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Kings begin season against 1-0-0 Flyers
LOS ANGELES -- For the second consecutive season, the Los Angeles Kings will open their regular season at home against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Kings hope it will be one of only a few similarities to their forgettable 2016-17 campaign.
Los Angeles stumbled to an 86-point finish, missing the postseason for the second time in three seasons. The disappointing result led to the dismissal of general manager Dean Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter the day after its season ended.
Kings ownership moved swiftly, naming two Hall of Famers, former Los Angeles greats Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake, into management positions. Robitaille, who had been running the business side of the team, was installed in an all-encompassing position as team president, while Blake took the reigns as general manager after serving two seasons as assistant GM.
After a short coaching search, Blake elevated associate head coach John Stevens to lead the team. It is second tour of duty as a bench boss for the 51-year-old Stevens, who coached the Flyers from 2006-10.
Blake took the conservative route regarding his roster in the offseason. Michael Cammalleri, who struggled through an injury-plagued season with the New Jersey Devils, producing 10 goals in 61 games, is the only significant player who was added. Blake hopes a return to full health will prompt a productive homecoming for the 35-year-old winger, who played his first five seasons in Los Angeles.
The front office is banking on a return to form by two players, center Anze Kopitar and winger Tyler Toffoli, to lead the way back to the playoffs. The duo struggled through last season because of mediocre play and injury, combining for only 28 goals, a total both could reach individually when at the top of their game.
"(Stevens) is not a new face, but a new philosophy comes in," Kopitar told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. "There's definitely a breath of fresh air. I think everything's a little bit more upbeat. Everything's a little looser, but loose in a good way.
"We're not out there being careless or anything. For sure, we know why we're here and what our goals are. But being a little more upbeat, it's refreshing."
Several Kings prospects are expected to take a more prominent role this season. Adrian Kempe and Jonny Brodzinski should add additional punch to Los Angeles' bottom-six forward rotation, while defenseman Paul LaDue looks to live up the lofty expectations that came with his late season recall from the Kings' AHL Ontario affiliate.
The Kings fashioned a 5-1-1 preseason record, and while they start from zero Thursday, Stevens believes it is an encouraging sign.
"While it was only preseason, I think a lot of things are derivative of having success," Stevens said.
Like their opponents, the Flyers seek improvement from an 88-point, non-playoff campaign. Despite finishing the season on a 6-2-2 run, they missed the final postseason berth by seven points, and their struggle to score during five-on-five play was a major factor in their sixth-place finish in the Atlantic Division.
The most significant moves of their offseason were the trade of center Brayden Schenn to St. Louis and the acquisition of free agent goaltender Brian Elliott. General manager Ron Hextall placed an emphasis on youth on his early-season roster, with five rookies making the squad, including Nolan Patrick, the second overall pick in the 2017 draft; winger Taylor Leier and defenseman Robert Hagg.
Philadelphia started out the season on a good note by continuing its recent success in road openers, posting a 5-3 victory at San Jose on Wednesday. Wayne Simmonds recorded his second career hat trick -- the first ever by a Flyers in a season opener. Claude Giroux and Jordan Weal added goals to back a 32-save performance by Elliott.
After Logan Couture tied the game at 3-3 early in the third period, Simmonds scored the decisive power-play goal at 9:27 and sealed the victory on an empty-net tally with 35.7 seconds left.
The Flyers improved their record to 6-1-1 in their past eight road openers.
"Much like me, our rookies have lively legs," Simmonds said. "The key to the game tonight is that we skated very well. We stayed even-keel throughout and let the game come to us."
Coach Dave Hakstol was not surprised by the Flyers' performance on the power play. Philadelphia converted 3 of 5 chances with the man advantage, a key to the win.
"The last couple of preseason games I could see things started to click for us; tonight the puck went into the net," Hakstol said. "We scored a couple early by having great net-front presence."
The Flyers will need more of the same if they are to retain a winning record by the time they return to Wells Fargo Center for their home opener against Washington on Oct. 14. After the Los Angeles tilt, they play in Anaheim on Saturday, and they conclude their four-game season-opening, road trip in Nashville on Tuesday.
Updated October 5, 2017