LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings, a professional hockey team in the National Hockey League that has done little more than play mediocre (or worse) hockey throughout its history, died at home on Monday night. The Kings were forty years old.
In reality, the Kings are not really dead, of course. But they have certainly died for the 2007-08 season, as the playoffs are now a pipe dream after they put in mostly lackluster, uninspired, incomplete and perhaps even lazy performances over the past six weeks.
To say that the Kings have been a disappointment this season would be an understatement. Indeed, after a season where they finished fourteenth in the Western Conference, just ahead of the last place Phoenix Coyotes, and 28th in the thirty-team NHL, the Kings have sunk as low as they can go…into the basement of the NHL standings.
The Kings are just 12-20-2 on the season, good for a microscopic 26 points in the standings. As of this writing, they are 25 points behind the Detroit Red Wings, who lead the Western Conference standings, and they trail the eighth-place Anaheim Ducks by eleven points.
“In spurts, we’ve been good but for whatever reason we can’t seem to get sixty minutes together and it’s costing us games and taking us further and further down the standings,” said Kings goaltender Jason LaBarbera. “I don’t know what it is. We need to figure something out.”
“It’s getting to the point where it needs to turn around or we’re going to be in serious trouble,” said Kings forward Patrick O’Sullivan.
Umm…guess again. The fact is, the Kings have been in serious trouble for weeks, and when you look closely at the standings, it becomes plainly evident that they are quite dead for this season.
Last season, 96 points were required to qualify for the playoffs in the Western Conference and if you do the math, it becomes crystal-clear that there is no way the Kings will qualify for the post-season.
With 34 games played, the Kings have 48 games left. Assuming that 96 points will once again be the minimum number of points needed to qualify for the playoffs—a number near that mark is a safe bet, that means the Kings would need around 70 points to qualify.
Calculating that out, it means that the Kings cannot lose more than thirteen games the rest of the way, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this team will lose considerably more than that based on their horrific performance to date.
When you step back and think about all that, one can only shake their head because this can only be viewed as a major disappointment for a team that should be better.
The root cause of the disappointment is that everyone thought the Kings would be a better team than they were last season. Many, including this column, predicted that the Kings would at least squeak into the playoffs. Instead, they have regressed compared to last season.
Injuries to goaltender Jason LaBarbera and right wing Alexander Frolov have not helped matters, but the Kings were not playing all that well even when they were in the lineup, so the problems obviously lie elsewhere. Inexperience of their younger players is playing a role, not to mention the fact that some of the veterans are not capable of giving the Kings more.
It’s The Little Things
Throughout the season, the Kings have made mistakes during games and have failed in certain key areas of their effort because they have been unable to consistently put together a solid, all-around performance.
Even when they do a lot of things well in a game, they often fall down in other aspects of their effort, and a good example of that was on December 15, a 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild at Staples Center, a game in which the Kings made a bunch of little mistakes that came back to bite them in the end.
Their first mistake came early, when Wild forward Marian Gaborik got behind the Kings defenseman and easily scored on a breakaway.
“The first goal…I don’t know if he got behind our defenseman, but it was another mistake,” said Kings right wing Dustin Brown. “That game, even with their great goaltending, we could’ve won 1-0 if we paid attention to the minor details of the game.”
Another such effort came in a 4-2 defeat at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche on December 17 at Staples Center where the Kings once again came out flatter than the proverbial pancake.
“We had a terrible start,” said Kings head coach Marc Crawford. “Adversity is a big enemy of ours right now. We look inexperienced in handling our adversity. When you face adversity, you face it the same way you do success. When you’re successful you really want to keep building on things. When you face adversity, it’s about work and it’s about trying to be simple in your play. We certainly weren’t that early.”
“We wanted to give LaBarbera [who returned to the lineup against the Avs after missing eight games due to a rib cartilage injury] a night that wasn’t going to be a difficult one,” added Crawford. “They get a lot of shots on any night and tonight, we gave up far too many chances. I thought we were better in the second and we made a game of it in the third. But you can’t start like that and get away with it in this league.”
Crawford told reporters this week that his players are not doing all that they can to get the job done.
“The biggest problem for our team is that we have to have a recognition of how miniscule the difference between winning and losing is in the National Hockey League,” Crawford lamented after the loss to the Wild. “We have to take onus and ownership of games like these and recognize that each and every shift that you’re out there can be a difference maker. If there’s one thing that I am disappointed about and maybe our team is disappointed about is that we haven’t gotten that through our thick skulls.”
“There is a very fine line between winning and losing in the National Hockey League,” Crawford elaborated. “There is no doubt that we outplayed this team, there is no doubt we were better than this team tonight. Where we failed was we didn’t do absolutely everything we could to win the game and that’s what we’re going to have to be committed to do.”
Crawford was obviously frustrated with his team failing to make the Wild pay physically after playing the previous night at Anaheim. Even worse, the Kings lost too many battles and foot races for loose pucks and they did not drive hard to the front of the Minnesota net consistently.
