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January 16, 2017 | 11:25am ET
L.A. positioned for another run?
A funny thing happened on the way to a mediocre Los Angeles Kings season.

LOS ANGELES, CA -- So, here we are, halfway home in the marathon that is the NHL's regular-season and the home team has had a run that's been more intriguing than any since I've covered this team.

That's a long stretch, it coincides with the opening of Staples Center, which includes both bad nights of boring hockey (hello, Ladislav Nagy) and culminated what many Kings fans never thought would happen: two tours of Lord Stanley's Cup around the rink on the corner of 11th and Figueroa.

The Darryl Sutter years in the days to come will be referred to as the "Good Ole Days" as parity, salary cap hell and a continuing progression towards speed and skill and away from the "big, heavy" game that won twice here continues. While the style of hockey hasnít been the most entertaining and when things are going bad itís boring, Darryl has always added spice into the mix. Whether itís through an endless procession of line combinations or enough press conference sound bites to form a ĎGreatest Hits, Volumes 1 and 2,í the one thing Iíve never experienced is inertia.

But this season, ah, this was the season where the Kingsí brain trust was going to get their comeuppance. With annual expectations now raised to ďCup or BustĒ in a town thatís all about winners (ask the Los Angeles Rams and soon the Chargers), two seasons with one playoff win was a sure sign the championship window was about to close in Hollywood.

Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi eschewed change despite being dispatched by their archrival, the San Jose Sharks, in five games and further embraced his proven winning formula. Itís no shock that in the face of a game that appears to trend away from his formula, Lombardi dug in his heels because the one trait that has made him a winner here is his stubbornness. Even when itís been to his detriment (and itís happened too many times to his liking), itís been Deanís Way or the Highway -- and at times, heís been defiant in the face of criticism.

I keep going back to the conference call soon after the five-game elimination by San Jose as the discussion tuned the question of if the Kings style had seen its day. Teams had figured out that his team couldnít hit what they couldnít catch and thatís why the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were all about speed and not about size, had possession of the trophy he had raised twice over his head.

ďIím not interested in the Flavor of the Month,Ē is when I feel he chose to plant his puck possession flag into that Corsi Hill.

And as delicious as the Penguins flavor was, Lombardi wasnít going Vegan; heís strictly a steak and potatoes man. Towards that end, he chose to stick with essentially the same cast that failed him last spring, starting at the top with Sutter returning via a two-year extension, with a club option, after a minor bit of lingering once the campaign ended.

And thatís where this story starts...

The rollercoaster ride that defines this Los Angeles half-season (no relation to the Royal Half Season) started with an epically messy fail, the transition of power in the locker room in the form of the stripping of the captaincy from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar. Itís not exactly the way you want to stride into a new season, but letís set that aside and go on to non-cosmetic issues.

The World Cup did the Kings no favors. Marian Gaborik, who looked fast and motivated from the opening whistle playing for Team Europe when paired with Kopitar, was felled by an errant puck that resulted in a broken foot that robbed him of eight weeks of play as well as any motivation to play hard if youíve watched him in recent weeks. His absence from a depth chart that was shallow on the wing (Iíll get to Devin Setoguchi in a few) left Sutter little choice than the start his four-line Merry-Go-Round that still needs to be resolved.

And weíre just at opening night.

Jonathan Quick is one of the irreplaceable Kings because of their lack of depth at the position (starting to see a common theme?) and when he left the ice with a serious groin injury that will sideline him until March, you couldnít blame anyone for saying this was a dagger that would end the Kingsí season just 20 minutes from its start.

In some ways, Quick is the quintessential King: a former third-round draft choice who battled and defied the odds to become one of the best money goaltenders in the history of the game. Heís also quintessential because he has few words and little time for the media, a preferred trait of this regime.

But in another amazing turn this season, Lombardi can thank his brethren, the other 29 NHL GMs from overlooking a potential waiver claim on October 3. Thatís the date when a true Kings miracle, Peter Budaj, could have been snapped up for nothing.

In the off-season, the decision was made that despite a strong season for their AHL affiliate in Ontario, both his age and stature led to the acquisition of not one but two goalies in the off-season, Jeff Zatkoff and Jack Campbell. The J&J boys proved to be one of the missteps of the off-season roster plays, and as Sutter does, he decided to ride Budaj when it was apparent that he lacked a reliable No.2 to go to.

