TORONTO — When the big money is on the table it’s never smart to bet against the Los Angeles Kings.
However, what the defending Stanley Cup champions are still trying to figure out is how to handle themselves when the stakes have been lowered.
It appears to be another regular season where the Kings won’t distinguish themselves from the pack. They have dropped games in Buffalo, Montreal and Toronto in recent days and won’t deny that a little bit of frustration is starting to set in after a mediocre 15-10-6 start.
“When we’re playing desperately our team is very good and when we’re kind of just going through the motions and playing games that way, we’re not very good,” defenceman Drew Doughty said after Sunday’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Maple Leafs. “We need to start playing desperate. We’re losing points and we’re slowly getting out of a playoff spot.”
A little bit of malaise is understandable.
Los Angeles has played 64 playoff games over the last three years and won two championships. Emotionally, a Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Detroit-Carolina road trip in October pales in comparison.
But with nearly 40 percent of the schedule in the books, there is some concern inside the organization that the standard has slipped.
The Kings were the NHL’s best puck possession team a year ago and aren’t playing at the same elite level now. They’ve generated 52 percent of even-strength shot attempts — good for eighth in the league — and often struggled to score goals.
They’ve also had to deal with the off-season departure of Willie Mitchell and the suspension of Slava Voynov, which has weakened the blue-line. It’s forced Doughty to log the second-most minutes in the league with coach Darryl Sutter clearly not too comfortable with a bottom pairing of Matt Greene and Brayden McNabb.
“I think we’ve played as well as we can,” said Sutter. “We’re a different team than we were last year. We need great goaltending and we need guys to score big goals, and usually that comes out of your top guys.”
The same top guys that may not have the juices really flowing yet.
Anze Kopitar has just six goals and 13 points in 28 games. Jeff Carter had a hot start but has only scored twice since Oct. 28. Mike Richards is on pace for the worst offensive season of his NHL career.
One positive out of the game in Toronto for Sutter was seeing Marian Gaborik score in the third period. It was the Slovak’s fifth goal in a season that has been interrupted by an undisclosed upper-body injury.
“We’re 30-some games into the year and he’s finding his way,” said Sutter. “Hopefully this helps him here tonight.”
None of this is new; not entirely.
The recent run of success for the Kings hasn’t included players winning scoring titles or the team capturing a Presidents’ Trophy. In 2012, they made the playoffs by a point and only lost four games on the way to capturing the Stanley Cup.
However, there is an inherent danger in just assuming that they’ll be able to flip a switch down the stretch. Last year at this time they were second in the Pacific Division. Today they are tied for the last wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
“We’re used to winning,” said Doughty. “We have a lot of winners as players on this team and as an organization, and it’s definitely frustrating. As the players together, we need to get through this and get to where we know we can be.”
If the Kings are ever in need of validation, they can look at the banners hanging in the rafters at Staples Center rather than the NHL standings — although in doing so they may see the gap between where they were and where they are.
Past success fills players with confidence, but it can also set a standard for a team that is difficult to match.
“I can tell you we’re not yet worried that we’re not going to turn it around and we’re not going to make the playoffs or anything like that,” said Doughty. “We know we still will do that.”
Only then will we know for sure if they are still the Kings.