The Los Angeles Kings are playing their best hockey in years, but one glaring weakness is their lack of a true enforcer. With Matt Johnson being swiped by Atlanta in the expansion draft and Steve McKenna being rendered useless with a bad eye, the Kings need to find someone who can protect their new superstars. After seeing teams like Washington, Boston and San Jose take runs at the Robitaille, Stumpel, Palffy line, the Kings will likely find a stopgap until the nest “Matt Johnson” comes around.
While Matt Johnson is not the best enforcer in the league, he was liked by his teammates and did a great job patrolling the ice. He was just 20 years old when he broke in and seemed poised to protect the Kings for years to come, but as many publications pointed out, he was the slowest player in the NHL. He made tremendous strides, but the next Kings’ enforcer will need the now necessary blend of size, skill and muscle. Here are the two most likely contenders to be the Kings’ enforcer of the future:
While all seems well on the mother ship, Kings prospects have kicked off the 99-00 season with some strong performances. Here is who’s news in the Los Angeles Kings farm system right now:
1999 Draftee Andrei Shefer has started off red shot, leading Halifax with 16 points in 11 games (7-9-16). He is a +7 and leads his team in virtually every category. Shefer is teammates with top prospect, goalie Alexei Volkov who is 4-2 with aa 3.37 GAA average.
Justin Papineau is tearing it up again, racking up 8 goals and 2 assists in 6 games for Belleville. Papineau is already a +7 and has 4 power play goals. Another member of the Bulls is goaltender Cory Campbell who the Kings took in last year’s draft. Campbell is 3-3 with a 3.36 GAA and a .891 save percentage.
Defenseman Joe Rullier was named player of the week in week 2 for Rimouski of the QMJHL. Rullier racked up 5 assists in two games and was a +6 after two weeks.
Jason Podollan is at it again in th AHL. He has 2 goals and 2 assists in 5 games for Lowell. He was recently joined by Sean Blanchard who was promoted to Lowell after scoring a goal and three assists for Kentucky.
Pavel Rosa has a goal and 5 assists in 4 games for the Long Beach Ice Dogs. Rosa has been flat since arriving.
Scott Barney is still nursing an injury.
Richard Seeley is playing well for Lowell of the AHL, including a scrap that he won on Monday. He has one assist and nine penalty minutes.
Coach Andy Murray has the Kings playing a hard-working brand of hockey that seems to allow each individual the chance to excel in a specific area, thus allowing the team to prosper. Many of the young Kings have shown flashes in the first two games. Here is a quick rundown of some early impressions:
Frantisek Kaberle- This young defenseman has been a pleasant surprise. While Jere Karalahti’s Visa problems have kept him in Europe, Kaberle has taken advantage of the situation and provided the Kings with an offensive defenseman without sacrificing the other end of the ice. Kaberle is smooth with the puck and makes good passes. He never seems to be in a hurry to dump the puck, instead he waits the extra second to find the open man. His defense is not stellar, but he has combined with Garry Galley to provide a solid tandem that is talented with the puck.
Aki Berg- Aki Berg has returned as a physical player who is alot smarter with the puck than he used to be. Berg is paired with Sean O’Donnell who is an adventure every time he has the puck, including a direct pass to Pavel Demitra on Monday for a goal. Berg has shown a little more offense, but the teeth of his game is in the corners where he has made it a point to punish opposing players. Aki seems to still be adjusting to the NHL game after the year off, but clearly has potential to be a top defenseman.
The Los Angeles Kings roster appears to have taken final shape with a grand total of 0 of their top prospects on the squad. Injuries to Scott Barney and Eric Belanger, accompanied by poor performances by Justin Papineau and Pavel Rosa, have lead to the Kings roster full of veterans and older prospects.
These older prospects have shown tremendous promise, particularly on the blue line. Aki Berg and Frantisek Kaberle have had solid camps and will make the team and play of specialty teams. Other older prospects that seemed poised to make the team are Jason Blake, who will center the fourth line, and possibly Brad Chartrand on the wing. Marco Tuomainen has also showed promise and is sure to be a fan favorite because of his grit and the fact that he plays on the same line as Ian Lapperiere.
Points of concern would the the stagnant development of Pavel Rosa and Don MacLean. Neither made a dent with the new coaching staff and only Rosa seems likely to return any time soon. The Visa problems with Jere Karalahti have also dampened his chances to play in the NHL to start the season.
The Kings still have to make some roster cuts to get down to the 22 players that coach Murray wants to start the season.
At the halfway point of the preseason, the Kings have to be feeling pretty good about their team, but a bit shaken concerning their prospects. There were only a few young players expected to even challenge, but as the preseason presses on, they are beginning to take their one way plane flights out of LA. Donald MacLean was sent out Sunday, and one has to wonder if he has a future in the NHL. MacLean seemed to have the best chance of any prospect to make the team, but his play was unspectacular at best. Players like Justin Papineau, Kip Brennan, and Sean Blanchard were not expected to make the team and were consequently sent to the minors. The resulting players still hanging around include a couple of surprises. Jason Podollan has scrapped his past mold as a scorer and is challenging to be a wing on the checking line. He has shown the grit that he always has possessed but has also added an increased emphasis on the defensive side of the ice. Another potential surprise is Fran Kaberle, who with the continued Visa problems of Jere Karalahti, seems poised to sneak on the roster. New coach Andy Murray has publicly recognized Podollan and Kaberle as two of the more impressive youngsters in camp.
Notes: The Kings preseason game Monday night will be the final game ever at the forum. I will personally miss the Forum, but from all indications, the Staples Center will be one of the premiere buildings in the NHL.
Tidbits: Donald MacLean and Jan Nemecek are the only surprise cuts so far. Look for one shocker on the final cutdown.