Two out of the three spots on the Los Angeles Kings’ first line are virtually locked up for next season. Anze Kopitar is certainly going to be the top centre, while his wingman, Alex Iafallo is almost guaranteed to be the top left wing on opening night. Presumably, these positions will be locked up next season:
|Adrian Kempe||Phillip Danault||?|
Who will play right wing on the first line, vs. who will skate on the second line, is a very valid question. Could veteran Dustin Brown, who spent much of the 2020-21 season on the top line, return? Or, should newcomer Viktor Arvidsson get an opportunity on the line?
Here’s each player’s case for playing on the first line.
The Case for (and Against) Dustin Brown
Since being drafted by LA in 2003, Brown has remained with the team for his entire career. A leader in the locker room, he captained the Kings to two Stanley Cup victories. Throughout the 2010’s, he built lots of chemistry with Kopitar as both forwards were fixtures on LA’s first line. Last season, Brown notched a team-leading 17 goals and 31 points, which ranked third behind Kopitar and blueliner Drew Doughty.
Furthermore, Brown was the physical presence on the Kings’ first line, as he threw 85 hits last season. Comparatively, Iafallo and Kopitar combined for just 71 hits, underscoring that Brown dished out more hits than his other linemates combined.
However, Brown is 36 years old, and only has one year remaining on his contract. He’s getting older, and with the Kings’ loaded prospect pool, he may not have a spot on the team beyond the 2021-22 season. Phillip Danault recently inked a six-year deal with LA, and alongside Kopitar and Quinton Byfield, the Kings’ top three centres are set for years to come.
Thus, right-handed centre prospects may have to switch to the right wing to earn playing time in the NHL. Gabriel Vilardi, who cemented himself as an NHL-caliber player last season, is a likely candidate to switch to the wing. He was primarily a winger in his rookie and sophomore seasons in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) with the Windsor Spitfires. In 2020-21, he spent time that ranged from skating in the Kings’ top six to being a healthy scratch.
As an NHL sophomore next season, Vilardi likely will start on a big, fast, third line with Byfield and Andreas Athanasiou (who recently re-signed with LA), but Vilardi could prove himself to be deserving of second line minutes. Additionally, LA has natural right wingers in the prospect pool, including the high-scoring Arthur Kaliyev, who will be looking for a spot on the roster.
Brown isn’t going to be a big piece of the Kings’ future after this season. Thus, decreasing his responsibilities and giving them to a player who will be with the team for longer (Arvidsson) makes sense. Additionally, if Brown plays on the second line with Danault and Kempe, they’d create a similar trio to the line Danault spent the past three seasons playing with.
With the Montreal Canadiens, he typically skated with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar over the past three regular seasons, although Tatar was scratched in the 2021 playoffs. Gallagher is a gritty player who chips in goals and always battles for the puck. Brown plays a similar style, and Tatar was the speedy, skilled offensive threat, which is what LA hopes 24-year-old Kempe will develop into.
The Case for (and Against) Viktor Arvidsson
Arvidsson has spent much of his career playing on the Nashville Predators‘ first line, forming a deadly trio with Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen that helped them reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. Arvidsson was acquired early into the off-season by LA. Due to his pedigree as a first liner, many fans expect him to nab a place on the Kings’ top line.
Known for his goal-scoring prowess, Arvidsson would provide the Kings top line with a high-end scoring talent to work the puck to. Last season, Brown scored 17 goals, while Kopitar and Iafallo each nabbed 13. Arvidsson has struggled to score in the past two seasons, only finding the back of the net 25 times in 107 games played. Prior to those seasons, he scored 31 goals in 2016-17, 29 in 2017-18, and hit the 30-goal plateau for the second time in three seasons with 34 goals in 58 games during 2018-19.
Last season, he had a measly shooting percentage of 6.6%, the lowest since his rookie season in 2015-16. He almost certainly will shoot at a higher clip next season, considering he gets to play with one of the NHL’s top passers in Kopitar (he finished 18th in assists during 2020-21), and that should rejuvenate Arvidsson‘s goal-scoring.
To boot, Arvidsson is great at maintaining possession of the puck, which fits right in with Kopitar and Iafallo. When Kopitar and Iafallo played together last season, they combined for a shots for (SF%) of 54.36, a Fenwick For (FF%) of 53.15, and a Corsi For (CF%) of 52.94. Arvidsson’s personal numbers of a 53.23 SF%, a 53.63 CF%, and a 55.48 FF% would make this line even better at controlling the ice. Pencilling Arvidsson on the LA Kings’ first line would neuter the line’s physicality.
He threw 15 hits last season; combined with Kopitar and Iafallo, that totals to 86. Brown single-handedly threw 85 hits in 2020-21, thus this would prove to be a much less physically imposing line. Placing Arvidsson on the second line would give both of the Kings’ top two lines a player who throws over a hit per game (Brown on the first, Danault on the second). Brown also has tons of experience playing with Kopitar and Iafallo. Arvidsson doesn’t have this experience, so he won’t have the same chemistry with them that Brown does. In particular, Kopitar and Brown have developed chemistry via skating on the same line for the better part of a decade.
Arguments can be made for either Brown or Arvidsson to skate on LA’s first line. However, I think giving Arvidsson the opportunity to play on the first line makes the most sense. If this doesn’t workout, they can always circle back and switch him onto the second line. Hypothetically, this could be LA’s top nine on opening night:
Overall, whether it is Brown or Arvidsson who earns first-line minutes, LA is poised to be able to roll three lines that can put the puck into the net.
I am a lifelong hockey fan who will be covering the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks here at The Hockey Writers. Before joining The Hockey Writers I spent two years blogging about hockey.
Feel free to follow my Twitter @TheRoyalQuinn or on Insta @thw_quinn for updates on when my newest articles are published.