Despite losing their first two games, a home-and-home series with the San Jose Sharks in which they scored just once, the Kings broke out in a big way against the so far very disappointing Anaheim Ducks with a 6-3 victory on October 14 at Staples Center.
But more important for the young Kings is building their team from the ground up, and that means more than developing and fine tuning the skills of their players…much more.
Indeed, a missing component from Kings teams in recent years has been solid leadership and cohesiveness, but that just might be a problem solved this season.
“I’m just really excited about the direction of this team,” said Kings left wing Patrick O’Sullivan. “It’s such a difference from last year. It’s a new attitude. We’ve got guys competing for each other, sticking up for each other, blocking shots—that’s going to make a difference for our team. I think we’re going to surprise some people, to be honest.”
Perhaps the most visible example of the players sticking up for one another came during the Kings win over the Ducks.
In the third period, Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf ran into Kings goaltender Jason LaBarbera, knocking him down.
But unlike recent years when the response of Kings skaters was often rather muted, the response this time was anything but, as Kings defenseman Denis Gauthier went right after Getzlaf, dropping the gloves and getting in at least one punch before both players went down to the ice.
“That’s hockey, and Gauthier is a hockey player,” said Kings head coach Terry Murray. “Those are things that hockey players have to do. When someone is taking liberties on your goaltender, somebody is going to have to help him out.”
When was the last time anyone saw the Kings respond like that? It was rarely seen during former head coach Andy Murray’s tenure and it has become apparent that during Marc Crawford’s two years at the helm that such a response was not likely because the team lacked the unity to care enough about each other.
But that appears to be changing.
“There were times last year when not everyone was on the same page,” O’Sullivan explained. “There were some things we were doing as a team that just weren’t working on the ice. I don’t think you can necessarily blame that on a certain thing or whatever, but it’s a whole new year and a whole new attitude.”
“That’s huge,” said Kings right wing Wayne Simmonds. “I think when you have that camaraderie, guys will feel safer out there when you know you have teammates looking out for your best interests right behind you. If you get popped, you know someone’s going to be right in there to help you out.”
Another example of the commitment to each other is the Kings’ still perfect penalty-killing, which has killed off all fourteen disadvantages through three games.
“I think there’s just a big commitment,” said Terry Murray. “On penalty-killing, you have to do a lot of things for the team. It’s hard work, it’s intensity, it’s doing the right thing, everybody on the same page.”
Speaking of commitments, right wing Dustin Brown made a rather deep commitment when he accepted the title of team captain on October 8.
“I’m excited about taking on that role and it’s a challenge at the same time,” said Brown. “Terry and I had meetings this summer about it. He asked if I was interested and I told him at that time I was.”
“Not everyone has that opportunity, especially at this level,” added Brown. “It’s a great honor and I’m really grateful for it. It’s going to be a challenge, it’s something I’m looking forward to taking on.”
“Dustin has impressed me a great deal with his leadership,” said Terry Murray. “He comes to the rink each day prepared and his on-ice work shows a great deal of focus. He has total commitment to this team.”
Despite being just 23 years old, Brown was a lock to be named team captain for this season as early as the end of last season, and it was a job he clearly wanted, as his presence at the Kings’ Development Camp and rookie camp showed, as he spoke with the young prospects about his experiences coming into the NHL at such a young age.
“I’ve been here for five, six years now,” Brown explained. “Once I got comfortable here over the last couple of years I’ve come out of my shell a little bit, I’ve been taking on more of a leadership role. Last year, I tried to lead by example, game in and game out. All great leaders, that’s the most important thing they do.”
A natural for one of the alternate captains was center Anze Kopitar.
“Anze is a high performance player, not only on this team, but in our league,” said Terry Murray. “He shows great leadership through his effort and the way he plays the game.”
“[I was impressed with Kopitar’s] awareness of the group, of players on the team, he cares about people,” said Terry Murray. “You can tell that just by the way he handles himself, the questions he asks, ‘how things are going, how are you doing, how am I doing,’ and really takes on that leadership and the caring part of the business that maybe sometimes is overlooked by people in the game.”
“He’s just got great character and that’s one of the reasons why he’s selected as one of the alternates on the team,” added Terry Murray.
The choice for the other alternate captain spot was defenseman Matt Greene, a selection that surprised some.
“Matt is very vocal and he is energetic on the bench, on the ice and in the locker room,” said Terry Murray. “His tough, gritty work in the defensive zone is also a great example for all of our players.”
“The decision for the alternates, especially for Greene, it was a difficult decision because there were other people who fit into what we were looking for,” added Terry Murray. “We made the decision to go with Greene because he’s a younger guy, his role is pretty much the style of game we’re looking to hang our hat on right now and that’s the defensive part of the game. He’s going to play five-on-five, he’s going to be a penalty-killer, he’s a defensive guy, a big body guy who plays hard and gritty.”
“With that kind of an example, it’s good for the young players on our team. Also, on the bench and in the locker room, he’s a verbal player, he has good things to say and he’s always encouraging the players.”
Brown played with Greene, representing the United States in World Championship tournaments and knows him well.
“I’ve played with Greene over the last six or seven years with USA Hockey,” Brown explained. “When he was traded here, I was excited because I knew what he was going to bring.”
“On the ice, he’s a pretty simple guy who plays hard,” Brown elaborated. “A lot of people don’t know him off the ice, he’s very vocal and one of those guys who everyone gets along with. He’s a lot of laughs, he’s great to have in the room and he definitely has that leadership quality. He plays as hard as he can every night. Hopefully, people can see that and try to do that themselves.”