And given the chance, Budaj has fashioned a season with statistics comparable to the man who could have been in his skates, the venerable Martin Jones, the once King and now a Shark who vanquished his old mates once liberated by San Jose GM Doug Wilson with the help of the Boston Bruins.

Budajís play has risen to a level that warranted a legitimate discussion of him being a selection for the All-Star Game. This effort from a 34-year-old netminder, who had won 24 NHL games in his last four seasons, has no playoff victories and the blemish of one AHL season when he put up a 0-9-1 record. To go from that valley to this hill in indeed a miracle. If Zatkoff can supply occasional adequate goaltending when Budaj needs a rest, the Kings can manage Quick's absence far better than any expected.

A second miracle of sorts has surfaced via the one player whose performance has been nothing short of brilliant: Jeff Carter. And no, the miracle isn't the hot streak that placed him second in goals scored in the League behind Sidney Crosby. The streak that has kept the offense aloft is the finest I've seen in covering the Kings and is only second to the run Corey Perry went on in the final weeks of his MVP season.

Carter has all the tools to be a top of the leaderboard every season, the speed is still present in his 31-year-old wheels and you can argue there's no a better wrist shot in the NHL, but that's not the most stunning part of the season.

Jeff Carter: Visible Team Leader.

The metamorphosis of this side of Carter is the real revelation this season considering what it was like NOT to talk to him in the early days after his arrival.

Given the turbulence around him in Philadelphia and Columbus, it was the correct move for the Kings to shield him from the media to such an extent that on the nights he did speak with us it was considered breaking news. But as life changes and matures us -- Carter is now happily married and a father, and that addition is as responsible as the subtraction of Mike Richards from the bromance that culminated with them raising the Cup together in 2014.

After a recent loss on the Kingsí roadtrip, Carter brought forth a cursed-filled tirade about the teammatesí effort that night that affirms his status in the locker room and why Sutter has always referred to his ďleadership groupĒ and rarely to the man who actually wears the C.

As for the rest of the team, this is where the major decisions lie due primarily to Lombardiís off-season that at best can be graded a D+.

If a couple of future roster moves break a certain way, we could see five of the six acquisitions on the Ontario Reign roster in a couple of weeks. Zach Trotman and Mike Latta never made the team, Teddy Purcell has failed in his second time around in LA and Tom Gilbert and Devin Setoguchi sit on the edges of the roster.

So when you wonder why Kopitar is sitting on a half-season long scoring malaise, consider that the top two line combinations heís played with this season have him paired with Tyler Toffoli/Dwight King and Marian Gaborik/Trevor Lewis. I can think of only one team that primarily surrounded a $10 million per year center with fourth line talent. This one. And if it was a simple as pointing at Kopitar and saying, ďheís the issue,Ē that would be fine, but with every forward not named Carter underperforming, the offensive woes are an organizational problem.

Thereís still a long way to the finish, but for the first time in a very long time it appeared the Kings could conceivably be a seller, not a buyer, come the trade deadline. A sputtering, inconsistent offense combined with a powerplay ranked in the bottom third places the Kings outside the top three in the Pacific Division -- safe ground for playoff qualification and the deeper waters of a battle for a wildcard qualifier.

It would be easy to throw darts at this teamís deficiencies.

Itís been a very entertaining half-season in Los Angeles, weíve had the occasional Sutter quip and only one explosion (ďAre you deaf?Ē), but after the AM skate before the Winnipeg Jets match, Darryl left us with the only quote that tells you what Lombardi needs to do in the days leading up to the trade deadline.

When asked about the present line combination of Kopitar, Gaborik and Lewis, his answer (courtesy: lakingsinsider.com) was more a swipe at his GM then a calling out of his players:

ďThose guys (Kopitar and Gaborik) should be thankful theyíre playing with Trevor Lewis right now.Ē

Thankful. To play with six-goal scorer. In the midst of a tight playoff race.

This is not a swipe at Lewis; heís a solid citizen and good guy who wanted to stay in Los Angeles the only professional home heís ever known. When I spoke to him at the end of last season, the Kings had never put a contract extension on the table, he wasnít optimistic and was sad about it. But with Lombardi sticking to his guns on his championship formula, Lewis was rewarded with a four-year deal probably a little bit north on its average annual value ($2 million per), but not outrageously overpriced.

