When the NHL shut down in the middle of March due to COVID-19 pandemic fears, the Los Angeles Kings were the hottest team in the league with a seven-game winning streak.
It was a huge surprise. Not long before that, the Kings were treading water, frantically trying to stay out of the crypt. After 70 games, with 12 to go, when the season was suspended on March 12, Los Angeles ranked 28th out of 31 teams, two notches up from where they were on Feb. 14.
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That magical month-long burst came in the form of an 8-1-1 span and began to turn heads. It made general manager Rob Blake’s unloading of five veterans seem like a genius move. Along with veteran wingers and some fan favorites in Tyler Toffoli and Kyle Clifford, plus defensemen Alec Martinez and Derek Forbort, the Kings traded away steady backup goaltender Jack Campbell.
All of those transactions occurred between Feb. 5 and Feb. 24, coincidentally lining up with the start of the seven-game assault on Feb. 26.
Reconstruction Is Expected to Follow Blake’s Mini-Razing
Maybe the streak wasn’t a coincidence; perhaps it was the next step of something bigger — when the old grass is raked away and the seedlings take hold. After all, the tearing-down/reconstruction process got its real start with the firing of coach John Stevens in November 2018, which led to the start of this new interlocking puzzle with the trading of defenseman Jake Muzzin in January 2019, the hiring of coach Todd McLellan in April and the waiving of winger Ilya Kovalchuk in December.
For fans, and especially McLellan, the unexpected late-season success is alluring, especially since the team’s developmental system is getting high grades from many publications and websites. The Athletic and The Hockey Writers both rate the Kings’ farm system as No. 1 in the NHL. By that measure, the future looks sparkling.
Scott Wheeler was sure in his analysis (from ‘Wheeler’s 2020 NHL prospect pool rankings: No. 1 Los Angeles Kings,’ The Athletic, Feb. 11, 2020).
“There’s no hesitation with this decision. It’s clearcut.”The Athletic‘s Scott Wheeler, on ranking Los Angeles’ farm system numero uno
Center Gabe Vilardi and defensemen Mikey Anderson and Tobias Bjornfot received high grades for their efforts with the big club this year, according to THW’s Jack Dawkins in his analysis of the franchise’s top-10 prospects and they’re in the mix of candidates to hold down roster spots next season.
“(Vilardi is a) poised centerman with a lethal release. His timing and footspeed will need to improve before he makes an efficient transition to the NHL but his toolbox is full of the makings of a typical middle-6 NHL pivot.”DobberProspects.com’s scouting report on Gabe VIlardi
Center Alex Turcotte and winger Samuel Fagemo — the Nos. 5 and 50 overall selections in the 2019 draft — have a shot to push their way up.
Dawkins notes that Turcotte’s “speed, awareness, play-making and shooting capabilities are all top-notch,” and that Fagemo “is going to be a 30-goal scoring wing in the NHL.”
And for those Southern California fans who want even more sun in the forecast, it’s comforting to know that the Kings have a 9.5 percent lottery chance to land the top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft and a 28.8 shot at a top-three choice.
What’s more is that Los Angeles stockpiled many additional draft picks over the next three years from those five February transactions, including three second-rounders and two in the third.
Game-Changing Mistakes, Lapses Were Way Down
McLellan’s task is to fit the remaining veterans like Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick with the new blood that promises to be coming in from down on the farm in the near- and mid-term future.
The coach certainly liked what he saw in the last 10 outings, and one of the most positive things he noticed was the reduction of game-changing mistakes (from ‘Todd McLellan wishes he could see how re-energized Kings would have continued,’ Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2020).
“Players were doing things the right way, we were coming together as a team, we were structurally much more efficient and less error-prone than in the past, which is everything that we could ask from a relatively new group.”Los Angeles coach Todd McLellan, to Jack Harris of the Los Angeles Times
There was a point at midseason where the Kings were continually getting burned by mental lapses when the outcome of close games was in the balance. It made what otherwise was a sound defensive unit look on the stat sheet like a middle-of-the-road bunch, and even worse, it put even more pressure on an already under-producing offense.
It’s not like Los Angeles (29-35-6, 64 points, seventh place in the Pacific Division) was getting blown out during its struggles. Far from it. The Kings did not give up more than four goals in regulation time from Oct. 31 through Feb. 5 — a stretch of 41 games in 13 weeks. All season long, the team only lost by more than three goals twice, and the last time it happened was Oct. 27 in a 5-1 defeat at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Kings would have finished up their season Friday and Saturday at the Anaheim Ducks and at home against the Dallas Stars, but the playoffs were just about out of the question. Even in a talked-about expanded format — if the NHL somehow returned to the ice to finish the 2019-20 season — the Kings qualifying for the postseason would be highly unlikely.
But Los Angeles and its fans can find solace in that 10-game run of solid hockey. And, hey, if the final decision is made to drop the season and the Stanley Cup is not handed out, the Kings can say they were the last team standing on the ice — for whatever that is worth. On March 11, when Los Angeles defeated the visiting Ottawa Senators 3-2, it was the 1,082nd and final game (so far) of the NHL season.
Some notable performances in Los Angeles’ late successful run were by goalie Cal Petersen (.922 save percentage in 8 games) and AHL call-up Martin Frk, who finished the campaign with 8 points in 17 games (and had 36 points in 37 games with Ontario).
4 Stanley Cup Contenders Were Among the Vanquished Opponents
In the seven-game win streak, Los Angeles outscored its opponents 21-8, not including overtime or shootouts. And four of those victories were against teams in solid playoff position when the NHL suspension hit — the Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8, 86 points, first place in the Pacific Division), Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8, 89, second in the Central), Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6, 86, third in the Metropolitan), Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9, 81, third in the Atlantic) — with another — the Minnesota Wild (35-27-7, 77, sixth in the Central) — in striking distance of the postseason.
With the June draft approaching, the Kings might even end up with some royal luck. Nabbing a player like Alexis Lafreniere could, in one swipe, cure a lot of ills. Lafreniere, who won a gold medal with Canada at the World Juniors and is the league leader in points in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, is considered the No. 1 prospect by most, if not all, publications doing the rankings. And if the Kings don’t land Lafreniere, there’s a ton of top-notch talent up for grabs that should do wonders in enticing a fan base that is pining for another Stanley Cup-contending team.
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If Los Angeles gets Lafreniere or another blue-chipper — and that whole farm system’s elevator goes through the Staples Center roof — it might be time for Kings fans to invest in some quality sunglasses to wear as a guard against the impending supernova of talent ready to descend on the City of Angels.