September 13, 2019 | 9:00AM ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
A DIFFERENT KIND OF SUCK
LOS ANGELES, CA -- When the Los Angeles Kings step to the ice to commence Training Camp for the 2019-20 season, the healing from an abominable 2018-19 starts in earnest. Buoyed by potentially the best NHL Draft in franchise history last June, and with a new bench boss that will bring the words “respect” and “structure” back into the room, it appears the season that saw them shuttle from playoff contenders to lottery losers is shrinking in the rear-view mirror.
With the right choice in coach with Todd McLellan, who has promised to bring structure and accountability, one can’t fathom that Drew Doughty will post a plus/minus in the chilly minus-30s again. Perhaps this is the season where the former Norris Trophy winner’s playing will exceed his talking as he is the most important player on the long road back to contention.
Tyler Toffoli, whom McLellan chooses to remember as the productive youngster of four years ago when he coached him in the World Championships, is playing for both a contract extension and a chance to stay in his beloved City of Angels. A reprise of his 13-goal season will have him looking at properties in places like Buffalo or Edmonton next summer, a fate he dearly wants to avoid no matter what the AAV of his deal will be.
Anze Kopitar has made note of his omission from the NHL Network’s list of Top 20 centers and will be on the same mission he was entering his Hart Trophy nomination season, looking to re-establish himself as a top center in the minds of his critics. While the team will not register enough wins to make him an MVP candidate again, an off-season of contemplation and consistent training will return him to the point-a-game plateau as his asserts his standing as one of the game’s best 200-foot players.
Dustin Brown, reborn since Darryl Sutter’s departure, will continue at a 25-goal, 50-point pace moving him from the top of the worst contracts in hockey list and placing him in the fair market value sector.
The franchise’s core all stands to put in better performances this season due to a) McLellan leadership and b) except for Brown (who once again has emerged as a quiet leader), there is no place to go but up.
The organization chose not to play in the free agency game, not bidding on game-changer Artemi Panarin. General Manager Rob Blake had no leverage trying to trade Jeff Carter, Jonathan Quick and Toffoli coming off their poor seasons. The roster Kings fans will witness on opening day will bear a strong resemblance to the one that finished with 71 points in April – the company line remains that over time, the necessary transition will occur.
As last season ended, I lacked the same patience the organization possesses because its chosen elongated road back to contention is unnecessary. In a league where the Stanley Cup champion was in 31st place in January, found its championship goalie about the same time and traded for the Conn Smythe winner from the Buffalo Sabres one summer ago, the thought of another two seasons with no playoff success (the last post-season series Los Angeles won was the 2014 Cup Final against New York) in a league where parity reigns was to me, a too slow-cooked recipe.
Redemption seasons from its core players, contract motivation from others and a breakthrough season or two had me thinking that a 90-92 season was possible, and the team would be in post-season contention into the final weeks of the season had they made one daring off-season move.
But this isn’t the NBA, five great performances don’t stamp a team a title contender. You need a solid 23 and then some to withstand the rigors of the marathon commencing in October and Los Angeles opens the season with paper-thin experienced depth.
When there are question marks on your defence’s top pair and second-line center, you’re clearly maneuvering for a top-five pick. The outlook for the season looks scarier if Doughty or Kopitar miss extended time – at this juncture, they are simply irreplaceable.
I was prepared to write a gloom-and-doom, what-were-they-thinking opening season piece as Labor Day approached, but in a strange twist of fate, I’m willing to exercise the same patience team executives have when it comes to recasting the franchise and that’s due my experience visiting the O.C. recently.
If you’ve not visited the Anaheim Ducks’ new practice facility in Irvine – Great Park Ice and Five Point Arena – do yourself a favor and pay a visit regardless of your rooting status. The joint is a palace – multiple sheets of ice with a 2,500-seat arena destined to see Division I college hockey played there consistently (Cal-Irvine has to go that route), and oh yes, it’s the Ducks practice home.
It’s also where the six-team Rookie Showcase was staged and opening night’s marquee matchup between the Ducks and Kings rookies (yes, by rule Anaheim’s players met the standard but Troy Terry, Max Jones, Maxime Comtois, et al logged significant time in the big show last season) has changed my train of thought. The outcome predictably was in Anaheim’s favor, but the display of speed and skill by the Los Angeles youngsters in the game’s first 10 minutes was something I haven’t witnessed in covering this team for the past two decades. I am unaccustomed to the tempo and pace the game at which the opening half-period was contested as the assemblage of talent is a vastly different stew of prospects cooked up the amateur scouting department. The franchise went lengths at the State of the Franchise season ticket holders meeting to show the success of Mark Yannetti and his staff have enjoyed outside the first round and while the stats show the organization is near the top of the league at unearthing talent there has never been a later round home run (no Nikita Kucherov, no Jake Guentzel) in their history. At present, the only home-grown 100+ goal scorer on the roster is Toffoli; all his chips are pushed into the middle of the table due to consecutive underperforming seasons.
But now this has a chance to change and it’s not a knee-jerk reaction by one media member who craves for some excitement at Staples Center this season. The savvy prospects cats like Chris Peters of ESPN and Corey Pronman give the organization a top-five ranking and it excludes a return to 100% health by the former and still possibly chosen one, Gabe Vilardi.
