LA Kings Insider Weekly Feature: The Smyth, Stoll & Williams Line
"Geezer?" Smyth said, then added, after a brief pause. "Like, old guys?"
Well, yes, but only in an ironic, relative sort of way. Smyth, 34; Stoll, 28; and Williams, 29, certainly aren’t NHL old-timers, but on the Kings -- who have the league’s youngest roster -- they’re practically golden oldies.
Put together on the second line before the third game of this season, the trio of Smyth, Stoll and Williams has been mostly dynamite. Williams has a team-high 11 points, followed by Stoll with 10, and Smyth ranks fifth with seven points.
They’re one of the biggest reasons why the Kings are off to an 8-3-0 start.
"It's no secret that we're not going to go anywhere unless we have two or three lines scoring," Stoll said. "Your first line should be contributing every night. Your second and third lines should be, definitely on a consistent basis, producing somehow. If not scoring, at least creating chances offensively.
"We know that. I know that. Definitely being better offensively was a goal of mine coming into the season. I want to keep it going and stay with it. That's the big thing, is staying consistent over a long season."
The Kings didn’t see it happening this way in training camp. When healthy, Smyth was a successful first-line left-winger last season, and that’s where he started training camp this year, alongside Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.
Williams also played on the first line last season, but at the start of camp, he moved to the second line, along with Stoll and Scott Parse, as the Kings sought more scoring depth and wanted to improve the second line.
Before the third game, however, coach Terry Murray sought to shake things up. Parse was out with an injury and Murray wanted to give rookie Andrei Loktionov a high-profile look, so Loktionov went to the first line and Smyth went to the second line.
In that game, the home opener, the Kings beat Atlanta 3-1. Smyth had two goals, Stoll had one. Williams had two assists and Stoll and Smyth each had one.
"In all honesty, I didn't think it would come together with Stoll's line quite the way it has," Murray said. ``Although saying that, I'm not surprised that it's working very well. Looking back at the start of the year last year, with Williams and Smyth in particular, Williams was real good before his injury. Really tenacious on the puck. He was making plays, he was getting offensive-zone time set up for the line, through real intelligent reads.
"And I'm seeing that happen again on the Stoll line. Once you start to get some chemistry and enthusiasm behind it, it comes together that way. They start to work hard for each other, and that, when it comes down to it, is the bottom line. They just work extremely hard and really support each other at the right places."
In that Atlanta game, the "geezer" line was born, and it has been together since.
It’s all relative, of course. The line has an average age of 30.3. The most recent first line, of Kopitar, Brown and Brad Richardson, averages 24.3. The line of Michal Handzus, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Wayne Simmons averages 28.3.
Not exactly "geezers," but it’s a title the line can wear with pride.
Why is the line working? There are a couple theories, one involving on-ice chemistry and the other involving off-ice motivation.
First, it’s so surprise to see Smyth and Williams playing well together. When healthy at the same time last season, they had good chemistry and their gritty games seemed to be a good match for each other.
Stoll, playing between them, gives them a different look than Kopitar did, because of Stoll’s ability to play higher and generate shots that allow Smyth and Williams to play around the net and get some gritty scoring opportunities.
"Communication is a big part, I really believe," Smyth said. "All three of us talk on the ice and let each other know where we're going to be. That helps, to get a little more time and space, when you know where the other guy is.
"That has been a big asset. I think Stolly recognizes that high area and he's great defensively and he's great on draws. It starts with the draws with him. Willy is tenacious on the puck in the zone, and we seem to work well off each other in the offensive zone on the cycle."
Beyond that, though, the trio is a bit like something out of the Wizard of Oz. Each player entered the season searching for something believed to be missing.
Smyth is only 34, but has put a lot of miles on his body and has missed at least 15 games in two of the past three seasons. Could he stay healthy and productive?
Stoll got challenged, by the coaching staff, at the end of last season, to be a more productive offensive player. Could he top last season’s 16 goals?
Williams, who has long heard the words "injury prone" attached to his name, is in the final year of his contract. Could he play well enough, and stay healthy enough, to justify a long-term contract, perhaps an extension from the Kings?
It’s still early, but so far all of those questions are being answered in the affirmative.
"Players can take many different things as motivating factors to have a real good year,’’ Murray said. ``There's no question that with Justin Williams, with his contract, that's a time to respond with the big year, and also the fact that he's coming off a very serious injury. … He pushed himself through the offseason, had a great summertime, came in feeling good and has really picked it up to where he needs to be."
They might not be "old guys," but they’re definitely experienced. In terms of regular-season games played, the Stoll line has a combined 2,005 games entering Thursday’s home game against Tampa Bay. The Kopitar line has 1,030 games and the Handzus line has 1,348.
Much of the attention, when it comes to the Kings, is given to young guys such as Drew Doughty, Kopitar, Jonathan Quick, Brown and Jack Johnson -- and rightfully so -- but in many ways the veterans are the engine that keeps the Kings running smoothly.
"We're professionals, and we've got to rise to the occasion when we're called upon," Smyth said. "We take it personal when we're on the ice, and we want to make something happen. It's conviction within the line and within the individual himself."