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2010-11 YEAR IN REVIEW: The Los Angeles Kings took their fans, media, and anyone else paying attention, on a wild, bumpy ride this season.
LOS ANGELES — The Stanley Cup Conference semi-finals are almost over, with three of the four conference finalists decided, and with the San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings heading into a seventh and deciding game at San Jose on May 12.
It has been a little over two weeks since the Los Angeles Kings were eliminated from the first round of the playoffs in six games by the Sharks, and Frozen Royalty has been taking a break, catching its breath, so to speak, and taking some time to do other things.
But the time has come to look back on the 2010-11 season for the Kings, one that is filled with highs and lows, some expected, others not.
Those highs and lows typified their season, taking everyone on a season-long roller coaster ride.
The lows began in July, when the Kings, who were expected to be the frontrunner for unrestricted free agent superstar left wing Ilya Kovalchuk, were suddenly pushed out of the limelight by the New Jersey Devils, who signed him to a 15-year, $100 million contract.
But missing the boat on Kovalchuk was not the real problem. After all, it became clear after Kovalchuk signed with the Devils that he never intended to sign with the Kings at all. Rather, all the negotiating, the visit to Los Angeles—it was all a negotiating ploy. Indeed, he used the Kings as a bargaining chip in negotiations with other parties, most notably, the Devils.
No, the real problem was that Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi, either out of necessity, overconfidence, orders from above, or whatever other reasons there may have been, put all his eggs in one basket. There was no “Plan B.”
Indeed, for the Kings, it was sign Kovalchuk or Bust.
The Kings did shore up their blue line by gambling on unrestricted free agent defenseman Willie Mitchell, who had finally recovered from a concussion. But when the summer came to a close, “bust” is exactly what the Kings did, having to settle for unrestricted free agent left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky, who was signed to a one-year deal.
Ponikarovsky was certainly not in Kovalchuk’s class. Of course, no one was expecting him to be that kind of player. However, Lombardi knew the Kings needed a sniper, but he had no backup plan to acquire the help his team desperately needed, and that would play a huge role in the Kings’ 2010-11 successes and failures.
As such, the Kings headed into the 2010-11 season with their only significant additions being Mitchell on the blue line, Ponikarovsky up front, and rookie Jonathan Bernier taking over the backup goaltender position from Erik Ersberg.
Offense Was…Offensive…And Not In A Good Way
Despite the fact that he did not have the sniper needed to give his offensive attack a necessary boost, head coach Terry Murray was hoping his team would be able to play more of a puck possession game compared to the 2009-10 season, anyway.
“Offensive production is going to be important to improve on this year,” Murray said in an exclusive interview with Frozen Royalty in September 2010. “The five-on-five, four-on-four is going to be real important from a team aspect. You’ve got to be able to get the job done in that part of it, and I think we have the ability to improve there. That’ll be a big focus in our training camp, to have a better attack game, a better possession game as we come through the middle of the ice…I’d really like to see a lot of possession entries and attack hard to the net with plays off the original attack, rather than going back and recovering [the puck].”
“As we grow as a team and are more experienced and more comfortable with pucks on our sticks, [I want us to] generate more off that possession as we come through the middle of the ice, rather than going and getting it all the time or a lot of the time,” Murray added. “Let’s generate more now from this possession. Show more poise. Make plays. Have confidence with the puck. Get something big happening to the net as often as possible, meaning driving through, stopping at the top of the crease, putting pucks to the net off that original attack.”
“Now, if there’s a loose puck or rebound, [we still have] that same attitude of recovery and getting your cycle going. But that’s the next step for us, and I think it’s a very important step for us if we’re going to be a to be a real playoff contending team as we go forward this year.”
But as the season wore on, Murray’s hopes were dashed, as his team never showed the ability to play that type of game. To make matters worse, despite trying one option after another, Murray never found a winger who could help star center Anze Kopitar increase his production, let alone give the offense a much-needed goal-scoring boost.
As such, the Kings struggled in the offensive zone even more than in 2009-10, when they averaged 2.82 goals per game (GPG), ranking ninth in the league, with a power play that scored at a 20.8 percent clip, ranking seventh in the National Hockey League.
