Nearly every team in the NHL covets a big defenseman. A big cannon at the point on the power play is something that teams are always seeking. An aggressive, hard hitting, nasty blueliner is a staple for any successful team. The Los Angeles Kings got all of that when they signed the best defenseman outside the NHL, Jere Karalahti, two years ago. Now Karalahti is a healthy scratch and seems destined to make his NHL mark in another city.
Granted Karalahti has his shortcomings. His discipline off the ice has always come into question ever since his drug problems in Finland in the mid 90’s. Reports of Jere’s behavior have been Internet fodder ever since his NHL arrival. No one would argue that Karalahti’s drug problems are behind him and he has stayed out of harm’s way with the exception of an alcohol related incident in 2000. On the ice, he is not the most fleet of foot and his decision making has come into question. He has been learning to play defenseman in the NHL on the fly and while it is an ongoing process, it is an evolving one.
Karalahti’s skills are undeniable. He is a fierce hitter and has a heavy shot. The Kings knew this when he came over and he showed it for spurts in his first season. He had a couple blue line power play goals in his first season and he was relentless in the physical game- he would hit anyone who came near him. These traits did not blend with the Andy Murray style. Jere would often leave his responsibility to make the hit or take the shot and the result was often an outnumbered attack or an unattended forward waiting for a rebound. It was only a matter of time until he was scratched and would sit out games at a time.
Karalahti rebounded with a new style after the Rob Blake trade last season. Gone were the open ice hits and the blue line blasts that made him so appealing. His game now was a stay-at-home, responsible defense that secured his playing time deep into the playoffs.
Karalahti brought that same game into this season, and the results were steady playing time. He saw some power play time and was playing solidly, albeit with some of the lapses that everyone on a struggling team suffers through. Then Andreas Lilja took his spot and Jere has been scratched for 7 straight games. His name has even come up in trade rumors.
The Kings have done a remarkable job with defenseman. Jaroslav Modry and Phillipe Boucher were pulled off the scrap heap and are now two of the best defensemen on the team. Karalahti has more skill than both of them, but has been sent to the stands while Lilja is allowed to make the same mistakes Karalahti made. If they could develop these players, how can someone like Jere Karalahti be written off?
The point is that the Kings changed Jere’s game to fit into their system, putting a muzzle on the game that made him what he is. Now the Kings are looking for the traits that currently reside on the scratch list every game. Let Karalahti play his game, paired with a stay-at-home defenseman and see what he can do. That opportunity worked with Modry and Boucher and the upside is greater with Karalahti.
In a year that has seen more progress for the Kings’ future than any in recent memory, here’s hoping they don’t take a step back by losing the best defenseman still not playing in the NHL.