I like to be against the odds — Barry Bonds
Mr. Steroids may forevermore be persona non grata in baseball, but there is something about going against the naysayers that has to appeal to the typical competitor, no matter what the sport.
Such is the case in hockey. Yes, the Kings currently have the Stanley Cup in their clutches, but with the dawn of the 2014-15 season in just a couple of months, the cycle will repeat itself. On October 8, they go from reigning champions to defending their title, with a big, red target on them everywhere they go. Nobody will bring their “B” game when L.A. is up on the schedule.
In this day and age, NHL teams rarely repeat
Once upon a time, repeat championships in the NHL were commonplace.
The Montreal Canadiens were the first to earn repeat championships (post-NHL formation), doing so in 1930 and 1931. The Red Wings did it five years later, and in the late 40s, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Cup three consecutive times. Detroit did it again in the 50s, not long before the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup a record five straight seasons (1956-60). It was accomplished by various different teams seven more times through 1992, and then one final time by Scotty Bowman’s Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. Since then — zippo.
Expansion, parity and various random factors have made something that was once a regular event go the way of the Dodo bird. The closest the NHL has come to seeing a repeat champion over the past 26 years is (ironically) the Kings, who have won two of the past three Cups. Do they have what it takes to do it again this season?
The roster remains essentially intact
General Manager Dean Lombardi’s strategy of contractually locking up the team’s key players — a gamble that could go either way, depending on the player — has paid off. Team chemistry is a huge strength, made even more cohesive by the trade for right winger Marian Gaborik on March 5th. Gaborik quickly attached himself to center Anze Kopitar’s hip, helping to elevate both of their games. Furthermore, not only did Gaborik lead all playoff participants with 14 goals, but he re-signed with Los Angeles shortly after the season was over, inking a seven-year deal with a team-friendly $4.875 million cap hit.
Defenseman Willie Mitchell was the club’s biggest loss this offseason, after signing a two-year, $8.5 million contract with the Florida Panthers. 23 year-old Linden Vey is also gone, having been traded to the Vancouver Canucks for the 50th overall pick in this year’s draft (Roland McKeown). Lastly, little-used defenseman Andrew Campbell left for the Arizona Cardinals.
All in all, the exodus was modest, and after Gaborik, the additions (Adam Cracknell, David Van der Gulik) appear to be reasonable tweaks. The vast majority of pieces that helped win two Cups will be back at it again this year in an attempt to repeat.
Defense wins championships
The first few games of the San Jose series notwithstanding, the Kings play defense as well as any team in recent memory. They were first in the league in goals against (2.05), second in fewest shots allowed (26.2), tops in Corsi For Percentage (57.3%) and first in Fenwick For Percentage (56.7%).
Aside from Mitchell (and granted, his loss shouldn’t be minimized), the entire defensive corps returns to try for the repeat. So does one of the league’s premiere goaltenders in Jonathan Quick.
Coach Darryl Sutter knows how to win in the playoffs
Sure, his dump-and-chase offense emphasizes grinding and puck possession, and as a result, the Kings don’t have the most dynamic regular season offense on the planet. Far from it, as they averaged a paltry 2.42 goals per game last year.
However, as I wrote last March, the Kings raise their level of play during the playoffs. Last year, their scoring shot up during the postseason, to a league-best 3.38 goals/game. Why? Being a big, strong team adept at puck possession has clear advantages when the games are tightly contested and the opponents’ offenses are playing conservatively. Meanwhile, the already-smothering defense goes into lockdown mode and Jonathan Quick rises to the challenge. The net result is a recipe for playoff success, evidenced by their success over the past three years. The formula is ripe for a repeat championship.
Many of the players are still on the rise
A few players like Dustin Brown, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll are starting to show the wear-and-tear of multiple NHL seasons, but for the most part, the team’s key players are either still on the rise or in the midst of their primes. Of the thirteen forwards currently on the roster, ten are on the right side of 30. Ditto with the defense, as five of seven are under 30, as well as both goaltenders.
Kopitar is all but certain to average nearly a point per game, and if he can remain healthy, so should Marian Gaborik. The odds are better than even that both Dustin Brown and Mike Richards will bounce back from relatively poor regular seasons. Tyler Toffoli should take another step forward in his development. Justin Williams remains steady as always, and the rest of the third-liners and role players project to have similar or better years than last season.
Defensively, the departure of Willie Mitchell adds a dose of uncertainty. Nevertheless, when you have one of the league’s best in Drew Doughty in tow, flanked by the likes of Matt Greene, Alec Martinez, Brayden McNabb, Jake Muzzin, Robyn Regehr and Slava Voynov, the likelihood is you’ll be solid yet again. And for those occasional lapses, there is always Jonathan Quick and understudy Martin Jones to kick the puck away from danger.
With all of that said, it’s likely the intangibles that will determine whether or not there is a repeat championship in Los Angeles this season. Can they stay healthy? How will being ‘the big game’ on everyone’s schedule affect their record? Will Captain Dustin Brown rebound this year? How about Mike Richards? Will success go to their heads, or will the Kings remain grounded?
Despite being just the third-best bet to win the Cup according to Vegas Insider (keep an eye out for my annual overrated/underrated post based on Vegas odds in a few weeks), don’t bet the farm against the Kings breaking the string of seasons without a repeat champion. Sure, it may not be likely, but the unlikely meteoric rise of an even more unlikely franchise has jumbled up all the traditional norms.
If nothing else, it has the potential for a great Hollywood ending. After all, sequels are all the rage these days.