EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP)The Los Angeles Kings raised the Stanley Cup for the second time in June 2014, punctuating a phenomenal three-year run in which the longtime NHL afterthoughts won 10 playoff series as one of the most tenacious teams in hockey.
And then the Kings won just one playoff game in nearly eight years between that Cup title and Monday’s series-opening victory in Edmonton.
Getting to the pinnacle of the sport was a long, laborious process for a Second Six franchise that won one conference title in its first 43 seasons of existence. That three-year period of success from 2012-14 was a comfort to LA’s long-suffering fans well after their team slipped back into the NHL pack.
With a roster that exceeded many expectations this season just by making the playoffs, the Kings are starting to believe that getting back to the top might not take decades again.
Coach Todd McLellan loves the progress Los Angeles has made heading into Game 3 on Friday night tied 1-1 with the star-studded Oilers in their first-round series. The Kings are still underdogs, but they are confident they are building something.
”I think it gives us a marker on the line of evolution, and the marker moves each year,” McLellan said of the Kings’ first playoff berth in four years.
”The marker on the line was actually moving backwards the first few years, and now it’s come back to even, and starting to move towards where we need to take it,” McLellan added. ”That’s a reflection on the plan, the resiliency of the plan, the scouting staff, development team, everybody and anybody that’s involved in the organization, including the players.”
The Kings slid slowly from their peak while former general manager Dean Lombardi’s front office mightily tried to preserve a championship-winning culture. They handed out enormous contracts with baffling regularity, and they ended up regretting many of them.
Trapped between reloading and rebuilding, the Kings finally were forced to change nearly every key component of their franchise over the past eight seasons. The team that takes the ice in downtown Los Angeles for Game 3 on Friday night has only a few things in common with the champions who raised the two title banners hanging in the rafters.
Yet the Kings managed to preserve a remarkable, nearly unique foundation in the modern game.
Four players remain on the roster from their two championship teams. Because star defenseman Drew Doughty is out for the season after wrist surgery, only three are playing against the Oilers – and with Dustin Brown’s pending retirement, only three will be back next season.
What a quartet it is, however: Brown, Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick were drafted and developed by the Kings between 2003 and 2008, and they’ve been together for the past 14 seasons.
Few teams in all sports can boast of such continuity – and while the Kings overhauled their front office, made three coaching changes and replaced every other player on the roster since their championships, those four have stayed to give Los Angeles an identity, a ticket-selling focal point and an institutional memory of success.
”Those four guys take the lead,” general manager Rob Blake said. ”That’s the reason this team is where it’s at. … It makes it a heck of a lot easier from our point of view because they have been able to win. A lot of times, you’re like, `Well, do we keep (the core)? Have they been able to (win)?’ They’ve been able to do that.”
Yet the Kings treaded water for several seasons in a mediocre stretch that continued even after Blake took charge of the front office in 2017 and McLellan took over behind the bench in 2019. The current season loomed as a vital stage in the process after the Kings finished seventh and sixth in the Pacific Division in McLellan’s first two years.
But the current Kings developed a clear identity that resulted in a 44-27-11 regular season and 99 points – their most since 2016.
Los Angeles wins by relentlessly clogging the neutral zone, doggedly defending its opponents’ top players and doing enough offensively to score 235 goals, fewer than every playoff team except Dallas. Their defense is bolstered by an incredible bounce-back season from Quick, the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner whose career in LA appeared to be all but over a season ago.
While Brown and captain Kopitar provide leadership and points, the second generation of talent is emerging alongside Blake’s canny acquisitions of veterans Phillip Danault and Viktor Arvidsson. Adrian Kempe had career highs of 35 goals and 54 points in his All-Star season, and Southern California native Trevor Moore chipped in with a career-high 48 points.
The Kings persevered through a 1-5-1 start to the season and ensuing injury problems to emerge as the third-best team in the Pacific Division. Even if they don’t manage to upset the Oilers, Los Angeles is building a base of success for its next generation.
”Some of the young guys have taken on (leadership) roles that maybe necessarily weren’t expect from them just because we had so many guys hurt throughout the season,” Kopitar said. ”They’ve handled a bit more pressure than maybe we should’ve put ’em through to begin with, so I like where our team is at.”
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