Over the course of the last few years, the San Jose Sharks have taken a stranglehold on the Western Conference’s Pacific Division. They’ve won the division four years in a row, including taking home the President’s Trophy in 2008-2009.
Behind the Sharks, though, there still remains a pretty solid division. If the Dallas Stars had been able to win on the last day of the regular season last year, all five of the Pacific Division’s teams would have appeared in the playoffs for the Western Conference.
This offseason, both the Stars and Phoenix Coyotes appear to have taken steps back, and the Anaheim Ducks don’t seem like a serious Stanley Cup contender just yet. That just leaves one team that can compete with the Sharks to seize the Pacific Division crown: the Los Angeles Kings.
The Kings have been an up and coming team the last few seasons, having established one of the best young cores in the NHL. With Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, and Anze Kopitar already establishing themselves as members of LA’s core group, the Kings appeared to have established one of the top young groups in the league.
That young group got a whole lot better this offseason, when the Kings added Mike Richards and Simon Gagne. Richards came via trade, in one of the more shocking moves of the summer, with Dean Lombardi dealing Wayne Simmonds and top prospect Brayden Schenn for the Philadelphia captain. Gagne, also a former Flyer, was brought in via free agency after spending last season with Tampa Bay.
In Richards, the Kings get a no. 1 center who is looking for a return to his 80 point season of ’08-’09. He’s also an elite penalty killer. Gagne is aging, but with this group could crack the 40 point barrier again, which would greatly benefit the Kings as a source of secondary scoring.
There’s also the fact that the team is already healthier than the point at which they ended the season. The Kings were without Kopitar for the last stretch of the season and lost him for the entire postseason after a broken ankle in March. Drew Doughty has also had a summer to rest up, after injuries slowed him in a disappointing follow up to his Norris Trophy finalist numbers in ’09-’10.
It’s Doughty that remains the only big concern for the Kings heading into the season. Nearing mid-August, he is still without a contract, though the two sides seem more than willing to negotiate. Lombardi seems to have the utmost confidence that a deal will eventually get done, and the Kings are going to work diligently to lock up a guy who appears to be a franchise defenseman.
On a team that’s built from back to front, the Kings have enough on the backend to be considered serious contenders. They’ve built a solid defensive unit, with Doughty, Jack Johnson, Willie Mitchell, and Matt Greene, but ultimately it will come down to the guy between the pipes.
Jonathan Quick was considered a Vezina candidate early in the season, but faded a bit as the 2010-11 campaign went on. His final numbers were solid, a 2.24 GAA, 35 wins, and six shutouts, and if he builds on them, there’s little to dispute the fact that he could be a top flight goaltender in the NHL in 2011-12. If not, Jonathan Bernier is one of the league’s top backups.
Not unlike the Kings, the Sharks have taken the necessary measures to make a serious Stanley Cup run next season. They dumped Dany Heatley and sent Devon Setoguchi to Minnesota to acquire a top notch defenseman in Brent Burns, as well as veteran forward Martin Havlat.
But a healthy Kings squad is one that should be able to compete with anyone in the National Hockey League. They were unable to do it last season, with injuries hurting the team throughout the year. If and when Doughty is locked up, the Kings will skate one of the top young units in the league. We saw them put up a serious fight against the Sharks in the postseason last year, despite their roster being so depleted by injury.
If the Sharks’ big moves don’t pan out, or Antti Niemi struggles to start out the season again, the Kings could jump on the opportunity to grab a top three seed in the Western Conference in 2011-2012.