Saturday, October 23, 2010

Interview w/ Justin Kemp - Ontario Reign President

Minor league hockey sure has come a long way in Southern California. From a dilapidated building in San Diego during the 90's to games in front of just a few hundred fans inside Long Beach Arena as recently as a couple of years ago, the times they are a changing.

Later tonight the ECHL's Ontario Reign - proud affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings - will host the Stockton Thunder in the home opener of their 2010-11 season.  The arena will probably be packed, just as it has been since they played their first game there two seasons ago. 

They were second in league attendance during their inaugural campaign and topped that by leading the entire 19-team league last season.

Several players on the current roster of the Kings top minor league franchise, the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL, have previously played for the Reign - including goaltender Jeff Zatkoff, defenseman Colten Teubert and forward Bud Holloway.

The synergies between the Kings and their affiliates aren't just on the ice.  The team continues to strengthen their hockey presence and brand awareness by building a strong relationship with the Reign.

What better way to get things started tonight than to hear from the man in charge of the whole operation, Team President, Justin Kemp...

MM:  Given the past attempts to bring this level of hockey to Southern California - not to mention there are two NHL teams here now - are you surprised by the success you guys have had in Ontario?

Kings Prospects - the new Subway Five

When the rosters were announced this week for the upcoming Subway Super Series, you could say the Kings went a perfect 5-0 with their top junior prospects (sorry Robbie Czarnik fans).

For those unfamiliar with the format, over the past seven years Russia has sent over an All-Star team to play two games each against similar teams from the three junior leagues that make up the CHL. Outside of the World Junior Championships, this has become the premier junior hockey tournament of the year.

Nearly every major (young) star in the NHL with a Canadian junior hockey background has previously participated - from Sidney Crosby, John Tavares and Steven Stamkos upfront to Dion Phaneuf and Brent Seabrook on the blueline.

To further illustrate the talent that's been included over the years, almost every player Dean Lombardi (as GM of the Kings) has selected from the CHL in the first three rounds of the NHL Draft either already have played or are about to play in the tournament. That list includes names like Drew Doughty, Brayden Schenn, Jonathan Bernier, Wayne Simmonds and Thomas Hickey.

This year, the five Kings draft picks selected to play are:

Friday, October 22, 2010

Word Association with Jonathan Bernier

Things are slowly coming together for Jonathan Bernier. He's officially part of the LA Kings...finally! And although it wasn't pretty at times, he picked up his first win of the season on Wednesday night vs. Carolina.

For the last two years he was with the Kings AHL affiliate in Manchester, where he was 'learning how to be a professional' as hockey executives like to say. His old club, the Monarchs, are back in the news today as Erik Ersberg is set to exit the organization (leaving for the KHL) and Bernier's back-up from a year ago, Jeff Zatkoff, will become the full-time starter there.

In the interview below, Bernier gives us his perspective on Zatkoff, talks about some advice he received from Ron Hextall, explains how Dustin Brown has matured...and of course, plays word association using some of his current and former teammates.

MM: Zatkoff came to the Monarchs last year after a good season with the Ontario Reign (ECHL) in 2008-09. How would you describe the guy patrolling your former crease in Manchester this year?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Two Minutes In the Box... with Willie Mitchell

It seems like nearly every team in the league is always looking to add another top-six forward and a quality defenseman.

Over the summer, the Kings were in that same position. So, while the Ilya Kovalchuk negotiations dominated the early headlines, perhaps the deal deserving equal attention was Dean Lombardi's ability to acquire Willie Mitchell.

The Kings GM loves to compare hockey to baseball and in MLB it's said that pitching wins championships. In the NHL, it's defense (and goaltending...and your centers...but, hey, that wouldn't make for a good story).

Mitchell was coming off a serious concussion that forced him to miss the second half of last season. Just hearing that worried Kings fans who know all too well about how things turned out with players like Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh.

Perhaps this was different. Premier teams in the league - such as the Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks - were also heavily pursuing the free agent blueliner. Low and behold, he signed in LA, making a strong defensive core even better.

Below are some comments from Mitchell about how he's fitting in with the Kings, what he's learned about Drew Doughty and the play of young Jake Muzzin...

MM:  Any thoughts so far after a few games here with the Kings?

Ryan Smyth on the almost-King, Ray Whitney

For the first time in...well, a really long time...the Kings were buyers at the NHL Trading Deadline last season - instead of the sellers the team had become the last five plus years.

Rather than trading away players for future assets, they acquired two rentals for a playoff push, Freddy Modin and Jeff Halpern. Neither were bad players, just not the player they coveted most. Ray Whitney, playing in Carolina at the time, was a key guy targeted by GM Dean Lombardi.

Fans in Los Angeles know him well, as he's spent much of his career in the Western Conference - having played in San Jose, Edmonton, Columbus and Detroit.

Tonight, the Kings will see Whitney's familiar face in Phoenix - where he signed a two year free-agent contract during the off-season. 

However, a few months before becoming a Coyote, there were many rumors floating around that a deal for Whitney was real close.

How close? Well, Kings forward Ryan Smyth played with him this summer on Team Canada's squad at the World Championships in Germany. Let's see what he heard...

MM: When you were with Whitney over in Europe, did the trade deadline rumors come up at all?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Comments from the kids - Muzzin and Clifford

As announced yesterday, Kyle Clifford will return to the line-up tonight against the Carolina Hurricanes, after sitting out the last two games.

Defenseman Jake Muzzin will also play again. He's played in every game so far this season.

Both players spent last year in junior hockey and were recognized in the OHL Coaches Poll for their strong defensive game - Muzzin was voted the top Defensive Defenseman and Clifford was the Best Defensive Forward. So, you can understand why coach Terry Murray feels comfortable with them in the line-up.

