When the team deplaned at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on October 3 and was greeted with balmy early October weather, this Kings team was harboring aspirations as high then as they are now, though with a profoundly different route expected in the venture to reach them.
There are certain boldfaced names that would be difficult to imagine the Kings soldiering on without in an attempt to remain afloat in the most competitive Western Conference since the 1993 rebranding and realignment. Drew Doughty. Jonathan Quick. Jeff Carter. Anze Kopitar.
Los Angeles lost two of those elite players for extended stretches over the first half of the season, and still remained within clawing distance of first place in the conference for much of December. They’ll take a 25-12-4 record into Thursday’s road trip finale in St. Louis.
“We’ve been very fortunate the last couple years, when we went to the playoffs and we played the same lineup for 20 games. That’s unheard of,” general manager Dean Lombardi said. “I remember saying back then, ‘you’re going to pay for this,’ and Darryl said it, too. It was coming. So we had six, seven guys out of the lineup. But it’s a test. Everybody has to deal with it, so don’t whine about it. Don’t use it as an excuse. You find a way through.”
That they have. There are a variety of developments, as there are in any season, in any sport, that have lifted the Kings, and disruptions that they’ve needed to navigate around. The broadest of those developments was the groin injury suffered by goaltender Jonathan Quick on November 12 in Buffalo, which had the opportunity to disrupt the balance of a system predicated upon receiving consistently sturdy goaltending while removing one of the pillars of team identity from the locker room.
Little did anyone foresee that the most important commodity received in last June’s trade with Toronto would be moderately tested but unproven backup goaltender Ben Scrivens, who has posted a 1.84 goals against average and a .936 save percentage despite carrying a personal three game losing streak into 2014. His clutch performance has been bested by Martin Jones, who has allowed at most one goal in six of his 10 appearances since joining Los Angeles shortly after Quick’s injury. The two have combined for six shutouts in Quick’s absence.
“Obviously those guys – they did a marvelous job,” Lombardi said. “There’s a lot of things going on, whether it’s Scrivens…being willing to change his game or adapt to new modes of thinking. That says a lot about him. Then you’ve got Jonesy, who came through the system the classic way, the way he’s evolved through Manchester, and now he gets his look. That dynamic. But the other thing you can’t overlook is it’s a team effort.”
That team effort relies upon a familiarly aggressive forecheck and defensive system that takes away the middle of the ice and creates hazards for opposing forwards intent on driving towards the front of the Kings’ net. Between the goaltending, the 200-foot play inherent in virtually all 14 forwards on the roster, and the size and toughness on the back end, Los Angeles leads all NHL teams with an average of 1.98 goals against through the first 41 games.
“They’re one of the toughest teams to get to the net against,” said Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp. “They have such a good team game and such strong defense that it’s tough to score goals.”
Early in the season, one concern over the team’s balance surrounded the expected production from the left wings. The Kings have received some production from a source that may have been unexpected by fans but doesn’t come at a surprise at all to the team’s hockey operations.
On pace for 20 goals and 38 points, Dwight King has already set a career high in goals and points and has been able to provide some offensive punch at a position in which it was needed.
“Obviously his learning curve is taking a step up. The issue now becomes him keeping it there, and then raising it again,” Lombardi said.
“I don’t think people are surprised at some of the things King’s doing, because he’s always had that type of ability. But now you’re starting to see it, and like I said, the issue is him maintaining it and raising it again, because if you look at some of the things he can do, I think there’s another level there if he wants to put his mind to it.”
Conversely, an unexpected dip in production has crept into Dustin Brown’s game. Though his game-by-game performances acquit themselves fine – Brown is a plus-12 on the season and has upped the physical elements of his game after a slow start – he hasn’t been scoring. With four points in his last 17 games and no power play points over his last 29, it would greatly benefit the Kings if he experiences a second half statistical surge.
“He’s got seven goals in 41 games. So I’d say his scoring is off. Based on that, he’s a 14-goal scorer,” Darryl Sutter said. “That’s not enough, right?”
Based on King’s performance, and what appears to be a valley in Brown’s production, Los Angeles is still in the process of determining whether there are players on the market that can provide a push on the left side of the lineup.
“You’re always looking to improve every part of your team if possible,” Lombardi said. “We’re not at the stage, yet, too – you’re starting to see now buyers and sellers, getting a little of that now. So, to answer your question – part of your answer is ‘What’s also in the marketplace? Is it better than what you’ve got? And I have no indication of that right now. We’ll see how that evolves over the next month or so.”
“A lot of teams that would have players on the last year of their contract or are quote-unquote sellers, they’ve figured it out. I’m not just going to unload these guys because I need assets. Because I still need people to play. So I’m going to keep them and sign ‘em,” Lombardi said.
“So it used to be in the old days, yeah, I’d get rid of ‘em because you want to get something for ‘em. Now, they’re looking at stepping back and saying, ‘hey, I need guys to play next year,’ because the other thing, too, is we all see that it’s getting like the NFL where the whole building process, you’re not that far away because everybody’s so close. You’ve got some really good teams, you’ve got some really bad teams…so these teams that might be selling now are thinking, ‘well, we’re a player or two away. But I don’t want to give up this rental. I want to keep him, because I don’t want to be three players away.’”
With Jonathan Quick on the verge of a return and an extended Olympic Break on the horizon for most of the team, the Kings will look to build momentum and reverse their recent skid with the benefit of a timely break that could allow the team to refocus in the midst of an otherwise compacted 82-game season.
And should the team find itself in an encouraging position within the hyper-competitive Pacific Division at that point, they can look back to the success in the face of a set of challenges that came to define the 2013 portion of the 2013-14 NHL season.
“To me, the way they banded together and didn’t make excuses and found a way is exactly the way you wanted from a team perspective, and obviously those goalies were a part of it,” Lombardi said. “But when I see their performance, I don’t lose sight of the fact that you’ve got a lot of other guys out of the lineup too, but everybody kind of rallied. And that’s what good teams do.”