Not having access to any pre-season information that isn't provided to me free via the internets (in other words, having not seen any pre-season games), here's my attempt at a season preview.
Mathieu Garon will back up newly acquired (and re-upped) Dan Cloutier who travels south to L.A. with new coach Marc Crawford. Injuries limited him to 13 mediocre games last season, and he played briefly in Austria during the lock-out, but the scuttlebutt is that his knee is healthy once again. Hopefully he can return to the form he displayed between 2001 and 2004, when he won over 30 games three times and never had a GAA worse than 2.43. If he can, the Kings will have their first reliable goaltender since Felix Potvin's good days in LA. One of the knocks on Cloutier is that he's soft in the playoffs. Considering that the Kings have been absent from the playoffs the last few years, I wouldn't mind getting a chance to see for myself.
The Kings have some depth here, with eight defensemen who are at least fairly capable. The top four are pretty well set, with Rob Blake returning to L.A., joining Matty Nortstrom, Lubomir Visnovsky, and Aaron Miller. The final two spots are most likely to go to Brent Sopel and one of Kevin Dallman, Oleg Teverdovsky, and Mike Weaver. That depth is going to be important, primarily because Miller is perennially injured, and, well, this is the Kings, so it kind of goes without saying that guys are going to get hurt. The hope here is that the competition for playing time lights a fire under Teverdovsky, who is still a pretty skilled player. Be prepared to see a lot of offense from the blue line, and a lot of odd man rushes the other way. Blake especially has never been one to shy away from big hit regardless of what it costs in terms of defensive positioning. But hey, they'll be fun to watch.
Honestly, this is the strength of the team, and if they can set the tone, the Kings could be better than anyone expects. Last year they got about 40 goals from the defensive corps. 14 of those are in Ottawa this season. They're going to need about 55 this season to be competitive, maybe 60. Let's face it, the offense isn't loaded with proven goal scorers, so they're going to need all the help they can get from the blue line. I think they can do it.
Right now, I'm not exactly sure what the line combinations are going to be, so I can't comment on each one. The offense on the whole is going to be a little shaky. They're going to be tremendously entertaining at times, and tremendously unreliable at times. That's the way young players tend to be, and it doesn't help that some of their older guys, like Frolov, already tend to play that way. The Kings are going to need a big effort from Alex this year, who has the talent to put together a 35-40 goal season. He's going to have to be the focus on offense this season, so hopefully he'll rise to the occasion. Michael Cammalleri lead all returning Kings with 26 goals last season. He's going to have to add 5-10 for the Kings to contend for a playoff spot.
The influx of youth up front is what will make this team fun to watch this season. Anze Kopitar and Patrick O'Sullivan make their NHL debuts, and both have shown a lot of offensive promise. O'Sullivan led the AHL in goals last season, and Kopitar has, by some reports, been the Kings best player throughout the pre-season. Dustin Brown chipped in 14 goals last season, and although he may continue to bring fans to their feet with his big hits on even bigger targets, he needs to increase that offensive production by about 10 goals this year. Old reliables Craig Conroy and Derek Armstrong will more than likely be solid up the middle, so the kids are going have to be the ones that take the big steps forward.
Of course, the wild card (in more ways than one) is Sean Avery. Can they keep him under control and out of the penalty box? Can he harness that speed and talent and turn in a 20-25 goal season? If he can, and if things break right for the Kings, they can be a playoff team. They could end up being they type of team that has no one score more than 35 goals, but has 10 guys that score more than 15. Balanced offensively, experienced defensively, and maybe the goaltenders are good enough to steel a few.
The bane of the 2005-2006 season, the Kings absolutely must improve on the power play and the penalty kill, or they're going to live down to the low expectations that the media has set for them. In the new NHL, where there is a lot of time spent with fewer than 10 skaters on the ice, a team simply cannot be successful if they aren't solid on special teams.
On the power play, it starts on the blue line, and Rob Blake should provide some improvement over Joe Corvo, who actually wasn't too bad last year. The addition of Teverdovsky should give them a decent PP quarterback on the second unit. Logic would say that he'd be paired with Brent Sopel, but last season Norstrom got a lot of time with the extra man, and at times his no nonsense style led to getting the puck to the front of the net with some success. I wouldn't be surprised to see him out there again on the power play.
Eric Belanger, who was always a decent penalty killer, is gone to Carolina, but Alyn McCauley and Scott Thornton have arrived to shore up this unit. Look for Aaron Miller and Norstrom to log a lot of time on this unit. Hopefully Marc Crawford brought a magic formula with him. Vancouver was fairly middle of the road in both the PP and the PK, but even that would be a huge improvement over last season.
The Kings look to have a ceiling of about 6th in the conference, and a floor of about 14th. They'll probably end up right down the middle in about 10th place, probably contending for a playoff spot up until the last week or two of the season. If they stay healthy, they just may surprise a lot of teams and end up in the post-season, but I think the realistic expectation is that they'll miss this year, improve a little next year, and be set to really start flying in a couple of years as O'Sullivan, Kopitar, Tukonen, and Jack Johnson are hitting their stride. The future looks pretty bright, but it's still a ways off in the distance at this point. Here's hoping we get a little taste this season.
Here are my "totally pulled out of my ass" projections.
Projected record: 37-41-4
Projected finish: 4th in the Pacific, 11th in the Western Conference
Projected Stats (G-A-Pts)
Avery: 23-29-52 (223 PIM - Four games lost to suspension)
Cloutier: 26 wins, GAA - 2.93