Compared to this season’s 2.55 goals scored per game (25th), and their inept power play that clicked at just 16.1 percent (21st), the Kings did anything but improve in the offensive zone. In fact, they were considerably worse compared to 2009-10, especially with the man advantage, when they often looked clueless and stale.
Luckily for the Kings, outside of two horrendous stretches in November and January, their defense and goaltending bailed them out.
Taking Care Of Their Own
While the offense, especially the power play, sputtered all season long, the Kings generally took care of business in their own end, limiting teams to 2.39 GPG (ranked seventh), an improvement from 2.57 GPG (ranked ninth) in 2009-10.
But where the Kings really made a big move ahead was on the penalty-kill, where they improved from an 80.3 percent rating (ranked 20th) to 85.5 percent this season (ranked fourth).
Much of that had to do with the play of starting netminder Jonathan Quick, who, like the rest of the team, had his ups and downs, but was more consistent than anyone else on the team.
Quick’s 35-22-3 record was not as good as his 39-24-7 record in 2009-10, but that can easily be attributed to the fact that he started sixty games this season instead of the 72 games he started last season, when fatigue contributed to a late season decline in his play that lasted through the playoffs—a major factor in the Kings’ being eliminated in six games by the Vancouver Canucks.
This year, with Bernier starting 22 games, instead of just seven that Ersberg started last season, Quick got the rest he needed to stay fresh through to the end.
Last season, Quick earned a 2.54 goals-against average (GAA), a .907 save percentage, and four shutouts. This year, he ended the regular season with a 2.24 GAA, a .918 save percentage, and six shutouts.
Those numbers indicate significant improvement, and further solidify Quick’s hold on the number one goaltender position going forward.
But Bernier was no slouch, despite a slow start. He ended the season with very solid numbers, with a 11-8-3 record, a 2.48 GAA, a .913 save percentage, and three shutouts.
As strong as their goaltending was, the defense in front of them had to be solid for Quick and Bernier to put up those numbers, and, aside from the bad stretches in November and January, the Kings’ blue liners were a stingy bunch, taking care of their own end well.
Riding The Roller Coaster
WARNING: In order to be seated on this ride, for your safety, you should be in good health and free from high blood pressure, heart, back or neck problems, motion sickness, or other conditions that could be aggravated by this adventure. Expectant mothers should not ride.
Now that you have read the warning, let the wild ride begin!
The Kings began the season on a high note, winning six out of their first eight games, earning an 8-3-0 record in October. But the roller coaster plummeted in November, when they dropped seven out of eight games from November 15 to November 29, while they sunk to a 5-6-0 record that month.
During their November tailspin, the Kings got away from their system and structure, and, as a result, their defensive coverage completely collapsed.
“We got away from our little home plate attitude, and it’s been costing us,” right wing Wayne Simmonds said at the time. “I don’t know what it is, if it’s mental, or if it’s not, but we’ve got to stop swinging away from pucks and start coming back to the home base and stopping. I think that’s where it starts.”
“We’ve been taking big [skating] loops [back to their own zone] and that’s not going to cut it,” Simmonds added.
“As a defensive corps, we’ve got to be better in front of our own net, more physical, and just make sure we’re eliminating bodies in front,” said defenseman Davis Drewiske. It all starts at the net. We need to be hard to play against there.”
Another problem was that as they went deeper and deeper into free fall, the players started trying to do too much, thinking they needed to cover for someone else instead of focusing on their own jobs, making things that much worse.
“[Each of us] needs to worry about doing your own job, and not about doing anybody else’s,” said Drewiske. “We just have to stick together through it, really, focus on the system, trust each other, keep that energy and have fun working hard.”
“I just think we haven’t played a full sixty [minutes] in this little tailspin we’ve been having,” said Simmonds. “We haven’t played a complete game yet, and that’s hurting us, with one win in the last six games. We’ve just got to get back to basics—just play to our strengths.”
Keep those comments firmly in mind, dear readers, as they will become a common theme the rest of the way.
As fast as the roller coaster was plummeting into the abyss, it went back into a steep climb, as the Kings went on a tear in December, earning a rather stunning 9-4-1 record.
