The Los Angeles Kings thought they had their center of the future in Olli Jokinen as recently as last Spring. He was exactly what the Kings had longed for- a big, physical centerman with playmaking ability. Whenever teams called for trades, they were told that Jokinen was off limits. Now he is gone as part of the Palffy trade, and the Kings have quickly become thin at a key position- center ice.
While they did get the enigmatic Bryan Smolinski as part of the trade, the loss of Jokinen, Ferraro (free agency) and Perrault (trade last season) have left the Kings with an opening for one of their young center prospects. Much like defense, the Kings drafts and trades of the past will have to produce a player this season, furthering the need for Dave Taylor to face the music. The success or failures of some of these young forwards may well determine Taylor’s future as General Manager of the Kings.
The Kings are set with three centermen, Josef Stumpel on the first line, Smolinski on the second and crowd favorite Ian Lapperiere as the center on the checking line. That would likely leave two center positions available, one third line center and one reserve. The Kings signed journeyman center Len Barrie who has played in Europe the last two seasons and is 30 years old. He would appear to be the safety net in case the young players cannot handle the rigors of the NHL. These are the rest of the centers with shots at the roster:
Jason Blake- Jason Blake played the last game of the Kings’ 1998-99 season against St. Louis on a tryout contract. He took advantage of it, scoring a hard-nosed goal in his first NHL game. Blake was promptly signed to a three year contract. It appears that the Kings’ are planning on his’ staying- his contract is only one way, so he must make the NHL roster. Blake will be 26 when the season starts, so he is a little longer in the tooth than the other centers in the system. Despite a lack of size (5’10″, 180 lbs.), Blake plays an aggressive game and seems to be where the puck is. He comes from an established college program (North Dakota), where he was a Hobey Baker award finalist. Blake may be a solid third or fourth line defensemen, but seems destined, at best, for a career similar to another for Fighting Sioux, Tony Hrkac.
Donald MacLean- Has anyone seen Donald MacLean? After showing some signs of greatness in his first season with the Kings, MacLean has been MIA. After he showed flashes of the ability that made him a high scoring centerman in Juniors, MacLean had turned into a third line center in the AHL, managing only 19 points in 41 games. However, MacLean went to the Grand Rapids Griffins of the IHL to end the season and seemed to rediscover some of the skills that helped him excel in the past. So where does that leave Donald and the Kings? MacLean’s size (6’2″, 200 lbs.), along with his one time lofty scoring numbers, put him near the top of the Kings’ prospects, but his slow feet and inconsistent effort has taken much of the luster off what was once his bright star. MacLean could come into camp healthy and reclaim his position on the NHL roster if he shows some of the grit and spark he did in the IHL last year and the NHL two years ago, or he could join the long list of former Kings prospects whose substantial potential has gone untapped.
Eric Belanger- Eric Belanger is still highly regarded by the Kings as a playmaking center, but it is becoming very clear that Belanger’s lack of size and penchant for injuries is delaying his arrival in the NHL. The King would gladly test his small frame (6’0″, 170 lbs.) because Belanger’s playmaking ability is impressive and sorely needed. The bad news is that they have been unable to do so because Belanger has not played more than 59 games since the 1994-95 season, his first in the minors. Belanger will also miss the opportunity to crack the lineup with the Kings this season because a medical condition has required him to take blood thinners, putting Belanger out indefinitely.
Scott Barney- Scott Barney has gradually been moved from center to right wing. Barney is a key player in the Kings’ organization because he possesses tremendous size (6’4″, 200 lbs.) and scoring ability (44 games- 41 goals and 26 assists, +15). Barney’s desire and dedication have been called into question in the past, but he appears to have shaken the label of a player who does not put his best effort forth every shift. Barney was named captain of the Peterborough Petes last season, a sign that he is maturing into the leader the Kings had hoped he would become. After all the upside that Barney has begun to consistently display may be for not, at least as far as the center position in concerned. Barney has responded at right wing, but that is the only position that things Kings are solidified at, so Barney may be the odd man out for another season.
Jason Morgan- Morgan is not a high scorer, but plays a solid defensive game and has shown himself well in his brief NHL experience. Morgan is 6’1″ and a solid 200 pounds, and is a decent third or fourth line center. The bad news is that Morgan has shown nothing that separates him from the glut of other low scoring, solid defensive centers in the NHL. In fact, Morgan lacks the physicality of the typical big, defensive centers that are able to compensate for their lack of offense. Morgan would be fine on another team, but the Kings are loaded with low scoring forwards and cannot take on another.
Justin Papineau- Justin Papineau is emerging as the crown jewel of the Kings’ organization. Papineau can flat out score and actually plays a well rounded game. He has great feet and hands, and his speed in unmatched in the organization. He was the MVP of the OHL, and had huge offensive numbers: In 68 Games he posted 52 goals, 47 assists (99 points), 28 PIMs and was a +40. The only concern with Papineau is his small frame (5’10″, 160 pounds). Justin Papineau would not be the first offensive star that lacked the size to play in the NHL, but he has shown a knack for avoiding serious injury, and his lofty +/- suggests the fact that he does not ignore the other side of the ice. Papineau will have every chance to succeed on the NHL level in a year or two, but the Kings will need to pair him with some forwards who can provide him ample room while still being able to do something with his skillful passes.
The remaining Kings centermen consist of has beens and most likely never will be’s. Between Papineau and Barney (wherever he plays), the Kings may have some offense among their young guns. If MacLean or Morgan can develop into solid NHL centers, the Kings will be fine. The Kings sorely need Papineau to become the first player since Luc Robitaille so come through their system and develop into a true NHL scorer. If he becomes the next Jeff Shevalier, the Kings will need Josef Stumpel to play until he is 46.