EDMONTON — When they were truly Kings, Darryl Sutter’s club would roll through Alberta like a winter storm, blanketing two immature, smaller clubs with their size, skill and experience, usually taking four points back to sunny California.
Alas, those days are gone for the Los Angeles Kings, as are their playoff chances here in the spring of 2017, a mere three years after the last Stanley Cup parade down Figueroa Street.
Today the Kings are old and slow. The players act like a group that has seen a championship dressing room and knows very well theirs is not one anymore. They don’t scare anyone physically anymore. In fact, a team that was once the bully had sand kicked in its face on this trip.
On Sunday in Calgary, 19-year-old Matthew Tkachuk laid out the Kings’ best player, Drew Doughty, with an elbow so egregious it that would earn Tkachuk a two-game suspension. Not a single King as much as breathed heavily on Tkachuk the rest of the way Sunday, even when the game was out of hand.
On Monday in Edmonton, Patrick Maroon was having his way around goalie Jonathan Quick in the first period when 39-year-old Jarome Iginla stepped in to make the big power forward cease. By the second period, Iginla was fighting Maroon, giving up 20 pounds and 11 years in the process.
Seriously — there wasn’t a younger teammate who could have stepped up?
“Well, you can’t really pick your spots,” said Iginla, who did just fine in the scrap. “We’re just looking to get more into it, they were rolling pretty good… Just trying to push back there. It’s just part of the game.”
That this Kings group stood by and watched Doughty get manhandled, then allowed their oldest player — who has been here only since the trade deadline — fight Maroon reeks of a team that had folded its cards long before being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
The Kings lost 5-2 in Calgary, 2-0 in Edmonton, and will not play any post-season games for the second time in three springs. More pertinent however, is this question: Can L.A. keep playing yesterday’s brand of hockey, and ice a winner today?
“I knew coming into this season our division was instantly better when Calgary made their goaltending changes, and the evolution of [Edmonton] and the size they’ve added,” Sutter said. “San Jose is the defending conference champion, so I knew it was going to be tough for us and it certainly proved that.”
Sutter coaches the way Sutter coaches, and the Kings’ big, grinding identity is a product of that. It brought two Stanley Cup rings to L.A., but the way the game is going, can that identity win anymore?
Entering Monday’s game, the Kings were 25th in NHL scoring, averaging 2.44 goals per game. From the beginning of L.A.’s first Stanley Cup season (2011-12) until now, L.A. has ranked 24th overall in scoring at 2.53 goals per game.
Remember that 2012 run, when L.A. got up 3-0 in every series, losing just four games all spring? Los Angeles would win Stanley Cups in ’12 and ’14, joining the Chicago Blackhawks — who won Cups in 2010, ’13 and ‘15 — as the model franchises.
But while Chicago grasped the new cap world, jettisoning key players and rebuilding their lineup after each Cup victory, the Kings made some wrong-headed decisions, often based on sheer loyalty.
GM Dean Lombardi took on the last nine years of Mike Richards’ contract when he acquired him from Philadelphia. The deal has been terminated but it still costs the Kings $1.32 million a season.
They signed Dustin Brown to an eight-year, $47-million deal months before his 30th birthday. He’s rewarded L.A. with 87 points in the 233 games since, and has gone minus-25. Brown is signed through 2022.
Marian Gaborik has a cap hit of $4.875 million through 2021. Injuries have limited the 35-year-old Slovak to 22 points last season and 18 this year. He’s slated to be a King until age 39.
So, while Chicago was reloading with the Brandon Saads and Artemi Panarins of the world — spending the big money on trusty producers like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane — the Kings tied up the wrong people. Now they’re slow, and hanging on to the playoff fringes.
The Kings missed the playoffs two seasons ago and were an easy mark for San Jose in five games last spring.
This summer Lombardi will line up with every other GM in the NHL at the door of Las Vegas GM George McPhee, hoping to pawn off a Brown or Gaborik by attaching a draft pick or comely prospect to the deal.
In the meantime, playoff experience will help the Oilers and Flames to improve.
The King’s ‘Glory Years’ aren’t that far in the past, but on their latest tour through Alberta, they sure seem like an era ago.