LA Kings: To The Abyss, Or Righting The Ship?

LOS ANGELES — Until they earned a 4-3 shootout win over the Minnesota Wild on October 16, the Los Angeles Kings had been hurtling into the abyss.

After littering the ice in each game with horrendous, embarrassing blunders, mostly in the defensive zone, the Kings allowed a whopping 27 goals in six games—4.50 goals per game—going into the game against the Wild.

Their disastrous play had them off to a 1-5-0 start, their worst in twenty years, and there appeared to be no end in sight, as the blatant mistakes just kept piling up, game after game.

“We’re seeing a familiar refrain,” said Kings head coach Marc Crawford following his team’s 4-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings at Staples Center on October 14. “I thought we were better tonight, but it was the same story. We made critical mistakes at critical times of the game tonight.”

Whether it was fumbling the puck at the point, resulting in a shorthanded breakaway goal, leaving the entire right side of the ice uncovered while on the penalty-kill with a player all alone in front of their goalie for another easy goal, or simply blowing their defensive assignments resulting in more goals against, the Kings were doing just about everything they could possibly do to screw up.

In fact, the Kings were a comedy of errors on ice, often looking more like the Keystone Kops than National Hockey League players as the blunders were glaring, fundamental mistakes.

“It’s pretty obvious,” said Kings defenseman and team captain Rob Blake following his team’s 8-6 loss to the Boston Bruins on October 12 at Staples Center. “You don’t want to be 1-4 by any means. Unfortunately, we put ourselves in that position. I don’t think other teams have done that much to beat us. It’s mistakes that are caused by us right now. The other team’s not making us make those mistakes.”

And it was not just the mistakes, but when they made them. Against Detroit on October 14, the Kings blundered at the worst possible times.

After the Kings scored to get within a goal of the Red Wings, bruising Detroit winger Tomas Holmstrom scored at 5:39 of the third period, after Kings winger Michael Cammalleri lost the puck near left point in the Detroit zone, giving the Red Wings a three-on-two rush.

“Just when we got back into the game, we lost our structure in our zone three or four times against their top line and three of those resulted in goals,” Blake lamented. “We generated something in the third to get ourselves into the game, but we had two breakdowns again and they ended up in our net.”

“We turned over a couple of pucks, and they are a very dangerous transition team, especially their top line,” said Crawford. “They’re extremely good on the rush. They can hang onto the puck, they find an open spot and they challenge you. It was a big responsibility for our young line [of Cammalleri, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown to match up against them, and we got caught on one shift. We got caught a little bit deep. We didn’t get the puck in behind their defense. They knocked it down.”

Indeed, whenever Detroit’s top line of Pavel Datsyuk, Holmstrom and Henrik Zetterberg was on the ice and especially when the game was on the line, the Kings fell apart.

“They’re a good team, and their top players were their best players tonight,” said Crawford. “Zetterberg, Datsyuk. [defenseman Nicklas] Lidstrom, [defenseman Brian] Rafalski and Holmstrom—that was their top five and they did everything for them tonight, and we made mistakes when they were on the ice.”

“We’re shooting ourselves in the foot and we just have to continue to recognize and get better at recognizing those key moments in the game,” added Crawford. “And we don’t have to get it right away. We have to stay in the game, but right now, we’re not giving ourselves the opportunity to stay in the game long enough. It’s almost inconceivable that you give a three-on-two chance to their best line when you’re fighting to get back in the game. I have no explanation for it. It’s definitely one we’re extremely disappointed about.”

Contrary to popular belief, having a considerable number of new players on the roster was not the problem.

“I’m not sure it’s familiarity with line combinations or anything like that,” said Crawford. “We’re not making mistakes because of line combinations. Tonight [against Boston on October 12], it was a lot of clears and missed clears—not clearing pucks in vulnerable areas. We need to do a better job of that.”

“It doesn’t really matter who you’re playing with,” added Crawford. “If you’re not right on and you’re not having good habits, being forceful and assertive defensively, you’re going to get what happened tonight.”

