran presence during those two runs at the Cup. Players like Rob Scuderi, who left Los Angeles after the Cup victory in 2012 and was re-acquired by the Kings late last season via trade. Or Matt Greene, who has been a part of the Kings roster since 2008. Those two players were a veteran presence then and have only gotten older since. are probably fighting for their jobs when it comes to this year’s training camp.
Roster spots are never decided solely by the age of a player, but Scuderi and Greene are likely fighting for their jobs when it comes to this year’s training camp against some much younger talent.
Young Legs on the Blue Line
When looking at the Kings’ blue line, there are some players you can lock into a roster spot on opening night. Doughty, Muzzin, Martinez and Brayden McNabb will be in the lineup for Los Angeles on opening night, no question there.
Here’s where the Kings can get younger. Derek Forbort and Kevin Gravel are both players who have spent their entire career in the Kings’ organization and were called up for stints with the big club last season. While Zach Trotman, a 26-year-old right-handed defenseman, and Tom Gilbert, a 10-year NHL veteran, were both brought in via free agency.
That means all four of those mentioned above along with Greene and Scuderi will be fighting for the remaining spots on the Kings’ blue line. This will come down to how the group plays at training camp and leading up to the regular season, but also gives the Kings a chance to phase out some of the team’s older legs.
The NHL has turned into a league where teams thrive around speed. Teams that are built around size and physicality can’t keep up with the talent and speed that has infused its way into the NHL. Greene and Scuderi are two examples of stay-at-home body first d-men that are getting left behind. Not to mention Greene missed the final 79 games of last season due to shoulder and elbow surgeries while Scuderi will turn 38 later this year.
The Kings were built to be a team that was bigger than the other and would physically grind you down and win close one-goal games. That was successful and brought the first two Stanley Cup championships in franchise history to Los Angeles. But now the league has evolved, and the Kings must evolve as well if they want to stay afloat.
Forbort, Gravel, and Trotman are all d-men with high skating abilities that can move the puck cleanly, efficiently and above all else quickly, something a team like the Kings is built around. These three can keep up with the new fast-paced style that’s so popular in the NHL
All three should give Greene and Scuderi a run for their money when it comes to who makes the 23-man roster.
The Waiting Game on Offense
Things are a little tighter when it comes to the offensive side of the puck. There is no aging veteran who is on the backend of his career, depending on how you look at Marian Gaborik, who we’ll get to in a second.
The Kings offensive front mainly consists of players moving into and in their prime. Older players like Jeff Carter and Gaborik can still be offensive threats and are leaned on to contribute.
The Kings do have some young talent waiting for a chance at cracking the lineup. Players like Nic Dowd and Michael Mersch look to make the jump from the Ontario Reign to the big club, while NHL veteran Devin Setoguchi is skating with the Kings on a professional tryout contract during the preseason.
These players will have to fight their way into the lineup by grabbing ice time when they can and working their way up the depth chart.
Now back to Gaborik. Gaborik suffered a foot injury while playing for Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey and will need eight weeks to recover from the injury. That means Gaborik will be out till about mid-November and could miss around 20 games to start the season. This is just the latest in an injury-riddled career for the winger. Gaborik missed the final 28 regular season games and game one of the playoffs due to a knee sprain.
This should be an eye-opening injury for the Kings’ brass. Gaborik can still be effective, he looked real good with Team Europe, but at 34-years-old and a history of injuries, Gaborik might be an injury or two away from the end of his career.
Gaborik’s injury will open a spot on a line with Kopitar and Teddy Purcell which will result in some shifting of the lines. An injury is never good, but Gaborik’s couldn’t have come at a better time as the Kings have the preseason to figure out how exactly they want to address the situation rather than fixing it on the fly during the season.
This opening on the first line could be the first domino for some of the Kings’ offensive talent getting reps with the big club to start the season. An opportunity that wouldn’t have been available had Gaborik not injured his foot.
Eric received his BA in Journalism from California State University, Northridge. Eric has contributed to RinkRoyalty.com, Buffalowdown.com and California Rubber Magazine.