For Justin Williams
, playing a former team was akin seeing an ex-girlfriend several years down the road.
“You come here, you’re happy to see ‘em, you want to show ‘em you’ve still got it,” he said prior to the Kings’ game in Carolina last year. (LA Kings Insider)
“But, ultimately, you’re happy with the way things worked out for you, you know?”
He certainly is. And given that he has now won two Stanley Cups with the Kings – part of three total – last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner is as qualified as any to analogize on what it means to continually be in search of league hardware as part of a Kings team that on paper should be every bit as competitive as the two championship teams and the Conference Final-advancing squad that preceded it.
“Everyone knows we’re a quality team, we’re a good team,” Williams said. “I think one of the things that kinds of drives us is sometimes jealousy. I see someone with the Stanley Cup, and it’s like a wife or someone. I see someone else holding it and I get jealous and upset, and I want it back, and that was kind of the feeling that we had after we lost to Chicago and they won the Cup a couple of years ago. We want to keep it, we want to hold it, and we know what it’s like to lose it now, too.”
Williams’ viewpoint – that the Kings are motivated by jealousy – isn’t a new notion from this team.
Jonathan Quick said at the outset of last year’s playoffs that the Kings’ achievements are catalyzed by a fear of losing and disappointing. “I think sometimes you have two great teams and one team loves to win and one team hates to lose, and I feel like the team that hates to lose will end up winning more times than not,” he said in April. (LA Kings Insider)
It’s an interesting viewpoint, and it illustrates that the team was profoundly affected by its Conference Final loss to Chicago two seasons ago.
Never mind that the Kings were the hockey equivalent of The Walking Dead, with Dustin Brown playing through a torn PCL, Robyn Regehr battling through an elbow that required surgery, Drew Doughty nursing a bad ankle and Williams contending with a separated shoulder. This was still a team that felt it had as much of a right to the Cup as the Blackhawks, and seeing a team in different color jerseys hoist it still has a negative effect with the group to this day.
“You don’t really know what you’ve lost until you’ve actually done what you’ve set out to do, said Brown. “Prior to 2012, losing in the playoffs sucked, but it has a whole new meaning now that we’ve won and we understand what winning is and how much fun it is and all that. Now when you lose, it hurts that much more.”
As so many intangibles and abstracts were used to discuss the team’s play in the spring of 2014 – resolve, confidence and resilience were among those used – this team hopes that “envy” is not among them 82-plus games from now.
“Yeah, we worked really hard and won our last game last year,” said Brown. “You don’t want to have anybody come and take it away from you.”
There will be many well-equipped teams vying for the opportunity.
Chicago and Anaheim fell short of Los Angeles’ center depth, and, ultimately, an opportunity to advance. Enter Brad Richards and Ryan Kesler. St. Louis looks excellent on paper – as they often do – and Paul Stastny is the perfect type of player for Ken Hitchcock’s team, which plays astute, ultracompetitive hockey over all 200 feet of the ice. Jason Spezza provides an additional threat down the middle to an already entertaining Dallas team. San Jose didn’t undergo any major personnel moves, but don’t think for a second that the outstanding puck possession team won’t be in the Pacific Division mix come April.
Los Angeles has shown that they don’t need to hang one of Darryl Sutter’s maligned “dirty banners” to advance in the postseason; the Kings have finished third, second and third in the Pacific Division during a span in which they’ve won 10 playoff series.
Sutter has spoken about how the goal is simply to get into the playoffs, and once that mark has been hit, to attain home ice advantage, if possible. Of course, with such a top-heavy division of league powers, the team would clearly do itself a favor if they were to avoid a California team in the first round.
“Clearly, we would like to come in first place. That’s our only expectation as a team,” Doughty said. “We don’t want to play for second or third, we want to be first. We want to be the first place team, but if anything, we for sure want to have the home ice in playoffs. Home ice in playoffs is huge – getting started at home, hopefully getting two wins right off the bat, that’s a big advantage for your team.”
Set amidst the backdrop of what should be one of the NHL’s most competitive teams is the uncertainty over the ability to retain key pieces of the Kings’ core, which has remained virtually intact. Save for the departures of Rob Scuderi and Willie Mitchell, and to a lesser extent Brad Richardson, Dustin Penner and Colin Fraser, the Kings ice an awfully similar team to the one that steamrolled through the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s a luxury in the parity of the salary cap era, and general manager Dean Lombardi and his inner circle of advisers have done a fine job responsibly constructing and maintaining such a high-level team.
But 11 players of the 23 who open the season on the Kings’ active roster will be free agents come July 1, 2015, the same date the team will be able to negotiate a contract with superstar Anze Kopitar – though Kopitar’s contract will not kick in until the 2016-17 season. Williams, Jarret Stoll, Robyn Regehr and Alec Martinez will be unrestricted free agents, while Jake Muzzin, Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Kyle Clifford, Jordan Nolan, Andy Andreoff and Martin Jones will all be restricted free agents.
As of now, the team has roughly 16.8 million dollars to assign those bound for free agency while being mindful of an eventual Kopitar pay raise. While the salary cap is expected to rise incrementally, it’s very likely that there will be those who have played key roles on championship Kings teams who could simply be priced out of future teams.
“I hope that guys who are in those situations don’t think about it too much. The only thing they can really do or control is how they play,” said Doughty, before turning his attention to the younger crop of players who will be looking to earn pay raises in new contracts.
“They’ve got to work hard in practices to try and get in the lineup, and then when they do get in the lineup, play the right style of game and play the way that they’re supposed to. But having these young guys who are such talented players coming in and kind of being on the outside looking in at a certain point, they’re good players, and that pushes the other guys who are in the lineup to play better and to produce, because they know that at any moment in time we could have someone else come into the lineup for them. I think it’s great.”
The chips will eventually fall as they may. Lombardi and cap guru Jeff Solomon, the team’s Senior Vice President, Hockey Operations and Legal Affairs, have shown a judicious approach to keeping their personnel priorities in line.
In the present, considering that the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner will open the year on what more or less constitutes a third line, this Kings team will be as equipped to make a long playoff run as any of the 47 Kings teams that came before them.
“I can’t believe how good our depth is on this team,” Doughty said. “The guys sitting out are unbelievable players and players who would be playing on any other team, so that’s a bright side for us and bright future as well.”
No team has repeated as league champions since 1997 and 1998, when the Detroit Red Wings won their first two Stanley Cups as part of four titles over a 12-year span. The league’s parity and salary cap make winning consecutive titles as difficult as any point in the modern era of the game, and Williams’ Hurricanes didn’t even make the playoffs the year after winning the Cup in 2006.
Given that the Kings will forge forward with a more proper title defense than the one delayed until January and shortened to 48 games two seasons ago, a more honest test of all the intangibles the Kings built up last summer will once again be illuminated during the upcoming 82-game marathon.
“I mean, obviously there were a lot of things that happened after we had won the first time with the lockout, and it was just kind of an odd scenario,” Williams said.
“We certainly haven’t fallen off I feel, and I don’t want to use the word ‘business,’ but I kind of will. We’re very focused and driven, and we’re obviously not sure how good we can be and how far we can take this, but we’re going to try our best to find out.”