"Hockey is fun again"
October 30, 2017 | 10:12am ET
"Accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative, Latch on to the
-- Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers, 1945
LOS ANGELES, CA -- The Los Angeles Kings couldn’t have asked for a
better start to the 2017-18 season. The new management regime
installed courtesy of an organizational housecleaning promised a
brand-new day from Day 1 and the early precincts are reporting a big
General Manager Rob Blake gave a clean slate to a roster that has
underachieved since their 2014 Stanley Cup championship and Head Coach
John Stevens promised a new approach that included, of all things, an
offensive consultant/coordinator in former NHL sniper Pierre Turgeon
to get the offense more productive.
The unfulfilled promise of injecting youth, speed and inexperienced
talent into this roster for the past two seasons was committed to by
Blake not only in words but in deeds with Mike Cammalleri being the
only known quantity added to the roster. His first wager was a
substantial one believing that with a new voice and approach, Los
Angeles could rise above the depth they plummeted to -- a 10th place
Western Conference finish by that was defined by uninspired hockey in
the final days of the Dean Lombardi-Darryl Sutter partnership.
As their charter went wheels up from Boston’s Logan Airport Saturday
night, it carried a team that has been among the early season’s
revelations. Blake and Stevens have won all their early season bets
and after a miraculous Hail Mary goal by Tyler Toffoli at the final
horn against the Bruins, they should give thought to diverting the
Kings plane to Las Vegas after Tuesday’s match in St. Louis and take
advantage of their good fortune.
Even with a major impact player, Jeff Carter sidelined with a tendon
injury that will take months to heal, Los Angeles has kept its stride,
getting performances of redemption from Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown,
key contributions from a trio of prospects -- Adrian Kempe, Alex
Iafallo and Kurtis MacDermid (who can forever say his first NHL goal
was scored on Carey Price) -- and inspirational performance from the
best money goaltender in the game, Jonathan Quick.
Quick is a central character here, setting aside the seemingly
never-ending discussion about him being an “elite” goaltender, he is
clearly the backbone of this team and one of the essential ingredients
in their recovery from mediocrity.
While the on-ice execution has been vital to this start (and it’s just
a start), do not discount how much the newly instilled atmosphere of
positivity has affected this team, especially the core veterans, who
have two rings.
After an early season win, Kopitar remarked in front of a full
dressing room, "It’s amazing what a little positive energy can do."
This quote from a Selke winner drawing a $10 million annual salary who
avoided any criticism of management throughout his Kings career shows
how deeply rooted the dissatisfaction with the old regime was.
In simpler terms, I received a text after the Kings 4-0 win over
Montreal in which Stevens noted the 40 save performance by Quick was
possibly the best he’s seen in his coaching career. In a big spot
against the goalie acclaimed to be the best in the NHL, Carey Price,
Quick stoned a desperate Canadiens team at every turn and dialed up
the frustration with the Montreal crowd to an extent that their fans
resorted to mock cheers for Price making a routine save with the game
no longer in doubt.
The text from inside the room was only four words, but it tells the
tale of where this team’s mindset sits. The other words like “trust”
and “respect” appear routinely in quotes from players now, but the
temperature of this team is accurately measured by this:
"Hockey is fun again."
And yes, when the average player makes seven figures, travels on
charter jets and sleeps on the road in five-star hotels, you would
think the game should be fun every minute of every day. Their problems
pale in the face of challenges that you and I face daily, but it does
not mean these players are robots, either. There is a time and place
for negative reinforcement in professional sports, but when it’s
always negative and trust has eroded, you wind up with a 12-goal
season from Kopitar and stories written about how Brown is finished
and is the possessor of the worst contract in the NHL.
I was skeptical, as well, as training camp started, but knew Stevens
was well respected and, if you will, beloved by the room. It was no
stretch to think there would be an incremental benefit when the
pendulum swings in coaching personality from Sutter to Stevens, but to
see how this team goes about its business on and off the ice speaks
Not surprisingly, Brown has benefited the most from Stevens’ belief
that he had plenty left in the tank.
From Day 1 of camp, Stevens made Brown a fixture next to Kopitar and
gave him full special teams responsibility, as well, reestablishing
him as a 20 minute-a-night forward (19:50 average TOI entering the
Boston match). The reinvestment in Brown has come almost full circle
-- with Carter and Drew Doughty wearing an “A” as alternate captains
after the last season’s seismic event of transitioning the captaincy
from Kopitar to Brown. With Carter sidelined, Brown has been
designated to wear the letter and while little has been made of the
temporary assignment, I cannot fathom that move being made with the
old regime in place.
