The Los Angeles Kings will bring back almost the exact same roster that won the Stanley Cup title in 2012, as they prepare to defend the first championship in franchise history. The Kings' strengths as a team are based on a sturdy defense, depth on both sides of the ice, and players knowing and executing their roles. The team has 3 solid centers to anchor their top 3 lines in Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, and Jarret Stoll, who combine to formulate a deep attack up the middle. Colin Fraser centers the fourth line with a gritty style of play that makes him a good match with the identity of the bottom line. From top to bottom, this team has a commitment to playing hard defensively.
Kopitar will be out for the season opener against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday due to a knee injury, but has already resumed skating, and could be back in the lineup shortly after Saturday's game. The 6-3, 230 pound center is a star in the making. He finished last season with 25 goals and 51 assists (a career high in assists), for a total of 76 points, leading the team in scoring for the fifth straight season. He isn't the flashiest of players, but a lethal combination of strength, speed, and intelligence make him an extremely gifted player at both ends of the ice. For six seasons now, hockey fans in Los Angeles have been observing his talents, but the rest of the world is just catching on, after Kopitar showcased his skills in last years Stanley Cup Playoffs. During last years championship run, he scored 8 goals and added 12 assists (20 points), and posted a plus- 16 in 20 playoff games.
Kopitar, who was drafted by the Kings 11th overall in the 2005 NHL Draft, has recorded 61 or more points in each of his first six seasons in the NHL, including a career high 81 points (34 goals, 47 assists) in 2009-10 when he was just 22 years of age. The man is extremely durable, appearing in all 82 games in four of his first six seasons in the league, and has never played less than 72 games.
The 25-year-old is already amongst the better centers in the league, but after his performance in last years postseason, the first Slovenian to play in the NHL is prepared to become one of the elite. He is the top playmaker on the team, and can pass, shoot, skate, posses the puck, and defend. The man can do it all, and he helps lead the team by example. For that, there is good reason why the team has sewn an "A" (for assistant captain) onto his jersey.
Richards was acquired prior to last season, and immediately bolstered the roster, adding much needed depth to the King's top 6. He has the ability to be a top line center in the NHL, but with Kopitar already centering the first line, Richards was destined to lead the Kings' second unit.
He began his career in Philadelphia, where he was taken 24th overall in the 2003 NHL Draft. The Kenora, Ontario native established himself as a first line center with the Flyers, and was named the 17th captain in team history in 2008, after topping the team in scoring with 75 points (28 goals, 47 assists) in 2007-08. He went on to record a career high 80 points (30 goals, 50 assists) the very next season, and has put up 62 or more points in four of the last five seasons. Having a player of his caliber on the second line is a good example of the Kings' depth.
Richards had a down year in 2011-12, recording just 44 points (18 goals, 26 assists) while dealing with a concussion for part of the season. While their defense was amongst the best in the league, the Kings struggled to score goals last season, failing to find secondary scoring outside of the top line. The team finished 29th out of 30 teams in goals scored during the regular season, and Richards' failure to produce offense on the second line was a big reason for that.
The 27-year-old got a second chance to prove his abilities when the playoffs rolled around, and he did just that. Richards accumulated 15 points (4 goals, 11 assists) in 20 playoff games with the Kings in 2012. He seemed invigorated by a late season reunion with his former Flyers linemate Jeff Carter, who fit in perfectly with Richards on the second line. The Kings acquired Carter at the trade deadline from the Columbus Blue Jackets, in exchange for defenseman Jack Johnson. With Richards producing offensively, and making plays for his second line mates, the teams' offensive struggles disappeared during their championship run.
His numbers may probably never be elite in Los Angeles, especially while playing on the second line, but the team hopes his numbers will be a little closer to what he did in Philadelphia, rather than his low point output of last season. Richards, along with his teammates, showed a consistent willingness to play hard on the defensive side of the puck last season, but it's the offense that needs to be consistently good if the team wants to pick up where it left off last June. Just as he showed in last years playoffs, if Richards can be a legitimate threat offensively, this team can play at an extremely high level.
Jarret Stoll will always be remembered for his series-clinching goal in game 5 of the 2012 Western Conference Quarter Finals. That goal clinched the series on the road for the Kings, beating the Presidents Trophy (awarded to the team with the highest regular season point total in the conference) winning Vancouver Canucks. At 6-0, 215 pound, he is a tough nosed defensive center, who can also provide some offense from the bottom half.
Stoll was initially acquired in a trade from the Edmonton Oilers to center the second line for the Kings. He did so for three years until the team acquired Richards before last season. Stoll posted point totals of 41, 47, and 43 respectively in his first three seasons with the team. Richards' arrival last season pushed Stoll down to the third line, which increasingly seems to be a better fit for Stoll at this stage of his career.
The 30-year-old plays a gritty, physical style of hockey, never shying away from contact. He has totaled 164 or more hits in each of the last three seasons (hits became an official stat in 2009), including 191 hits in just 73 games in 2009-10. Stoll's commitment to defense and his physical style of play fit in seamlessly with his third line mates, and with the team's identity under head coach Darryl Sutter.
A fourth line in hockey sets out to play physical, to inject energy into a game, and to maintain momentum for its team, or to flip the momentum in a game by playing an in-your-face brand of hockey. Colin Fraser fits that description extremely well. He's not flashy, nor is he going to impress anyone with his stats. In fact, he has never even reached the 20 point plateau in any of his six seasons in the NHL. He had just 8 points (2 goals, 6 assists) in 2011-12, but tallied an impressive 149 hits in limited fourth line minutes over 67 games. Fraser generally plays no more than a few minutes per game, but still has an important role with the team.
During last years playoffs, the Kings' fourth line was a valuable part of their title run. With Fraser's line playing its role at an elevated level, head coach Darryl Sutter was able to keep his top 6 players on the bench for an extra few seconds, giving the team's best players an additional rest, and ultimately keeping their legs fresh. Fraser is the leader of that all important line.
At 6-1, 190 pounds, Fraser isn't the biggest guy on the ice, but he plays like he thinks he is. He is fearless in crashing the net, and has a willingness to play hard defensively, making him a good fit for the Kings. His tough play can go a long way in inspiring his younger linemates, making him a leader by example.
The team did struggle offensively during the regular season last year, rarely receiving secondary scoring outside of the first line. The fourth line needs to chip in occasionally, and certainly more often than they did last season. As the center of that bottom line, Fraser holds the responsibility of trying to create scoring chances for his linemates. The fourth line played very well in last years postseason, and it will be difficult for them to live up to the precedent they set for themselves. The Kings will need Fraser to be solid in piloting his group, just like he did in the playoffs, in order to keep the remainder of the team rested and ready when the playoffs roll around.
Centers play an important role in leading and creating plays for their linemates, and are generally good skaters who can back check rapidly from the offensive zone. With defense being an important part of this team's success, these four guys must continue to show fortitude on the defensive in 2013, if the team is going to repeat its achievements of last season. Barring any injury, the Kings are set with a good mix of offense and defense up the middle heading into the 2013 season.
"Sifting Through the Kingdom" is a mini-series of articles that will examine, in parts, the depth of the Los Angeles Kings' 2013 roster.
Tags: 2003 NHL Draft, Anze Kopitar, Colin Fraser, Hockey, Jarret Stoll, Jeff Carter, Los Angeles, Los Angeles Kings, Mike Richards, NHL
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