As the Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels make their way through the MLB Playoffs, it is easy to see why the quick start of the LA Kings is hard to find in the sports pages of the LA Times. While it is surprising to see the Kings leading the NHL's Pacific division, the first place position is well earned.
Coming off a 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers on Wednesday night, the Kings have a good mix of young talent and with the resurgence of Captain Canada, Ryan Smyth; this team may be in the hunt for a playoff spot when March arrives.
After his trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the New York Islanders at the 2007 trade deadline, followed by an injury-filled season in Colorado in 2008, Smyth appears to be a man on a mission in Los Angeles, scoring 5 goals and adding 4 assists in 6 games. His line with Justin Williams and Anze Kopitar have scored 10 goals and tallied 25 points in 6 games; great stats for guys that only met in Training Camp this fall. Playing an average of 20 minutes per game, Smyth is leading his young squad to an unfamiliar place - first place.
Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi has quietly accumulated some quality draft picks as his team struggled in previous seasons and those picks are now at the NHL level making a name for themselves.
Drafted 11th overall in the 2005 entry draft, Anze Kopitar has always scored goals for the Kings; in 242 career games he has 214 points but his career plus/minus is a minus 42. His first three seasons with the Kings saw him accumulate 61 points in 72 games while being a minus 12 in his rookie year; followed by 77 points in his second year and 66 in his third, while playing in all 82 games. Despite a natural scoring touch, he was a minus 15 and a minus 17 in those seasons. This year, he is once again leading the way with 4 goals and 10 points, while being a plus 2. The best offence is a good defence and Kopitar seems to have bought into the idea that he needs to be more responsible in his own zone.
Speaking of defence, former Canadian World Junior Champion Drew Doughty has become a true NHL calibre defenseman. The 6’0 D-man from London Ontario is in his second season in the league and after playing in all but one game last year, which saw him accumulate 27 points in his rookie campaign, Doughty has 2 goals and 4 assists in 6 games this season. Drafted second overall in the 2008 draft by the Kings to anchor the defence and be a building block for the future, Doughty will be an all-star in the future and hockey fans in the East will begin to see him as one of the many young stars on the rise in the league.
The youth movement also applies to the net minders on the Kings as the team goes with the tandem of Jonathan Quick and Erik Ersberg. Quick is in his third year in the NHL and his second full year with the team after playing in four games his first season. A third round draft pick in 2005, Quick has a 4-1-0 record this year, with a 3.00 GAA and a .898 save percentage. His personal numbers are not overly impressive but his 4 wins are the ones that really count in the standings. Ersberg signed with the Kings as a free agent in May 2007 after starting his career in Sweden. In 43 NHL games, Ersberg has a 14-17-0 record with a .909 save percentage and an impressive 2.62 GAA. This duo will have some shaky moments this season but their numbers will improve as the team improves.
Sharing a stage with the Dodgers, Angels and the NBA's Lakers, it will take time, perhaps a few years of playoff appearances for the Kings to become headline material in Los Angeles but make no mistake, we could be witnessing the Pittsburgh Penguins of the West. With a solid core of young draft picks and reliable veterans, GM Lombardi and Coach Murray may become the talk of the town in Los Angeles.
As the Kings prepare for the hurting Red Wings tonight in Detroit, the Kings organization is celebrating a milestone moment from October 15th, 1989. That was the night Wayne Gretzky travelled to Edmonton to score a goal on his former squad. The goal was point number 1,851, passing his idol, Gordie Howe, as the NHL’s all-time point leader. Have a great sports day everyone.