So what was the problem?

“It’s attention to detail,” Crawford explained. “It’s making sure that you make real strong clears and you’ve got to want the puck and make a play. That’s where a lot of the miscues were.”

But even more than that, the biggest problem was that the Kings were not playing within their system, which was causing the major breakdowns.

“We’ve got to stick to our system,” said Kings center Anze Kopitar. “We can’t breakdown. We gave up a three-on-two rush to the best line in the league and they capitalized. And on another shift, they came on and we broke down in our own zone and they scored again.”

“I don’t think we have a choice, really, how to get out of this,” Kings winger Michael Cammalleri said angrily. “The question is, is it pretending that you’re doing it or actually doing it? There has to be a structure and you have to stick to it to a man, every player, every shift, every game.

“It’s not enough to think that you’re doing it,” added Cammalleri. “It’s up to the guys in this room. It’s not good enough. The other teams are playing 60 minutes and we’re playing 40 or 45 minutes. It leaves a lot of time for the other team to expose us. I think we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re doing it. We have to look in the mirror and say we’re pretending.”

The Kings team captain agreed with the sentiments of the team’s younger players.

“We can’t see any improvement out of this game because we still came away with a loss,” said Blake. “They played well as a team, and we played the opposite way. When you have a structure, which is our system, if you don’t play your system, you’re going to get picked apart by a good team and that’s what they did tonight.”

In the end, Kopitar best summed up what the Kings needed to do to fix their problems.

“We’ve got to stick to the plan every night and work our asses off.”

No Thanks To The Defense

The Kings horrid play hung 19-year-old rookie goaltender Jonathan Bernier out to dry so often in the four games he played in after winning his NHL debut in London that he probably had to be treated for severe dehydration…several times.

Without question, Bernier’s 1-3 won-loss record, 4.03 goals-against average and .864 save percentage are awful numbers for a goaltender. But it really wasn’t his fault.

Indeed, the Kings made so many glaring mistakes in front of him that for all intents and purposes, they abandoned their young netminder time and time again.

Against Boston, Bernier allowed seven goals, but none could be blamed on him. Even so, he took it somewhat personally.

“You just have to turn the page and get ready for the next game,” said Bernier. “You are going to have games like this during the season. What makes the difference between a good and a bad goalie is bouncing back and that’s what I’m going to try to do.”

And bounce back he did, despite allowing four goals against Detroit on October 14.

“Jonathan bounced back tonight,” said Crawford. “We were happy to see that he bounced back. He played a strong game for us and that’s what you look for.”

“I thought he was pretty good tonight,” added Crawford. “You couldn’t fault him on the third and fourth goals. The goal off the rush—I don’t think there’s anyone in the league who would’ve stopped that shot. It was a great play and a great shot. The last one went in off a leg after a scramble in the goal mouth.”

But with the team playing so horribly and with a turning point nowhere in sight at the time, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi decided that enough was enough.

On October 15, Lombardi assigned Bernier back to his junior team, the Lewiston MAINEiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

No question, Bernier had been the Kings’ best goaltender. But the concern was not his play. Rather, it was his psyche.

“This is, in no way, an indictment of how he has played,” Lombardi said during a conference call with local media. “Like I said, he went beyond our expectations. There’s no way that we anticipated him going this far.”

“We thought, when he came in, that he would get half an exhibition game, but obviously he continued to play well and showed enormous potential,” Lombardi added. “We feel that the best way to ensure he realizes it, though, is to take it a step at a time and go back to junior. So that’s basically it, in a nutshell.”

Righting The Ship?

Two days after losing their fifth straight game, the Kings finally took some positive steps towards righting the ship with a relatively mistake-free 4-3 shootout win over the previously undefeated Minnesota Wild in front of 14,239 fans at Staples Center.

The win not only handed the previously 5-0 Wild their first loss of the season, but it was the Kings’ first victory since returning from their two-game trip to London, England to start the 2007-08 season, and it was clearly the result of the Kings finally playing within their system.