The LA group, if developed right, can return the organization to contender status (remember, Dean Lombardi’s greatest gift while in LA was his trade record) in a way no one has seen. You will need patience over the next two seasons, but The Plan I scoffed at last Spring has a legitimate chance to succeed because of the excellent work Blake and Company did at the Draft in June.
So, while you may rest this evening with visions of future hockey superiority in Los Angeles in your head, make sure to swallow hard on a dose of reality, as well, as you turn in.
There’s a reason the oddsmakers posted the over/under standing points at 73 1/2 despite major gains in coaching and likely bounce back seasons from its best players. Below its core, there is a combination of aged/underwhelming/unproven/marginal NHL players that will comprise opening night’s roster. Everything would have to break their way and they can’t afford a significant injury just to get to 80 points. They will be out skilled in some games, overwhelmed in others and beaten most nights. If I were to bet on their final point total, I’d probably take the under.
That’s why McLellan wanted five years. He of any legitimate coach will need multiple seasons to get this team dangerous. It appears TMac does have the raw tools to end this valley in LA hockey history and if the season goes as I suspect, he will get further reinforcements when the NHL Draft hits Montreal in late-June. Who knows, maybe their lottery luck will take a turn for the better, too.
But as a fan, the lack of wins shouldn’t have you shying away from what stands to be a tough season. If Blake holds his promise to transition the roster (I prefer much sooner than later), you will see the integration of the next generation of Kings before Game 82 hits in April.
For those fans who remember the early dark days of the Lombardi regime when Ladislav Nagy and Scott Thornton were cast in roles that Mario Kempe and Joakim Ryan hold today, understand the next wave has the promise to be a special one.
It will be a different type of suck in LA this season.
KINGS OF THE PODCAST
We finally did it.
Saddled up on the ol’ podcast horse and galloped into town with a shiny new project called Kings Of The Podcast with our long-time friend The Mayor John Hoven. Since I’m never good at solo acts, John was the only partner I considered given the work-ethic he demonstrates getting intel first and accurately, but more importantly for his story telling ability. Our self-description to those not familiar to our work is “Influencers and Insiders,” but our shared gift is story-telling ability.
This project grew out of our co-produced Kings of The Roundtable video series, a multi-episodic season preview series. While we were proud of the content, its shelf life was short (and way too short when the Kings season was done by December). David Pagnotta and I will return to SiriusXM NHL Network Radio next month on the national stage, but Hoven and myself believed we could grow a substantial audience by combining our followings.
We weren’t wrong.
The reception to the project, launched a week ago and now available on every major podcasting platform, has been gratifying and shocking, and I would be lying if I said it feels good to have your instincts validated.
We promise to entertain and inform and have fun while we’re doing it. We will use our contacts to bring great guests to the podcast (promise kept: Anze Kopitar stopped in for Episode 3) including those outside the game of hockey. You can find us using the Apple Podcast, Spotify or iHeart app or even easier, click the link on TFP’s homepage to go directly there.
WHAT DETERMINES FAME?
Finally, a story about a Los Angeles legend and a man who befriends everyone he meets, former Kings announcer Bob Miller.
Miller, who turns 81 in October, is still a regular at Kings game as a team ambassador after an amazing 44-year run behind the mic. His penchant for storytelling has not diminished, but his audience is now limited to lucky few in the Chick Hearn Press Room on game nights.
You would think that a man of his stature would have achieved everything possible by a broadcaster – honored by the Hockey Hall of Fame with the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award, induction into three Hall of Fames (LA Kings, Wisconsin Hockey and Southern California Sports Broadcasters) and the naming of the Staples Center press box. Physical manifestations – a statue outside of Staples Center (with former Lakers legend Chick Hearn) and the 2,319th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are available to those who would like to touch a facsimile of greatness.
A random conversation with a friend of Bob’s last season informed me of an oversight I was determined to correct. A longtime friend of Bob and his wife Judy, Julie Jensen strode up to me after a game and informed me that Bob was not in the US Hockey Hall of Fame and in discussing with Bob, he had never been nominated for the designation.
After conferring with Bob, he cleared a path for the nomination which I eagerly submitted in the hopes of making Bob the second full play-by-play announcer to be inducted, Mike “Doc” Emrick was the first (others like Bill Chadwick and Mike Milbury have had broadcasting careers after their skating days were over.)
A rare feat? Perhaps, but a deserving one for a rare talent. Surprisingly, this tale lacks a happy ending.
On September 4, the US Hockey Hall of Fame announced its inductees for the 2019 Class: Gary Bettman, Brian Gionta, Neal Henderson, Tim Thomas and Krissy Wendell.
Rather than questioning the legitimacy of the lesser-known and (one controversial) names on the list, I’ll state there is no valid reason for Miller to not be among that group. His achievements in his given profession meet or exceed the majority of those selected (Bettman being an obvious choice without debate) has brought the game to millions of fans and was a conduit in helping Bettman grow the game in Southern California.
Rest assured that when nominations are opened again next year, my submission for Bob Miller will be the first to hit the committee’s inbox.