EL SEGUNDO – Marian Gaborik was technically the first member of the Kings to begin training camp.
The forward took the ice alone at Toyota Sports Center at 7 a.m Wednesday. But he was gone an hour later when the team began its first official practice of the 2017-18 season.
His recovery from April surgery on a chronic left knee injury isn’t yet complete, meaning Gaborik isn’t a sure bet to be healthy enough to participate in any portion of training camp with the rest of the team.
The 35-year-old Slovak is a prime example of the challenges facing a Kings team no longer operating on the trajectory of the young, up-and-coming group that won a pair of Stanley Cups earlier this decade.
Age is becoming a real factor – both on the ice and in the checkbook. Five of the six highest-paid Kings are 30 or older.
Even franchise center Anze Kopitar, 30, can’t ignore father time.
Whether or not suffering the worst season of his career last year can be attributed in any way to age, the Kings plan to facilitate a bounce-back year from Kopitar included a more rigorous offseason training regimen and a strategy to shorten his shifts.
“I wouldn’t say he’s a poorly trained guy, but as he gets older I think he wanted to get a little bit lighter, a little quicker without losing any power in his game,” Kings coach John Stevens said. “We want Kopi on the ice as much as he’s played, but I think if we can get his shift length down a little bit, we can get his pace up. And if his pace comes up a little bit along with being a little lighter and along with what he’s done over the summer with his fitness training, I think he’s going to be a better player.”
Kopitar’s average shift was 50.4 seconds last season. Only 50 players in the league registered a higher number. Stevens would like to see that drop to 45 seconds.
In an effort to maintain Kopitar’s total time on the ice, the Kings plan to increase their captain’s average of 24.7 shifts per game, which ranked 151st in the NHL last season.
Kopitar has avoided major injury in his 11-year career, but the same can’t be said for Gaborik or goaltender Jonathan Quick.
Gaborik has played more than 56 games just once in the last five seasons, a trend that didn’t stop the Kings from signing him to a seven-year contract after the 2013-14 season. A groin injury in the first period of last year’s season opener cost Quick 59 games in his first season over age 30.
When he’s on the ice, Quick, has maintained the level of play that made him a Vezina Trophy finalist two seasons ago.
But the player directly above him on the pay scale, Dustin Brown, has faded dramatically from the form that earned him an eight-year, $47 million contract extension after the 2012-13 season. Brown, 32, did have an encouraging uptick from 28 points two years ago to 36 last season. Accordingly, he ran with a line Wednesday morning including Kopitar and the Kings’ most notable offseason addition, Michael Cammalleri.
Cammalleri is being counted on to improve a Kings offense that produced the sixth fewest goals in the NHL last season. But he isn’t making them any younger. The 14-year veteran is 35 years old.
The Kings’ intercontinental preseason schedule requires some explaining this season. The only reason the team plays three games in three days beginning Sept. 21 is because half of the team will be in China.
A Kings split squad will play the Vancouver Canucks on Sept. 21 in Shanghai and Sept. 23 in Beijing. The other half of the split quad will play the Ducks in Anaheim Sept. 22.
It has not yet been determined which players will travel to China.
The Ducks open the preseason Saturday against Vancouver in a 2 p.m. game at Staples Center before travelling to Arizona for a second exhibition game on Monday.
The Kings finish the preseason with a game at the Las Vegas Knights Sept. 26 before hosting Arizona Sept. 28 and the Ducks Sept. 30.
The Kings open the regular season Oct. 5 against Philadelphia at Staples Center.
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