“We stuck to our game plan,” said Cammalleri. “We executed, we won a lot of the little battles, the so-called games within the game. We got a lot of satisfaction out of doing some of the simple things right instead of looking at the whole scheme of the game. We got a lot of satisfaction out of making strong plays, getting pucks in, getting pucks out, and out of guys buying in.”

“One obvious sign of that was the line changes,” added Cammalleri. “Our line changes were extremely disciplined. We had a plan, we stuck to it. We kept our shifts short, we worked hard and stuck with it and helped each other out. I felt we didn’t give up too many grade-A scoring chances.”

Crawford was very happy to see his team stick to their system…finally.

“We followed through on a game plan for an entire 65 minutes of a game,” he explained. “It took us the entire game and the shootout to get the two points, but I was very pleased. We limited the top team in the league to very few chances and I thought we generated a lot. We forced them to take a lot of penalties, and that’s very uncharacteristic of a Minnesota Wild team.”

“Our team challenges teams offensively, but we showed tonight that we can follow a game plan,” he added. “We matched lines tonight and we really did try to play a very sound game where we didn’t give up many opportunities. We played strong, basic straight-ahead hockey.”

To be sure, the Kings looked like a completely different team, as they showed improvement in all areas.

“I thought our guys showed a lot of discipline on the puck, we were very good on the forecheck tonight, we put a lot of pressure on their defense and we caused them take a lot of penalties,” said Crawford. “The rewarding thing for our team was that they stayed within the structure of our game. In the first two games, we haven’t stayed within the structure of what will make us successful.”

The Kings’ first win in what seems like an eternity is being looked upon as something to build on.

“It’s a huge confidence-builder for the team,” said Crawford. “We got behind twice, but we never deviated [from our game plan]. Those are things that you love to see as a coach. Often times in this early part of the season, we have deviated.”

“It hasn’t been because our guys aren’t good people,” added Crawford. “It’s been the inexperience of our group, trying to do a little too much.”

So what was it that finally got things turned around?

“Our guys are fed up with losing, first and foremost,” Crawford explained. “I think it catches your attention that whatever we’re doing isn’t working. We’ve had a couple of great days of practice. We prepared specifically for the Minnesota Wild, we know they’re a team that’s hard to penetrate against. You’ve got to take your opportunities when you get them. You can’t throw ‘hope passes’ because they pick those off and are a great counter-punching team.”

In other words, by playing within their system, they cut way down on their mistakes.

“We didn’t make very many [mistakes] tonight,” said Crawford. “We made one with our goalie—he let one in that he shouldn’t have let in. We [also] had a miscommunication behind the net on a set-up. You’re going to make a few mistakes every game—there’s no such thing as a perfect game. But we didn’t make very many tonight. We played a very, very strong team game.”

“I think our players knew we had to buckle down,” added Crawford. “They knew we had to stay within the structure of what was going to make us successful and they stuck with it. We’re going to have to have similar efforts where we get contributions from everyone and that they play within the structure and with passion.”

But after all that, the Kings are still just 2-5 on the season, and they know they are still not anywhere near where they want or need to be.

“We’ve been working at it,” said Cammalleri. “It’s not like it was an overnight thing. Maybe some things came to fruition tonight. But at the same time, it’s just one game.”

Aubin Gets The First Post-Bernier Opportunity

With Bernier out of the picture for the foreseeable future, another story from the game against the Wild was that goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin, who suffered a groin injury in London on September 30, got the start after not playing in a full game in the pre-season or in London.

Aubin did not look all that sharp, but he did not look all that bad, either, especially noting his situation.

“He was adequate,” said Crawford. “Defensively, we did a very good job of limiting the number of chances we made Jean-Sebastien face. And let’s face it. He hasn’t played a full game all year. That’s a lot better—to give him a game like that where you’re not giving up the number of types of chances we’ve been giving up.”

Aubin said that he is still working his way into shape, especially after being out with the injury, and that he was still feeling a bit rusty.

