It would be easy to view Andrei Loktionov’s weekend demotion as a statement on the 20-year-old’s development – or the lack thereof.
Loktionov was scratched for Saturday’s game against the New York Islanders because “there were a couple more games where he’s starting to get exposed on system play,” Terry Murray said after the Kings practiced Monday. The coach specifically mentioned the shootout loss Thursday against the New York Rangers. “There were three or four different looks that they had that were because of (us) losing some coverage,” Murray said.
Come Sunday, Loktionov was playing for the Manchester Monarchs.
The timing of Loktionov’s demotion is what really makes the move intriguing. The trade deadline is seven days away and, as noted here before, that invites questions about whether the team thinks the 20-year-old is expendable. No doubt, he would be an attractive commodity on the trade market.
Murray was probably conscious of that Monday when he said – unprompted, in response to a question about how hard it was to assign Loktionov to the AHL – that “he’s a player who’s going to be a longtime player for the L.A. Kings.”
“He played very well,” Murray said. “We got him back to the center position, and that’s where his game started to look more comfortable. He had the puck on his stick a lot. He scored a nice goal in Washington, off of a rebound by (Kyle) Clifford. Overall, his game was good.”
Murray can only do so much about Loktionov’s longevity in Los Angeles; he isn’t the general manager taking calls from the league’s other 29 teams. But it sounds like Loktionov passed his second NHL test this season, and that this transaction was more about making room for an improved Marco Sturm.
Though he did not play, Sturm accompanied the team on its six-game Eastern swing. He was supposed to come off injured reserve and re-enter the lineup after being shut down more than a month ago, following a diagnosis of tendinitis in his knee. Instead Sturm kept watching from the press box, which prompted a huddle between player and coach.
“Probably middle of the trip we had a talk,” Sturm said. “He thought I needed some more work. That’s what I did. I tried to get enough strength, get my skating back, but the team was playing well too.”
“He has put a lot of work in, through all the practices on the days away from here on the road,” Murray said of Sturm. “Practice days, morning skates, he got into the skating club pretty heavily each one of those days. I think he’s as good as where we’re going to get him to (while) not playing the game. Physically, he’s 100 percent. Emotionally, now, he’s hungry. I had a conversation with him on the road, about where he is at on the mental/emotional side of the game, and he’s hungry. He’s ready to play.”
Murray reiterated that the early stages of Sturm’s comeback from off-season knee surgery would be like a training camp for the 32-year-old forward. Sturm said he knew he wasn’t 100 percent when he played his first game Dec. 15 after arriving in a trade with Boston. The Kings went 6-7-0 with Sturm in the lineup – which was not entirely his fault – but both he and the team were hoping for more than four goals in his first 15 games back.
“I kept watching and looking for that extra gear that I really need him to play at,” Murray said.
The plan now is for Sturm to be activated from injured reserve prior to Wednesday’s game in Anaheim, where he will play at left wing on a line with center Anze Kopitar and right wing Wayne Simmonds. That’s a scoring role, not a five-minutes-a-game fourth-line position, and Sturm’s “extra gear” is expected to translate into extra goals for a team that needs them.
“I think he started to hit his stride in the last couple days of the practices on the road,” Murray said. “He seemed to have better jump, better stamina, better endurance. Now it’s time to see where he’s at in a game, competitive situation.”
Setting aside Loktionov’s trade value, defensive-zone awareness, and all-around potential, his demotion makes sense from a standpoint of keeping Sturm’s seat warm while the veteran got into game shape.
“(Loktionov) can get himself some rest, start to get gathered in and start to contribute with Manchester,” Murray said. “He’s only a phone call away. We can make that call and get him back.”