The 2011-2012 edition of the late-season free fall for my Los Angeles Kings might just be the most painful I’ve ever experienced.
Twin 1-0 shutout losses at home to teams previously behind the Kings in the standings have flushed Los Angeles from 7th to 9th in the conference, which means they are officially on the outside and looking in on the post season, with only 23 regular season contests left to play.
The optimist in me says that the Kings are a mere four points out of the Pacific Division lead, which would catapult them into a Top 3 seeding in the playoffs, but the realist in me sneaks a peek at positions 1 and 2 in the conference and I see a widening gulf between the elite (Detroit and Vancouver) and the pretenders (the Kings, Sharks and pretty much everyone else in the West).
The paranoid alarmist in me also notices another disturbing trend: The Anaheim Ducks, once mired at the bottom of the pack, have started to play very well (6-1-3 in the last 10 games) and are now within sniffing distance of Los Angeles and threatening to make this season amongst the most dreadful in recent history, at least for this Kings fan.
Oh, how it could have been.
As a long-time fan and sufferer, it is so rare to see the Kings with decent defensive play and adequate goaltending, yet here the team sits with arguably one of the tightest defensive units in the league, and without a doubt one of the elite goalies in Jonathan Quick, yet they continue to struggle.
Because to win in the National Hockey League you actually need to score goals. And the Kings are simply not up to the task.
So what’s wrong with this team? What is wrong with the team that was the “sexy” pick of so many “experts” and hockey prognosticators in the preseason?
Yes, the Kings were the selection of many to advance deep into the post season this year, and some even felt that the team had taken the necessary leap through the acquisition of forward Mike Richards to perhaps even compete for the Stanley Cup. When the Kings also appeared to be serious players in the Brad Richards sweepstakes and ultimately settled on Simon Gagne these same experts felt that the Kings were truly coming to the winners’ table and had earned their seat.
So what were these guys smoking? I want some.
There are many things wrong with the Kings right now.
I’ll do my best to argue which five things are the most distressing and offer solutions from the comfort of my own sofa…
Top Five Issues With the Los Angeles Kings:
Kopitar – There is certainly no doubting the fact that Anze Kopitar is a talented hockey player. The 24-year old center averages better than 21 minutes of ice time per game and has essentially been the Kings’ number one center since his 2006-2007 rookie campaign.
Kopitar averages 28 goals and 72 points per season, and this year he is looking to replicate that very same production. The problem with that is that at 6-3, 227-lbs, Kopitar is putting up the numbers of a much smaller, less gifted second line center, and with his abilities we should really see averages of 40 goals and 90+ points per season.
For the longest time it was assumed that Terry Murray’s “defense-first” style of system was the main reason why Kopitar’s production was not what it could be, but the mid-season firing of Murray signaled an opportunity for Kopitar to reestablish his game under new coach Darryl Sutter. Sutter is still very much a “keep our zone clean” coach, but he also enables his forwards to control the tempo and preaches accountability through results and he clearly is not getting enough from his top center.
Most observers see Kopitar as a floater who coasts along the perimeter from shift to shift and rarely takes the puck to the net (even on the power play). They see him favoring a wrap-around attack to the more physical style that his body type and talents suggest should really be his game. Kopitar’s inability to take over a game like Evgeni Malkin or Claude Giroux, or simply just have the impact on a contest like Ryan Getzlaf or Jason Pominville is astounding to most hockey watchers because he possesses the same physical gifts and talents as those players, but simply fails to show it on a nightly basis.
Until Anze Kopitar decides to fully commit to the sport and his team he will forever be the guy who puts up respectable numbers. He really needs to be “THE Guy” who leads and puts up astounding numbers.
There’s something about a young buck defenseman that gets everybody excited, especially when that buck logs some serious minutes and puts up some remarkable stats from the blue line. There’s also something about a snot nosed punk 22-year-old who holds his team hostage while commanding a $7 million contract that simply rubs people the wrong way.
Here you have Drew Doughty. He’s a nice, young defenseman who set an expectation for 50+ points per season while keeping things clean in his own end, but when he opted to stay on the sidelines and hold-out for a huge payday he sent a message to his team that it was all about Drew Doughty this time around, and has essentially hamstrung management when it comes to locking up other valuable assets long-term.
And it would be one thing if we were seeing a $7 million effort from Doughty each night, but we are decidedly not. Mistakes are being made in his own end and he is a risk taker on offense with rare dividends being paid.
His ability to quarterback the power play is now being called into question, as he seems hell-bent on simply waiting for a chance to deliver a big slap shot from the point, which more times than not results in him breaking his stick rather than putting the puck in the back of the net.
Again, that’s the problem with signing a huge contract: The expectation is and should be that we will see that money player on a nightly basis, but Doughty is not that player.
The argument was made that $7 million per season for Drew Doughty is an overpayment today, but will be viewed as a “bargain” in a few season when defensemen with similar talents will be commanding much more annually. Sorry, that argument is not a good one. You should be playing to the level of your contract, and if you aren’t earning enough then play better so that you can get a better contract when the time is right. Right now Doughty is playing like a number five defenseman, meaning he is should be getting third pairing minutes, but he is looked at as the Kings’ best defenseman.
Honestly, I’d rather see Jack Johnson, Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi and Slava Voynov logging the serious minutes on the blue line before Doughty.
