O’Sullivan fitting in

Anyone who has watched the Kings of late, or even looked at the box scores, knows that Patrick O’Sullivan’s game is coming around in a big way. In his last nine games, entering tonight, O’Sullivan has two goals and nine assists in his last nine games, but more importantly he looks like a more complete, confident player. The Kings expected a lot of O’Sullivan early in the season and he didn’t deliver, to the point that he got sent to Manchester in November and was told that he needed a better work ethic.

According to Marc Crawford, that’s the thing. Crawford knows the talent is there with O’Sullivan, so it’s just a matter of effort. That effort has been there since O’Sullivan returned in late January, and just in the past couple weeks it’s really been paying off. I asked O’Sullivan about the cliche that the game “slows down” for players when they start figuring things out, and he said the following…

“Obviously it doesn’t (literally) slow down, but your confidence level goes and the feeling you have on the ice improves. I’ve experienced that in the last 10 or 15 games. Now I’m at the point where I can make the plays, at this level, that I’ve been able to make at every other level. Before, I wasn’t creating as much offense as I was used to.”

The transition wasn’t easy for O’Sullivan. He dominated at the AHL level last season (47 goals in 78 games) and, truth be told, probably thought the NHL would be a bit easier than it was. He quickly found out otherwise.

The comparison might fall flat, but when I think about O’Sullivan, I think about the way Michael Cammalleri started his career. In Cammalleri’s case, the offensive skills were evident early, but the coaches were always on him to be stronger on the puck and create offensive chances for himself, rather than wait for others to set him up. In a way, I think O’Sullivan was in the same boat, and now he freely admits that a return to the AHL this season did him good.

“I think I needed to be back in the AHL for a bit,” O’Sullivan said. “There was no point in having a bad attitude about it or think negatively about the situation. I’ve overcome too many things in my life, so I just had to take my medicine and get back to the place I wanted to be. Being down there made me understand better what is expected of me.”

I asked O’Sullivan about looking around the dressing room and seeing so much young talent, between himself, Kopitar, Brown, Johnson, Cammalleri, etc. O’Sullivan said, “If you can’t get excited about that, something’s wrong with you.”

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Thursday morning skate

I’m not sure if I’ve seen Marc Crawford more excited and energetic than he was this morning. The arrival of Jack Johnson has perked up a lot of people these days, not just because of who he is but what he represents. With Johnson in the fold and O’Sullivan playing well, you can start to look around the Kings’ dressing room and see the future, and it looks pretty good. The bottom line remains the same for the Kings — they MUST develop a No. 1 goalie — but the pieces are in place for a successful franchise.

Crawford said he’d been talking to some veteran members of the organization and concluded that “there’s about as much excitement for a new player being brought into the organization as there’s ever been, going back to Gretzky.” I’d have to agree.

The most interesting item of the day is that Johnson was included in the power-play meeting. Afterward, he said he might get power-play minutes if the Kings had a lead late in the game.

Johnson said: “(All year) I could envision myself coming to L.A. and now I’m excited that everything is coming into place.”

One thing I’ve noticed about Crawford is that he’s not afraid to pump up his guys. I have a lot of respect for Andy Murray, but he was a coach who would always frame his players within the team concept. I’m not saying Crawford isn’t a team guy, but what he’s basically saying is, “Hey, this kid is special, let’s enjoy him and let him have some fun out there.” It’s refreshing, because Crawford isn’t putting a ton of pressure on Johnson, but at that same time he’s aware that he’s got something special on his hands.

Crawford said: “If I’m Jack Johnson, I’m excited to play and (as a coach) you want to tap into that. He has always played his best hockey when he’s excited and passionate.”

The only other real news from the skate is that it seems Derek Armstrong will return tonight. He made it through another skate without problems, but hockey being hockey, you never really know about these things until game time.

I spent some time this morning talking to Patrick O’Sullivan and I’ll try to post some of that a bit later.

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When it’s time to change…

With all the Vancouver reporters in town yesterday, of course Marc Crawford, their former coach, was a popular man. He faced some questions about the present and future of the Kings, particularly in regards to the trades the Kings have made to become younger. I thought he gave one interesting answer, in particular.

“Trading away guys like Conroy, Avery and Norstrom, that was to signify that we’re changing,” Crawford said. “We knows if we’re right or wrong. Only time will tell, but we thought it was right to just tear things down and build in the right way.”

