The Kings had used the exact same forward lines for five games, and lost four, in the process falling from fourth place in the Western Conference to eighth. It wasn’t surprising, then, to see some shake-it-up moves in practice Wednesday morning.
Kings coach Terry Murray shuffled the deck with his forwards. Anze Kopitar
now centers a first line that includes Dustin Brown
moving from right wing to left wing -- as he did for a period last month -- and Wayne Simmonds moving up from the second line.
Michal Handzus, who has been the third-line center almost exclusively in the past three seasons, now centers the second line with Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams
. Kyle Clifford
picks up two new linemates, Jarret Stoll
and Marco Sturm, on the third line.
The fourth line -- Brad Richardson
, Trevor Lewis
and Kevin Westgarth
-- remains the same, but even that might get tweaked soon, as Murray indicated that winger Alexei Ponikarovsky is on the verge of returning from an ankle injury.
There will even be a change in goal, at least for one game, as Jonathan Bernier
will get the start when the Kings host the Nashvile Predators on Thursday night.
The Kings’ practice had more change than a vending machine Wednesday, and the hope, for Murray and the players, is that a new look will bring a fresh start and better results with five games remaining in an important, season-long eight-game homestand.
``Sometimes, combos get stale,’’ Brown said. ``Terry has always been about pairs, ever since he's been here, so we've got Smytty and Willy still together. The only pair that's been split up that's really been together is Zeus and Simmer. It's just a different look to try to get something going. Zeus, since he's been here, and maybe since he's been in the league, has been known as a checker, a third-line center.
``But his skill level is pretty high. When he gets down low, with those two players controlling the puck the way they do, and having a net presence, it could be a good combination. Then Stolly is perfectly capable of being a shutdown guy, if that's the route they want to go. I think it's just a matter of mixing things up and getting a new look and seeing how it works.’’
The most intriguing changes involved Brown and Handzus.
Brown is a natural right winger who spent 10 games on the left side in late November and December. When Brown moved back to the right, last month, Murray indicated that he preferred to keep Brown there, but now he’s back on the left after eight games.
Brown is without a point in his last four games, but had seven goals and 12 assists in December, and part of that success was as a left winger.
``I struggled with this one,’’ Murray said, ``because I looked at the month of December that he had. It was really good playing on the right side. That line, Kopi and he, really had some good things going. So I struggled with moving him to the left side again.
``All I can do is say that I'm hoping that everything continues on course.
There's no issue with him moving over there, on Kopi's (left) side, so I'm just hoping, again, that they move forward.’’
As for Handzus, he has been known primarily as a defensive center during his time with the Kings, but Murray will now look for more offense out of Handzus.
Handzus had gone 19 games without a goal before he scored in Monday’s game against Chicago. Stoll, previously the second-line center, has now gone 15 consecutive games without a goal (he has five assists in that span).
``I'm not going to change my two-way game,’’ Handzus said, ``but obviously I've got to produce more, that's for sure. But I wanted to produce more when I played with Simmer and the other guys. It's going to be a more offensive role, but you cannot try to do too much. You play your game, and those two guys are good players, so just give them the puck and read off of them.’’INJURY UPDATE
Ponikarovsky returned to full-team practice Wednesday, but Murray said Ponikarovsky will not play Thursday against Nashville but that a return is likely on the horizon.
``Not quite, but very close now,’’ Murray said. ``He had a great workout yesterday, off and on the ice, as Willie Mitchell
did. He participated in the early part of the practice, so I think he's starting to get the itch that he's going to get back in here real soon. I think he's feeling much more comfortable with the ankle. It's almost day to day with him now.’’
Ponikarovsky has missed five games. Willie Mitchell
has missed 10 games and has not yet returned to practice but has been skating and doing post-practice drills.
``Still a little bit away,’’ Murray said. ``Closer every day, but still probably days away.’’STURM NEEDS MORE WORK
Sturm, acquired in a Dec. 11 trade with Boston, has two goals and one assist in eight games with the Kings, but now will move to a third-line role after spending the previous six games on the first line.
Murray said Sturm is still playing his way back into game shape after undergoing major knee surgery just more than six months ago.
``I think that Marco is still going through training camp,’’ Murray said. ``I think he's behind the play. There's a little bit too many situations where there is too much space between him and the puck, and the support is not where it needs to be right now.
``So I'm going to back away right now, and put him in a situation where he can keep getting his conditioning, his game conditioning, get his legs under him and still play the game and have a little more responsibility, with Stoll and with Clifford, as that line that's going to match up on the checking part of things.’’