April 3, 2019 | 1:55pm ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
BEFORE HE BIDS US ADIEU, MUCH ADO ABOUT DREW
LOS ANGELES, CA – As one of the worst season’s in Los Angeles Kings history mercifully drags to an end, Drew Doughty is determined to have the last word. After being butt-ended to the tune of 7-2 by a Calgary Flames team that sat five regulars, including Drew’s regular dance partner Matthew Tkachuk, Doughty verbalized thoughts that no doubt have permeated around the locker room for weeks – let’s quickly play out the string and flush this season away.
After another personal sub-par performance that left him with a -34 rating (say what you will about that statistic, a player with Doughty’s skill set should never remotely visit that neighborhood), one of the Kings’ leadership group clicked into his “Drew being Drew” mode and his words escalated to the extent that TSN’s Bob McKenzie said the thing he would miss most in this coming post-season was Doughty.
In addition to Drew’s Digs, the Sportsnet broadcast caught Jonathan Quick’s expletive-laden hallway outburst after he was pulled during the Kings’ non-responsive third period.
That’s where we are, Kings’ fans; a recent two-time Stanley Cup winning franchise is reduced providing comic relief as the Stanley Cup playoffs approach.
As for Doughty, who turns 30 in December, it’s doubtful his persona will change – there is no chance he will morph into the type of leader Jonathan Toews is and that’s why he will never wear the “C” in Los Angeles. The emotions that took him to championship and Norris Trophy heights are also the ones that betray him when adversity hits. Make no mistake, this is as much adversity as he will ever face in his professional career and the optics are disappointing. Unable to turn the direction of a failing team, his game has softened over the second half of the season and after Tuesday’s night’s game, one statistic stood out to me that seemed inconceivable had you suggested it on Opening Night.
Doughty’s empty-net goal in Arizona on Tuesday night was his first even-strength goals this season. He has not beaten a goaltender other than on the powerplay through 80 games.
His game has never been built on offensive prowess, he’ll never be the point producer that Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns is, but breaking an even-strength goose-egg with two regular-season games remaining is unacceptable and supports my critique that he has not been the game-changing, momentum-swinging player of recent seasons.
With his play at a level far below expectations, his words and actions magnify the underachievement and as he glides into the off-season, there must be a singular point for him to contemplate over and over this summer – there must be a commitment to find a path which allows him to return to a level of play commensurate with being the highest paid player on next season’s roster.
And in fairness to Doughty, the remaining veteran core – whomever that may be after (hopefully) Blake’s franchise defining moves – must do likewise.
Doughty puts a target on his back with his demonstrative ways but that doesn’t absolve the other established players from the need to do similar soul searching to avoid another season in which January games are meaningless.
I will stop short of laying most of this season at Doughty’s feet because I feel there is a mitigating circumstance he doesn’t own that has lent to this performance. His play has been at such a high level throughout his prime that we have overlooked the fact that he has lacked a reliable, dependable defensive partner to play alongside of him. When he has been at his best, you could throw out a marginally skilled player and if they minimize errors in their own zone, it was an advantageous situation for the team.
Perhaps as this league continues to move towards higher skill and speed, his one-man gang blueline act is no longer sustainable. Maybe it’s time to find a sturdier partner to provide more support so Doughty doesn’t shift into his “do-it-all” mode that winds up hurting, not helping, the team.
With all the talk of Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, maybe it’s just as vital to obtain a defender you can slot in for the next five seasons to help Drew successfully navigate towards the back end of his career.
That player is not on the roster today, it’s not Daniel Brickley, maybe it’s Kale Clague but maybe he’s not. Drool over the elite talent in the top five picks of this draft if you like, but don’t ignore what happens with the pick they obtained from Toronto and their second-round selection. That player may become just as vital to the Kings’ return to contention.
CLOSE THE DOOR, THERE’S A DRAFT
It wouldn’t be a legit column without a section on Hughes, Kakko and the upcoming June draft in Vancouver.
