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A "Prove It" Season for Kings

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
Teddy Purcell could be the key to the Kings finding secondary scoring on the team's second line.

This is, by many measures, a "prove it" season for the Kings.

The ultimate "proof" will be in the final regular-season standings, when it is determined whether or not the Kings will join the playoff party for the first time since 2002. Along the way, however, there are a series of subplots that, collectively, will tell the story of the 2009-10 Kings.

Starting Saturday night, when the Kings host the Phoenix Coyotes in their season opener at Staples Center, who has something to prove? There are interesting angles all around the team.

- Is Jonathan Quick finally the answer in goal? Quick impressed during his part-time role last season, and held off Erik Ersberg and Jonathan Bernier in training camp, but now faces the pressure of being a No. 1 goalie. How he deals with it will go a long way toward determining the Kings' fate.

- Can Justin Williams stay healthy? Williams has no apparent chronic injuries. If anything, he seems mostly to have to fallen victim to bad luck in the past two seasons. When healthy, he's a potential 30-goal scorer. If not, the Kings' inability to score - their major problem last season - would likely hurt them again.

- Will the second line score enough? The key here is winger Teddy Purcell, who has added bulk and impressed coaches with his gritty play. But Purcell has scored only five goals in 50 career NHL games. That ratio will need to improve. Purcell will have strong linemates in Dustin Brown and Jarret Stoll.

- Can Jack Johnson be a two-way force? Forced out of action early last season because of a shoulder injury, Johnson has a clean slate and a strong new partner in Rob Scuderi. Will his offensive numbers improve?

- Can Terry Murray find a comfort zone? Last year, in his first season as Kings coach, Murray tinkered with lines often, trying to find correct fits. Most players strongly prefer to have consistent linemates, and Murray believes he has found four units to satisfy his needs.

There are some other, more known quantities. Last season indicated that the Kings have a star in defenseman Drew Doughty, who still has room to improve after an excellent rookie season.

Anze Kopitar, whose offensive numbers dropped last season, is bound to benefit from the presence of summer acquisition Ryan Smyth, who has already displayed a nose for gritty play around the net.

The third line of Alexander Frolov, Michal Handzus and Wayne Simmonds, when together last season, had strong success as a "shutdown" line and also has offensive potential. Frolov led the Kings in goals last season and Simmonds tied for the team lead in preseason goals, with five.

Will all that be enough for an improvement of, say, 12 points in the standings? Last season, the Kings finished with 79 points, while Anaheim - eighth in the Western Conference - finished with 91 points.

The West likely won't be any easier this season. Most pundits have some combination of Anaheim, Calgary, Chicago, Detroit, San Jose and Vancouver already penciled into the playoffs, although there are always surprises. That puts the Kings in a deep pool of contenders for a playoff spot.

In Murray's first season, the Kings made defensive strides - goals against fell from 266 to 234 - but their own goal total fell from 231 to 207, the third-fewest goals scored in the NHL.

For the Kings to show great improvement, the defensive numbers must stay consistent while the offensive numbers improve. Murray said he expects the Kings to take a step forward in his second season.

"The way our team came together last year, with our structure and system play, we took big steps," Murray said. "There's a much closer group of guys. There's a feeling of, `I know who this teammate is. I know what he will do for me, to support me,' and that's a nice comfort level for players to have.

"The other side of it, with the player-coach relationship, there's a - I feel - pretty clear understanding of what the expectations are, (in terms of ) the level of play, the type of play that we need. There always will be fine tuning, as we go through the year, but we have a lot more in place for game one than we did this time last year, for sure."

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