The ebbs and flows of a long season are always a battle in the NHL. Nobody brings their best game to the rink every night, but teams must try to stay on an even keel. The goal is obviously to ride the highs for as long as possible, but snap out of the lows as quickly as possible. The Los Angeles Kings seemed to have a solid grasp of the highs/winning part for a couple weeks; following it up with a four-game losing streak suggests the latter portion is a work in progress.
That metaphor accurately describes the Kings’ season as a whole, although the sample is still relatively short. After an opening night win, a six-game losing streak followed. Then they caught fire, winning seven straight and suddenly looking like one of the hottest teams in the league. Now they’re mired in another slump, coming on the heels of a tough stretch of teams that have visited the Staples Center, such as the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals, plus a trip to Winnipeg to play the Jets.
I won’t make an excuse for the come-from-ahead overtime loss to the lowly Arizona Coyotes, except for the whole “who the heck is this Karel Vejmelka kid?” part. Scoring goals consistently is still an issue for the Kings.
Still, I’m here to supply some reasons to be excited for where the Kings are now, and to give optimism that this could still be a playoff season in the wide-open Pacific Division.
Depth Becoming a Strength
Probably the most notable roster storyline for the Kings of late has been the play of some of the “depth” forwards, such as Brendan Lemieux and Adrian Kempe (and yes, I quoted depth because Kempe doesn’t really fall into that category, especially now that he’s on the top line). Balanced scoring is imperative in today’s NHL – that’s obviously not some rousing revelation. However, for an offense-starved team like Los Angeles has been for long stretches of the year (23rd in the league at 2.6 goals per game), that could be a great sign moving forward if players further down the lineup can continue to produce.
Anze Kopitar is in a bit of a dry spell with just one goal and two points in the last six games, but the captain is surely going to break out of this mini-slump soon; if the depth scoring continues, and the second line of Alex Iafallo, Andreas Athanasiou, and Phillip Danault keeps being relentless on the forecheck and causing problems even while matched against opponents’ top forwards, the Kings could really get something brewing.
Rasmus Kupari is another player who has stood out quite a bit, despite his box score looking less-than spectacular. The points aren’t there yet, to be sure, but he does many little things well such as winning board battles and using his size to maintain positioning and protect the puck. He looks like a solid, third-line, puck possession-type center, with the upside to break into the top six at some point over the next year or so as he continues adapting to the NHL game.
Furthermore, the demotion of Dustin Brown should help lengthen the lineup. Brown certainly isn’t the player he was in the early 2010’s, but the veteran still knows how to contribute on a nightly basis. Moving the longtime King down for Kempe is the right move; the speedy Swede has already paid dividends with his two goals against Carolina, and has consistently been dangerous flanking Kopitar. It feels like only a matter of time before those two start clicking and filling the net, especially with the dangerous Arvidsson healthy again on the other side.
Having a player like Brown in the bottom six is a good thing; one who, yes, at 37 is not going to continue ramming the opponent through the end boards or filling the net like he did back when he wore the “C” for LA, but is still capable of contributing offensively and not hurting the team in his own end. There are scoring threats on basically every line right now, and it’s simply a matter of things clicking, but the course feels true at the moment. The Kings lineup looks solid throughout, and hopefully health will begin to go their way so the team can start really building their identity. At full-strength, there’s a lot of talent here.
The Kings Look Familiar… Carolina Hurricanes 2.0?
If you frequently read Kings content here at The Hockey Writers, you may be wondering who I am in the first place; some random guy suddenly popping up with a Kings post. Yes, I recently joined the Kings content team, and hope to see you back here reading my posts in the future! But, I figured it best I spared you from some long introduction about myself you probably didn’t care all that much about.
Anyway, the main team I have been covering for a little under a year here at THW is the Carolina Hurricanes. You know, the squad sitting with a league-best 14-2-0 record, rife with young talent and well-set-up to be a contender over the next four or five years, at the least. When I was watching the Kings over the last couple weeks trying to get myself acclimated with where they are, one of the first things that popped up to me, was “man, this team really feels familiar”.
Under Rod Brind’Amour, the Hurricanes went from a scrappy, fast, hard-forechecking team that was pesky and could beat anyone on any given night, but was missing one or two pieces to really contend with the big boys like Boston or Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference over the last few years. Now, we see a well-structured beast that still does those things regularly, but also has the talent and goaltending to win on nights they don’t have their A-game. There are much worse strategies to emulate than the one the Hurricanes have applied over the last half-decade; draft well, add speedy players that fit your grinding, hard-work style, and let the young skill come in and supplement it. The Kings are poised to do this successfully moving forward.