“I played almost a full game in Austria when I replaced [goalie Jason] LaBarbera, but other than that, it was half-games and trying to get into game shape,” he said. “[He felt rusty] a little bit with the play behind the net, making passes. But it came back during the game. Other than that, seeing pucks in practices and in games is pretty much the same.”

The task for Aubin now is just to get into game shape one hundred percent and get accustomed to his new team.

“I’ve got to get used to everything we do,” he explained. “I’ve got to learn more and more and get comfortable.”

Vets Need To Pick It Up

The Kings are now unable to recall Bernier or assign him to the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (their primary minor league affiliate) until Lewiston’s season is over, except under emergency conditions. Taking that into consideration, one has to wonder if the Kings are already throwing in the towel on expecting to make the playoffs.

No matter how you slice it, sending Bernier, who has been their best goalie this season by a long shot, back to Lewiston for his final season of junior eligibility and also assigning rookie center Brady Murray to Manchester indicates that the Kings are deeply concerned about the downward spiral their team was stuck in—it is crystal-clear that they do not want their youngest players to be exposed to the poor play, bad habits and perhaps worse that were plaguing them.

What makes matters even worse is that it is mostly the veterans who were falling down on the job.

To this point in the very young 2007-08 season, the Kings have gotten virtually nothing from veteran players such as 2007 unrestricted free agent signings Michal Handzus and Ladislav Nagy, who were expected to play second-line minutes and provide some scoring punch. But after seven games, they have just one goal and four assists between them and have a combined -6 plus/minus rating.

Among the forwards, Nagy has been the most glaring disappointment, with no goals and three assists in six games. Even worse, he simply does not appear to be working hard or putting in a one hundred percent effort, a reputation that has followed him throughout his NHL career.

In an attempt to get Nagy to pick up his game, he was a healthy scratch against the Wild and will likely not return to the lineup on Thursday when the Kings start a quick two-game road trip against the Calgary Flames and then at Vancouver on Friday.

“I felt that he hasn’t played at the level he needs to play at,” Crawford explained. “We wanted to give him a real strong message that you’ve got to be a lot better. He has to be stronger on the puck and you’ve got to play a strong team game.”

“Everybody has to be responsible in their own end,” Crawford added. “Everybody has to be responsible coming through the neutral zone. But let’s face it. He’s paid to play strong with the puck in the offensive zone and make things happen and not get knocked off the puck. That’s what we’re expecting from him. He’ll get an opportunity again and we expect more from him. He’s paid to be a top scorer in this league and we expect him to perform like that.”

Defensively, Blake, Brad Stuart and even Lubomir Visnovsky, who was signed to a five-year contract over the summer, are also struggling.

Blake often looks like he is dragging a luxury cruise ship around on the ice, Stuart was flying around the ice aimlessly through the first six games and was caught out of position numerous times, and Visnovsky blew several defensive coverages in those six games and made other mistakes, which you never saw from him in previous years, leaving some wondering where the near-elite NHL defenseman that many hockey pundits were raving about last season has gone.

Combined, Blake, Stuart and Visnovsky are already a -23 through six games.

As for Blake and Handzus, who also looks like he is dragging a cruise ship around the ice, their poor play raises serious questions about their health.

Blake underwent off-season hip surgery and said that he was just three months into a five-month recovery when the season began a few weeks ago. Handzus suffered a season-ending knee injury just eight games into the 2006-07 season and after the long layoff, was still getting his skating legs during training camp last month.

No one has said one way or the other if their health problems are adversely affecting their play, but it sure looks like it. Whatever the case may be, one has to question whether or not Blake and Handzus are healthy enough to be a positive contributors on the ice. After seven games, the evidence is clearly pointing in the other direction.

One thing is certain: Unless Blake, Handzus, Nagy, Stuart and Visnovsky find their games soon—and time is already growing short, the Kings could easily find themselves all but eliminated from playoff contention before Christmas for the second straight season.

Creative Commons License Frozen Royalty by Gann Matsuda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Frozen Royalty – Licensing and Copyright Information.

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