LOS ANGELES — Going into the 2010-11 season, the Los Angeles Kings were expected to be a playoff team, as they were last season. But expectations were higher this season, their benchmark for success being to make it into the second round, the Western Conference semi-finals, and with just eight games remaining, their prospects were looking good.
But all that may have come crashing down on March 26, during a decisive 4-1 win over the hapless Colorado Avalanche, as the Kings lost star center Anze Kopitar, who suffered a broken right ankle in a freakish fall late in the second period.
He will be out of the lineup for a minimum of six weeks.
Kopitar will undergo a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) examination on March 28, when the full extent of his injury will become clear, and although there has been no further word from the Kings medical staff, no one should be surprised if Kopitar will be out of the lineup for much longer than six weeks.
At the 15:39 mark of the second period, Kopitar fell backwards, his right leg twisting while his skate remained firmly planted on the ice. Video of the incident, especially slow motion replay, was a gruesome sight to behold.
“He just fell backwards,” said head coach Terry Murray. “I didn’t see anyone around him, other than [Avalanche defenseman Ryan] O’Bryne up against the boards, and they were just reaching in, battling for the puck, and he fell back.”
“I don’t know if there was some contact, but if there was, it was just a hockey play,” added Murray. “There’s no way you look at another player on this one. It’s just unfortunate the injury happened.”
An eerily quiet Staples Center crowd watched in horror as Kopitar writhed in pain on the ice, and they stood in near silence as he was helped off the ice and into the dressing room, unable to put any weight on his right leg.
As he disappeared into the tunnel, heading into the dressing room, Kopitar very likely took his team’s hopes of reaching that benchmark of success mentioned earlier with him.
To be sure, not only is Kopitar the Kings’ best offensive weapon, but he is also their best defensive forward, so good that he should receive strong consideration for the National Hockey League’s Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded to the league’s top defensive forward.
Without Kopitar, the Kings have a hole in their lineup as big as the Grand Canyon is wide.
“He’s your top player, your top forward,” Murray noted. “There’s a quite a hole that’s going to be there now, with him out of the lineup for this length of time.”
As indicated by the eerie hush that dominated Staples Center when Kopitar went down, everyone was keenly aware what this likely meant for the Kings, and that includes the local media.
Indeed, as Murray announced during his post-game press conference that Kopitar had suffered a broken ankle and would be lost for at least six weeks, one could feel the air sucked right out of the room. There was even one “oh jeez” uttered among the usually reserved members of the local media covering the team.
Although Murray was his usual self, calm and collected, in the 14 seasons that I have covered the Kings as a member of the credentialed media, I have never been in a post-game press conference that had such a somber, dejected feel to it, as everyone was keenly aware of the sheer magnitude of what Kopitar’s injury meant to the Kings.
That said, this was not a moment where the local media had stepped out of its role as objective observers who always remain at a professional distance. Rather, it was an expression of humanity from human beings who were still doing their jobs.
Despite that, the Kings, from top to bottom, were all saying the right things.
“No one guy can replace a Kopitar,” said left wing Ryan Smyth, who scored a goal and contributed an assist in the game. “Everyone has to, collectively, come together and regroup. Everybody has to fill a good role, and it’s all about opportunity.”
Despite his lengthy scoring slumps, Kopitar, who is ranked tenth in the NHL in overall scoring with 25 goals and 48 assists for 73 points in 75 games this season, is the Kings’ best player, and no one is a close second, not this season—he will be impossible to replace.
To be sure, no one player can replace Kopitar, and it’s not like the Kings have anyone in their system who can. In any case, the Kings cannot afford to stop to feel sorry for themselves, as there is still work to be done—a playoff spot has yet to be secured.
“He’s our best player,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “We’ve got to find a way, either way. Injuries happen during the year. You don’t want to have your best player go down, but if that’s the case, we need to shoulder the responsibility collectively and find a way, because no other team is going to feel sorry for us.”
To make matters worse, the Kings lost veteran right wing Justin Williams, their second-leading scorer, for at least four weeks to a dislocated right shoulder, on March 21.
Without their top two scorers, the Kings are very likely in deep, deep trouble going forward. Indeed, that benchmark for success is, more than likely, a pipe dream now.
“Maybe we’ll find out what we’re made of, with our top two scorers out,” said Brown. “You know, that’s part of an 82-game schedule. At the end of the day, we’ve got to find a way to keep going as a team.”
“I’ve been through these kinds of things before with injuries,” Murray emphasized. “It’s an opportunity. Other guys step up. The character of the team needs to step up, everybody has to do the right things. You’ve got the trust your structure, your system, and give it the best opportunity you can, as a group, to finish games off and play the right way.”
To be sure, the Kings, who have struggled to score goals all season long, will struggle that much more, putting greater pressure on their defense and goaltending to keep them in games and give them a chance to win low-scoring, tight-checking affairs.
“Our coaches emphasize defense first,” said Smyth. “It’s important, as players, to take care of your own zone first, and the offensive side of things will come. Our penalty-kill has been very good, pretty much all year, and very good as of late.”
“You’re going to have to rely on your team play, absolutely, and the checking part is what we rally around all the time,” Murray explained. “We’ll have to look at that a little bit more. We’ll have a smaller margin of error when you’re managing the puck through the middle of the ice. You’ve got to make absolutely sure. You can’t have those counters coming back at you as quickly now.”
But do not expect the loss of Kopitar to result in drastic changes to the Kings’ system.
“We’ve been playing this way for a couple of years now,” said Murray. “It’s instinctive, there’s reaction to play by young players, and it’s difficult to ask them to make a big change. There might be some subtle changes we’ll look at, but that’ll come through conversations over the next week or so.”
