Despite his high standing amongst the Los Angeles Kings' prospect depth, despite his standout performance in training camp, despite the 107 points recorded over three-plus American Hockey League seasons and the steady production during his two previous call-ups this season, 22-year old rookie defenseman Slava Voynov didn't have a firmly planted foundation in the team's lineup until Jack Johnson was sent to Columbus in the trade that netted Jeff Carter.
Since the trade that allowed the Kings to deal from a position of depth to acquire a source of sorely needed scoring, they have gone 10-4-0 after their 4-2 loss to Boston Saturday evening in which they outshot the defending champs 42-26, and have scored at least four goals eight times. The loss ended Los Angeles' six-game winning streak.
"I don't know if we wanted to break out in the last 15 games of the year," Anze Kopitar said. "Maybe next year we'll do it a little quicker. Right now, we're standing pretty good, but we've got to keep going. We all know there's still some work to be done, and we're prepared for it."
While Carter's six goals and nine points have been satisfactory despite his scoreless, minus-3 effort Saturday, his arrival has spread out the offense with hard-on-the-puck rookie winger Dwight King slotting in comfortably alongside Carter and center Mike Richards, and the Dustin Brown-Kopitar-Justin Williams Line generating its best production of the season.
Even Dustin Penner has found more of a comfort zone, shifting from a target of the fans' derision to more of a tolerable third-line type alongside Jarret Stoll and Trevor Lewis, who Carter says "does the dirty work for the team."
"He's out killing penalties, and I think on that line with Stoli and Penns there, he gets in, he wins battles and stuff like that. He's been a good player," Carter said of Lewis.
It was an exchange that helped out both parties Johnson has 12 points in Columbus, where he is a plus-10 in March, and the 30th-ranked Blue Jackets are 6-7-0 since the trade and also helped establish roles on a still-crowded Kings blueline that is no longer overflowing with available players.
Averaging more than 47 average seconds of ice time per game than in his earlier call-ups, Voynov has rewarded the faith placed in him by Dean Lombardi and Darryl Sutter with an immediate impact, scoring three goals as part of an nine-point, plus-seven performance in 14 games since the trade.
There were rough moments Sutter said mentioned that Voynov "can play a hell of a lot better" after a recent bout with defensive inconsistency included putting defensive partner Willie Mitchell in a vulnerable position to get hit in a road game earlier this month.
After nearly 19 minutes of quality play in an up-tempo 1-0 shootout win over St. Louis on Thursday, Sutter was encouraged by his performance in matching up against a physical, hard-working team with a heavy forecheck.
"Big challenge for him tonight against some big, powerful guys coming down on him. It's a big test for him," Sutter said. "You don't evaluate it a week at a time, it's a shift at a time."
Mitchell, who was one of Alex Edler's defensive partners when the All-Star was breaking into the league as a 20 and 21-year old in Vancouver, compared the guidance he's imparted to Voynov with the advice he personally received as a younger pro while skating with Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer in New Jersey and Sergei Zubov in Dallas. Considering the talent he's shared a locker room with, his opinion on Voynov carries significant weight.
"He's a good player, he's a good kid, and he understands the game," Mitchell said of Voynov. "He's young. When we're young, we make a few mistakes. When we're hold, heck, when you're 34, you make a few mistakes out there. We all do. It's more just trying to talk to him about defensive reads. Offensively he's quite gifted as we all know, he sees the ice very well, he's got a great shot, moves the puck well, skates well."
"I think he's pretty far ahead as far as young defensemen in the league as far as development in the defensive zone. I think that's because he played some pro hockey in Russia. He understands the game quite well. For a young defenseman, he's pretty darn good defensively. He's going to continue to get better, and we need him because he plays a lot of big minutes for us, too."
Alec Martinez has also inherited a larger all-around role, courtesy of the minutes vacated by Johnson. With a hard, accurate shot that's he's been able to keep low on the power play to generate some goals and pristine rebounds, he has continued the production he offered last year with 16 points in 60 games but found difficult to tap back into in the first half of the current season as he battled an upper body injury and competed for limited minutes. He has five points and a plus-six rating since the trade.
One of the more encouraging signs for the Kings is that Carter hasn't even broken out at the level he's capable of with six goals in his first 14 games he's still a touch off pace from the 115 goals scored over his previous three seasons. Brown, Kopitar and Williams have done the plurality of the heavy lifting as part of Los Angeles' all-of-a-sudden balanced attack.
Should the Kings continue their recent play and earn a playoff berth, they'll be looking for Carter to etch out a more comfortable groove in the playoffs, where his 13 goals and eight assists in 47 career playoff games speak of inconsistency. Should he settle in and provide those goals the Kings are looking for, this becomes a versatile team capable of more fulfilling accomplishments than just a six-game winning streak.