Los Angeles, like the Canes of yesteryear, is becoming that young, scrappy, fast, hard-forechecking team, and, furthermore, one that gave those Hurricanes absolute fits over the weekend. The speed of Kempe, Andreas Athanasiou, and Viktor Arvidsson consistently popped off the screen, and even elite Carolina defensemen like Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce constantly had issues with the Kings’ forecheck.
That frustrating 5-4 loss the Kings suffered at Carolina’s hands felt familiar in itself, too. The Hurricanes have been in that situation so many times over the last few years, really up until this season. Countless occasions saw them play someone like the aforementioned Boston Bruins or Tampa Bay Lightning, carry the play for what felt like 55 of the 60 minutes, and lose because those elite teams’ star power made one or two timely plays and Tuukka Rask or Andrei Vasilevskiy held them at bay. Sound about like what happened the other night?
Granted, it was a rare barnburner at a score of 5-4, but Frederik Andersen’s third period performance, along with opportunistic scoring, was the ONLY reason the Hurricanes won that game, in which the Kings held a ridiculous 43-20 shot advantage (19-2 in the third period). That should be encouraging and tell you that the Kings aren’t too far off from being able to consistently get the better of play against, and even beat, top teams in the league. The influx of skill Los Angeles will get from their prospect pipeline – not to mention rising young talent already on the NHL roster – will play a huge role in changing the outcomes of games like this.
Kings Getting Battle-Tested
Finally, a good opportunity for a team to grow is facing adversity, and this stretch of games can certainly fall under the “adverse” category. Having just faced the Hurricanes and Washington Capitals, the upcoming stretch of games won’t be much easier; Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, and the surprising Anaheim Ducks are soon up on the docket, with the Ottawa Senators mixed in. Perhaps banking a bunch of wins in that stretch is a large ask, but battling with these top teams and getting a chance to see how a playoff-hopeful roster matches up with contenders can only be beneficial down the line, especially one with so many young faces like the Kings.
I’ll be especially interested to see how the Drew Doughty-less defense, the unit where many of those young players reside, grow into their roles over the next couple months.
And, hey, eliminating a significant portion the the difficult games early in the year only means that later in the year there should be some cushier parts of the schedule, right? If the team can stay in the hunt, the road ahead – especially in March and April – looks significantly lighter, and it’s entirely possible that the Kings can head to the postseason one of the hotter teams in hockey. Again, they’ll just have to weather this early storm, hopefully bank a handful of wins against these tougher teams, and by then, well, the playoffs are all about who gets hot anyway. A hot streak into April could poise this team for a surprise or two once the playoffs begin.
But that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves. For now, the Kings are going to have to continue to battle and prove themselves against some of the best teams in the league. If they can keep hanging with teams like the did against Carolina, some of those games will go their way – dare I say, most of those games will. And confidence is a funny thing in sports; when a team starts to believe, they get awfully dangerous.
Kings Are in a Fine Spot in the Pacific Division
I’ve gotten to this point without mentioning Jonathan Quick looking like a Vezina candidate, and with barely mentioning the Doughty injury. When you take those things into consideration, and add in that that Quinton Byfield will back at some point as well, this team has the upside to be even better moving forward; even without the need to look at external additions.
We started talking about ebbs and flows, and we’ll end the same way; it’s a long, 82-game season (feels good to be saying that after the last two years, doesn’t it?) and things will continue to change. However, if you asked after the Kings six-losses-in-seven-games start, I’m sure almost everyone who follows the team would have been happy with an 8-7-3 record at this juncture. Better days lay ahead, and even if the Kings do fall short of the postseason this year, it’s only a matter of time before Los Angeles is back to being a true contender.
Brandon Stanley covers the Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings here at THW. Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, in addition to writing about the Hurricanes for about five years now, he played in the Carolina Junior Canes program for another 15; hockey has always been his biggest passion. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Brandon also co-hosts and edits a podcast with two other writers (one of which, Alex Ohari, is also a writer here at THW) called Tracking the Storm. The pod covers everything Carolina Hurricanes, from prospects, to game recaps, and everything in between. Always available to chat anything hockey related, don’t hesitate to shoot him a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!