EL SEGUNDO, CA — With opening night for their 2016-17 National Hockey League season upon them, the Los Angeles Kings would like to exorcise their demons from last season by forgetting all about the way they played down the stretch.
Indeed, the Kings flew through much of the season, leading the Pacific Division for a long, long time. But not only did they blow a 14-point lead in the standings, once they clinched a playoff berth after a win over the Boston Bruins at Staples Center in Los Angeles on March 19, 2016, they went into the tank the rest of the way. In fact, they struggled to a poor 4-6-1 record in the final eleven games of the regular season. To make matters worse, three of those wins came against Pacific Division bottom-dwellers, the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, with the fourth win coming against a disinterested Anaheim Ducks team that had already clinched the Pacific Division title.
The way the Kings played down the stretch—heading downward instead of upward—spelled doom for them in the playoffs, as they went into the post-season with no momentum at all. The result: an embarrassing, blowout, first round series loss to tonight’s opponent, the San Jose Sharks (7:30 PM PDT, SAP Center in San Jose. Televised on NBCSN), who went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last season.
“It was disappointing,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “We could’ve won the division, no problem, but we let it slip away and let Anaheim take it. That made us face San Jose in the first round. We didn’t play our best hockey as the season came to an end. We had no momentum. We weren’t playing our best.”
“We had a good start and we clinched a playoff spot pretty early,” said defenseman Brayden McNabb. “We took our feet off the gas pedal. That’s something we had to learn from for this year. Once you get to that point, you’ve got to keep your foot on the pedal.”
“It’s tough to say [exactly what went wrong],” added McNabb. “Things happen in a season and you’ve just got to learn from them. It was frustrating for us, as a group, to see how good we were, but then, let things slide, especially in the playoffs. Once you make the playoffs you want to be rolling. We want a good start this year, as well, so we want to start well and finish well.”
To be sure, a team has to be trending upward heading into the playoffs…or else.
“I don’t know if there’s one, pinpoint answer [about what went wrong last season],” said Doughty. “We had some injuries that were key to our lineup, but we just didn’t play well enough to end the regular season. That made us play kind of crappy in the playoffs. That was the biggest issue, for sure.”
“I don’t think its rocket science,” said center and new captain Anze Kopitar. “I think, come April, you’ve got to be peaking in your game, and last year was a perfect example of what happens if you’re not—we were eliminated quickly. This year, we’ve got to attack the division and get the home ice advantage [in the playoffs]. But most important, we’ve got to make sure that come April, we’re on top of our game and firing on all cylinders.”
“To be quite honest with you, it’s hard to talk about this right now because we still have seven or eight months to go,” added Kopitar. “But you just want to make sure that everything feels right, everything feels good, and that you’re in control of your game. There’s no gray areas, system-wise. After that, instinct takes over and you play. You don’t think, you react. That’s that biggest thing.”
The trick for the Kings is to remember the lessons learned from last season’s nose dive and forget the rest.
“We have a bunch of guys in here who’ve won, so there’s no lack of [a winning attitude] here,” said McNabb. “The attitude was right. We wanted to be doing the right things. It was just the dog days of the year. We’ve got to put that behind us for this year.”
“We’re past that,” Doughty stressed. “We’re ready to go. No one’s thinking about that anymore. All we’re thinking about is this season, getting a fresh start and doing our best to get to the top of the league again. This year, we learned from our mistakes. We’re past that now. We’ve just got to come out and get our first win [tonight].”
“Our thinking is to have a good start and eventually, make the playoffs,” Kopitar noted. “But that’s so faraway. We’re focusing on the start, and the first few games. We’re very excited. It’s been awhile since we played hockey. I guess I’ve been playing quite a bit of hockey, [having played in the World Cup of Hockey tournament], but it’s great to be back with the team and get things started again.”
Beginning the season against the team that dumped them so unceremoniously out of the playoffs last season does provide some added incentive.
“It’s been a long time coming, obviously,” said Kopitar. “They knocked us out of the playoffs last year, so I’m sure that’s going to add a little bit of fuel to the fire, but we’re just going to try to go up there and win a hockey game. That’s what we’re preparing for.”
