LOS ANGELES — Every empire crumbles.
The Los Angeles Kings, as we knew them, are no more. At least they have the Stanley Cup banners and a whole bunch of memories.
The rise and fall of this team should serve as a reminder for the ascendant Toronto Maple Leafs squad that tossed them aside here without any regard on Tuesday night. When your window to compete for a championship opens, you must proceed with urgency. It can close quicker than you’d ever imagine.
Los Angeles has won just one playoff game since lifting the second of their two Cups in 2014. Now, after a 5-1 loss to the Maple Leafs, they sit dead last in the NHL standings and appear to be staring at a bumpy path back to respectability.
“I don’t think the offence was the problem today by any means,” said Kings captain Anze Kopitar. “It was the lack of desperation, work, energy, emotion, whatever. That kind of effort is unacceptable.
“We’re running out of time here.”
They have already made a change behind the bench, with Willie Desjardins replacing John Stevens. The next card to play is a trade, or two, or three. In the run-and-gun NHL, these warriors of playoffs past have been left behind.
“Definitely a little surprised. I didn’t start the season thinking any of this would happen,” said defenceman Drew Doughty. “I’ve never been through something like this in my career. We’ve got to get out of it — that’s the bottom line — we don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves and think ‘what could we do differently?’ We’ve just got to go out there and do it.
“It just comes down to competing harder and not wanting to lose, and that’s really how you win hockey games. When every single guy goes out there and plays that way you’re not going to lose.”
That’s only part of the problem.
This roster has aged quickly and is capped-out because of the pricey contracts paid to the cornerstone members of the championship squads — veteran players who haven’t been supported by a big enough infusion of young talent around them.
Basically, this is how the NHL is designed to work.
The salary cap is a mechanism intended to level the playing field by preventing teams from stockpiling too much talent. This version of the Leafs hasn’t yet won a playoff series and they’re already feeling the pinch with William Nylander back home in Sweden because of a contract impasse that traces its roots to Toronto’s big-picture cap concerns.
With Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in need of new deals before next season and John Tavares already pulling in $11-million annually, general manager Kyle Dubas has held the line on Nylander.
They may even be forced to trade him with a Dec. 1 deadline looming.
So even with all of the good vibes that accompanied a prosperous 12-6-0 start, which includes an impressive 7-1-0 mark away from Scotiabank Arena, Nylander’s teammates can’t ignore the possibility the 22-year-old may not be back to assist in their Cup chase.
“It sucks thinking about it,” said Marner. “I mean we would miss him. He’s a big part of this team. He’s a big part of our offence and you miss him every time out there on that ice. It’s a life decision and he’s going to make the right one.”
Reflecting back on the Kings’ glory years, what jumps out is how fast they flew by. With the emergence of a young Doughty and Kopitar, they lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2010 and 2011.
The next year they finished as the eighth seed in the Western Conference and won the Stanley Cup. Then there was a run to Game 7 of the West final and another Cup in 2014. Since then? Two playoff appearances in four years and nothing to show for it.
It’s something to keep in mind with Toronto now boasting the kind of roster expected to contend. They are drawing praise from all around the league. The future is now.
“They’ve got great speed, like outstanding speed,” said Desjardins. “They’ve done a good job building that team. They can come at you with a lot of different weapons. We’ve got a lot of respect for ‘em.”
They’ll have even more for them after Tuesday’s pounding at Staples Center. The Leafs built a 2-0 lead before the game was seven minutes old on power-play goals by Nazem Kadri and Tavares, and after that there was absolutely no mystery how the night would end.
Tavares finished with three points to run his season totals to 11 goals and 22 points in 18 games. Rielly added a goal and an assist to move back atop the NHL’s defenceman scoring lead with 23 points. Kadri had two goals, Marner had two assists and Andreas Johnsson chipped in a goal for the third line.
“I think a good sign tonight was just how many penalties we drew,” said Tavares. “I think that just shows how well we possessed the puck and how difficult we made it on them to defend us and then we capitalized on those opportunities and obviously controlled a lot of the game because of that.
“Just from start to finish I thought it was a pretty textbook road win.”
How quickly times have changed. The Leafs had dropped their last four visits to this building, but barely even received any pushback from Los Angeles on Tuesday.
“It’s surprising when you look at that team. They’re so skilled and they’ve got a lot of depth in that lineup,” said Marner. “We wanted to make sure we were moving when we touched the puck.”