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The Los Angeles Kings will start their title defence when they open this year’s NHL season on Saturday at the Staples Center.
The Los Angeles Kings will start their title defence when they open this year’s NHL season on Saturday at the Staples Center.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings ready to defend throne

The Stanley Cup winners – along with 29 other teams – have less than a week to prepare for an abbreviated and compressed NHL season, after the league's labour dispute was officially resolved this past weekend.

LOS ANGELES // Last spring, the bottom-seeded Los Angeles Kings clawed their way through four play-off rounds to the National Hockey League championship.

If that seemed like a scramble, how about this one? The Stanley Cup winners – along with 29 other teams – have less than a week to prepare for an abbreviated and compressed season of 48 games (down from the normal 82), after the league's labour dispute was officially resolved this past weekend.

No pre-season games. No assessing newcomers. No "rounding" into shape.

The Kings assembled for their first training session yesterday, and they, like 25 other teams, play their first game on Saturday. The only difference: the Kings will be the only club raising a championship banner in their arena.

"We've got a lot of work to do," the Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "It's not a training camp. It's five or six days of practice and go."

Jarret Stoll, the forward, said he has been skating and trying to stay in shape. He acknowledged the immediate challenge.

"It would have been nice to get in a pre-season game or two," said the 30-year-old Canadian, who noted that every team is in the same situation. "Once we get into it, it's going to be a sprint, fast and furious. You just have to get ready as soon as possible."

The shortened season will probably favour teams like the Kings who have few newcomers to assimilate. Dean Lombardi, the general manager, worked hard to give his team a chance at repeating its title, something no NHL team has done since the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997 and 1998.

"Dean did a good job keeping the team together," Sutter said. "It's pretty cool."

The bigger question is whether the league has kept its fans intact. This was the NHL's third work stoppage in 18 years, costing the league more cancelled games, in that time, than the combined total of its major North American brethren - the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.

Fortunately, for the NHL, its fan base is often described as small but loyal. After a contract dispute scuttled the entire 2004/05 season, the league enjoyed a five per cent increase in attendance in 2005/06.

It will need that same kind of rebound this time, as well, because the NHL depends on ticket sales for 47 per cent of its revenue, more than any of the other three major North American sports leagues, which have far more lucrative broadcasting deals than the NHL.

The Kings say they will add some fan-friendly promotions, such as autograph sessions and giveaways, but will not lower ticket, parking or concession prices. Their fans' reward for patience, officials say, will be another Stanley Cup run.

Jonathan Quick, the goaltender and winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy for most outstanding player in the 2012 post-season, noted "the product we put on the ice" is the most relevant factor for fans, regardless of the work stoppage.

"No one wanted" the lockout, he said. "Everybody just has to deal with it."

Anze Kopitar will miss opener with injury

LOS ANGELES // A primary goal of any team playing a shortened season is to avoid injuries.

Whoops.

The Los Angeles Kings, the National Hockey League champions, are already facing their first challenge before the ink on the lockout-abbreviated schedule has dried. The team’s leading scorer, Anze Kopitar, will likely miss the team’s opener, on Saturday, because of a knee injury suffered on January 5 during a game in Sweden.

At least there was encouraging news for the Kings. When the 25-year-old centre from Slovenia reported to the Kings practice centre, tests revealed that his right knee was only sprained, with no ligament damage.

“We’re a little relieved,” said the Kings general manager Dean Lombardi. “It’s not structural damage. He looks great … his frame of mind is great.

“The way he’s talking, he’s probably two or three weeks from playing. It’s hard to put a timetable on it, but that seems realistic.”

Kopitar was one of numerous players who joined European teams during the NHL labour dispute. An opposing player fell awkwardly on Kopitar’s leg in what would have been his last game for Mora IK of the Swedish Allsvenskan league.

Kopitar, who had 25 goals and 76 points last season, has led the Kings in scoring for the past five seasons. No one posted more than his eight goals or 12 assists during the Stanley Cup play-offs last spring.

“We have a lot of depth to try to cover for him, but he’s probably our best player,” his teammate Jarret Stoll said. “I guess you thank God it happened now, not after 40 or 50 games.”

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