EDMONTON — The Los Angeles Kings awoke Wednesday morning with the fourth most points in the National Hockey League, but who’s kidding whom? No team ahead of L.A. — Dallas, Washington or St. Louis — scares anyone as much as the club that won Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014, and is back for more in 2016.
There’s a pattern here that the Kings aim to extend, with Chicago and Los Angeles having taken turns winning the last four Stanley Cups. It’s the Kings’ turn again this year, and after missing the playoffs last spring it is a super-focused group that opened up an 11-point lead in the Pacific Division with a 5-2 win at Edmonton Tuesday.
“Our mindset is different,” said captain Dustin Brown, a bloody bandage glued under his right nostril post-game. “In years past we had been able to turn it on when we needed to, and last year we thought we could do that and we didn’t. When you’re not playing in May and June, when you’re used to it, it’s not a very good feeling. Guys came back with a different mindset.
“A little more pissed off.”
It was back on April 7 in this very same Rexall Place visitor’s dressing room where Brown and his mates sat stunned after a 4-2 loss to the lowly Oilers which all but crushed their playoff hopes. “Hopefully it doesn’t end here,” then-King Justin Williams said that night, “because we’ve got a Stanley Cup caliber team here. It would be a shame not to be able to show it.”
The Kings would lose again in Calgary two nights later, missing the post-season for the first time in six seasons. What ensued was equal parts rest, turmoil and introspection, as leaders like Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll left under a cloud of drug charges, Slava Voynov took to the KHL amid domestic violence charges, and Williams quietly moved on to Washington as a free agent.
“There’s a transition in the room,” begins general manager Dean Lombardi, who has shouldered the yoke of more off-ice turmoil than any of his peers. “(Anze) Kopitar, (Drew) Doughty, (Jeff) Carter… This whole roster is just entering its prime. You’re talking about, now, those top guys starting to take over the leadership.
“I know they’ve had problems, but you look at guys like Jarret (Stoll), Mike Richards, Justin Williams — they were good guys to learn how to win from. There was always, at some point, going to be a hand-off. Obviously those guys aren’t as talented (as Doughty, Kopitar and Carter), but they were winners.”
Doughty turned 26 in December, and just might be the best defenceman in the world today. Kopitar is 28 and one of the premier all-around centreman in the game. Goalie Jonathan Quick will be 30 in January, right in his prime with two Cups and an Olympic Games under his belt.
Remember, the Kings finished eighth in the Western Conference regular season standings when they won their first Cup in 2012, and sixth out West two years later.
“There is definitely more of a sense of urgency this year,” Doughty said. “We were just kind of sick of (leaving things until March and April). We realized we had to be more urgent throughout the regular season. We want 100 points as fast as possible, and we want to win our Division. That’s the goal: We’re determined to come in first place in the Division.”
You can see the chain of command here, with the players setting game-by-game goals while Lombardi looks down from 30,000 feet, assessing and massaging a culture that will work this year and for many more to come. For a team that suffered as many bad headlines as this one did, the Kings performance this season is truly remarkable.
(And before you go blaming the weak Pacific Division for the Kings’ success, know this: L.A. has played 12 of 36 games in the Pacific going 7-5, while cruising through the NHL’s toughest Division, the Central, with a 6-1 record.)
“The logic is, we’re a big heavy team,” Lombardi said, “and it’s hard to play that way for 82 games, three in four nights, etc. But we’ve got to take that out of the equation. There’s still enough talent here in Carter, (Tyler) Toffoli, (Tanner) Pearson, Doughty, that you can do both.”
Toffoli has as many goals (18) as Alex Ovechkin, and heading into their New Year’s Eve game at Calgary a Kings team that was traditionally lean on offence put up a five spot in both Vancouver and Edmonton this week.
It was at Rexall however, that the dream suffered its death blow last season, at the weak hands of the 28th place Oilers. It was here the new mindset was born.
“It cost us the playoffs. We always remember that game,” said Doughty. “(They’ve learned that) the games early in the season make a difference at the end, and we don’t want to leave it to the last four, five games. We want to be comfortable with 20, 25 games left.”
With the chance of building a 13-point lead in the weak Pacific by New Year’s Day, we’d say the Kings are on schedule.