“In those games, the Kings played the best hockey I’ve seen them play in twenty years,” said Jim Fox, Kings television color commentator and former right wing who ranks eighth on their all-time scoring list.
One might think that playing that well would spur the team onto even greater heights.
Indeed, here comes another long, deep, fast dive, as the Kings dropped ten out of twelve games from December 29 to January 20, 2011, on their way to a dismal 5-8-0 record in January.
Once again, the Kings got far, far away from their system during that nose dive.
“You guys saw the game where we came out in the second period, after a pretty good start in the first, and got away, totally, from everything that was going the right way,” Murray noted following a 5-2 loss to the Nashville Predators on January 6. “Turning pucks over the in the neutral zone, not getting [pucks deep], not skating the right way, and our pursuit of the puck, whenever it did get in, was not there with enough support to recover pucks, and they kept coming at us.”
“Attention to detail [is a problem],” said defenseman Matt Greene. “Guys have got to buy in and play our system. Guys have to play confident, no matter what the score is. If we’re up by five or down by five, we’ve got to play the same game. Everybody has to know exactly what they’re doing or our system isn’t going to work and we’re not going to win.”
“It’s all about individuals right now,” Greene added. “It’s about guys looking at themselves, getting their own game going and buying into playing the team game. That’s the only way we’re going to have success. It’s the reason we had success last year, and the times we had success last year, it’s been on the team, it hasn’t been on one guy or one line. It’s been everybody working together and doing the right things together that’s going to get us on track.”
Intensity and emotion was clearly lacking.
“Emotionally, we just let up on the gas pedal again in the second period,” Murray lamented.
But just like they did after their November slump, the Kings followed up their abysmal January by doing the exact opposite in February, finishing the month with an 8-3-3 record, earning points in nine straight games with a 6-0-3 record from January 26 to February 17. They also earned points in eleven out of twelve games from January 26 to February 26, with a 9-1-3 record.
That accomplishment was remarkable, not only because of their outstanding record, but more so because they achieved that despite starting the month with ten straight road games, broken up into a three-game trip through Canada, then a six-game Eastern road swing, and ending at Anaheim.
That magnificent month was followed by a 9-3-2 performance in March, despite the fact that they lost right wing Justin Williams (separated shoulder) and star center Anze Kopitar (broken ankle with torn ligaments). But that month ended with the Kings going into another tailspin, once again caused by them failing to adhere to their system and structure, a problem that would follow them into the playoffs, spelling doom for the post-season hopes.
Gather Your Children And All Of Your Belongings…
The roller coaster took another dive before coming to an abrupt halt on April 25, when the Sharks handed the Kings a 4-3 defeat at Staples Center, eliminating the Kings in six games.
Although many point to the fact that the Kings were without Kopitar, their best player who would have likely made a difference in the series, the fact is that the Kings strayed far from their system and structure against the Sharks, a much more talented team.
But during the short stints where the Kings stuck to their system, they managed to keep the Sharks at bay, often frustrating them, so much so that it is far from a pipe dream to think that if the Kings had the discipline to adhere to their game plan, they could have advanced to the second round and might still be playing right now.
The 6-5 loss in Game 3 and the 6-3 loss in Game 4, both at Staples Center, were embarrassing defeats. Not only did the Kings stray from their game plan, allowing the Sharks to take advantage of their sloppy, turnover-filled play, but they coughed up a 4-0 lead to lose Game 3. Even worse, the way they lost the series, by failing miserably to adhere to their game plan, is inexcusable.
After yet another first-round-and-out playoff performance, the Kings failed to meet expectations this season, which were to not only make the playoffs, but to at least advance to the second round.
Although there were some unforeseen circumstances that worked against the Kings, such as losing Kopitar at the end of the season, there were other, more significant factors, which Frozen Royalty will look at more closely in its top-to-bottom, end-of-the-season evaluation of the franchise.
2010-11 Los Angeles Kings Year-In-Review: Evaluating The Forwards
2010-11 Los Angeles Kings Year-In-Review: Defense And Goaltending Was Their Strength
2010-11 Los Angeles Kings Year-In-Review: Coaches And Front Office Had Their Ups and Downs, Too
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