Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Kings Get Interesting

It's taken a couple of years, but the Los Angeles Kings are finally putting a team on the ice that can compete every night.  What's even better is that you can see the flashes of excellence that should make them a playoff contender next year, and with luck, a cup contender in two or three years.  

The Kings largest problem since their inception as a franchise has been the inability to develop a first class goaltender.  They've had good goalies in the past, but not too many game stealers, and none of them came from the Kings' scouting and development.  Kelly Hrudey led them to a Cup final.  Rogie Vachon has his jersey retired.  Felix Potvin played arguably better than any other Kings goalie had ever played, but it was for a short period of time, and his star faded rather quickly.  They thought they had a franchise goalie in Jamie Storr, but he never fulfilled his potential.  They let future hall of famer Billy Smith get away in the expansion draft in 1972.  All he did was win four Stanley Cups on Long Island.  

And it wasn't for lack of trying.  The regime that let Smith get away was long gone, but determined to keep it from happening again, the Kings traded away future all-star defenseman Kimmo Timonen to Nashville.  In exchange, Nashville agreed to refrain from selecting Gary Galley, which allowed the Kings to protect such luminaries as Stephane Fiset, the aforementioned Jamie Storr, and Freddi Chabot.  Guess who won that deal?

But finally, it appears that the Kings have some direction in net.  A sign of competent management, they actually traded their worst goaltender to Vancouver when they dealt Jason Labarbera, who suffered through some bad luck, but never really put it together in L.A.  By the end of his run at Staples, he was average on a good night, and before he was dealt, he looked like he'd never stop another shoot-out attempt.  That has left the Kings with Erik Ersberg and rookie Jonathan Quick, who has been a revelation.  Quick's only played seven games this season, but his 1.59 goals against and .943 save percentage would easily lead the league if he qualified.  It's something to be excited about, even if that enthusiam has to be tempered by the small sample size.  He's given up ten goals in those seven games (six starts), and five came in one game against arguably the league's best team, the Detroit Red Wings.  Ersberg has been solid as well.  Through 18 games he sports a 2.38 GAA and .903 save percentage.  He plays a quiet style that instills confidence in his teammates, and he's excellent at controlling rebounds.  

The best news is that is that neither may be the Kings' real goaltender of the future.  First round draft pick Jonathan Bernier has been on fire in Manchester, where he's being backed up one of last year's top college keepers, Jeff Zatkoff, who also happens to be an ECHL all-star selection.  He put up 2.31 GAA and .931 save percentage in Ontario (the one in California).  

After this year's draft, I talked about how Dean Lombardi wants to build from the net out.  Well, there are eight defensemen in the mix for the foreseeable future (Jack Johnson, Drew Doughty, Matt Green, Kyle Quincey, Alec Martinez, Colton Tuebert, Thomas Hickey, and Slava Voinov), and four goalies (Quick, Ersberg, Bernier, and Zatkoff).  That kind of depth gives them the opportunity to trade for scoring, and to draft offense going forward.  They may only be hovering around .500 this year, but this team is building a true foundation, and it's nice to be able to watch it happen.

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