The Starting Line
By Scott Burnside
Everyone loves the new-look Los Angeles Kings. GM Dean Lombardi surely has put his stamp on the team in a dramatic fashion since his arrival at the end of the 2005-06 season. He has assembled or secured an exciting cast of young players, including Anze Kopitar, Michael Cammalleri and Jack Johnson, who should blend nicely with emerging stars like Alexander Frolov, Lubomir Visnovsky, Brad Stuart and Ladislav Nagy.
The Kings have got an experienced coach in Marc Crawford, who knows a thing or two about blending the old and the young. Now, if only the Kings had a No. 1 NHL goaltender, they may well be knocking on the door to the playoffs instead of languishing at the bottom of the standings (they were 14th in the Western Conference last season). Like with other teams that are trying to drag themselves out of the doldrums (Chicago, St. Louis and Phoenix), there is no quick fix. It takes time, and for a team that was 28th on the road, 28th at home and 27th in defense, playing meaningful games in January and February might be a more realistic goal than actually making the playoffs. At least this season.
The offense might be the least of the Kings' worries. Cammalleri has thrived in the new NHL, leading the team with 80 points, a 25-point jump from 2005-06. He just turned 25. Frolov had 35 goals and Kopitar had 20 as a rookie. Throw in Nagy (who has yet to see his point production match his potential at the NHL level), solid two-way center Michal Handzus (who is a 20-goal guy), and Dustin Brown (who also should hit the 20-goal mark), and you've got the makings of a balanced attack.
This is where things get a little tricky for the Kings, who have assembled a lot of interesting pieces but do not know yet what the picture will look like. Johnson, the third overall pick in the 2005 draft, has the potential to be a force at both ends of the ice, but this will be his first full NHL season and he will need to be handled accordingly. Tom Preissing, who was plus-40 on a very good Ottawa team, will see lots of ice time. Stuart comes in with high expectations, but he didn't really hit his stride last season in Boston or Calgary, where he landed at the trade deadline. He will be expected, likewise, to shoulder a lot of the load in terms of ice time and responsibility. In another year, we might be touting this group as the best in the conference, but until this remade back end gets used to each other, there undoubtedly will be growing pains.
Ah, the goaltending. The problem is there has not been much of it in recent years. Unless Lombardi caught lightning in a bottle with former AHL player of the year Jason LaBarbera, it is going to be a major chink in the Kings' armor again this season. LaBarbera, 27, has played all of 34 NHL games and now will get a chance to carry the full weight of an NHL schedule. He has excelled at the minor league level (his 2.21 GAA was third in the AHL among netminders who played at least 40 games), but that's a big step on a team that still is in rebuilding mode. Dan Cloutier, a one-time Vancouver player who seems to have lost his way mentally if not physically, will try to get back in the groove. He won 97 games over a three-year period for Vancouver, but that seems like a lifetime ago. He will start the season in the AHL.
As with all bad teams, it's hard to know just how good the coaching has been. Crawford couldn't get the talented Canucks over the hump, but he wasn't unemployed long -- the Kings snatched him up last offseason after tiring of Andy Murray's hard-fisted ways. This season will be a good test for Crawford because he will have lots more options in his lineup, but he will have to show pretty significant movement up the Western Conference standings to ensure his future behind the Kings' bench.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.