For the past few years, the narrative surrounding the Los Angeles Kings has centered around two basic and repetitive notions. The first is that this is a team well past its best before date and is on a rapid decline. The second is that there is hope on the horizon because this is an organization rife with talented young prospects. The end.
And even though the Kings were on a seven-game winning streak when last season paused, they managed to be only one of seven teams that missed the expanded playoffs and there was still supposed to be some pain facing them in 2020-21. That is in part because much of their veteran core was written off as having too much mileage to continue to drive the franchise and in part because their young talent wasn’t ready to take the lead.
Well, it’s a small sample size, but we’re more than a quarter of the way through the season here and the Los Angeles Kings look to be transitioning back to a playoff contending team. But here’s the thing. With only a few exceptions, the Kings are experiencing their revival led by their over-30 crowd. Call it pride. Call it a rejuvenation. Heck, you can even call it a revenge tour. But it feels very real.
Thanks to an impressive 3-0 win over the St. Louis Blues Monday night, their fifth straight, the Kings woke up Tuesday morning very much in the thick of the playoff race in the West Division, with the fifth-best points percentage in the group. The win over St. Louis was the second shutout in the past three starts for Jonathan Quick, who has benefitted from sharing the duties with Cal Petersen. Anze Kopitar is being his usual dominant self, Dustin Brown has 10 goals and defenseman Drew Doughty is on pace to put up the equivalent of a 72-point season (in 82 games), which would represent a career high for him.
There’s probably a pretty good lesson here and that is to not underestimate the pride factor. The players we’re talking about a proud and determined. They’ve won Stanley Cups and they’ve been among the best players in the league. Doughty, in particular, seems to have taken in personally that he was left of many pundits’ 2022 Canadian Olympic rosters. In any event, those four veterans and Jeff Carter are all playing at a high level.
“We’re not surprised one bit,” said Kings coach Todd MacLellan. “We’ve chosen those fi five players to be here for a reason. They have championship characteristics and qualities that they spread throughout the locker room on a daily basis. If I said pride does come into it, I’d might be accused of saying they lacked it in the past and they didn’t. It was just a tough couple of years. The transition years are hard on veteran players. You won with a lot of your buddies and they’re leaving. You don’t really believe what is coming until you see it and you get to play with it for a while. The hardest thing is transitioning from one group to the next.”
MacLellan is definitely onto something here. Much of the same thing is going on in Chicago, where Patrick Kane is putting together an MVP-caliber season and Duncan Keith looks rejuvenated playing with a young group of players that are showing some real promise. All of this, of course, requires an enormous buy-in from those veteran players involved. They have to believe that the changes the organization has made to transition to youthful players is actually going to result in things getting better. Sometimes they do, but other times all you find out is that those young players aren’t good enough. But after some lean years, there are some really good things happening around the Kings.
Take the 36-year-old Brown, for instance. Even MacLellan has observed that the former captain “has a pop in his step,” in part because he’s no longer having to kill penalties and put that extra mileage on his body. And why is he not killing penalties? Because the Kings have been able to find other players who can do it. The 33-year-old Kopitar still handles a lot of penalty-killing duties up front, but the Kings have been able to rely on guys such as Alex Iafallo, Blake Lizotte, Trevor Moore and Adrian Kempe to take those minutes.
“I don’t think it’s the first time people have doubted players in this room,” Brown said. “If you’re not prideful, you’re probably not still playing in this league. I’m fresher on the offensive side of the puck. Starting about the middle of last year, I stopped killing (penalties). That’s a lot of minutes and a lot of minutes, quite honestly, that are hard and exhausting to do. I’m fresher so I can get there and battle and getting to the net has been a staple of my game and I’m just getting there more often this year.”
So if the Kings veterans are going to respond this positively to young talent in the lineup, wait until Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte, Arthur Kaliyev and Tobias Bjornfot are ready for prime time. Or perhaps they package some of that youth and take a run at landing an established star such as a Jack Eichel. Whatever happens, things are looking far more positive in Los Angeles than they have in quite some time.