In defence of their Stanley Cup title, the Los Angeles Kings flirted with a second consecutive trip to the final. Unfortunately for them, Chicago had other ideas as they knocked out L.A. in five games in the Western Conference final. Darryl Sutter’s Kings were dominant at times en route to knocking off the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks, but had trouble winning on the road – something that wasn’t a problem in 2012.
The Kings’ roster should look very similar to the teams they’ve had the last couple seasons. Dustin Penner and Rob Scuderi are notable departures via free agency, while backup goalie Jonathan Bernier was traded to Toronto. The Bernier deal yielded forward Matt Frattin, who should eventually be an upgrade over Penner. The team’s identity remains the same as Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick front a deep, talented lineup.
Will the black and silver make yet another lengthy run in the postseason? Here are three reasons why they can and can’t win their second-ever Stanley Cup:
1. Built for playoff hockey
The last two years have proven the regular season doesn’t mean much for the Kings, as they’ve made a pair of deep playoff runs without winning their division. They won the Cup as a No. 8 seed for crying out loud. This is a team that, quite simply, is built for the post-season.
Two of the first few things you look for in Cup contenders are depth and good goaltending; the Kings have both. A trio of Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll at centre is as good as it gets in the NHL. On the wing, Brown, Jeff Carter and Justin Williams know how to get it done in the playoffs.
The blue-line corps fits Sutter’s system like a glove, as Drew Doughty, Robyn Regehr and Slava Voynov anchor a defensively-solid club. A healthy Willie Mitchell and up-and-comer Jake Muzzin only make it better.
And then there’s the goaltender…
2. Quick’s dominance
Jonathan Quick may not be the first name you think of when debating the sport’s best goaltender, but the 2012 Conn Smythe winner has proven to be a very tough goalie to beat in the playoffs. Over the last two post-seasons he sports a combined 1.62 GAA, .940 save percentage and six shutouts. Is that good?
What makes Quick so good goes beyond his recent playoff resume. He was a Vezina Trophy finalist two years ago and single-handedly willed the Kings to the playoffs. He has ironed out past consistency issues, showing the ability to put together remarkable stretches of dominance at a time. In layman’s terms,Quick has gone from being a good goalie to a great one. And he’s only 27, which means he’s only entering his prime.
It goes without saying that teams need quality goaltending to win in the playoffs. As long as Quick continues this success, goaltending will be the least of Los Angeles’ worries.
3. Dynamic defence
Scuderi leaving for Pittsburgh in free agency will hurt the Kings. However, they have more than enough pieces to make up for that loss.
We know what Doughty is capable of, but the two most important defencemen will be Voynov and Muzzin and how they progress. Voynov was earning Conn Smythe consideration into the third round last spring; he’s budding into a star puck-mover. Meanwhile, Muzzin led all Kings defencemen in goals (seven) and plus/minus (+16) in the regular season. Those three blueliners give the Kings three guys they count on for offence from the back end.
A clean bill of health from veteran lockdown defencemen like Regehr, Mitchell and Matt Greene will only be a gravy for a penalty kill that should continue to be a top-10 unit. Jeff Schultz, Alec Martinez and Keaton Ellerby add great depth to a blueline that is among the league’s best.
1. Will Quick burn out?
While Quick has become a workhorse for the Kings, he hasn’t been pushed to the limit like some other goaltenders around the NHL (36 starts in 2012-13; 69 in 2011-12; 60 in 2010-11). With the trade of Bernier, Quick’s workload could rise a bit – and that’s not including the potential of being Team USA’s starter in Sochi.
Traveling overseas in the middle of the season is going to take its toll (not much, but some) on players, especially goalies who will be heavily relied upon. Quick is the favorite to start for the Americans, and with that could come four or five starts. Most goalies who have played a lot in recent Olympics didn’t fare well down the stretch or in the playoffs later that season.
Will summer acquisition Ben Scrivens be able to relieve pressure off Quick throughout the season in L.A.? Scrivens, soon to be 27, isn’t as good as Bernier. The Kings will need Quick to stay fresh for the post-season, but he could realistically see 75 starts (including Olympics). Will he burn out before the playoffs?
2. Lingering effects of playoff runs?
The Kings’ season has ended in June in each of the last two seasons. Will that have any sort effect on the team this season and/or next spring?
The odds are not in their favor for getting to the third round or later once again. In fact, five of the last six teams to advance to two straight conference finals (or later) have failed to get out of the second round the following season; the 2009 Detroit Red Wings are the only exception, as they went to the final.
If there is anyone that could buck that trend it’s the Kings, who know what it takes get it done in the playoffs. Their demanding style of play and the fact that much of the roster has stayed intact could mean they will be ripe for the picking early on next spring – or that they are destined for another deep playoff run.
3. Recent history of goal-scoring droughts
We can all agree that this roster is built for playoff success. However, this is a team that has had trouble scoring goals on a consistent basis since Sutter took over. They finished 29th in goals scored in the regular season of their Cup-winning season. And while the Kings finished in the top 10 last season, they had the worst playoff goals per game average (2.06) of all teams that advanced past the second round.
When you consider their talent, it really shouldn’t be difficult to produce offense in L.A. But it’s a product of Sutter’s defence-first system. It also doesn’t help that Mike Richards hasn’t been the same offensive threat since coming over from Philadelphia. Perhaps Frattin and rookie Tyler Toffoli can help boost the scoring depth.
They can’t rely on Quick to bail the team out every night – especially in the playoffs.
Prediction: Los Angeles wins their first division title since 1991 and will be a popular pick to go deep in next spring’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. They have the right personnel to threaten for another Stanley Cup. If the Kings can find a way to keep Quick relatively fresh for the post-season, they will capture their second Cup in three years.