When Dean Lombardi got hired, he had a couple different plans for the direction of the team. Privately, I’m told that Lombardi wanted to go with the burn-and-rebuild strategy immediately, but some in the organization were nervous because it would all but assure a rough season, and the Kings didn’t know how fans would respond to that. Well, as it turns out, the season was rough anyway, and now Lombardi is free to do what he wanted to do from the start, which is build around his young players and acquire a small army of draft picks. The same strategy worked well for him in San Jose, so we’ll see if he can pull it off again with the Kings.

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Letters, we get letters

As always, your questions and comments are welcomed, either as comments on here or in e-mails directly to me. I got an e-mail today with some questions that I thought were worth sharing, since they’re questions that a few Kings fans probably have. So I’ll do my best to answer them…

1) Do you feel that Dan Cloutiers poor play this season was due to the undisclosed/undiagnosed injury, or is he simply a bad goalie?

I don’t believe Cloutier simply forgot how to stop pucks. Do I think the Kings overvalued him a bit last summer? Yes, but this is a guy who had goals-against averages of 2.27, 2.42 and 2.43 in his last three full seasons. The Kings couldn’t have expected that this season would be such a disaster. They did, however, put all their eggs in a flimsy basket, since Cloutier was coming off serious knee surgery. The biggest mistake they made all season was not carrying three goalies at the start of the year. Cloutier looked strong enough in training camp to convince them to send LaBarbera to Manchester, and that was a killer. I’m still not convinced that Cloutier was 100 percent at the start of the season, from a physical and/or mental standpoint. The Kings say he was, and I’m not calling them liars, but something was just wrong from the beginning. The best they can hope for is a fresh start in the fall.

2) Has there been any discussion of Jack Johnson reporting to Manchester for postseason play, or is he simply lacing them up for the Kings final games and truly returning to school?

The latter, from everything I’ve been told. I believe that was the plan all along, and it was confirmed by Johnson’s father in a story this week, when he said that Johnson would only be gone from Michigan for three weeks and that he promised the coaching staff he would get his degree. So it’s probably five-and-out for Johnson.

3) Do the Kings still retain Parses rights? His whole scenario seems odd to me, as I know he traded some jabs through the media with Hextall. Bottom line: Do you get the feeling the Kings will have him signed in time for camp?

The Kings retain Parse’s rights until the middle of August, even though he signed an amateur-tryout deal with an AHL team. As for signing him, this could go either way. I think the Kings woud really like to have him in the fold, but Lombardi doesn’t strike me as a guy who is going to back down very easily. It could go either way, which is a wishy-washy answer, but I honestly don’t know.

4) Any particular reason why Aaron Miller is still with the Kings? I have to think teams came calling at the deadline. I was assuming there was no chance he would be re-signed, but now I dont know. Thoughts?

In the weeks before the deadline, I thought certain Miller would be moved, but after the deadline, I learned that the market for him wasn’t as strong as I presumed it would be. It’s hard to tell what Lombardi is thinking about Miller. If the Kings wanted him back for sure, they could have locked him up with an extension, the way they did with Armstrong. But by looking at the roster, it seems like the Kings will need at least one stay-at-home “defensive” defenseman. Is Miller the best option? Probably not, but he’s an option.

5) Finally, what does your (realistic) off season free agent/trade wish list look like? A goalie, a defenseman and 2 forwards perhaps?

Sounds reasonable, although I might add another defenseman to the list. As of now, Blake, Visnovsky, Johnson and Dallman are locked up. The Kings think pretty highly of Piskula and Peter Harrold, but I think two veteran defensemen would help, especially to support a group of forwards that is still young and improving. The goalie situation will be interesting. It seems that Cloutier and LaBarbera (restricted free agent) will be back, but now the Kings are stuck in the same boat with Cloutier. Do they go with only two goalies and presume Cloutier will be OK? If not, who do they bring in? It won’t be a big name, unless they just want to cut LaBarbera loose. I like Garon as a backup, or a 1A-type goalie, but he will probably seek a better situation elsewhere. Should be interesting.

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Lombardi ruffles feathers

There’s a very interesting story on TSN (link) about the way that Dean Lombardi and the Kings structured the contract of Joe Piskula. Essentially, Lombardi gave Piskula a huge bonus simply for appearing in five games. That has upset some who believed it’s a glorified signing bonus, because signing bonuses are limited to $85,000.