But he was never slated to play on the top-six for a contending team. #CoachesDecision

So when I see the Scouts Row in the press box at capacity the last couple of weeks and rumors surface about the possibility of Matt Duchene or Gabriel Landeskog landing in LA, do I buy it?

You bet your ass I do.

Do I chuckle when I hear the Kings are more likely to make trades in the off-season than now?

Snicker. Snicker.

Do I shake my head when I hear that Adrian Kempe, with all of eight goals in 30 games in his second AHL season, is untouchable? Or when I hear sixth-round draft pick defenseman Paul LaDue, with who has four goals and 11 assists in 29 games, isn't going anywhere?

Rattle. Rattle.

Hereís the thing, weíve been inundated since July 1 about the Kings salary cap issues, about how Kopitarís $10M cap hit and the Brown and Gaborik contracts have handcuffed the team from making a deal. As the season lengthened, weíve heard about how the Kings are not inclined to swing a deal using a defenseman for a forward because theyíve finally settled into a rotation with Brayden McNabbís return, so to deal Jake Muzzin or Alec Martinez for a legitimate scorer doesnít improve the team, it only fills a hole by creating another one.

The cold, hard facts are that if Dean Lombardi wanted to make an impact deal, he can and if he winds up not making a deal itís because Quick isnít returning at 100%.

As great a Cinderella story that Peter Budaj is, he simply isnít the caliber of goaltender that wins Stanley Cups. But letís assume that Quick does return prior to the March 1 trade deadline and remains healthy, thereís nothing preventing Los Angeles from being an impact player, or two, in the trade market.

One look at the competition in a Western Conference thatís taken not one, but two steps backwards in strength this season, should encourage not only Lombardi but any GM who thinks they have a puncherís chance to get to the Cup Final to bolster his roster.

Chicago is always going to be there, but their cloak of invincibility has been shredded (just ask the Washington Capitals). I still expect them to be the Central Division representative in the Conference Final, but theyíre beatable.

Bruce Boudreau has done an amazing job in the State of Hockey and Eric Staal is arguably both the Comeback Player of the Year and the best unrestricted free agent acquisition, but come Game 83 is anyone afraid of a matchup against them given their lack of playoff success?

As for the Pacific, it would be great to see Connor McDavid in the post-season and the Oilers are getting there, but not this season because Peter Chiarelli has more heavy lifting to do on his blueline.

For the Kingsí intrastate rivals, San Jose doesnít appear to have the quality of last seasonís Cup Finalist, despite Brent Burnsí outstanding performance thus far, and if youíve figured out what kind of team the Ducks are, please DM or email me.

So despite the Kings playing at a pace 15 points behind last season, they still should be buyers and thatís why you see other teamís charting line combinations and defensive pairings.

For those who make the argument that trading away Jake Muzzin or Alec Martinez would create a hole in their top four, youíre absolutely right. It does. But hereís a tip no one has bothered to mention courtesy of our friends at Cap Friendly:



So you Kings fantasy GMs that want to make a Gabriel Landeskog for Jake Muzzin deal, go right ahead. Wanna swap Alec Martinez for James van Riemsdyk? Be my guest, because you donít even need to trade dollar for dollar to make it work when youíre sitting on almost $7 million of cap space to plug that hole you created on the blueline by the trade deadline.

Thatís right, $7 million of cap space. Who knew? Pesky details get you every time, donít they?

So with marketable assets on the blueline -- whom Lombardi can also replace, in the short term, thanks to LTIR -- and cap room to navigate, the stage is set for the Kings to make multiple moves over the next six weeks to make this team far more dangerous come playoff time and thatís without an expected return to form from the likes of Kopitar and Toffoli.

The real question is: given Lombardiís lack of success in the rental trade market the last two seasons, will he saddle up once more in search of Cup No.3?

The Kings are the second oldest team in the NHL (28.164, behind only the Rangers per quanthockey.com), so if the window to get that third trophy isnít closing, itís getting awfully close.

Your move, Deano.

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.

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ARCHIVES 
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Oct. 31, 2016 Treading Water in the Pacific

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