Rink Ramblings: Up the Middle

Many experts think the Kings now have the 1-2 punch at center that is required for a long postseason run

Sunday, 10.9.2011 / 9:50 AM PT / Features
By Nick Nickson  - Radio Play-By-Play
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Rink Ramblings: Up the Middle

When the Kings acquired Mike Richards from Philadelphia in late June it gave them another top-flight center to compliment their number one center for the past five years, Anze Kopitar.  President/General Manager Dean Lombardi commented that with Richards on board the Kings 1-2 punch down the middle can now match up with anyone in the Conference.

How does the Kopitar-Richards tandem stack up against others in the West and how do they compare to other center ice combinations in Kings’ history?

First let's look at what the Kings centers will face in the Conference this season.  In Vancouver...the Canucks, the reigning Conference Champions, probably have the top duo not only in the Conference but perhaps in the league in Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler.  Sedin, the MVP two years ago, is the playmaker while Kesler is a big physical force who can shut down the opponents’ number one line (he won the Selke Trophy last season) while providing offense as well.  Kesler scored 41 goals last season.  

Chicago features Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp.  This pair provides plenty of offense and Toews has become one of the better all-around centers in the league.  The Hawks pair served as cornerstones in their 2010 Stanley Cup Championship season.  Detroit can throw two lines at you centered by Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.  Both are exemplary players on both sides of the puck but on many occasions in recent years the two have become line mates.  Zetterberg was the playoff MVP in 2008 while Datsyuk had a recent string of three consecutive Selke Trophies (2008, 2009 and 2010).  The two have been teammates for the past eight seasons.  The Kings’ division opponent San Jose has veteran Joe Thornton as their top center and with Patrick Marleau being moved to the wing young Logan Couture slides into the second line in the middle.  Joe Pavelski, a natural center, may be used at wing this season with the departure of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi.

All four of the aforementioned Conference rivals have had measurable success in recent post-seasons with all advancing to at least the Conference Finals in the last four years.  Strength down the middle for these teams has contributed greatly to their success.

Other combinations of note in the West would include: Anaheim (Ryan Getzlaf and Saku Koivu); Colorado (Paul Stastny and Matt Duchesne); St. Louis (David Backes and Patrick Berglund); and Columbus (Jeff Carter and Antoine Vermette).

Kopitar and Richards also figure to be teammates with the Kings for awhile.  Kopitar, 24, has five years remaining on his second pro contract that he signed back in 2008, while Richards, 26, has nine years remaining on his monster contract he inked with the Flyers three seasons ago.  

Kopitar's numbers have averaged 28 goals, 44 assists and 72 points in his career with Richards’ numbers averaging 28 goals, 43 assists and 71 points in his last four seasons.  Impressive numbers for any team’s center ice position.  Last season both centers received consideration for the Selke Trophy with Richards finishing eighth in voting (83 points) and Kopitar ninth (55 points).  The pair's success will, no doubt, be measured on how well the team does in the playoffs.  The Kings have won only one playoff series (2001 vs. Detroit) since going to the Finals in 1993.  

In the history of the Kings franchise there have been other notable center combinations that the Kopitar/Richards duo hopes to aspire to.  

From 1975 to 1980 the Kings had the great Marcel Dionne as their number one center with Butch Goring as their number two.  1975-76 was Dionne's first season with the Kings and during his first five seasons he led the team in scoring every year averaging 48 goals and 112 points.  Goring, during this same time period, was the club's second leading scorer on three occasions, finished third once and fourth once.  He averaged 77 points a season.  With these two talents at center the Kings made the playoffs in each of the five seasons but won only two of seven playoffs series (both first round victories against Atlanta in 1976 and 1977).
From 1982 to 1987 the Kings still had Dionne leading the way at center with Bernie Nicholls exploding on the scene as the club's second line center.  During their five-year reign Dionne led the club twice in scoring as did Nicholls.  Despite the prolific scoring of both Dionne and Nicholls the Kings finished above .500 only once during this span and were left in the dust by division powerhouses Edmonton and Calgary.  In the postseason the Kings made the playoffs just twice losing to Edmonton in both 1985 and 1987.

After Dionne left the Kings (traded in 1987) Wayne Gretzky was acquired to start the 1988-89 season.  Gretzky, in his first season as a King, teamed with Nicholls for the best season (point-wise) by any pair of centers in club history.  In 1988-89 Gretzky led the team with 164 points, including 54 goals, while Nicholls scored a club record 70 goals among his 150 points.  The pair accounted for 124 goals, 194 assists and an incredible 318 points.  In the playoffs that season the Kings rallied from down 3-1 in the first round against Edmonton to win 4-3 before losing in the second round to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Flames.  It would be the only full season that Gretzky and Nicholls played together as Nicholls was traded the following season.

Since the Gretzky-Nicholls combination more than 20 years ago the Kings have not had a notable 1-2 punch at center for any length of time...until now.  The Anze Kopitar-Mike Richards era will be measured not on how many points each scores but how well the team does in the postseason.  

As we looked back at Kings’ history we have seen that strength down the middle hasn't necessarily translated into overall team success.  Maybe this combination will unlock the key.