12/17 Preview – Full Team Morning Skate + Roster & Lineup Moves, Spence’s Development, An Interesting Take

WHO: Los Angeles Kings (16-12-5) vs. San Jose Sharks (10-16-5)
WHEN: Saturday, December 17 @ 7:30 PM Pacific
WHERE: Crypto.com Arena – Los Angeles, CA
HOW TO FOLLOW: VIDEO: Bally Sports West – AUDIO – iHeart Radio – TWITTER: @DooleyLAK & @LAKings

TONIGHT’S MATCHUP: The LA Kings are finally back in California, though without much rest, as they take on the San Jose Sharks this evening at Crypto.com Arena.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Three Kings players – Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Viktor Arvidsson and Sean Durzi – had multi-point nights when the Kings defeated the Sharks in San Jose last month, with Anderson-Dolan also posting a +2 rating in that game. Kevin Fiala, who had an assist in that game, has a five-game point streak versus San Jose, with ten points (3-7-10) in total during that span.

KING’S VITALS: The Kings had a scheduled off day yesterday, following the return flight from Boston, and hit the ice for a full-team morning skate this morning in El Segundo.

Goaltender Pheonix Copley was off the ice first this morning, making him tonight’s projected starter against the Sharks. Copley is in line to make his third consecutive start, following games in Buffalo and Boston. The Alaska native has never faced San Jose in his NHL career, but brings with him a 3-1-0 record this season, along with a .901 save percentage and a 2.94 goals-against average.

Here’s how the Kings aligned for rushes this morning at Toyota Sports Performance Center –

Fiala – Kopitar – Kempe
Iafallo – Danault – Moore
Kaliyev – Lizotte – Arvidsson
Anderson-Dolan – Kupari – Vilardi

Anderson – Doughty
Durzi – Roy
Edler – Spence


Naturally several changes appear to be in that alignment from what we saw in Boston, impacting three of the four forward lines as well as the third defensive pairing. More on all of that below.

SHARKS VITALS: San Jose is in the midst of seven consecutive games in California, with five at home and one apiece in Los Angeles and Anaheim. They’ve earned points in the first three games on that stretch, with a 2-0-1 record to date.

Per Curtis Pashelka of the Bay Area News Group, James Reimer is tonight’s projected starter for the Sharks. Reimer took the loss when these teams met in November and carries a 5-4-1 record, with a .934 save percentage and a 2.19 goals-against average lifetime versus the Kings.

Per Pashelka, here’s how the Sharks lined up in practice on Thursday –

Forward Alexander Barabanov is expected to return tonight coming off of an injury that cost him his team’s win over Arizona on Tuesday. Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic is set to skate in his 81st career game against the Kings, the most by any player since Vlasic entered the league. No player has scored more goals against the Kings over the last four years than Timo Meier, who has netted 11 times from 16 games played.

Notes –
Making Moves, All Around
Certainly a different alignment in several ways, Insiders.

Starting at the top, Adrian Kempe ended the game in Boston on the first line and appears set to remain there this evening. Kempe scored twice in the third period against the Bruins and has now scored four goals from his last five games, after a stretch in which he had just one goal from 11 games and two goals from 19 games. After the game against the Bruins, McLellan pointed to the time on the clock and the need for two goals as reasoning behind making a move, and the line responded with the necessary production. During Kempe’s dry spell, he was still contributing in other ways and will move back to the wing, and up in the lineup, tonight.

“We appreciated some of the things that he was doing, we said this about Iafallo last year, we still appreciate some of the things that he was doing on the ice,” McLellan said this morning. “The puck wasn’t going in the net for him, but now he’s scoring. We’re not going to overplay him, we’re sure not going to underplay him. We shuffled him around on the lines a little bit, maybe take advantage of it, but other than that there won’t be dramatic changes in the distribution of his time.”

Alex Iafallo was bumped up onto the second line against the Bruins and that line responded with a strong game, with morning skate today indicating it might stay together tonight. In just shy of 11 minutes at 5-on-5, Iafallo’s line had 17 shot attempts and controlled more than 63 percent of scoring chances. It’s one game together, but they were noticeably difficult to play against on the forecheck and even though their offensive output was more about volume and less about those Grade-A looks, it was a step forward for sure.

