It seems the Los Angeles Kings saved the best for last. With five straight wins, four against teams fighting for playoff spots, this team is thriving in the spoiler role, or you could say a snake in the grass.
Anze Kopitar – The Head of the Snake
“When you have him as the head of the snake, it makes it easier for the coaching staff and players to respond,” said Todd McLellan during the post-game interview on Fox Sports West. He was asked about Kopitar’s play, specifically about him diving in front of a point shot during the game against Toronto. “When your leader is still doing that, it’s exceptional. He’s one of the top players I’ve been around in all of my years.”
Kopitar, along with another veteran, Dustin Brown, led the way during a 7-3 victory over the Minnesota Wild. Two days earlier, veteran netminder Jonathan Quick, score LA’s first shutout win of the season, defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs 1-0, thanks in large part to a strong defensive effort by veteran Drew Doughty.
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Los Angeles has a locker room full of star players who’ve been around for a while, winning championships while the other half of the roster was in high school. You really can’t ask for a better leadership group than what is in the Kings’ locker room:
- Five-time All-Star Kopitar who has won two Stanley Cups, two Frank J. Selke Trophies and the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy.
- Three-time All-Star Jonathan Quick, who has won two Stanley Cups, two Willliam M. Jennings Trophies and the Conn Smythe Trophy.
- Five-time All-Star Drew Doughty, who has won two Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals and the James Norris Memorial Trophy.
- Dustin Brown, who has been in one All-Star game, won two Stanley Cups and the Mark Messier Leadership Award.
Veteran players on a team that is rebuilding have two choices: to either become a mentor or a problem. Kopitar has clearly decided to mentor a young group of up-and-comers, evident by McLellan’s praise and the “proud dad moment” post on the Kings’ Instagram.
A Culture of Winning
Brown, who scored his sixth career hat trick in the 7-3 win over the Wild, is the latest to show he is stepping up. Brown is guarding the Kings’ culture to ensure it remains that of a winning team, despite the tough season. “In the 17 years I’ve been here, it has been awful and the greatest it’s ever been. Where we currently are, I’ve been lower. I’ve been on teams much worse, maybe not from a record standpoint but from a cultural standpoint. I think that’s probably the most important thing for me, just trying to maintain that culture, maintain that culture of what good teams are about.”
Protecting culture is a difficult task. Since Jan. 2019, the Kings traded nine players away for picks and prospects. Other than Trevor Moore, none of the players received in trades are on the roster. Jake Muzzin, who was part of that solid team culture, having won two Stanley Cups with LA, was the first domino to fall when the Kings’ started looking to a future rebuild. He is now a leader on the Leafs, admitting it’s tough to see his old team. “I didn’t really know too many people, and I got a little bit sad, actually, because what we had there was special, and I guess that’s just the part of sports and business where change, it just comes.”
Leadership Can Be Hard to Find
Teams go to great (and expensive) lengths to make sure the right mentors and leaders are in the room during a rebuild. Take Muzzin’s Toronto Maple Leafs as an example: a few years ago, Toronto was where the Kings are now. They are still paying for Phil Kessel, who got shipped out of Toronto to Pittsburgh. They traded Dion Phaneuf, who was captain to their provincial rival, the Ottawa Senators. They signed veteran leader, 38-year-old Patrick Marleau, to a three year $18.75 million deal, but later traded a first-round pick to Carolina so the Hurricanes could buy the final year of Marleau’s contract.
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The Kings already have some of the best leaders in the business, and even the competition gives high praise. “It’s a transition period for them,” says Muzzin. “They have some great young players coming up, and you have some old veterans there that are leading the way and showing them how it’s done”.
McLellan sees his veterans stepping up and doing the little things. “What we take out of it is the guys are willing to sacrifice a little bit of it individually for the good of the collective, and that is important for our group. I think those characteristics have been in this room for a long time, and the veterans can draw it out of the group. So that’s something we have in there, that’s something we want to keep, and the fact that the group is bigger than any one individual is really important for us.”
McLellan says as a team and organization, the Kings need to move the needle every day. That needle is undoubtedly pointing in the right direction.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.