Brown has always been the good solider, even in the worst times,
maintaining his composure throughout the captaincy situation and only
voicing his dissent during a conference call shortly after being
stripped of his leadership role. Coming into training camp, he was
particularly invested in the coaching change and was relieved that he
was not selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the Expansion Draft.
Though we know Brown well, one much closer to him is his wife of 10
years, Nicole, who has been an equal partner through every step of his
adult life, from high school sweethearts to hosting Stanley Cup
parties to dealing with the recent bad times.
She has been a regular guest on TFP’s radio programs and was gracious
enough to appear this past Saturday on our “Off The Rush” show on
Sirius XM NHL Network Radio. It is not ironic that her comments about
this team included the same thread contained in that text.
"I think that hockey became fun again," she said. "I can't speak for
everyone else, but I have a pretty good idea that it's not just the
case with my husband. I don't think people knew how bad it was last
season because he would bring it home with him. He was at the point
where he didn't want to go to the rink. He didn't enjoy playing and
when that happens you're not going to be productive in any job.
"John Stevens has been amazing with Dustin. There's a totally
different atmosphere at the rink and it's showing now on the ice. As
for the 'A,' he's never said a word about it to me and I'm biased, but
I think he should have never played a professional game without a
letter on his sweater."
The old sports adage "you are what your record says you are" says that
Los Angeles is among the best teams in the NHL, but the calendar still
reads October. Kings fans are excited by a start no one could have
predicted and as fans do some have drawn parallels between this team
and their recent championship teams.
Sorry, but no, it's nowhere near that time. Not close.
What this start has done is to alleviate the pressure experimenting
with unknown quantities to start the season. It allows Stevens to give
players like Oscar Fantenburg, Iafallo, MacDermid and Kempe a longer
leash so they can bank minutes in critical situations.
Setting aside the continuing miracle in Las Vegas that is the Golden
Knights, their primary competitors in the West are either all banged
up (Anaheim) or playing uninspired hockey (Edmonton, Calgary and
Chicago) and the breathing room Los Angeles gets while these teams
attempt to find their stride buys Stevens time to assess what his
roster options are.
Divisional titles aside (the Kings have never won a Pacific Division
title and truth be told the five straight crowns the Ducks have won
have done them little good in the post season) every win this team
registers now lessens the likelihood of playing stressful must-win
games in March. Even in those championship seasons, Los Angeles’
mediocre regular-season play had the room talking about being in
“playoff mode” in January.
Another benefit that should accrue over time is Stevens’ judicious use
of Doughty -- his TOI stands at 25:28, almost two minutes per game
less than the 27:08 he logged last season. While that may not seem
like much, trusting (there’s that pesky word trust, again) others in
big spots in the early going builds confidence and keeps Los Angeles’
No.1 defenseman fresher for important games in the stretch run and
If Stevens can successfully manage the integration of youth through
Carter’s absence and keep reinforcing the positive when his team
ventures into the valleys of mediocre play that will come, this team
should inject itself into the mix at the top of the Pacific division
race. If that is achieved, it will be very interesting to see what
Blake does at his first trade deadline with significant cap space.
FIRING THE GM
With the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes’ woefully
underachieving in the first 10 games of the regular season, there have
been questions about the tenure of their GMs, Marc Bergevin and John
Expectations are at opposite ends of the spectrum with these two
teams, but showing either the door would only serve as a punitive
While I’m not defending the job either has done -- Bergevin has had
more than enough time to make the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge a dangerous
post-season contender and Chayka better think long and hard about
dealing Oliver Ekman-Larsson so he can fill multiple holes -- to
dismiss them or any General Manager this early in the campaign only
serves as a punitive measure.
The scope of the failings of a GM is wider than that of a coach and
affects multiple functions -- pro and amateur scouting are at the
front of the list. To install a new GM in season will not impact the
on-ice results and it’s virtually impossible fix any structural issues
in your scouting function.
No matter how poorly either team plays, Geoff Molson (the long-term
extension Bergevin got would make it a costly dismissal) and Andrew
Barroway need to ride out the season and assess the damage at season
There’s not a better time to be on the radio in Montreal than when the
Canadiens are floundering, so here’s my weekly spot with Chris
“Knuckles” Nilan and Sean Campbell during
Off the Cuff this part Friday.
Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.