“This team will be a very good club when it learns that it has to put absolutely every ounce of preparation, every ounce of energy, every ounce of difference-making that they can muster up,” said Crawford. “When they get that, they’re going to change these frustrating losses, and they’re frustrating for everybody, especially our fan base, but they’ll change those into very energetic, very rewarding wins.”
“Right now, we are not at the top of our game in that one crucial category which is the most crucial of all,” added Crawford. “Difference-making and wanting to make the difference and making sure you’re going to do whatever it takes to make the difference.”
Crawford, whose frustration really started to show during his press conference following the loss to the Wild, obviously believes that his team is better than what they have shown this season and that his team has not been able to grasp this concept.
“That game was there for us tonight, no matter how good [Wild goalie Josh Harding] was, and he was great” Crawford fumed. “We made a few mistakes. Those are things where if you have that attitude where you know that every shift can be the difference in the game, you aren’t going to make those mistakes. Your mistakes will be lessened and that little miniscule difference of getting to a loose puck or not getting to a loose puck will hopefully be the difference in us turning frustrating losses into very rewarding wins.”
“I know that this club needs to learn that,” Crawford added. “We have to keep pounding away at each other to get it. Maybe it takes frustrating losses like these to get it through everybody’s head. You face adversity along the way and we’re facing some right now. But how you handle it is by working and making sure that you’re not going to let your teammates down, and knowing that each and every time you’re on the ice, you can make a difference, and we can. We would have tonight if would’ve had that attitude in spades.”
Not working hard enough to do all the little things that add up to wins instead of losses is really grating on Crawford’s nerves.
“The chances they got tonight were ones we gave them,” Crawford explained. “That’s more where I think the difference making can happen. If you play a team like this, they are very adept at how they play. You’ve got to be determined and determination is exactly what each and every one of those guys has to have for each other. Whether it’s on the power play in front of the net, or whether it’s five-on-five, penalty-killing…you can put that into every facet of our game.”
“It might just be three percent difference that we’ve got to have,” Crawford elaborated. “But we’ve got to find that three percent because right now, it’s just not acceptable to say that ‘well, we got beat by a goalie.’ It’s not acceptable to say ‘hey, we were good tonight and if we stay with it, we’ll be fine.’ We’ve got to better and we’ve got to push a little bit more.”
“Our guys all have to get that attitude that they’re not going to let their teammates down and if you take it a step further, they’re not going to let our fans down. Our fans want nothing more than to see this team do well. Again, we’ve got the responsibility as a coaching staff and the players have the responsibility as players to make sure that we’re not going to let anyone down.”
One of the most glaring little things the Kings have not done a lot this season is support the puck, and that was once again a problem against the Avs.
“We’re working as a unit, you’ve got to have a simple game plan, you’ve got to advance the puck and for me, it’s about being supportive of one another,” Crawford explained. “You be supportive of each other in the defensive zone. You be supportive when you’ve got the puck, you make yourself available. You give people options all the time that aren’t difficult options.”
“When we talk about support, the opposite of that is to be very spread out,” Crawford elaborated. “When you look at our team at its best, we’re right on things offensively, we’re right on people through the neutral zone, we’re right on the loose pucks in the offensive zone. Tonight, there was too much spread in all three zones and again, you’ve got to keep working at being supportive of one another.”
“The support goes a step further. It is being supportive of each other in a very difficult time. This isn’t a lot of fun for anybody. If we can stick together through this, we are going to play better and hopefully, that will allow us to put some wins together.”
But as the losses mount, confidence wanes, leading to players second-guessing themselves or backing off from plays they would normally charge right into.
“We didn’t like the effort tonight [against Colorado], make no mistake about that,” said Crawford. “The effort wasn’t good enough. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it’s very apparent tonight that when we got the penalty and they scored on the power play, you could almost see the guys on their heels. The game is hard to play when you’re taking a defensive stance all the time when you’re going for a loose puck or when you’re going to battle for a puck. You’ve got to be energetic and you’ve got to be forceful. The only way to do that is to work your way through it. That sounds like a broken record, but it’s exactly what the case is. You’ve got to do the straightforward things that will allow you to get off your heels.”
“We had a great effort the other night,” added Crawford. “I think that when we faced the early adversity tonight [against Colorado], it almost seemed like we said ‘it’s going to be really hard again.’ We didn’t manage the type of play that we needed.”
“I think you learn a lot more through adversity and hopefully, our guys are getting some knowledge here about just going out and playing, going out and trying to find some enjoyment in what they’re doing. You enjoy the game when you work hard and you stick together. That’s what we have to do.”
Frolov, LaBarbera Return
After sitting out eleven games due to a groin strain, right wing Alexander Frolov returned to the lineup against the Wild and did not look out of place, despite not figuring in the scoring.
“It’s always hard when you come back after an injury, but all you can do is work hard and try to do your best,” said Frolov. “I know I’m probably not in great shape right now.”
Although he is not quite back to one hundred percent, as reported earlier, goaltender Jason LaBarbera returned to the lineup against the Avalanche. Despite allowing three goals, he was sharp and was named the number two star of the game.
Armstrong, Handzus Break Out
Two of the much-maligned veterans this season have been centers Derek Armstrong and Michal Handzus who were not contributing offensively, adding to the Kings’ struggles.
Although neither Armstrong or Handzus were ever considered to be offensive snipers who put up points in bunches at the NHL level, more was expected of them and they were not delivering. Not at all.
Last season, Armstrong scored eleven goals and tallied 33 assists for 44 points in 67 games. Not eye-opening numbers, to be sure, but he gave it his all on every shift, and was rewarded with a two-year contract extension at the end of last season.
But this season, with higher expectations for the team, Armstrong did not score a goal until December 6 in an 8-2 rout of the Buffalo Sabres. He scored again on December 10, a 4-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.
“It’s nice,” said Armstrong. “It’s the first time I’ve gone that long in my career without scoring a goal.”
With his team 2-0 when he scores a goal, it would seem that the Kings could use more offensive production from Armstrong, and he is hoping that can happen when he plays with some of the Kings more talented forwards.
Not contributing offensively as much as he wanted was certainly weighing on Armstrong.
“The frustration tends to creep in,” Armstrong explained. “It’s tough, especially with [Anze] Kopitar’s line carrying us all year. We’re looking for secondary scoring and some of us could help out like we did tonight. [Kopitar’s line was] dynamite again tonight. But the points don’t matter to me. It’s all about the wins.”
As for Handzus, it is clear that his recovery from the knee injury he suffered early last season with the Chicago Blackhawks took considerably longer than he expected.
“I just started feeling good,” said Handzus. “My legs are back. Hopefully, I can get better.”
Handzus has certainly been better, even though no one should expect him to light the league on fire offensively.
Indeed, Handzus has become the Kings’ top defensive center, and is a fixture on the penalty-kill. But in recent games, his offensive game has awakened after going 26 games without a goal. And to make matters worse, his only goal of the season to that point was an empty-net goal in the Kings’ first game of the season.
Handzus’ next goal did not come until the December 6 blowout win over the Sabres. That goal started a string of games in which Handzus scored three goals in four games, but Handzus was not impressed.
“Sure, but we lost in those games, Handzus said, even though the Kings won one of those games, a 4-2 win over Vancouver on December 10. “I scored, but I can’t be happy about that. I think I can still be better and help this team more. So I’ll be working hard and hopefully, we can start winning.”
Handzus ended up scoring four goals and adding two assists for six points in a seven-game stretch from December 6-17.
Crawford explained that he is trying to keep Handzus fresh and that perhaps that has played a role in his recent offensive production.
“One of the things we’ve been able to do is take some minutes away from him on the penalty-kill and bringing up some guys who can kill penalties a little bit more, maybe using a defenseman back there a little, whether it was Jon Klemm earlier, Tom Preissing and now [Jeff] Giuliano for sure,” said Crawford “It gives us someone who will save him a few minutes. We need him more offensively more than we do defensively. We want to kill penalties. It’s allowing some other guys to stay fresh.”
Four Kings Prospects Will Play In World Championships
Goaltender Jonathan Bernier, defenseman Thomas Hickey, center Oscar Moller and right wing Wayne Simmonds will represent their countries at the 2008 IIHF World Junior Championships in Pardubice and Liberec, Czech Republic, from December 26 through January 5, 2008.
Bernier, Hickey and Simmonds will represent Canada, while Moller will represent Sweden. The Kings have more prospects on the Canadian team than any other NHL team.
“We are extremely proud of the three players selected to represent Canada at the most prestigious junior tournament,” said Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi. ”It is testament to their status as top prospects as well as the diligent efforts of our scouting staff.”
Bernier, 19, was selected by the Kings in the first round (11th overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. He currently plays for the Lewiston MAINEiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League after starting the season with the Kings.
In 15 games with Lewiston this season, Bernier is 7-7-1 with 2.95 a goals-against-average and a .903 save percentage. The 5-11, 177-pound native of Laval, Quebec played for Team Canada at the 2007 Super Series, a pre-season tournament that featured the best young players from both Canada and Russia. Bernier went 2-0-1 with one shut out in his three Super Series appearances while finishing with a .945 save percentage.
Hickey, 18, was a Kings’ first round selection (4th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. He currently plays for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League.
Hickey also played for Team Canada at the recent Super Series, where he had four assists in eight games. The 5-11, 182-pound native of Calgary, Alberta, leads all Seattle defensemen and ranks fourth overall on his club in scoring.
Simmonds, 19, was selected by the Kings in the second round (61st overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. He began the season with the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League, scoring 17 goals with 22 assists for 39 points in 29 games
A 6-1, 162-pound native of Scarborough, Ontario, Simmonds was traded on December 4 to the Soo Greyhounds (Sault Ste. Marie), also of the OHL, where he has scored two goals in three games).
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