Long-suffering Kings now contenders
The scene is a subdued Los Angeles Kings locker room in Calgary on Thursday night. The team has just lost a bruising 2-1 battle to the Flames, and captain Dustin Brown is sitting in front of his locker, peeling off his sweaty gear and talking about why things are different for this team, this season.
He doesn't mention the 7-2-1 record in December they'll take into an eight-day Christmas break. And he doesn't bring up the team's 22 wins or its 47 points in 37 games. Or the fact that the Kings are in a dogfight with a perennial powerhouse, the San Jose Sharks, for the top spot in the NHL's Western Conference.
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Instead, Brown talks about the pride he and all his teammates have, their sense of commitment and, most of all, their determination and belief. That's the word that keeps coming up: belief. You hear it a lot these days, not only from Brown but also from Coach Terry Murray and all the other guys in the room. They believe in each other, they believe in Murray's system, and they believe in the possibility that maybe, just maybe, a franchise whose fans have had so much to forget for the past 41 years may be on the verge of a season to remember.
A quick review:
The last time there was this much excitement about the Kings was in 1993, when Wayne Gretzky led them to the Stanley Cup finals against the Montreal Canadiens, even winning the first game of that series before losing four straight, three of them in overtime. It was heartbreaking, but it was OK: Gretzky and the Kings were on the rise. They'd win the Cup the next season, or the season after that. It was all good.
But, of course, it wasn't. The Kings have made it to the postseason only four times since that magical run in '93. They haven't played a postseason series since 2002, and they haven't won a series since an unlikely upset of the Detroit Red Wings in 2000.
There were seven coaches in 15 years. The philosophy of the team was to try to "win now." Valuable draft choices were squandered as a result, and the veteran players received in return never lived up to expectations. The team's roster was an inconsistent mess -- largely a collection of rejects and retreads.
The Kings were wallowing in mediocrity, on the fast track to hockey oblivion.
It all changed in April 2006, when Dean Lombardi was hired as the team's general manager and arrived in L.A. with the same approach that enabled him to mold the Sharks into one of the NHL's premium franchises: Commit to the future, build the core of the team with draft choices and, most important of all, be willing to go through at least several more seasons of losing and frustration, but believe -- there's that word again -- that it will all pay off once the kids develop and achieve their potential.
The Kings are now three months into the fourth year of the Lombardi regime. During that time the architect of a team that formerly tossed draft choices away without blinking -- or seemingly thinking -- shrewdly used 38 picks to rebuild the franchise, including six first-rounders. And the future is bright, too: The Kings have 10 selections in the 2010 entry draft; six are in the first three rounds.
The kids are flourishing, blending beautifully with veterans Lombardi has added to the mix. But because the Kings play on the West Coast, starting most of their games when the vast majority of hockey's fans and media are turning in for the night, the team is in many ways flying under the radar, unappreciated, unnoticed and overachieving -- just the way Lombardi likes it.
So what better time than now to blow his and the Kings' cover and give five reasons this team is ready to not just make the playoffs but make some noise when they get there?
1. Goaltending: For decades this has been a consistent soft spot for the Kings. Since the inaugural season in 1967-68, there have been 62 different goaltenders for the franchise. While there have been Hall of Famers like Terry Sawchuk and Grant Fuhr and heroic performers like Rogie Vachon and Kelly Hrudey -- who was between the pipes for that great run in '93 -- the vast majority of Kings goalies have had names like Marcel Cousineau, Barry Brust and Gary Laskoski.
And let's not forget -- watch your pronunciation on the last name, please -- Yutaka Fukufuji.
But now, at long last, the Kings have a keeper -- and in more ways than one.
Jonathan Quick is just 23, an American kid who played at a Connecticut prep school and then at the University of Massachusetts, and actually was drafted by the Kings in the third round of the 2005 draft, the year before Lombardi arrived.
Quick wasn't supposed to be the Kings' goalie of the moment. There were others that were designated as shoo-ins and sure things. But Quick suddenly emerged last season, winning 21 of the 44 games he played, posting four shutouts and an impressive goals-against average of 2.48.
This season he's been simply sensational, but in a sneaky way: He's not among the league leaders in save percentage, goals-against average or shutouts -- to date he doesn't have any -- but he tops all other goalies with 34 games played, is second in saves and as of the Christmas break was tied for the lead in wins, with 20.
In short, all the kid does is keep the Kings in games they absolutely would have lost in previous seasons, and -- so far, anyway -- he's been able to figure out a way to lead the Kings to a win on more nights than not.
And unlike most of his brethren -- whose personalities and behavior range from wacky to quirky to completely unpredictable -- Quick is amazingly normal, loose and approachable before and even during games, joking around with his teammates, exuding a level of confidence and competence that is contagious. They know he's going to come through for them, and he does. He's proved it time and time again.
2. Anze Kopitar: Washington has Ovechkin, Pittsburgh has Crosby, the Rangers have Gaborik. All of them are superstars, the focal point or catalyst of their teams' offense.
L.A. has Kopitar, who like Crosby, is developing into one of the most complete forces in the game today.
The 6-foot-3, 222-pound Slovenian center, just 22 years old, is the quintessential example of the Lombardi developmental program: He was allowed by the coaching staff to operate solely as an offensive player in his first two seasons, gaining confidence as he averaged 25 goals and 69 points.
