EL SEGUNDO –– The puck will drop on the Kings’ season this weekend with their first two exhibition games in San Jose on Sunday and in Vegas on Monday, the initial steps of a campaign in which the Kings will seek to build on their playoff appearance last year.
While most of the roster consists of players in their 20s, each passing second ticks louder for the veteran core – Jonathan Quick, 36, Anze Kopitar, 35, and Drew Doughty, 32 – to win a third Stanley Cup together. Quick is in the final year of his contract, Kopitar in the penultimate season of his pact and Doughty, while contractually secure, had his first serious taste of mortality last season when he was injured for 43 games after missing just 19 cumulatively in the first 13 campaigns of his career.
“We’re on the old side of things right now, but me, Quickie and Drew, I think we still have quite a bit left,” Kopitar said. “With the young guys developing as fast and as good as they did, I think it’s most definitely an opportunity to win again.”
As winger Brendan Lemiuex pointed out, since his arrival two seasons ago, the Kings have largely been adding pieces with minimal subtraction. That included Kevin Fiala this summer, who was acquired via trade and extended long-term on the strength of his 33-goal, 52-assist campaign in Minnesota last season.
The Kings have also seen their heralded prospect crop increase depth and fill gaps, even though it has yet to add a bonafide star to their mix. Now, it’s back to the business of setting the pieces in place and creating the chemistry for what the Kings expect will be an even more successful season than last year.
“We’ve worked on parts of our game, but it’s been really fast,” Coach Todd McLellan said ahead of the team’s trip to San Jose. “These first few games are games of opportunity, everybody’s going to get a chance to play. There’s no sense in going if you’re not going to play to win, but we need to evaluate players against other teams’ high-end guys in certain situations.”
Last season’s most significant addition, center and 2022 team MVP Phillip Danault, was back on the ice in a limited capacity Saturday as he managed what McLellan dubbed a “muscle issue.” Danault will make the trip with the team but not play Sunday, with Monday also in doubt. He and Trevor Moore proved to have a phenomenal rapport last season, skating most frequently with Viktor Arvidsson, who has remained sidelined after undergoing back surgery in the spring.
“Phil’s not playing tomorrow but he’ll be back out on the ice with his traditional group. Phil and Mooresy are a pair, Arvy is not going to lose his spot on that line because of what’s happened to him,” McLellan said.
In the meantime, Moore skated with center Rasmus Kupari in Friday’s and Saturday’s scrimmages. The right wing on Moore’s line was Samuel Fagemo on Thursday and Friday, but he was replaced by Gabriel Vilardi on Saturday. McLellan said both players, who are right shots as Danault prefers for his right wingers, could get a look on the line while Arvidsson was on the mend.
“Not only is (Fagemo) super talented, but he works super hard and that complements our game a lot. We always want to be the guys who are the hardest workers on the ice,” Moore said.
Fagemo, a Swede who starred for his country at the junior level, compared his game to that of his countryman Arvidsson. On Friday, he said his linemates du jour were the type of players he has admired: forwards with top-six skill but a grinder’s work ethic.
Fagemo made his NHL debut last season, appearing in four games with the Kings.
“It was really fun for me to get a taste last year and my big goal in life is to be a full-time NHL player,” Fagemo said. “I just have to be patient and compete. My time will come.”
In a measured manner, his time will begin at 4 p.m. Sunday when the Kings visit the Sharks, and continue at 7 p.m. Monday when they face off with the Golden Knights.
San Jose tidied up its salary cap a bit and got younger as they jettisoned defenseman Brent Burns to Carolina and hired General Manager Mike Grier, the NHL’s first Black GM. Of import in the preseason will be the progress of two smallish forward prospects, William Eklund (pick No. 7 overall in 2021) and Thomas Bordeleau (38th overall in 2020). Eklund is by far and away the highest-profile prospect in the San Jose system and last season he developed his game in Sweden’s top league. Bordeleau was a point-per-game player for NCAA powerhouse Michigan.
A seemingly never-ending flurry of personnel activity continued for Vegas, most notably when they traded prolific winger Max Pacioretty to Carolina for future considerations and then signed veteran Phil Kessel. Though the biggest storylines in Vegas may be the health of its roster and how center Jack Eichel will fare over the course of a full season, prospect Brendan Brisson adds some intrigue. Brisson was also a Michigan Wolverine last year, posting 42 points in 38 games. He is expected to debut with Vegas in 2022-23.