April 9, 2019 – the evening of the draft lottery could be a milestone date in the organization’s history if the four ping pong balls align correctly. In our last column, I related the Kings strong interest in Hughes and it’s assumptive they will select Hughes with the first overall pick, a player who some call “the next Patrick Kane.”
That’s the given part of the equation, but if Lady Luck doesn’t shine on them that’s where there is uncertainty.
I further disclosed that the organization would seriously consider trading up to position themselves to select Hughes, surrendering an asset (or maybe assets) for those rights. There are too many variations in the equation (the winning lottery team, its needs, how far the Kings far inside the top five) to review here, but in certain cases, no matter the tax the Kings would be willing to pay, it wouldn’t be enough.
Specifically, if the New York Rangers or the Detroit Red Wings win the lottery, I don’t see a reasonable scenario where they would trade out of the first pick and if that is the case, the question is – would the Kings be willing to pay a similar tax for Kappo? A move to the second pick may be a lesser tax and given the separation in skill between these two players and the balance of the draft, the real question is if the Kings see Kappo in the same lens as Hughes.
PUT IN THE COACH, HE’S READY TO PLAY
As the WD-40 regime crawls to a painful close, the speculation about the man who will replace Willie Desjardins has gathered steam. As we’ve mentioned over the past few weeks, the increased chatter on Todd McLellan becoming the third coach in the Robitaille/Blake regime places him as the betting favorite... but we are only in the deep stretch with some furlongs to go before the finish line.
The requirement for a bench boss with a proven NHL track record has solidified this week as another well-known and at present, unemployed coach appears to be a serious contender for the position.
Alain Vigneault, whom we last saw behind the Rangers’ bench at MSG a year ago, has merited consideration for the vacancy.
At 57, he’s six years older than McLellan and as it is with a longer resume, he has 200 more regular-season wins to his credit. Neither man as led a team to the elusive 16 playoff wins required to win a Stanley Cup in a given season, but Vigneault has been within a game of the Cup’s grasp with the Canucks in 2011 and failed again with a scrappy Rangers squad in 2014.
Vigneault is eager for another shot behind an NHL bench and towards that end, he agreed to coach Canada in the upcoming World Championships in Slovakia.
There are pros and cons to either selection, but what you can’t question is that either coach would be a vast improvement.
END OF AN ERA?
Jack Campbell’s emergence has given further traction to the possibility that those in attendance in Saturday’s home final against Vegas may be witnessing the end of an era for one of their heroes.
Campbell was stellar in Tuesday’s win in Arizona, lowering his goals-against average to 2.19 and upping his save percentage to .929; excellent numbers (with the caveat of a smaller sample size) given the team that defends in front of him. Juxtapose his 49 save performance against Quick’s inability to finish Monday’s game against Calgary, which further lowered this season’s ugly numbers (3.41 GAA, .887) and the looming, emotionally painful question to Kings fans is: Could Saturday be the final appearance in a Kings uniform for Jonathan Quick?
Campbell’s season performance earned him a Masterton Trophy nomination from the Los Angeles chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and at 27 years old his time is now. With Cal Petersen in the wings (ignore his Ontario Reign digits this season) and not being a youngster either – he’ll turn 25 in October – the stars may be aligning for a departure for one of the two Conn Smythe winners in franchise history and the emotional backbone of this team for this decade.
It is not an absolute that this will be Quick’s L.A. finale, as we’ve written before, the hopes of Blake to secure an additional 2020 first round draft pick wrested with three players at the trade deadline – Tyler Toffoli, Jeff Carter and Quick.
For all the fans hashtagging losing for Hughes or Kaapo, the ugly downside of being in position for the first-overall pick affects the value of the assets you want to move to acquire the depth you need to become a contender again. The devaluation of those players caused short-term inertia (example: zero calls from contending teams for Carter at trade deadline, one team with some interest in Quick), but as the June draft weekend approaches and a large pool of teams are looking to deal, the stark reality of his departure increases.
Assuming Quick does get the final game between the pipes on Saturday and with his future uncertain, it will be interesting to see the reaction from both his teammates and fans for a man whose jersey will be given a proper place in the rafters of Staples Center during the next decade.