On the up side, some of the slumping Kings forwards are starting to show signs of life once again.
As reported earlier, Smyth scored a goal against the Avalanche, a wrap-around goal at 1:36 of the third period.
The goal was Smyth’s first goal in 15 games, and just his second in 25.
“It was really nice,” said Smyth, who has scored 21 goals with 23 assists for 44 points in 75 games this season. “I was fighting it a bit. It’s a relief, it’s nice to contribute and feel a part, for sure. But it’s a matter of being in the right position, and don’t ride your highs too high, or your lows too low.”
“You have to stay on an even keel,” added Smyth. “It was a tough stretch, but it’s nice to contribute.”
Brown, who contributed two assists in the game, and has four goals and three assists for seven points in his last six games, appears to be heating up as well.
“It’s nice to score some goals for this team again,” Brown said following his team’s 4-3 shootout win over the San Jose Sharks on March 24 at Staples Center. “Both my goals were on the power play. One was ugly, but maybe that was the spark we needed on the power play.”
“Getting to these games at the end, I’m feeling better about my game, better physically,” Brown added. “I think that translates to my energy level, my physicality. When I’m physical, I find more pucks, and I’m around the net a lot more.”
But without their best player, the one player the Kings could not afford to lose this season, every single player will have to raise their level of play, including some of the youngsters.
22-year-old center Trevor Lewis, who has become a defensive and penalty-killing specialist with a boatload of speed, will now be looked upon to add some scoring.
The question is: is he capable, having scored just three goals in 65 games this season, including one in this game against the Avalanche?
[Lewis will have offensive potential], once his hands catch up with his foot speed, and now’s the opportunity,” said Murray. “He’s going to get the opportunity with better players and to be put in those offensive situations.”
“After seeing him finish on that goal today, maybe there’s more there,” added Murray.
Forward Oscar Moller, who was recalled from the minor leagues on March 24 to fill the right wing spot vacated by Williams, has not scored a goal in the last two games with the Kings, but has been impressive, and will also be expected to pick up some of the slack.
“Oscar Moller has been very good,” said Murray. “I liked his first game, and I liked him again here today, with his composure, and his confidence with the puck. He sees the ice, makes good plays.”
“He can play the game at full speed with the skilled players, and that’s the nice thing,” added Murray. “There’s a lot of players who you put on top lines, and they’re not able to make things happen when everybody’s moving quickly. But Oscar’s got the ability to see the ice and do the right things when the game is heated up.”
“He certainly has improved over the last year and a half. I just hope he keeps pushing it up, [because] now we’ll have to rely on that offensive part of the game even more so with Kopitar out of the lineup.”
As stated earlier, from top to bottom, every player on the roster is going to have to raise their level of play.
“Everybody’s going to have to elevate their game,” Murray stressed. “There’s no question we’ll miss Kopitar. But somebody’s going to step in, so you’re going to miss the difference between whomever that player is, and Kopitar. That might be big, in some situations, other times, it might not be quite as big.”
“You have to look at it from that side of it. We’ve got to move on. We’ve got games to play, and games to win.”
Indeed. But even though it appears that the Kings will qualify for the playoffs, and despite the fact that anything is possible, the question is: can the Kings step up enough to win a round in the playoffs?
Without Kopitar, the odds are very much against the Kings surviving the first round of the playoffs…astronomically so.
Since Everyone Seems To Be Asking…
No, the Kings cannot recall center prospect Brayden Schenn to take Kopitar’s spot in the lineup.
Schenn, who started the season with the Kings, recording two assists in eight games, was assigned to his then-junior team, the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League. Later in the season, the 6-1, 190-pound native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, was traded to his hometown team, the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL.
Selected by the Kings in the first round (fifth overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, scoring 21 goals and adding 32 assists for 53 points in 27 regular season games with the Blades, along with a goal and three assists for four points in two games with the Wheat Kings, Schenn scored a goal in Saskatoon’s resounding 8-1 win over the Prince Albert Raiders on March 26, in the opening game of their first round WHL Eastern Conference playoff series.
Schenn is the top center prospect in the Kings’ system, and is thought to be NHL-ready after shining bright in the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championships this past December-January.
Schenn, who led the tournament in goals, assists and points with eight goals and ten assists for 18 points in seven games, led Canada to the silver medal and was named as the tournament’s Best Forward and its Most Valuable Player.
The Kings are looking to Schenn to become their second line center, and, with the aforementioned credentials in junior hockey, Kings fans are drooling over the prospect of him joining the big club for good.
Naturally, when Kopitar went down, many fans thought, “Hey! Call up Schenn!”
Sorry, but players assigned back to their junior teams cannot be recalled, except under emergency conditions. They must finish the season with their junior team. Only then could they be recalled by their NHL teams.
As such, Schenn cannot be recalled by the Kings until Saskatoon is eliminated from the WHL playoffs and, if they advance that far, the Memorial Cup Championship.
As for emergency conditions, the Kings would not meet those conditions unless another player suffers an injury.
Nevertheless, Schenn could become available while the Kings are scratching and clawing their way through the playoffs, but do not make the mistake of thinking that it would be a no-brainer to recall him immediately.
After all, if he is recalled and plays in two more games, which he would most assuredly do, his entry-level contract kicks in.
With the Kings not being serious contenders for the Stanley Cup this season, it makes no sense to waste a year of Schenn’s contract and put him a year closer to unrestricted free agency for a handful of games.
Indeed, the smart thing to do is leave Schenn right where he is and look to see him next during the Kings’ annual development camp this summer.
Raw audio interviews from 4-1 win over Colorado Avalanche
(Edited to remove extraneous material and dead air)
Dustin Brown (1:43)
Ryan Smyth (3:33)
Terry Murray (5:18)
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