The Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks have developed one of the best rivalries in the NHL in recent seasons, but their most recent game on Saturday might be a microcosm of where the rivalry is going. The Ducks beat the Kings in L.A. in a shootout, and I know shootouts have a certain degree of randomness, but when you look at this game and at the standings, it's hard not to see the Ducks with an edge. It's also hard not to wonder if something might be seriously wrong with the Kings.
The Ducks, to me, are the best team in the NHL. I think the Chicago Blackhawks are a team they'll have to reckon with at some point, but you have to look at the body of work and what the Ducks have been through. They've dealt with the mumps, injuries, Corey Perry being out for long periods of time, Frederik Andersen taking over a job that was essentially supposed to belong to John Gibson who couldn't perform, and yet here they are atop the standings.
The Ducks have taken on all challengers this season and remain in first place. They haven't really had a prolonged slump despite being beaten up for stretches, and most of the measuring stick games they've played, the Ducks have won. Their loss to the New York Rangers last week might be the lone exception.
It's clear to me that the Ducks are the best team in the Western Conference right now. If you're going to win the West, the Ducks are on the middle of the highway. You're going to have to go around them or over them. They've been the best team in the West to this point in the season and I don't think anyone can dispute that.
On the other hand, the Kings may be the defending champions, but when you watch them play night in and night out, they're just an average team right now. Jonathan Quick is looking like an average goaltender and that staunch defense has given up several large leads at the start of games. Now, L.A. may come back and get a point or even a win out of those situations, and that does show the character of the locker room, but this team isn't supposed to win like that. The Kings aren't supposed to play catch up. And they definitely aren't supposed to win one out of their first six games on a homestand.
The biggest issue for the Kings right now may be that their inconsistency is giving other teams hope. If the season ended today, L.A. would not be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and that means teams that are playing well and might not be as highly regarded, teams like the Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars, are starting to have hope. They're starting to say, "You know what? The Kings aren't that good. We can do this. We can sneak into that last playoff spot."
If I'm Darryl Sutter or Dean Lombardi, I'm definitely starting to get worried. I know there's plenty of time left for the Kings to turn it on and solidify a playoff position, but one of these days that switch is going to be broken. The Kings have been able to turn it on and off for a few years now, and if they make the playoffs, obviously they'll be a dangerous team, but how do we know they'll be able to turn that switch on again?
This team might be in need of a wake-up call like it was in 2012 when Lombardi fired Terry Murray because the team was slumping so badly. I'm sure Darryl's read them the riot act and Dean's been in the locker room and the players have had meetings saying, "Let's get going. Let's turn this thing around." But that may not be enough. Lombardi will have some big things to think about at the NHL Trade Deadline this season, because if the Kings don't turn it around, that may be what they need, a little shock therapy.
THE ART OF LOSING
I know the Buffalo Sabres are a young team and a certain degree of losing is to be expected, but right now the Sabres have lost 10 games in a row, all in regulation, and have by far the worst goal differential in the NHL. I've been on teams like this before. In the 1980-81 season the Winnipeg Jets went on a stretch of 30 games without a win. I was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs part way through that streak, but I know what it's like to be in that kind of environment. It's hell. Plain and simple. People hate you, your dog hates you, fans hate you, you hate each other. It's just a terrible thing to go through and you get to a point where you literally don't think you'll ever win another game.
That's what is happening in Buffalo right now and you have to wonder what kind of an effect it will have on the kids on that roster like Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen. Buffalo wasn't expected to be a good team this year as it stands. The Sabres are young. They're inexperienced. Many of us knew they would probably have a tough season and would be in the mix for Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel at the NHL Draft this June. Losing in some sense when you're rebuilding isn't the worst thing because you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but going through a stretch like this can have damaging effects. These kids in Buffalo can't learn to accept losing.
If you take a look at what has happened the last few years with the Edmonton Oilers, you know how dangerous this can be. Edmonton is a team that is loaded with young, top-six talent, but they've been losing for so long that you'd almost think those players have been conditioned to accept it. It's great that these kids can play in the NHL at 18 years old, but sometimes all you're teaching them is how to lose. Now the Oilers have to decide if they need to break up that group and get some winning blood on the roster. If Buffalo stays in this slump, they could find themselves in the same quagmire a few seasons down the road. Could McDavid or Eichel turn that around? Maybe, but it's a fine line between letting your kids grow and letting them lose. Right now it looks like the Sabres are walking it.