Feel that warm summer breeze? Notice that the leaves are in no way changing colors? Experience the warm Sun taking you in his embrace? That can only mean one thing: hockey's back!
OK, so it might not feel like hockey weather but that doesn't mean we can't look forward to an exciting Kings season that is about to be upon us. The Kings officially opened their training camp last week with their HockeyFest celebration and the opening of prospect camp; this weekend, the big boys take to the ice. Here is a handy list of players and the training camp schedule to follow along. To prepare you for camp, here are a few battles to watch as prospects try to take the next step and veterans try to hold onto their jobs. These spots are pretty much set in stone to start the season, barring injury:
Ryan Smyth - Anze Kopitar- Justin Williams
( ) - Jarret Stoll - Dustin Brown
Alexei Ponikarovsky - Michal Handzus - Wayne Simmonds
( ) - ( ) - Kevin Westgarth
Rob Scuderi - Drew Doughty
Jack Johnson - Willie Mitchell
( ) - ( )
2nd Line Left Wing
Options: Scott Parse, Brad Richardson, Oscar Moller
This is the spot the Kings were really hoping to fill through either a free agent (*cough Ilya Kovalchuk *cough) or trade. The Kings lost out on the whole Kovalchuk sweepstakes, though, and the trade route seems to have periodically dried up as teams wait until training camp to see what they have. The most probable person to step up and take this spot is Scott Parse, the 26-year old winger who shined in limited playing time last season. Parse's biggest knock is his inability or unwillingness to battle in the corners and play defense, according to Kings Head Coach Terry Murray. Parse is facing a make-or-break season as a King and as an NHL player this training camp; he either takes the job or he faces the life of a journeyman.
Brad Richardson also shined in his limited ice time last season, tallying 27 points while averaging less than 13 minutes a night last season Richardson's a fine player but his versatility (he can play all three forward positions) and his lesser scoring touch makes him more suitable for a bottom-six position; if he's on the 2nd line, it means no one else stepped up to grab the job.
Oscar Moller is a talented, hard-working prospect that could eventually take this job. He'll most likely spend the season in Manchester, dominating and getting stronger, and will be a real contender for this spot next season. But hey, if he can grab it this season more power to him.
Best Case: Trade for scoring winger
Worst Case: Brad Richardson
Most Probable Case: Scott Parse
4th Line Center
Options: Brad Richardson, Brayden Schenn, Trevor Lewis, Marc-Andre Cliche, Corey Elkins
Brad Richardson is the incumbent in this position, although he played wing a lot last season as the situation demanded it. Like I said above, Richardson is a versatile and defensively responsible player that can be used wherever he's needed. Richardson is a good player, but he's not quite as young and talented as the guys coming up behind him. If the Kings do make a trade in camp, it's likely that Richardson would be going the other way.
Brayden Schenn is an awesome young player. Tough, talented, and possessing great vision, Schenn is the future 2nd line center for the Kings. Last season Schenn was one of the last cuts in camp and he dominated the Western Hockey League all year. Schenn is in the same place Anze Kopitar was before Kopitar burst onto the scene in 2006; however, Schenn recently suffered a "tweak" of the knee while practicing with his junior team and is not expected to be ready to start camp. It's unfortunate but if Schenn can rebound and impress the Kings' brass enough, he could definitely make the team as a 4th liner to start and eventually move up to the 2nd line by the end of the season.
Trevor Lewis, Marc-Andre Cliche and Corey Elkins are all young (23, 23, and 25, respectively) and all three got a cup of coffee with the Kings last season. Any one of them could put in a good showing in camp and grab the 4th line center job, depending on how everything shakes up ahead of them. Lewis is probably the best offensively and has the most skill, while Cliche is probably the best defensively. Elkins... seems nice. I don't know, he's not going to get the job but I would have felt bad leaving him off.
Best Case Scenario: Brayden Schenn
Worst Case Scenario: Corey Elkins
Most Probable Scenario: Brad Richardson
4th Line Scrapper
Options: Rich Clune, Kyle Clifford, John Zeiler
GM Dean Lombardi is very particular about the make-up of his 4th line: he likes a fighter (Kevin Westgarth), a defensively responsible center (one of the above), and a grinder that can agitate the other team. Last year that job was done by Brandon Segal and Richard Clune; Clune excelled in his few games with the Kings last year, drawing more penalties than he gained and getting in 4 fights in 16 games. Clune got his "Welcome to the NHL" moment in the playoffs when he fought noted pugilist Rick Rypien and... did not fare well. Clune is not very skilled but he's not one to give cheap shots either and he agitates while still being fair. I respect that.