When Murray took over as coach before last season, he urged Kopitar to focus on improving the defensive part of his game: backchecking, being more protective of the puck in the neutral zone. It worked. While becoming a more dependable player on his own end of the ice, Kopitar maintained his offensive numbers (27 goals, 66 points) even though he was paired with a variety of different linemates throughout the season.
Then in an offseason deal, Lombardi acquired one of those critical veteran pieces that turned out to be inspired: net-crashing power forward Ryan Smyth. At the beginning of this season, Smyth and Brown were paired with Kopitar. With Smyth banging bodies in front of the net, Kopitar had time and space to maneuver that he'd never experienced before in his NHL career. He went on a tear, scoring 13 goals and 30 points in his first 18 games and leading the league in scoring for the first part of the season.
When Smyth was sidelined with an upper body injury (suspected to be his ribs) in mid-November, both Kopitar and Brown suffered mightily, each enduring goal-less slumps that exceeded a dozen games. But after that game against Calgary last week, Kopitar had 16 goals and 38 points in his first 37 games and was still among the top 10 scorers in the league.
The good news is that Smyth is expected to be back in the lineup for the Kings' next game on the Dec. 26.
Which leads us to the next reason the Kings are for real:
3. Balanced scoring: Take a look at the Kings' team stats at the Christmas break and, of course, Kopitar is at the top of the list. But he and Jarret Stoll (10) are the only players with double-digit goal totals.
In 37 games so far this season, the Kings have scored 106 goals. Kopitar and Stoll have combined for 26 of them, which means the other 80 goals have been scored by pluggers like Smyth (nine), Brown (eight), Michal Handzus (six) and arguably the Kings' biggest and most pleasant surprise this season: Wayne Simmonds, who had nine goals and 20 points and was the team's most consistent two-way player until he was knocked out of action with a knee injury earlier this month.
And that proved to be no big deal because the Kings brought in players like Oscar Moller and Corey Elkins, who fit right into the system, chipped in a big goal at a critical juncture and helped keep the team competitive at a time when it could have easily crumbled.
Of course, it's still early. We're less than halfway through the season, and the dog days of January and February loom. But the signs are all good for the Kings in this critical area. No team is going to make the playoffs or go very far once it gets there if it's not getting scoring from second-, third- and even fourth-line players.
The Kings are. And when someone goes down, the resources seem to be available in abundance to compensate for the loss. And that is a critical and very good sign.
4. Defense: OK, are we believing what we're seeing every time Drew Doughty takes a shift? A smooth and effortless skater. Great shot. Wonderful passer. And completely brilliant with the puck in tight spots. The less room he has, the more impressive he seems to be. Oh, yeah: He already has eight goals.
And he turned 20 in early December.
Are you kidding me?
And let's not forget the other members of the defensive cast.
Jack Johnson is just 22, a terrific offensive-minded threat who has a bomb from the point, but whose hands are so soft that he's a regular -- and a consistent scorer -- in shootouts.
These kids aren't supposed to be this good this soon. Especially Doughty, only in his second year in the league. Learning how to play defense proficiently at the NHL level is supposed to take years. But these two are already impact players, on the ice for critical situations and handling it all with apparent ease.
Of course, there are also the essential experienced veterans. Sean O'Donnell has been around the league for 15 years, winning a Stanley Cup with the Ducks in 2007.
Rob Scuderi won his Cup with Pittsburgh last season and then signed with the Kings as a free agent.
Both are steady influences on the blue line, along with Matt Greene, Peter Harrold and Davis Drewiske. They know how to win when it counts, and their experience and leadership on and off the ice is an invaluable asset to the younger guys.
"Defense wins championships" is the old saw, and no one knows that better than Murray, a former NHL defenseman himself, along with assistant Mark Hardy.
This defensive group will get better and more experienced and confident as the season moves ahead.
5. "This is your time:" Remember that great speech Herb Brooks made to the U.S. Olympic team before its game against the USSR in the 1980 Olympics?
About it being "your time, not theirs"?
It's the Kings' time. And it's about karma, too. About what goes around coming around. For years -- no, decades -- the Kings were a glaring example of how not to build a hockey team for long-term success. It was all about now, instant gratification, forget about the future. Trade away picks for overpriced and over-the-hill veterans. And we all know what happened.
Now, after just over three years, we're already seeing the results of what can happen when an NHL GM is not only allowed but encouraged by management to rebuild a franchise his way, from the ice up, through patience, shrewd drafting and savvy deal-making.
It's no fun for the fans, but the experience is like a lot of things in life: You have to take the long view, make some necessary short-term sacrifices (such as committing to the possibility of losing for at least a season or two) and then get the right coach and system in place to forge ahead.
That's what we're seeing the beginning of right now, the resurgence of a franchise that has underachieved for most of its existence. But these guys, most of them kids, don't know about the team's history, or even care. Almost halfway through the season, they think they're supposed to win every time they step on the ice, and they're furious when they don't.
That kind of attitude can take you a long way -- say to the postseason -- and whatever possibilities go along with it for a bunch of guys who believe not only that they can win, but that their time has come.
Tom Murray is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.