LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — With one game left before the National Hockey League’s All-Star break, the Los Angeles Kings find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture.
Indeed, if the Stanley Cup Playoffs were to begin tomorrow, the defending Stanley Cup Champions would not qualify for the post-season party.
So what’s to blame for the Kings’ “malaise,” a term used by President/General Manager Dean Lombardi in a recent Canadian radio interview?
Although the recent losses of forwards Tyler Toffoli (mononucleosis) and Tanner Pearson (fractured fibula) are playing a role, the problems have been present since the season began last October. As such, you can chalk it up, in large part, to instability on the Kings’ blue line, with veteran defenseman Robyn Regehr in and out of the lineup due to various injuries, along with the loss of Slava Voynov to his ongoing suspension.
Perhaps the biggest loss came last summer when the Kings were unable to sign veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell—they could not fit him in under the salary cap. Indeed, the loss of an experienced, physical defenseman who was very strong in his own end has had a lasting, negative impact this season. Combine that with the fact that the Kings are now relying on young and still inexperienced defenseman Jake Muzzin, and even younger defenseman Brayden McNabb, a rookie, to play increased minutes, and the picture becomes a lot clearer regarding the root of the Kings’ problems this season.
“Some young guys have really had some ups and downs in their games, and that has cost us,” said head coach Darryl Sutter, when asked about his defensemen.
Superstar defenseman Drew Doughty has also been affected by the instability on the blue line, not to mention the loss of Mitchell, who saw significant time on the penalty-kill.
To illustrate, last season, Doughty averaged 25:42 in time on ice in 31.4 shifts per game. But this season, he is having to play a lot more to cover up for what the Kings are lacking on their blue line, averaging 29:23 in time on ice and 33.0 shifts per game. That is a significant increase in time on ice, and could result in too much fatigue for a key player down the critical stretch drive in March and April, perhaps sooner.
But Doughty is not even thinking about that. Instead, he is focused on what the Kings need to do going forward.
“We’re doing some things better, but we’re not doing everything better,” he said. “That’s why we’re not getting wins. When we get one-goal leads in the third period, we need to shut’em down. We can’t let’em back into the game. We’ve been doing that lately, getting leads and letting teams back into the game. That’s not what the L.A. Kings are about. We’re about shutting teams down and not letting them back in.”
“You need to have a 60-minute game,” he added. “Sometimes, all it takes is one bad shift and the whole game changes. We can’t do that. We need to play a full 60 minutes. Every shift counts, every second of every shift counts.”
At least psychologically, the Kings want to be in a playoff spot at the All-Star break, placing greater emphasis on their January 21 game at San Jose.
“We need to be in a playoff spot before the break, no doubt,” said Doughty. “We’re just barely out by one point right now. That’s all we’re thinking about right now. We need to win this game.”
“It’s a division game, it’s a big rivalry,” added Doughty. “We need to win it. We need to go into the [All-Star] break feeling good about ourselves. The break will also be good for the team to regroup, get some rest, come back and get on a roll.”
With the hole the Kings have dug for themselves, that roll must start right away when the season resumes after the All-Star break.
“[We’ve done] these things every year that I’ve been here,” Doughty noted. “We’re trying [not to] come into the season late and battle our way into a playoff spot, just barely. We want to be up there, in first place. Obviously, right now, that’s not looking like it’s going to happen, so we need to battle. We need to get as high in the standings as we possibly can. We need to get on a roll going into the playoffs, and we need to treat every single game as a playoff game because every point matters.”
“In the past, we played better, but we weren’t getting the results,” Doughty added. “This time, we’re not playing well and we’re not getting the results. But we’ve been in that position so many times that I know every single guy on this team is confident that we’re going to get out of this, start playing well, and win a lot more games.”
In order to do that, the Kings will have to figure out how to back up Doughty’s words with action and results.
“You’ve got to get two points in this league, consistently, if you want to be a playoff team, if you want to be successful,” said defenseman Alec Martinez. “We’re not happy with where we are. We’ve got to start winning games.”
“We need two points right now,” said forward Dustin Brown. “The fact of the matter is we need points. It doesn’t matter how good we’re playing or how badly we’re playing. We need to find ways to win games.”
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Doughty. “We’re still not playing the way we’re capable of. It’s frustrating and it needs to turn around quickly.”
The Dreaded “C” Word
Although it had not been mentioned by players, coaches or the front office all season, on January 20, Sutter did more than hint at complacency being an issue this season.
“The train has to be the work train, not the Stanley Cup train,” he said. “The Stanley Cup train was last year. Some guys have to get off that train.”
“There’s no extra for it,” he added. “You get nothing for it. If it affected your next regular season with the way your transition and your personnel goes, then they should give you points for it.”
When asked if there has been a false sense of security this season, Sutter replied, “not now, but I think there’s been points where, particularly with veteran players, that there has been.”
To be sure, success, especially the kind of success that the Kings have achieved and enjoyed the last three seasons, often breeds complacency—it’s human nature, and the Kings would not be the first team to fall victim to it, nor will they be the last.
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