When Justin Williams joined the Los Angeles Kings in March, 2009, he did so shortly before the trading deadline. It was the second time the winger had been traded and wasn’t likely to be the last. An established veteran, Williams is more than familiar with what to expect around this time of the year. There are noises coming from the outside, though he stays clear of things that he has little control over.
“I think your friends and your wives and your parents are [most concerned with trades],” Williams said. “They’re the ones who usually read all the unsolicited information online that gets them all worked up and then ask me about it. You try to stay clear of all of that. That’s just a total distraction from everything. Especially in this day and age with Twitter and social media it’s hard to stay away from it. But I’ve found it’s my best interest always to [have an] ‘if it happens, it happens’ attitude.”
Though his contract expires at the end of the season, Williams had nothing to worry about at the deadline. Los Angeles was never in any position to move the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
The Kings have had an aversion to subtracting from their core – or, as Dean Lombardi has said before, “pulling guys out of that room.” The continuity has been an asset in establishing a culture of winning within an organization that was prone to trading first round draft picks throughout much of its adolescence.
“I think when you win, that helps. If you’re not successful as a team, then there are going to be changes,” Jarret Stoll said. “We see that with every team, especially in this league, that it’s a short memory. You’ve got to win and you’ve got to win now. We’ve been fortunate enough and played well enough to keep this core group together and management has done a great job of letting that happen. In this era, it can be tough to do sometimes.”
Beginning with the 2009-10 season – the first year the team returned to the playoffs – Dean Lombardi has traded 13 roster players: Teddy Purcell, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Ryan Smyth, Jack Johnson, Kevin Westgarth, Andrei Loktionov, Simon Gagne, Davis Drewiske, Jonathan Bernier, Daniel Carcillo, Ben Scrivens and Matt Frattin.
It’s completely a debatable subject whether several members of that group constituted the team’s “core,” and there are nuances to the degree to which many of the players listed above were part of the established plans heading forward. Was Gagne a part of the “core?” Probably not. Bernier? Yes, but the Kings had little use for an expensive back-up, and it was completely understood that he’d be moved. Ryan Smyth? Yes, but he requested a trade. Wayne Simmonds and Jack Johnson? Yes, but they helped provide Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
For what it’s worth, Dustin Brown’s name was mentioned near the 2012 trade deadline, though he remained with the club, captained the team to a 2012 Stanley Cup, signed an eight-year extension in 2013, and captured another Cup in 2014.
So it comes as little surprise that Jarret Stoll and Justin Williams, two players whose contracts expire at the end of the season, were not moved. Neither player is having a strong year statistically – Stoll has two goals, no assists and a minus-three rating in his last 24 games, while Williams has three goals, one assist and a minus-10 rating in his last 19 games – but have combined for 208 career playoff games and are true blue members of the team’s emotional drive and resilience, and are load-bearing pieces of the character aspect of a dressing room occupied by friends, not “co-workers.” While the team would greatly benefit from added production, their importance is not most accurately reflected in only statistics.
“If you don’t gel together as a team or you’ve got an outcast or you’ve got a guy that is a selfish individual…that’s not going to help you win,” Stoll said.
Both Stoll and Williams are unrestricted free agents on a team that faces a bevy of difficult choices due to limited financial flexibility under a salary cap that may not rise much more beyond this year’s $69-million.
“I think you want to be together, that’s number one. Sometimes in this era, obviously, yeah, that doesn’t happen,” Stoll said. “You saw Chicago [after the 2010 Stanley Cup] had to dismantle their team. They still found a way to be a very good team and win again.”
“Obviously we want to stick together as a team because we feel we’re successful and we can win again. It’s fun winning, we know that and we want to do it again.”
The confidence is there, if not the playoff security. With 72 points, Los Angeles is tied with Calgary and three points back of second place Vancouver. The Kings, Flames and Canucks have 19 games remaining, while San Jose has 72 points and 17 games remaining. It’s expected that the four teams will compete for the second and third place Pacific Division seeds as Winnipeg and Minnesota have gained a strong foothold on the conference’s two wild card spots.
“If we win the majority of the remaining games in the season, that turns our season into a pretty good one and that will also put us in a playoff spot. That’s what we’re looking to do,” Drew Doughty said. “We can’t just rely on hoping to make the playoffs and knowing that we’ll do well when we get there. We’ve got to make it happen.”
Though speculation arose from the outside, there was a minute chance that a position player would be moved prior to the trading deadline, and such a development would take place only if the Kings were blown away by an offer they received. That didn’t happen – nor was there any shift in the offers received for Mike Richards – and so the Kings will continue their playoff push with a group of players similar to those who won last season, though with several wrinkles. It’s expected that Alec Martinez will eventually work his way back into the lineup after recovering from “concussion-like symptoms,” while Tanner Pearson could eventually become available to the club near the very end of the season after he recovers from surgery to repair a broken lower fibula in his left ankle.
Never mind those who aren’t currently on the active roster. The Kings want to win now with the players available.
“It seems like the past 40 games we’ve been talking about trying to get that playoff push going and scoreboard watching, but we’ve got to take our own first,” said Jordan Nolan, who signed a three-year contract extension last week. “If we don’t win hockey games, it doesn’t matter what else happens.”
That stance more or less took the words out of Jake Muzzin’s mouth.
“You put yourself in situations where you need wins, and I think that brings out the best in our room,” he said. “…We have a lot of character and experience in this group, in this room where our guys know what to do and now it’s a matter of going out and doing it.”