LOS ANGELES — After a dreadful, frustrating 2007-08 season, the Los Angeles Kings are not dwelling on the past. Rather, they are looking forward, and given what they have in terms of young prospects and a boatload of picks in the 2008 National Hockey League Entry Draft in June, they believe their future is bright.
Kings head coach Marc Crawford took some time after his team’s season finale on April 5, a 4-3 loss to the Anaheim Ducks at Staples Center, to look back, and at the same time, peer into the future of his team.
The Kings were dreadful before Christmas, earning a horrific 12-23-2 record through December 22. But after that, they were considerably better despite already being hopelessly out of playoff contention. His team’s improvement in the last half of the season is a reason for hope.
“We had twelve wins at Christmas, we end up with 32 wins,” said Crawford. “We did play a lot better in the last half and we did it with a depleted lineup.”
“Our players have been pretty good down the stretch,” added Crawford. “From Christmas on, we’re over .500. With the group that we’ve got, with the players that have been assembled here, that’s a pretty good record. It may not win you a Stanley Cup, but it does point us in the right direction.”
Of course, there were some bad spots during the last half.
“We had a couple of stinkers in the last fifty games, the one here against Nashville [on January 8] and the one against Dallas [on March 29],” Crawford lamented. “But apart from that, our guys battled like crazy against teams that were much better suited to produce victories.”
“I was pleased with the way everybody competed,” Crawford elaborated. “We only had a couple of stinkers in the last fifty games. Just about every night, we got a workman-like effort which is what we’re trying to develop here. When you get more workman-like efforts on most nights, then you give yourself an opportunity to be in a playoff hunt.”
Crawford attributed much of his team’s improvement in the second half to their character and the leadership provided by the veterans on the team.
“We got great leadership, it speaks to the character of this team,” he said. “Rob Blake talked today. He said part of the growing process is to have good, veteran people here to show the players the right way to act and the right way to respond. He was talking about [Scott] Thornton, and you can lump Rob in there and Jon Klemm.”
“It’s taking initiative to be the accountable guys,” he added. “Let’s face it. It’s going to be [Dustin] Brown in a situation of leadership, [Anze] Kopitar. We’ve already introduced [Lubomir] Visnovsky and [Michael] Cammalleri into it this year. Those guys are going to have to continue to take steps ahead. Rob Blake will continue to be a strong presence in our lineup. Hopefully, he will be in our fold because he is a great example for our guys.”
“You notice I’m not saying Jack [Johnson] yet. But Jack will eventually be a leader. He’s still learning the league, he’s still learning the players. But Brown is there now. We’re looking for him to really take a vocal lead.”
With or without character and leadership, the playoffs will not be a realistic goal for the Kings unless they can keep the puck out of their net, which was their biggest downfall in the 2007-08 season.
“The biggest deficiency was that we had no goaltending in December,” Crawford lamented. “We were atrocious. You go through a month where, unfortunately, the schedule wasn’t good to us. We played sixteen games in a month, and that’s a bad time to have that facet of your game not be good.”
“We got the injury when [Jason] LaBarbera got ran into,” Crawford elaborated, “He was playing his best hockey up to that point. He had won four in a row in November, he was really playing well. I thought he was coming into his own. And unfortunately, he never really recaptured it.”
LaBarbera went down with a rib injury and was never the same after returning to the lineup.
“We probably forced him back in a little too early,” said Crawford. “Those types of injuries can lead to other types of things and it’s probably all related. He got the sports hernia probably because he wasn’t feeling right about his upper body, his ribs. He never quite recaptured that flair. Let’s hope that Jason gets totally healthy and gives up another great option.”
LaBarbera’s supporting cast wasn’t much help, either.
“The real failure was that we had [Jean-Sebastien] Aubin, he wasn’t good enough, and we had to bring in young kids,” Crawford explained. “We were also coupled with injuries down at the minor leagues. [Erik] Ersberg was hurt at the time so we couldn’t bring him up. We brought up Jonathan Quick who wasn’t quite ready.”
“When you use seven goaltenders in a season, that’s not a good thing,” Crawford added, referring to the fact that his team tied a league record for the most goaltenders seeing action for the same team in one season. “Thankfully, there are some bright things that came from it. Erik Ersberg is looking like a guy who you say. ‘There’s a strong possibility there.’ Now [Jonathan] Bernier is going to get a chance to play at the minor league level and we’ll see how he is. Those are two really good candidates.”
Crawford said that it was not that his goalies were just going through the motions behind a bad team.
“Everybody tried,” he explained. “It wasn’t the case where guys didn’t try to give us their best. You need quality goaltending. It starts and ends with that in the National Hockey League. You saw at the end of the season when Ersberg and even [Dan] Cloutier came in and gave us some solid performances, we were a better team.”
“I don’t know how it looked to you, but it looked to us, and we watch a lot of games, not only while they’re happening, but also on video, that our chances started to go way down,” he stressed. “Our defensive play, even though we were depleted and we traded away [Jaroslav] Modry and we traded away [Brad] Stuart, we were better defensively. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that our players were more sure and they could build on the development in our defensive play.”
Development. That is clearly the key word for the Kings and their future because it relies so heavily on the development of their young players, both their core of young players with the Kings, as well as those throughout their system.
“We’ve got a good, young group,” said Crawford. “We need more players and there are going to be more coming. The guys that are in Manchester right now, that we allowed to stay down there and continue to develop, they’re going to be here next year and that’s going to make our team stronger.”
“We have to strive to find ways to improve,” added Crawford. “But the biggest way you improve is you develop from within and we’re doing it. It’s been long, it’s been arduous. At times, the people that have suffered the most have been our fans because we have teased them a little bit with them, and I believe those guys are getting more and more ready and now they’re ready to come into our lineup and hopefully, our fans will enjoy the Boyles, the Purcells, the Moulsons, the Berniers and the Ersbergs and those types of guys for a lot of years to come.”
Although it did not come to pass at the April 7 draft lottery, it would have been a nice consolation prize to get the first overall pick in the 2008 draft.
“Hopefully, we get the good pick in the draft and that person comes in,” said Crawford. “You look at our goaltending situation with the two young guys and a healthy Jason, that looks like it should be improving.”
And although they did not win the draft lottery, the second overall pick will fetch a very, very good player.
“Hopefully, the silver lining will be the announcement of getting the real high pick,” said Crawford. “That’s the victory [of ending the season at or near last place in the league standings] you don’t want when you’re me, but when you’re fans, yeah, you want that.”
“Let’s face it, the best players throughout the history of the league have always been the top picks, whether it’s Lemieux or Gretzky, Lecavalier, you go on down the list…Joe Thornton,” added Crawford. “Those are the guys you’re talking about. No matter how good your development program is, you don’t develop those guys. Their talents are God-given and you’re just hoping and praying—I know I’m going to church tomorrow—that you’re going to get one.”
If things go according to Hoyle—given Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi’s reputation of being a maverick at the draft table, it might not—the Kings are likely to select from a handful of defensemen who are projected to be among the top five or six prospects in the world in the 2008 draft and could be contributors at the NHL level right away.
“I haven’t seen any of these kids play, other than on TV,” Crawford explained. “I do talk to our scouts and other scouts and they all say the top guys are pretty special and are impact guys almost immediately. That’ll be great if that happens. Lord knows it’s a victory we really need and would be a nice shot in the arm for this organization.”
“I do believe there is lots of room for optimism,” Crawford stressed. “We know that we still have to keep our pedal to the metal and keep forging ahead and trying to make any subtle improvements that we can.”
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