Marian Gaborik was days away from hitting the free agent market last summer. The speedy winger was in control of his own destiny and, after leading the NHL in playoff goals, Gaborik had plenty of options. Gaborik, in fact, could probably have written his own ticket.
But rather than entering the market and cashing in on a big payday, Gaborik left money on the table to sign a team-friendly, seven-year extension with the Kings. Gaborik was convinced taking less from the King would be worth more in the long run, and his reasoning provided a startling sign of the times.
“The Kings’ winning tradition,” Gaborik said, “really made the difference.”
Chew on that one, long-suffering Kings fans. Gaborik didn’t pick Los Angeles because he fell in love with the South Bay, because it afforded him the ability to play year-round golf, or because he wanted to help market the game in a non-traditional market. Gaborik wasn’t even looking for a grip of fast cash. One of the NHL’s most desirable free agents chose Los Angeles over places like Montreal, Philadelphia, and Boston, because he wanted a winning tradition.
That’s how good things have gotten in Los Angeles during the Dean Lombardi era. Call it a cap-era dynasty, a dynasty-in-the-making, or an unprecedented three-year run. But by any name or description, it’s clear the Kings are in the midst of their glory days.
In their first 44 years in the NHL, the Kings advanced past the second round of the playoffs exactly once, making an unsuccessful trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993. Not even the great Wayne Gretzky, in his prime no less, could deliver a championship. The Kings finally broke through in 2012, winning their first Stanley Cup, and what took over four decades to build from scratch took only two years to repeat.
Over the last three seasons, the Kings have won two Stanley Cups and made three trips to the Western Conference Final. Their 64 playoff games over the past three postseasons are the most in the NHL, and they won 42 of those games for a winning percentage of .656.
According to the Toronto Globe and Mail, the only NHL team to have the same kind of success over a three-year span during the past 14 seasons was the Red Wings, who won 41 playoff games between 2007 and 2009. Detroit, however, won only one Stanley Cup during that stretch.
With nothing to indicate any end to the good times in sight, the Kings’ day in the sun is fast developing into a golden era for hockey in Los Angeles.
“This team has a chance to win the Stanley Cup multiple times,” said Kings radio analyst Daryl Evans. “There are no guarantees in hockey. You could have Team Canada play in the NHL and there is no guarantee they would win, but the Kings are so good, they have a chance to do it again.”
The Kings entered the 2014-15 season looking to become the first team since the 1998 Red Wings to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. And the Kings are not bashful about their desire to successfully defend their title.
“After you have won the Stanley Cup once,” defenseman Jake Muzzin said, “you want to win it again.”
As assembled by President/General Manager Lombardi (with some help from his predecessor, Dave Taylor), the Kings are developing a reputation as a team that was built with one eye on sustained long-term excellence and the other on the short-term grind of playoffs. It’s a tough balancing act to maintain, particularly under the constraints of the salary cap. While those restrictions have torn apart other championship-caliber teams, the Kings have been able to maintain their excellence and entered this season as one of the teams to beat in the Western Conference.
“That’s a result of us, our management, keeping us together and us pulling together,” said captain Dustin Brown, who has twice been presented with the Stanley Cup by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “It’s really hard to do with a cap, but we found ways to find guys to come up and play well and add to our core here. The other thing about it: The 20 guys we had in here are special.”
Added Mike Richards: “Dean has done a good job of keeping us together. This is a special group.”
So special that, to a man, the Kings believe two Stanley Cups is not the story’s end, but merely the beginning.
“We live for the playoffs,” All-World defenseman Drew Doughty told ESPN.com “We live for these types of moments. Yeah, we’re a great team, but we’re not finished with what we have to do yet. We need to continue this as long as we possibly can. We have the right guys on this team, the right players. We have the possibility to go deep for many years to come.”
They have that possibility because so many of the team’s core players are still under 30. Brown and Jeff Carter, (both just turned 30), Anze Kopitar (27), the currently suspended Slava Voynov (24), and Jonathan Quick (28), are all in their prime years. Meanwhile, Doughty (just turned 25), Muzzin (25), Kyle Clifford (23), Tyler Toffoli (22), Tanner Pearson (22) all have the potential to get even better.
Chemistry has also played a role in the Kings’ prosperity. After being acquired in a March deal from Columbus, Gaborik quickly found both playoff success and a home, two things that had long eluded him. Gaborik gave the Kings a huge boost with his 14 playoff goals, but he credited his new teammates for helping him assimilate so quickly.
“You cannot win without a good locker room,” Gaborik said. “These guys are unbelievable.”
The last NHL team that was unbelievable enough to be considered a dynasty played in Edmonton, where the Oilers won five-out-of-seven Cups from 1984-90. While no team has won two in a row since the ’97-98 Wings, there have been powerhouse NHL teams in the intervening years. The Colorado Avalanche, who won two Cups between 1996 and 2001, featured an uber-talented core that included Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy.
The Kings, who have already matched the Avs’ Cup total, also compare favorably to those supremely talented teams on paper.
“I can touch on Colorado, because I was there,” Blake said. “We had Sakic and Forsberg up the middle. In Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, we have centers just as strong. We have veterans on the point, good defense and strong goaltending. We have strong core.”
Winning the Stanley Cup, of course, can cut two ways. It can provide a road map to the championship or it can create complacency. Doughty believes the Kings’ experience of winning the first time provided experience, which led to confidence. That confidence was vital in winning seven elimination games and coming back from a 3-0 series deficit vs. San Jose in last year’s postseason.
“Winning that Cup a couple years ago helped us,” Doughty said. “We had a lot of young guys, guys who hadn’t been in the playoffs. I think we used that experience and knowledge of that type of game to come back in situations. We don’t want to be losing three games in a row. We found a way and we’re happy.”
Doughty, however, said winning two Cups in three years has left no one feeling satisfied.
“After we won the first one, all we wanted to do was win another one,” Doughty said after the Kings won Cup No. 2 last June. Now, Doughty said he and his Kings teammates now feel a certain entitlement toward the Cup.
“We kind of messed that up (in 2013),” he said. “We lost the Cup to another team and we wanted it back so bad. We felt like it was ours. We got her back and we’re happy now.”
Muzzin, Doughty’s defensive partner, agrees that the Kings remain humble and hungry, despite a run of success unprecedented in the organization’s history, and another summer of parades with the Stanley Cup.
“It’s something you want to experience all over again,” Muzzin said. “You have your name on the Stanley Cup once, but you are not satisfied. You want to win it again and get your name on it as many times as you can.”
If the Kings can win another Cup, they will take a huge step closer to being able to delete “cap-era” as a qualifier before the word dynasty.
Can they repeat?
Winning the Stanley Cup “takes a lot of effort and will,” said Head Coach Darryl Sutter, who should know; Sutter has participated in the Stanley Cup playoffs a total of 24 times as player or coach.
If the Kings don’t repeat, it won’t be because they are afraid to face the challenge head-on.
“We’re going to try,” Kopitar said.
For the last word on becoming a team for the ages, we go to Doughty.
“I don’t know if we’re there yet,” he said. “But I believe we’re on our way to that. I believe this group could be at that point, but it’s going to take a lot of work.”
No problem. For three years running, the Kings have worked.