However, neither might be here much longer. Matt Greene is expected to return soon on defense, forcing the Kings to make a decision on (most likely) either Muzzin or Davis Drewiske. Clifford's situation is a little more delicate. They can't keep him past 10 games without eating a full year of his entry level contract.

Thus, he's likely headed back to juniors soon. That's not a knock on his skill - he's a power forward in the making. It's simply a numbers game (and a position thing) with the current Kings roster. We'll see though.

A solid game from either tonight could make GM Dean Lombardi and coach Murray reconsider things.

Below are Clifford's thoughts on returning to game, some extra comments from Jake Muzzin on how he's enjoying his NHL experience so far.

MM:  How excited were you to get the news that you get to play again?

(Part of) History Will Not Repeat Itself Tonight

Tonight will mark the 11-year anniversary of Staples Center first hosting an official NHL game.

The final score was 2-2, a tie between the host LA Kings and visiting Boston Bruins.

Like it or not, the shootout is now part of the NHL landscape. Thus, you can be assured of one major difference in tonight's contest between the Kings and Carolina Hurricanes - there will definitely be a winner. One team is leaving the building with two points.

For what it's worth, Rob Blake scored the first Kings goal in the new arena. However, the very first NHL goal in Staples Center was credited to forward Anson Carter of the Bruins. 

How ironic is that, considering when the Kings traded for the talented right winger a few years later, he played 15 games for LA...posting ZERO goals.  One simple assist was all the Kings received in return for sending Jared Aulin to Washington to acquire Carter.

You want more irony?  Aulin had become Kings property as part of the deal that sent Blake to Colorado in 2001.

Trivia Time - When the Kings traded for Carter in March 2004 it was actually the second time he had been moved by an NHL team that season.  Who did Washington trade to acquire Carter just two months prior? (answer at the end of this article)

Trivia Question #2 - What number did Carter wear in LA?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Post Practice Comments - Kevin Westgarth

Earlier today I posted comments from Michal Handzus and Jarret Stoll following the Kings practice this morning in El Segundo.

Next up is Kevin Westgarth...

MM: Let's get to the elephant in the room first. Everybody wants to know, we're four games in and no scraps yet - what's going on out there?

KW: There's no takers, it's tough sometimes. Especially, when you get down - guys don't want to risk losing a fight to lose momentum for their team. I'm itching a bit, for sure. It's all kinda part of the game, part of the line I have to walk anyway. You know, being a smart hockey player combined with being the guy that wants to show the fans, especially, that he's willing to get out there and scrap if he has to. The moments haven't really presented themselves. I'm trying to create 'em. But, I feel like our guys are still protected and that's the most important thing. Nobody has done anything too stupid or too crazy, so I haven't had to get over the line just yet. I have no fear that it will be coming!

Looks like the itch will have to wait at least another game, coach said you wont be playing against Carolina.  What were your thoughts when you heard the news?

Post Practice Comments - Jarret Stoll

More from practice this morning - here are some exclusive comments from Jarret Stoll...

MM: Prior to the start of the season much was made about the new lines this year. First Justin Williams was assigned to the second line and recently Ryan Smyth was added. It's only been a few games, but what's your early read on the chemistry you guys have going so far?

JS: Good. We're getting some goals, that's always important. Scoring chances are obviously number one and if you can get some goals out of it... We're working well off of each other, reading well off of each other. That's the main thing I think - reading off of each other, what they're doing and what I'm doing...positioning. It doesn't work if you're too spread out or you're not reading well off of each other. If you get one guy working hard or you get two guys and not the other guy, it just doesn't work. It's not in sync. I think right we're in sync and hopefully we can keep that going.

It's far too early to make a big deal out of one loss. However, when you look back at the Calgary game and compare it to how you guys have played in the last two at home, is there anything you can point to as being a big difference in the way the team played?

Post Practice Comments - Michal Handzus

Had a chance to catch up with several of the players today after practice - including Jarret Stoll, Willie Mitchell, Kyle Clifford, Jake Muzzin, Kevin Westgarth, etc.

First up, Michal Handzus...

MM:  It's been four games now with your new linemate Alexi Ponikarovsky.  What's your assessment on how things are going so far?

MH:  I don't think we've played up to our potential yet.  So, our line is not as happy as we'd like to be.  In those four games we didn't play as well as we could have.  We're still trying to get our chemistry clicking.  That's what we've been working on in practice the last few days.  Hopefully we can get it going and help the team a little bit more.

Wayne Simmonds has been fairly quiet so far this season.  What would you attribute that to?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Looking Back with Jonathan Bernier

By now, even casual Kings fans know who Jonathan Bernier is.

However, the goalie of the future is still waiting for his chance somewhat. Sure, he set the world on fire last year in the minors - becoming the AHL Goaltender of the Year. Yet, here in LA, Jonathan Quick was having his own strong season and isn't quite ready to give up his spot.

Still, Coach Murray has said the Kings are just as committed to giving Quick rest this season as they are Bernier starts. Thus, he isn't expected to get the Ersberg treatment and only ride the pine.

In fact, the coach says his plan is to play Bernier about once a week. Looking at the upcoming schedule, that means his most likely next start is either in Wednesday's home game against Carolina or the following night in Phoenix.

Before moving forward, we took a little trip backwards with Bernier and discussed the road that's brought him here...

MM:  When you were drafted by the Kings in June 2006 the team here was a in a bit of flux.  They had just hired a new GM in Dean Lombardi and were about to go through several changes.  Going back to draft weekend, what did you know about the Kings at the time?