In fact, I have to believe that General Manager Dean Lombardi is still feeling the sting of Drew Doughty’s hold-out and is very likely dangling his rich defenseman’s name in any conversation discussing a trade for some offensive help.
I was a Kings fan when another offensively gifted young defenseman was foolishly dealt to Washington before he’d had a chance to get Los Angeles to championship level. I didn’t like letting Larry Murphy go in 1983 and it will be painful to see Doughty go if that’s what it comes down to.
The difference this time, in my opinion, is that it won’t be foolish to let a young defenseman go. It will be the wisest move Lombardi can make.
Something’s Amiss with our Dustins –
Dustin Penner is 6-4, 245 lbs and captain Dustin Brown is an even 6-foot, 210 lbs. Combined, these guys are big enough and strong enough to carry the Kings on a nightly basis, but something curious happened to both of them this season: They quit on their teammates.
Penner came over in a deadline deal last season with Edmonton and immediately made an impact playing alongside Anze Kopitar, but since Kopitar’s late season injury last year we haven’t seen much from Penner. When hurting your back eating pancakes becomes your signature moment in a hockey campaign then you have pretty much hit rock bottom with your career.
Brown went from hitting machine and consistent 25-goal scorer to a guy who disgraces the game on a nightly basis with his frequent diving and questionable skating and passing skills.
At 27 years of age Brown should be seeing a career nearing peak performances, but the scoring droughts and lazy shifts once assumed unheard of from a guy who regularly leads his team in hits are becoming all too frequent.
Penner and Brown are seeing 15 and 20 minutes per game respectively and these are among the least productive minutes that the Kings are getting each game.
Penner, for all of his big frame and abilities is less a physical presence for the Kings than their mascot Bailey, and Brown’s time spent camped in front of the opposition’s net is time mostly wasted, as he merely stands there begging for a goalie stick in the back rather than doing anything to create an effective screen for his team.
The best solution I can come up with for the Dustins is to outright waive Penner and relegate Brown for third line duty.
Brown is a native of New York, so I’m assuming a trade to the Sabres or the Rangers would be welcomed, and while I realize that waiving and trading players away is not always the best solution to a team’s problems I do recognize when players have grown stale and their efforts are resulting in nightly losses.
I can’t think of a better way to cut those losses than by saying goodbye to guys who are sucking up serious ice time and adding nothing beneficial to the overall team effort.
Creativity/Accuracy on Offense –
One serious and positive change that we have seen since Darryl Sutter came aboard is a team dedicated to better puck possession.
Since letting Terry Murray go and replacing him with Sutter the team has moved from the bottom of the pack to the Top 10 in puck possession time, a tribute to Sutter’s preaching a style that doesn’t rely so heavily on the dump and chase.
Unfortunately though, while the Kings are a better team now with the puck, they still don’t know what to do with the piece of vulcanized rubber once they have entered the offensive zone.
Shots are frequently hitting defenseman skates or missing the net entirely and rocketing off the glass, as the team is near the bottom of the league standings in terms of shooting percentage.
And for every great Kyle Clifford, Andrei Loktionov or Mike Richards puck-hogging cycle there’s the horrible cross-ice pass attempt or feeble shot attempt from the points that never gets through.
The Kings need to keep things simple.
Pucks on the net from the slot and crashing the net will result in goals, but the Kings’ continued reliance on the Terry Murray-endorsed “quantity means quality” mentality is just not getting the job done.
Players need to commit to creating quality chances rather than a barrage of shots that may or may not make it to the goalie.
The Kings need to get their defensemen to pinch more and earlier in the game, but the fear is that the team lacks sufficient coverage from its wingers when the defense pinches, but we’re never going to see if that is the case if they only wait until desperation time to get Jack Johnson and Drew Doughty involved on offense.
In other words, while it is great that the team is allowing two or fewer goals per game it’s not doing anyone much good if the Kings are getting shutout because they lack the creativity, courage and commitment to score some goals.
Playing to only lose by a goal each game is a loser mentality.
“The Los Angeles Factor” –
Finally, there’s no discounting the fact that a serious lack of media presence and a vocal fan base has made Los Angeles a haven for professional hockey players to come here and relax.
When Kopitar and Brown go for long stretches without a goal there is no media horde standing outside the Kings’ locker room demanding answers.
No, there’s Rich Hammond, who is embedded with the Kings and collects a paycheck every two weeks from the team, and Hall of Fame writer Helene Elliott waiting to ask some questions. Hammond lobs good questions at the coaches and players, but he has to be careful or else risk the wrath of team executives, while Helene has hated the Kings since 1967.
In the meantime, players know that they can move about Los Angeles and its surrounding beach cities in relative anonymity, which is great if you are in the witness protection program, but I think the invisible nature of playing a winter sport in a beach environment lends itself to laziness and a general malaise when it comes to suiting up at Staples Center for Kings players.
There’s not a ton of accountability to be had for professional hockey players here, I mean, if Matt Kemp of the Dodgers didn’t dress for a game because he’d hurt his back eating some delicious tacos it would have made for some serious scandal. But Dustin Penner’s pancake scenario barely registered in the mainstream media here Los Angeles.
And that’s just sad.
Some truly great players have come to Los Angeles, and it pains me to think they came here to hide. But that’s what it feels like.
I know Mike Richards absolutely hates to lose. So does Jack Johnson. That being said, given the climate and overly casual take on the National Hockey League here in Los Angeles, I have to believe that both Richards and Johnson likely hate playing for the Kings.
And who could really blame them?