Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll became Los Angeles' version of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, and the Kings rolled through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, going 16-4 on their way to their first championship.
Late this season, coach Darryl Sutter moved Jeff Carter to center. Given the way this postseason is progressing, having four quality centers might be referred to as the "Los Angeles model" moving forward.
"Doesn't matter who we have there, we feel we match up with anybody," Carter said. "I think with the way we have it set up now, four solid lines, it's tough matchups for teams. Any of our lines can play against the top line on the opposing team. It's been working well for us. I think we found some chemistry on all our lines. I think everybody is comfortable in the roles they're in. It's been going good."
The Kings are one victory from returning to the Stanley Cup Final, and the first of three chances to do so comes in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final on Wednesday at United Center (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS). Before this series against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, the Kings had two advantages on paper.
One was in goal, where Jonathan Quick is perceived to be better than Corey Crawford (though the gap might not be quite as wide as some pundits or fans would suggest). The other was down the middle.
The Blackhawks have one of the best players in the world at center, Jonathan Toews, but even through two championships in four seasons, how Chicago lined up behind the captain at that position has been the closest thing it has to a question mark.
Sutter plays his four centers nearly equally some nights, and though Kopitar typically sees the toughest competition, the veteran coach isn't shuttling players on and off the ice after faceoffs to avoid, or chase, certain matchups.
Kopitar is the catalyst, and with his play this postseason the sentiment that he belongs among the best in the world is growing. He was arguably the best forward in the 2012 playoffs and might have won the Conn Smythe Trophy were it not for Quick's historic run.
Kopitar is nominated for the Selke Trophy this season, and the awareness about his ability at each end of the ice is rising. Kopitar leads the playoffs with 22 points, but he is much more than the production.
The Kings have faced Joe Thornton and Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks in the first round, Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks in the second, and Toews in the third. Kopitar has seen a vast majority of his ice time come with a world-class center on the other side of the faceoff circle.
There has been plenty of debate recently about Toews versus Crosby for the mythical title of "Best Player in the NHL," but Kopitar is not far behind and might be ahead of everyone besides those two.
"To play like [Kopitar], there's maybe two, three guys in the world that can," Richards said. "After a couple games ago where [Toews] had his game, played really well, [Kopitar] was right there with him too. He can elevate. It's really fun to watch those two go at it against each other. To see the skill level that he has ...
"I think Darryl has helped him a lot, putting a little more emphasis on that defensive side. If he played in the Eastern Conference on a team that didn't stress defense as much as us, he could easily be a 100-point guy. He sacrifices that to be a two-way player and play on both sides of the puck. We see it every day, so we kind of get spoiled. But I think a couple years ago when we won the Cup, it was kind of his coming-out party, and everybody now realizes how good he is."
As recently as two years ago, Richards was considered one of the elite two-way centers in the League. His offensive production has slipped, but he remains someone Sutter trusts in every situation.
He's also become the best "fourth-line" center in the NHL. Sutter dismisses that notion, in part because he looks solely at ice time and Richards is often among the top forwards in that category because of his work on special teams and the extra odd shift when Los Angeles is protecting a lead.
Carter spent most of the past two seasons on the wing, either with Richards or Kopitar. Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi got together during the break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics and decided it was time to move him back to his natural position.
The development of Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson and the arrival of Marian Gaborik allowed the Kings to be staffed on the wing, and Carter couldn't look more like a prototypical No. 2 center than he has the past few games.
Chicago has had serious problems trying to contain Carter and the two rookies, because Toews has to deal with Kopitar's line. Marian Hossa, arguably one of the best defensive wings in the NHL, was moved off Toews' line in Game 4 and saw more time against Carter's line, but it was still effective.
The most underrated of the four could be Stoll, who hasn't had top-level offensive production recently in his career but is the perfect "checking" center for Sutter's system, as the coach likes to call him.
Stoll is strong in the faceoff circle and along the boards. Pairing him with Justin Williams and either Trevor Lewis or Dwight King gives Los Angeles another wave of puck-possessing forwards who wear out the opposition.
Sutter doesn't match lines much, but he will send Stoll out for extra faceoffs. Stoll dueled with Toews once in Game 1, but since then he's won 21 of 34 draws against him.
Toews has finished in the top five among qualified players in faceoff percentage each of the past three seasons, and he's won 37.1 percent against Stoll in this series.
"[Stoll] has obviously been one of the top guys in the League for a while now," Carter said. "He works hard at it. It's something he takes pride in. When you see a guy that works that hard at little areas of the game that become big areas of the game in games like this, it's definitely good to see."
The Sharks and Ducks are, like the Blackhawks, not only among the elite teams in the NHL, but also the deepest at forward. None of those three teams have been able to match Kopitar, Carter, Richards and Stoll down the middle.
If the Kings win five more games this season, expect to see other franchises trying to figure out how to do so before the 2014-15 season gets underway.
Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer