2011-12 YEAR-IN-REVIEW: A turnaround of sorts in the Los Angeles Kings front office set the stage for them to win the first Stanley Cup Championship in the 45-year history of the franchise. But there was a big, black cloud floating over their heads all summer long. Second installment in a series…
LOS ANGELES — After a very productive 2011 off-season, highlighted by the acquisition of center Mike Richards from the Philadelphia Flyers in a blockbuster deal on June 23, 2011, sending right wing Wayne Simmonds, center Brayden Schenn, and a second round pick in the 2012 National Hockey League Entry Draft the other way (the Flyers traded the pick to the Dallas Stars), the Los Angeles Kings seemed to be set up to finally become a contender, not only for the top spot in the Pacific Division, but also for first place in the Western Conference.
But there was one big problem hanging over their heads from the end of the 2010-11 season…defenseman Drew Doughty was not yet signed to a new contract, and with him looking for a huge payday, the two sides were far, far apart on reaching an agreement.
As most feared, neither side budged during the summer, and Doughty became a contract holdout. An agreement was not reached until September 30, 2011, when Doughty made his first appearance on practice ice—he missed virtually all of the Kings’ training camp.
Doughty returned the day before the team was to play in Las Vegas in their annual Frozen Fury pre-season game. He did not dress for the game, but saw game action during exhibition games in Europe, and was in the lineup when the Kings opened the season on October 7, 2011, against the New York Rangers in Sweden.
But having missed all but a day or two of training camp came back to haunt Doughty, who followed in the footsteps of just about every NHL player who has sat out training camp. Conditioning and timing issues were apparent, and would play a significant role in his sub-par 2011-12 numbers, and was most apparent during the first half of the season.
“I’ve seen this so many times over the years, with players who, for whatever reason, miss training camp,” said then-head coach Terry Murray. “There’s some lag time here, to get the rust off, to get the cobwebs out, to get going.”
But Doughty was not alone, as the entire team would struggle to score goals after a pretty good start to the season that saw them average 2.47 goals per game through November 17, 2011, earning them a 10-6-3 record over the first 19 games of the season.
But even with that start, there were clear signs of trouble already brewing.
Despite the fact that their offense was not sputtering overall, it was highly inconsistent. In fact, in 13 of those 19 games, the Kings scored two goals or less. The result: the Kings won just three of those games. In fact, all nine losses during that 19-game stretch (including three overtime/shootout losses) came when they failed to score more than two goals.
As seen during the last two months of the season, and throughout their post-season run to the Stanley Cup, the Kings moved the puck much quicker than they did earlier in the season, with vastly improved puck support (narrow gaps between forwards and defensemen, allowing short, quick passes) on their breakout plays.
Interestingly enough, they knew about that solution to their problems all along.
“We were moving it quicker, and we were supporting it better—it goes both ways,” center Jarret Stoll said following a 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild on November 12 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. “You can’t expect the defensemen to move the puck quickly if there’s nobody there for support. It’s on both of us, the forwards and defensemen. They have to move it quick and hard. Flat passes. All those things go into it. Then, we’ve got to get our feet going.”
“If you have all of those things going, you’re going to be flowing, you’re going to be skating, you’re going to be making plays coming up the ice with good support,” Stoll added. “All of our center ice men can skate and handle the puck. It’s just a matter of getting the puck in the right places.”
The combination of the quicker puck movement, and better puck support on breakouts allowed the Kings to get in on the forecheck—their relentless, aggressive forecheck was a huge factor in their success during the last two months of the regular season, and especially during the playoffs, when it was an absolutely lethal weapon.
“When our defensemen move the puck quickly, and get it into our forwards’ hands, it allows our forwards to get in on the forecheck in groups of two and three, instead of having one guy go in and try to forecheck.”
“If you have no pressure on the puck, it’s hard to play an offensive game,” said winger and team captain Dustin Brown. “The last four periods (against the Wild on November 12) was a tell-tale sign of how we need to play, with the defensemen moving the puck a little quicker, and getting up the ice. We got in on the forecheck, and we [forced turnovers].”
But the Kings were unable to get any consistency in their game, often reverting back to their poor puck support on breakouts, preventing them from establishing a forecheck. That contributed mightily to a ten-game stretch from November 19 through December 10, when they took a 3-6-1 nose dive, due, in large part, to the fact that they averaged just 1.70 goals per game during that stretch. In fact, in nine of those ten games, the Kings failed to score more than two goals, scoring just once in four of those games.