The Kings also have leaders beyond their captain and alternate captains.
“The great thing about it is that not only do we have Greene and Kopitar as assistants, but we have three or four other guys in here who could have letters on their jerseys,” said Brown.
“Going back to last year, I prided myself on what I did on a day in, day out basis,” added Brown. “It’ll be the same this year. With a younger team, they’ll be looking up to guys like myself, Kopitar, [Alexander] Frolov and some of the older veterans like [Michal] Handzus and [Derek] Armstrong—what it takes to be a professional, more off the ice than probably on the ice. I know that was a big thing for me coming in at 18, watching guys like Luc [Robitaille] and [Mattias] Norstrom. It wasn’t so much what they did on the ice. It was what they did off the ice.”
“We have veteran players like [defenseman Sean] O’Donnell and a couple more guys,” said Handzus. “It’s our responsibility to push ourselves and be good examples—play hard every night and practice hard every day. That’s what keeps you more consistent. It’s up to all the veterans to show the way. Everybody sees that. It’s not just what you say. You have to lead by example.”
O’Sulllivan, Handzus Making An Impact
Despite missing training camp due to a contract stand-off with the Kings, left wing Patrick O’Sullivan has hit the ice skating, so to speak, and has been one of the Kings’ best players.
Apparently, he joined the Kings in good physical shape and now only has to focus on regaining his timing with his teammates.
“I felt great, to be honest,” he said following his team’s win over Anaheim. “I’m still a little bit rusty in certain situations, but I felt good. My legs are there and I was trying to be physical and do all the things that help bring out the more skilled part of my game.”
“It’s close, he added. “Hopefully, in a few more days I’ll be right there. It’s going to be a process. Everyday, I’ve felt better and better. Tonight, I felt better than I did last game. It’s coming along. Definitely, my timing is a lot better than it was and that’s going to continue to improve.”
Regardless, O’Sullivan still has a little catching up to do.
“The best thing for me is that I’m starting to get to know the new guys a little better because I missed training camp—not only the hockey side of it but meeting the new guys and becoming a team.”
Terry Murray, who has been saying that he does not yet have a good handle on the kind of player O’Sullivan is, has changed his tune.
“Patrick O’Sullivan…he’s a special kind of player,” he said. “He’s very explosive. He’s got unbelievable vision on the ice. He made one play in the third period to find a weak side defenseman coming in when he was under a lot of pressure on the boards. That’s a special kind of play to make.”
“He’s going to be an important player to build around in the future and he’s going to be a very important player for this team to move forward this year.”
Another forward who has been impressive in the first three games is one who many gave up on last season, center Michal Handzus, who has two assists and is currently ranked fifth among Kings forwards in ice time.
Although those are not eye-popping numbers, Handzus has looked like a completely different player compared to the player he was last season. Indeed, this year, he is skating well with better acceleration and his agility and quickness have clearly improved. He has been strong on the puck and has been effective along the boards and in the corners and in getting to the front of the net to bother opposing goaltenders. He has also been solid in the defensive zone.
In fact, the change has been dramatic enough that one might ask, “who is this guy wearing number 26 and what did they do with Michal Handzus?”
Clearly, the difference is that one year removed from surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, Handzus is finally back at one hundred percent.
“I feel better, I feel strong,” Handzus explained. “Obviously, I don’t want to have a season like I had last year. That was the worst season I’ve ever had.”
“I’m just here to prove that I’m a good player and that was a fluke last season,” Handzus emphasized. “I want to help the team head in the right direction. That’s my objective.”
To his credit, Handzus refused to make excuses last season, but he admitted that the knee was a big problem for him.
“I think it was a big part,” said Handzus. “Last year, I was rehabilitating and then right before training camp, I got tonsillitis, so I lost fifteen pounds. That didn’t help. I was catching up all season. This summer I was working hard and I feel better.”
“My game is all about skating,” added Handzus. “If I skate well, I’m a different player. I felt right from the start that my skating is better than last year. I still have a lot of ways to improve, but I’m on the right track.”
He certainly is. So much so that Terry Murray has Handzus on the ice in all situations.
“I’m playing a lot of minutes, I’m playing on the penalty-kill and on the power play,” said Handzus. “It feels good that the coaching staff trusts me. You want to give back and play your heart out. You want to do what they ask you to do and when you play more minutes, you’re more into the game and you’re up to it a little bit more.”
Handzus also sees a greater commitment to the team this season.
“The first game was pretty bad, we didn’t play well,” he explained. “But the last two games, it’s early, but we’re battling more. There’s more of a commitment to a team game. Tonight’s game [the win over the Ducks] was a great example. We were down 2-0, but we stuck to our game plan. We kept battling and played hard.”
“That’s key for us,” he elaborated. “We have a lot of skill, but if we play the team game, play good defense and battle hard—if we do the little things well, that will help us go to the next level.”
“We didn’t have enough of that last year. Inconsistency was the big thing. We’d play two good games and then three bad games. Now we just have to keep going.”
If the Kings can keep it going, they just might sneak up on some teams.
“This team…we realize we’re young and not a lot of people are saying we’re going to do a whole lot this year,” said O’Sullivan. “We’re not worried about that. We’re just going to take it a game at a time and try to improve. We definitely improved from our last game and we’re going to try to do that again on Friday.”
“We work on stuff in practice,” added O’Sullivan. “We have a real solid system that we have to do if we’re going to have a chance to win. When we do it in a game and we see the success, it’s going to drive it through that much better. That’s the way we have to play if we’re going to have a chance to win because we’ve got a lot of young guys and it’s difficult to win if we don’t play hard and don’t play as a team.”
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