Whatever you think of what Lombardi did, the NHL entry-level situation is a mess. The intentions were good, but the way it’s structured and counted against the cap causes huge headaches all around. The union and league would be wise to examine this during the summer, and not just because of Lombardi’s actions.

The funniest part, to me, is the implication that teams such as the Kings have some sort of advantage because they have “cash to throw around.” Now there’s a phrase I never thought would be attached to the Kings.

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Monarchs sign defenseman

The Manchester Monarchs, the Kings’ AHL affiliate, today signed University of Wisconsin defenseman Jeff Likens to an amateur tryout agreement. (Yes, the same thing Scott Parse signed with Grand Rapids). Likens, who just completed his senior season, had not been drafted. He was a teammate of defenseman Joe Piskula, who is now with the Kings. Likens, 5-foot-11 and 178 pounds, had one goal, five assists and 42 penalty minutes in 40 games with the Badgers this season.

The Monarchs, for those scoring at home, are in first place in the Eastern Conference Atlantic Division, with 91 points. That’s the fourth-most points in the 14-team conference. The Monarchs’ regular season ends April 15, and on April 6 they will honor the Kings by wearing Gretzky-era black-and-silver jerseys.

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Armstrong update

Derek Armstrong, who has missed eight consecutive games with a knee injury, is considered “probable” to play Thursday against Vancouver. Armstrong skated with the full team in practice Wednesday for the first time and said he wasn’t totally pain free but felt good enough to play. “There’s some stiffness, but that just comes with the injury,” Armstrong said. Armstrong, it seems, had a mild MCL issue. “It got lucky. It could have been a lot worse,” he said.

Is there a more underrated player on the Kings’ roster than Armstrong. The Kings showed what they think of him when they locked him up with a two-year contract extension last month. He has a plus-14 rating on a team that has scored 216 goals and allowed 264 (second-worst total in the Western Conference).

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Wednesday practice

It was interesting to see so much buzz over a practice in late March, especially since the Kings have been out of the playoff race for so long. Of course, Jack Johnson was the topic of conversation. The Vancouver Canucks were on site, waiting to practice after the Kings, and with them came a handful of Canadian reporters eager to talk to Johnson. And, even more stunningly, a Los Angeles-based television crew was on hand. There’s something you don’t see every month.

Johnson got to work with his new teammates for the first time and everything seemed to go well. He got the expected ribbing from teammates for drawing extensive media attention, but coach Marc Crawford said that having Johnson around brought an extra energy to practice, because the players were eager to finally get a look at him. Most, including Crawford and fellow Michigan alum Michael Cammalleri, had seen very little of Johnson, despite all the hype.

Crawford skated with Johnson for a bit in practice and made small talk, asked Johnson where he was from and which teammates he already knew, little things like that to make Johnson feel comfortable.

Here’s some of what Crawford had to say about Johnson, who will make his NHL debut Thursday at Staples Center:

On what he expects from Johnson’s debut: “I talked to him and said, `Just go out and play with passion.’ There’s going to be a lot of time for us to make corrections. We’re going to give him limited instructions on how we play. We just want him to go with his instincts and play with passion.”

On how Johnson is fitting in: “(Players) have heard all about him and they know he’s going to be a part of our future for years to come. I thought Jack handled himself well and we’re happy to have him.”

On Johnson’s game: “People who watched the World Juniors know he plays hard and with a lot of passion. He’s a top talent. You see, right away, that he’s got some real good skill. When you look at the pedigree of guys who come out of Michigan, they all seem to do well, especially the top-level guys.”

As for Johnson himself, he couldn’t stop smiling as he patiently answered question after question for more than 30 minutes. I asked him if he had any expectations about what his first NHL game would be like.

“It’s going to be fast,” Johnson said. “Obviously it’s as good as it gets. Honestly, I don’t know what to expect, but it’s going to be a fun night.”

A couple other practice notes will come later, including an update on Derek Armstrong.

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Parse update

For those unfamiliar with the situation, Scott Parse, a Kings prospect, signed an amateur-tryout contract with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins yesterday. I wasn’t able to talk to Dean Lombardi, who is working back east this week, but a Kings official told me what everyone has pretty much assumed. Contract negotiations with Parse weren’t going well, so he signed a deal to get on the ice right away. It wouldn’t seem to be a great statement on Parse’s behalf, in terms of his optimism about getting a deal done with the Kings, but negotiations will continue. The Kings think it would be better for Parse to start in Manchester, but he doesn’t agree, so at some point someone will have to bend, or the Kings will lose Parse altogether.

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