A big reason is that as their offensive woes worsened, they lost confidence and began trying to pass the puck into the net, so to speak, always trying to make the extra pass.
The most blatant example of that came on November 25, in a 2-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks at Staples Center.
In that game, the Kings had a four-on-two break, and wound up not even getting a shot on goal.
“We overpassed it,” said center Anze Kopitar. “In a situation like that, you have to, at least, get a shot on net. We had four guys coming, and the fifth guy pinched, and then, they had a two-on-zero. Luckily for us, they didn’t connect on it.”
“There’s no secret to it,” added Kopitar. “We just have to get more shots on net. That was the perfect example. We have a four-on-two rush, and we don’t get a shot on net.”
“Just shoot the puck on that,” said Murray. “[Then-Kings defenseman] Jack [Johnson]—just get it to the net. He’s a left-hand shot, that’s a one-timer for him. Now he throws it over to his partner who’s a left-hand shot, and there’s no chance.”
After 29 games, and with their offensive game in a deep freeze, the Kings had a mediocre 13-12-4 record, which was not even close to the getting the job done, not for a team that was expected to be a contender for the division and conference titles. During this time, it was obvious that the frustration had gotten to many of the players, and it was showing up in their day-to-day intensity.
“We’re not playing with enough intensity, enough desperation,” Brown said on December 10. “We’re a good team, but we’re not playing like one. We need more intensity, more desperation, and that starts with individuals. [No one can] do it alone, but you’ve got to get yourself ready, as a player on this team. Right now, we don’t have enough guys with that desperation in their game.”
“Guys just need to re-focus,” Brown added. “Like I said, we have a good team. We’ve played good hockey this year. It’s a matter of guys buying in, and doing everything right. It starts with hard work.”
With a team that should have been among the top teams in the Western Conference much closer to the bottom of the standings than the top, Murray was fired on December 12. But President/General Manager Dean Lombardi, in no uncertain terms, pointed his finger at the players.
“It’s simple,” said Lombardi. “It sounds cliche, but it’s true. Ultimately, the message is that they’re accountable. Unfortunately, the coach has to pay the price. But make no mistake. They’re the ones who are accountable for this.”
“In the end, it still comes down to the player getting his focus, and being the best he can be,” Lombardi added. “With young players today, it’s a challenge. But I don’t think it’s just the young players. I think it’s been right across the board, so I’m not just pinning [this on the younger players].”
With the high expectations, the results after 29 games were not acceptable, not at all, and Murray paid for it.
“With the expectations this year, it all becomes more results-oriented,” Lombardi stressed. “So it’s harder [now] to look for those victories within losses, and that’s just the state of the franchise right now. You can look for more of those things three years ago, but we’re trying to push to that next level, and it isn’t easy. It’s lot easier playing with the house’s money.”
“I do think we’re at the stage where you’re going to be judged on wins and losses, and playoff rounds,” he added. “That’s what you always strive for. It’s a lot easier when there’s no expectations. But we’re not there right now. Again, it comes down to wins and losses.”
Assistant Coach John Stevens was named interim head coach for four games before Darryl Sutter took over after being named as the new head coach on December 20, inheriting a team that had lost its way, despite having the talent to compete with any team in the league.
Indeed, Sutter was charged with figuring out what was wrong, and fixing it in time for the Kings to earn an invitation to the post-season party. After witnessing the Kings meteoric rise late in the regular season and throughout the playoffs, we all know he was successful. But how did he do it?
In the next installment in this season, Frozen Royalty will look at the impact Sutter had, not to mention a couple of key roster moves, all of which combined to create the perfect storm, one that would wreak havoc on their opponents, to say the least.
- 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings Year-In-Review: Front Office Turnaround Set Stanley Cup Run In Motion
- 2011-12 Year-In Review: Coaching Change, Three Rookies, Big Trade Help LA Kings Reach For The Stars
- 2011-12 Year-In-Review: Can LA Kings Forwards Reach The Next Level After Stanley Cup Win?
- 2011-12 Year-In-Review: Quick, Blue Line Corps Were LA Kings’ Greatest Strengths
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