Viktor Arvidsson and Rasmus Kupari were both activated this morning and both took rushes with the Kings, indicating they should be available tonight. Arvidsson took rushes with an intriguing third line, alongside Blake Lizotte and Arthur Kaliyev, while the recently recalled Rasmus Kupari skated with Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Gabe Vilardi.

On the backend, the only change appears to be Jordan Spence in for Sean Walker, with more on that below. In net, Pheonix Copley appears set to run it back for the third straight start. McLellan said that Copley “feels confident and makes us feel confident”. Copley will play tonight and then the Kings will go from there with regards to upcoming games, as it has always been under McLellan’s leadership. There’s not a set plan or structure for the goaltenders at this point.

Spen To Paper
The Kings are expected to make, as noted above, one change on the backend with defenseman Jordan Spence in line to make his season debut this evening against the Sharks.

Spence filled an important role down the stretch last year, as he worked his way into 24 NHL games in the second half of the season as the Kings blueline was ravaged by injury. Spence proved that he could not only play at the NHL level but impact games with his style of play, which centers around puck movement and skating ability. He knew that strength and defensive-zone play were the areas that he needed to work on and reports from Ontario say that he has.

“His strengths are puck movement, vision, he executes well, he’s got some offensive instincts,” McLellan said this morning. “What did he need to work on, well, size and strength. He’s not going to grow much more, but he can get stronger and he did that over the summer and some of that was evident in his ability to defend in and around the net at the American League level, that’s improved. That was an area that we asked him to take care of and he’s done that.”

Spence echoed similar thoughts about where he’s grown this season and where his game has gone at the AHL level.

Last season, the point production was off the charts. Spence was the quarterback of the best power play in AHL history and he was a play driver at 5-on-5. He wasn’t a regular on the penalty kill though and this year he has been. He wasn’t always the guy who was trusted in the last minute of a one-goal lead, whereas this year he has been. He wasn’t always used against the other team’s top players at even strength either, but this year he has been. And, with growth in those areas, nothing has come at the expense of offense. Spence has 21 points from 22 games, tied for the third most in the league among defensemen.

“For me, I’ve just got to keep it simple, making the right play, making good passes,” he said. “I think if you keep it simple in the defensive zone, it leads to the offensive zone and that’s where I can make plays and I can make stuff happen. That’s what I’ve been trying to improve on with the Reign and hopefully I can do that here as well.”

As McLellan noted, size and strength are the areas that Spence was tasked with and obviously only one of those is truly feasible.

Spence has taken strides in that department and he’s handling himself better at the AHL level against bigger players in front of the net. That will always be an area of ​​focus for him throughout his career, but with a focus on positioning the right way and using his skating ability to defend, he’s made some big strides there this season.

“Body position is really important, especially for myself, just being in the right position, where their sticks are at. In front of the net, obviously there’s bigger guys so for me, I’ve just got to keep it simple and be in the right position to end [plays].”

Partnered with the veteran Alex Edler, Spence spoke positively about his experience and steady presence as a partner, something that could help him right off the bat. “I think it’s good to pair up with Eds, keep my game simple in the first period, keep my game simple and go from there.”

Game 1, or Game 7?
Lastly, Insiders, sharing something I found interesting from McLellan’s availability this morning, because it was something I wrote almost word-for-word in the Rivalry Series article earlier today.

“It’s interesting, because we were talking about it this morning, is this game one of a homestand or game seven of a road trip? I don’t know how we go about it and we can talk ourselves into the first game at home, rust and all that type of stuff, we don’t want to go there, so maybe it’s the seventh game of the road trip, we just happen to have our fans and our building. We have to play well from the beginning and maintain it or even get better as the night goes on.”

In so many ways, this feels like the seventh – and most difficult – game from a travel perspective of the road trip. Lots of opportunity to be sluggish or non-detail oriented when you look at how the schedule has shaken out. Tonight, the Kings will play their 24th game of the season with just one day off, which will tie them for the most in the NHL. Tonight’s one day off was more like 18 or 21 hours off, depending on if you use the starting or ending timezone. Difficult task and we’ll see how the group handles it.

Kings and Sharks, tonight at 7:30 PM in Los Angeles. Reverse Retro jerseys, Insiders, with an Adrian Kempe bobblehead giveaway. See you there!

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