Princes into Kings

Is anybody else excited about the LA Kings’ start of the season? Can I get a witness?

Granted, it’s early still. The season is barely two weeks old, during which time the Kings have dropped 3 and won 2 after coming back from a 2 goal deficit (almost did the same thing last night against Colorado), so on paper these guys may not look like producers. But if you’re watching the growth of this band of youngster in the span of 5 games, even through their losses, boy, I think we’re in for not just a hell of a season but a hell of a next couple of years.

I was worried when Jack Johnson ditched out early in their second game against San Jose due to what looked like a routine hard check. But when it was announced he needed shoulder surgery and would be out for the next 2-3 months, basically up until the All-Star break, I thought we were in some serious hot water. The D was the Kings’ second biggest problem last year (after their goaltending – still a sore spot, but we’ll get to that in a minute), but Jack was one of the few blue liners who could handily pull his own, frequently out-playing his seasoned line mate, Rob Blake (whom I oddly do not miss, but that’s for another entry). Now I want to give GM Lombardi his due – he’s done a hell of a job revamping the defensive team, bringing in Matt Greene and Sean O’Donnell, drafting 18-year-old scalding hot prospect Drew Doughty, and working both Jack and Tom Preissing in the off-season. But I’ve been looking to Jack as an up and coming leader and heir apparent of the Kings’ future, along with Kopitar, Brown and O’Sullivan. So him being out of the line-up for virtually half the season left some serious doubt in my mind as to the well being of the defensive line and the team as a whole.

Cut to now, with a perfect 23 for 23 killed power plays, and I’m feeling a lot better about this team. Doughty and Oscar Moller, both barely out of diapers, have really been stepping up, each scoring their first NHL goal last night. Hell, even Wayne Simmonds, who seems to have come out of nowhere, is getting into a groove after a rocky start despite scoring his first NHL goal against the Ducks last week. The young guys are starting to gel, letting the shivers in their legs harden into something more than confidence. Dustin Brown, the new team captain at 23 years old (okay, almost 24), is leading by example, racing down loose pucks, finishing hits, and wanting it more than anybody out there on the ice.

Now, back to that goalie situation. LaBarbera has not always been one of my favorite players, but I got to give him some props. When he wants to come up big, it’s really big. The times he was the #1 star of the game last season were well earned. But when you want him to come up big, when the D has a small breakdown and looks to their goalie to bail them out, that’s where the man turns into a block of Swiss cheese. Yes, everyone will say that the goal was a bad goal, not his fault, that the defense didn’t do its job – and all that is true. But the thing about being on a team is that, when you screw up, you want to be able to rely on someone else to pick up the slack. Understandably, in the case of a goalie, the stakes are certainly a lot higher since you are effectively the keeper of the scorecard. But in the case of LaBarbera, it seems like he’s never, or rarely, been able to really come up with those game-saving stops that keep the defense, and the offense, from getting too down on itself. When a team feels like it can’t make any mistakes, then that means it won’t take any risks.

This is why I’m voting to put Ersberg back in the net. The kid may be small enough to pass as a middle-schooler, but he works hard at practice and had a great finish to the season last year when LaBarbera was on the IR and former coach Crawford, in his infinite wisdom, cycled through something like 6 different net minders. Ersberg is hungry, he’s cool, and he wants to prove himself. LaBarbera has had time and time again to show he has the focus to play with the big boys. And he’s good, don’t get me wrong. But this young team needs an anchor, especially as they continue to figure each other out and push themselves to find new ways of scoring.

So despite the goalie situation, I’m very excited about this team. The front office has done a good job locking up 3-5-7 year contracts with their big young guns (namely Brown, Sully, Kopi, and Greene – hopefully Doughty’s 3-year contract will go into motion by the end of the month, too), so the base of this growing team will stick together throughout the coming years. And while my beloved Kings are still coming out of the second worst place in the entire league from last year, it may not be too early to tell that this growing team is going to be a serious contender over the next several months and years.

Published in: on October 21, 2008 at 10:26 pm  Comments (2)