LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings have been one of the Western Conference's worst teams the past two seasons but general manager Rob Blake has set an ambitious goal this year for a club still in the midst of rebuilding — making the playoffs.
“That’s what we expect to do,” Blake said. “This is a results-oriented business. And to get these results, results are wins. You want to keep building on that."
The Kings made improvements last season in Todd McLellan's first year as coach. They had a seven-game winning streak when the pandemic halted the season. At that point, though, they were not in playoff contention and were one of seven teams that didn't return when the season resumed in late July.
Despite not being on the ice for nine months, McLellan feels like his team is further ahead than last year.
“We are in a different place. Players understand the parameters of what is acceptable. There is a process that was engraved last year as the season went on and now is the time to build on that,” he said.
If the Kings are going to take the next step, they need to capitalize on scoring chances. Their 33.2 shots on goal per game was fourth in the league last season but they averaged only 2.53 goals per game, which was second-worst. Veteran centre Anze Kopitar was the only Los Angeles player to score over 20 goals (21) and 50 points (62).
“It’s realistic to think about playoffs for sure,” Kopitar said. “We took a good step in the right direction last year, but now we can’t give anything back. We have to start where we left off.”
Jonathan Quick is used to being in net for more than 75% of the Kings' games, but that might change this season with the league trying to play 56 games in a condensed time frame. Quick, who is going into his 14th season, had a 2.79 goals against average and .904 save percentage last season after having the worst season of his career in 2018-19. Calvin Petersen won five of his eight starts last season and posted a 2.64 GAA with a .922 save percentage.
Centres Alex Turcotte and Quinton Byfield were the Kings' first-round picks the past two years but both might see short stints this season so as to not burn any time on their entry-level contracts. Neither player is in camp because they are participating in the World Junior Championship. Turcotte, who was the fifth overall pick in 2019, might have the edge in staying up for the full season after having nine goals and 17 assists at the University of Wisconsin last season. Byfield, who was the second-overall selection in the most recent draft, is an imposing figure at 6-foot-4, but he is still developing.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Gabriel Vilardi, who had seven points (three goals, four assists) in 10 games last season. Vilardi is projected to centre the second line with Adrian Kempe and Martin Frk.
Olli Maatta was acquired in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks and gives the Kings a veteran defenceman they are likely to pair with Drew Doughty. Left wing Andreas Athanasiou signed a one-year deal on Dec. 29 and could find himself on any of the top three lines. Athanasiou had 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) with Edmonton and Detroit last season. Center Lias Andersson was acquired from the New York Rangers during the draft in October and gives the Kings another young prospect that could break into the lineup.
The Kings are in the West Division and open the season at home against new division foes Minnesota and Colorado. Los Angeles is 5-3-2 in its last 10 meetings against the Wild and 7-2-1 against the Avalanche. Their longest road trip is six games from Feb. 18 to Feb. 27 against Arizona, St. Louis and Minnesota with a five-game homestand April 20 to April 28 that includes three games against Anaheim and two with Arizona. Five of the eight games in the Freeway Series against the Ducks will take place from April 20-May 1.
Joe Reedy can be reached at https://twitter.com/joereedy
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Joe Reedy, The Associated Press