“For sure, especially against San Jose,” said McNabb. “They’re the ones who knocked us out. We’re going to have a little fire under us. It was a long summer, so I think everyone’s excited to get going.”
McNabb Focused On Growth
Last season, McNabb had plenty of moments in which he shined. But there were also too many moments in which he was noticeable for the wrong reasons, and as he enters his third season in the NHL, he knows that he needs to be better. But at the same time, he also gained valuable post-season experience.
“My season was kind of like how our team’s went,” he said. “I had a tough training camp, but came out pretty strong in the first half of the season. It went a little downhill later on. I lost little parts of my game.”
“That was a big thing, but the biggest thing for me was that I got to experience the [Stanley Cup] playoffs,” he added. “That’s a huge advantage for me now, and I’m looking to use that going into this season.”
“In the playoffs, it’s all about the intensity—everything. You’ve got to be a second quicker. You go into an arena like San Jose’s, it’s a pretty intimidating building and they’re pretty good at home. It’s something you’ve got to be ready for, even in the regular season. It was a good learning experience for me.”
Kopitar, Doughty Talk Leadership
Much has been made about the Kings naming Kopitar as their captain, replacing Dustin Brown. But even though Brown wasn’t exactly thrilled with the decision and probably still isn’t, it appears that everyone has moved on and that the Kings dressing room environment is just fine.
The reason for that, in large part, is that for several years, the same players have made up the Kings leadership group, and it hasn’t changed much. As a result, very little has changed in the dressing room.
“We’ve always prided ourselves in that it’s not the one guy leading the team,” said Kopitar. “It’s a lot of guys. In that regard, not much is going to change. Yes, I’m wearing the ‘C’ right now, but the room has been together with the core group of guys, so I don’t think there’s anything to change, really. Yes, we haven’t been successful the last few years, the way we wanted to be—going into the playoffs as deep as we wanted to. But from the leadership standpoint, I don’t think we have to change anything.”
“I’ve been around this team for quite a little bit, so I’m pretty sure that everybody knows what I’m all about,” added Kopitar. “I don’t plan on changing something that got me to this point. I’ve been fairly successful in that regard, so I’m not going to change a whole lot. Maybe some minor details, but that’s it.”
“There is a new thing for me, with the captaincy, but I’ve considered myself a leader for the past few years, so that’s not going to change.”
New to having a letter on his jersey with the Kings is Doughty, now an alternate captain. That said, Doughty has also been part of the team’s leadership group for a few years.
“It doesn’t really change my role too much,” he noted. “I was kind of in a leadership role the last few years now, whether I had an ‘A’ or not. It didn’t make a difference. I’m treating it the exact same way. Even though we had those leadership changes, all the same guys are in leadership group this year.”
“I’m vocal in the room,” he added. “I’m the one who’s going to keep the room loose. Sometimes I’ll get on guys. I’ll be upset and let the team know, but mostly, I’m the guy who’s going to keep the room loose, have fun before games, and not make guys nervous.”
“Everyone has different leadership qualities. That’s why you need leadership from so many different areas, because everyone’s different. Everyone needs different things to get prepared.”
As Doughty indicated, he’s been part of the leadership group for some time. But having that ‘A’ on his chest now is a source of pride.
“It makes me feel good,” he beamed. “It’s one of the biggest rewards you can get on a team, being given a chance to help lead your team and being put in a leadership role to help your team succeed. It also makes you learn that you’ve grown up a lot, but there’s still a lot of learning to do. I’ve been fortunate to play with a lot of great leaders in my career who I’ve learned a lot from.”
Doughty also said that even though he won the James Norris Memorial Trophy last season as the NHL’s best defenseman, he has room to improve.
“I can get better,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that. Last season wasn’t too bad, but individually, I know I can get better. I know that I can be better for my teammates and get us back, as a team, on top. That’s what I’m looking forward to do.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, shown here during an October 2016 practice at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
Frozen Royalty by Gann Matsuda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Frozen Royalty – Licensing and Copyright Information.