Kyle Clifford is in the same position as Oscar Moller and Brayden Schenn: he's a good young player that might make the team but might be served better spending more time in the minors. Clifford is kind of like Clune on steroids (not actual steroids... you know what I mean): he's big, he's tough, he fights a lot, but he can score a little bit while Clune can't. The ideal scenario for the Kings would be for Schenn and Clifford to come up in a similar manner to Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry: play for a while on the 4th line with a big fighter that can protect them and then move up as the season goes along. I could also see Clifford staying up a la Wayne Simmonds because Clifford can learn the NHL game while not being expected to score, unlike Schenn. Or Clifford will go down to Junior again and he'll probably murder someone because seriously, the kid's a monster.
John Zeiler is a bad hockey player.
Best Case Scenario: Kyle Clifford
Worst Case Scenario: John Zeiler
Most Probable Scenario: Kyle Clifford (Seriously, kid's awesome)
Options: Davis Drewiske, Peter Harrold, Alec Martinez, Johan Fransson, Thomas Hickey, Jake Muzzin
The loss of Matt Greene to a shoulder injury for the first month of the season hurts, not only because he's a good penalty killer and a great team guy but also because it throws our training camp competition out of whack. If Greene were here the Kings could focus on a specific role for their 6th defenseman and really get a feel for their prospects; now, with Greene out, the Kings need to find a different type of player at the beginning and then switch that role when Greene gets back.
Davis Drewiske will almost certainly take one spot by virtue of the fact that he's been up with the Kings for 2 years and knows the system. He's also probably the best defensive player available and plus, he's earned it. Peter Harrold is nice enough but he's not solid defensively and the Kings have a plethora of prospects that can do what he does but better. He's good as a seventh defenseman/4th-line forward. Alec Martinez is a solid guy and may make the team but it feels like he missed his shot. He could usurp Harrold as the seventh guy.
The big competition will come down to Johan Fransson, Thomas Hickey, and Jake Muzzin. Fransson is the eldest of the three at 25 and has spent the past few years playing in the Swedish Elite League. Fransson is very quick and is a dynamic offensive player from the back end but his risk-taking does not seem compatible with Terry Murray's system. If Greene were available in training camp I could see Fransson winning the spot because Greene could cover for Fransson's defensive lapses, but now? I see him in the AHL.
Thomas Hickey has the pedigree (4th overall pick in 2007) and the game (great offensively, sound defensively), but he missed pretty much all of last season and might not be up to speed by training camp. Hickey is oft-injured but when he's healthy he's just what the Kings need. He's fluid with the puck and uses his positioning well to keep the puck out of the dangerous parts of the ice. If Hickey can't make the team immediately, I won't be surprised if he makes the team halfway through the year.
Jake Muzzin is the wild card in all this. He's more of a rough 'n tumble type player, one who's not afraid to get dirty. The loss of Matt Greene actually helps Muzzin, as he's the prospect who best replicates Greene's game. Muzzin can play at even-strength and on special teams. If there's a doubt about Muzzin it's that he's kind of burst onto the scene since he signed a free agent deal last season. Muzzin suffered through a chronic back injury during the 2 years leading up to his draft year (2007) but since then he's been one of the top defensemen in his league. The problem I have with Muzzin isn't that he's not a great player; it's that I can't imagine he's this great and we were still able to get him.
Best Case Scenario: Hickey-Muzzin
Worst Case Scenario: Harrold-Drewiske
Most Probable Scenario: Hickey-Drewiske
Options: Jonathan Bernier, Erik Ersberg
Gotta be honest... Ersberg has no shot. It's going to be Bernier.
Best Case Scenario: Jonathan Bernier
Worst Case Scenario That Won't Happen: Erik Ersberg
Most Probable Scenario: Jonathan Bernier
Likely team to start the season:
I can live with that. At this point, I'm just glad that hockey's back.