February 22, 2018 | 12:04pm ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
EIGHT DAYS IN FEBRUARY
LOS ANGELES, CA -- As the Los Angeles Kings hit the top of the stretch in their pursuit of a post-season berth, they do so with momentum gained off a quality ending of a season-long seven game roadtrip that produced the best and worst of this year’s model.
The Kings finished the trip with a 4-3-0 mark, raw numbers that you sign for every time, but it’s the journey of how they got to those eight precious points that continues to be the most intriguing season since their 2014 Stanley Cup championship.
A split with the Florida teams was expected, a come-from-behind 3-1 win of the Panthers was a game you circle as a “W” in October. They made things interesting in Tampa with a third period rally and fired 47 shots at Andrei Vasilevskiy, but were a step slow when it counted in a 4-3 defeat.
It’s no shame to lose to the Lightning, the matchups against Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and the rest of the Lightning forwards are, um, “challenging” for the Kings roster, but the following performance, of lack thereof against the Carolina Hurricanes, may ultimately the moment that shifted this organization’s direction.
Despite having two days off and with knowing the importance of this trip to their playoff chances, the Kings delivered their worst 60 minutes of the season in Raleigh. Their turtle-like start produced an 18-3 deficit in shots on goal and manifested into a natural hat trick by defenseman Justin Faulk in less than 13 minutes of elapsed time. As they skated to the locker room in North Carolina, one had every right to question if this team was a legitimate contender for the post-season.
Was the absence of Jeff Carter too much to overcome?
Did opponents figure out the new offensive scheme instilled by head coach John Stevens and had success early on?
Should Darcy Kuemper be the No.1 goaltender?
Did GM Rob Blake not have the appetite or assets to make a trade to help his team?
When they tell the final story of the Kings season, we may point to that night as the one where the entire organization, from Blake on down to the 23rd roster player, drew a line in the ice and said, ‘no more.’
With not-so-secret targets of upgrading his defense and depth forwards, Blake executed a move that was years in the making, taking on Dion Phaneuf along with Nate Thompson in exchange for Marian Gaborik and Nick Shore. We traced Los Angeles’ interest in Phaneuf back to the 2015 NHL Draft in Fort Lauderdale and after a conversation at this past year’s Draft revived interest, Blake pulled the trigger during that woeful game.
Phaneuf stepped into the lineup against the Penguins and although it was not enough – the Kings played well in a bitter 3-1 defeat, the loss was the platform that helped launch them into their three-game winning streak. A “No Excuses” win in Buffalo backed with grinding victory against the Central Division cellar-dwelling Blackhawks (wow!) set them up for a pivotal game against the Winnipeg Jets.
Like the Lightning, the Jets are loaded offensively – upfront there’s the scary good Mark Scheifele, the blistering sniper Patrik Laine and the highly unpredictable Dustin Byfuglien creates havoc for both sides on the blueline. The Jets have been monsters at home all season and were concluding a 10-game homestand, so it was a big ask for the Kings to wrap their trip with a victory. Los Angeles was dominated in the first period, but with Kuemper doing big work between the pipes they managed to stay within striking distance and proceeded to return service in the middle frame to set the stage for a pivotal third period. Both the old (Dustin Brown) and the new (Torrey Mitchell) found a way in the final frame to send the Kings home in possession of a playoff spot with 23 games remaining.
You would have thought the Kings’ off day on Wednesday would have been a quiet one, but Blake had other designs. Early in the day, the word Los Angeles fans had been waiting for since October came down – Carter was cleared medically and will commence skating with the team. Though he will not play on Thursday against Dallas, it’s a smart bet that he will add to the misery of the Edmonton Oilers forgotten season on Saturday by ending his long journey from a severed ankle tendon. The Kings also upgraded Trevor Lewis’s status to day-to-day from week-to-week, so his addition to the roster could come before the end of the month.
And that would have been good enough for Kings fans; as I understand it, tears were shed with the prospects of the 70s Line being reunited. Given Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli’s offensive challenges over the past weeks, I’m trying to confirm if numbers 70 and 73 were among those shedding tears of joy.
But late Wednesday afternoon, the second need was checked off by Blake and it was a move that no one saw coming – after all, the last time the Kings and Coyotes made a trade was in 2006.
But Blake did exactly that, dealing inside the division to acquire speedy winger (key word: speedy, hold that thought) Tobias Rieder and backup goaltender Scott Wedgewood in exchange for the latest Los Angeles goaltending revelation Darcy Kuemper.
The Kings have creating an art form of reviving lost goaltender’s careers – last season, Peter Budaj was the anointed one – and flipping them at the deadline for another asset. While Kuemper won’t get a gold watch for his service in LA, he gets something better that allows him to buy one of his own choice, a two-year extension signed just minutes after being acquired by Arizona and puts the Kings on the ‘preferred vendor’ list for the goaltender’s union.
So, what do these eight days in February mean for the Los Angeles Kings?
- Bottom line: The Kings control their own destiny, they do not need outside help to make the post season with 22 games to go.
- What it doesn’t do is guarantee them a spot in the post-season. There can be no assumptions, their intra-divisional opponents present different challenges and the afterglow of the end of a successful road trip will fade quickly with just a few missteps. They must eliminate the inconsistencies in their play – sometimes from period to period – to better their chances.
- They play a slew of game against the Central Division (9 of 22), hockey’s best division and let’s not forget the two Kuemper revenge games against Arizona.
- 15 of the final 22 games are at Staples Center – the concern is that at the end of the homestand, the Kings refrain was “we play better on the road.” They need to match the intensity and desperation of their opponents and feed off the home crowd to become a better home team down the stretch.
As for the on-ice product, my breakdown of the moves (and I’ll venture back to the Torrey Mitchell deal) look like this:
Big picture: Blake has improved the mix of players without a) taking a significant player off the roster or b) surrendering any of its future.
From the top: You can trace the transition of this roster back to November 14, 2017 when Blake cut bait on his one-year, $1 million free agent swing at Michael Cammalleri. When it became obvious he wasn’t going to contribute on the top two lines and he would not be effective or happy in a bottom six role he flipped him for Jussi Jokinen. While Jokinen was even less effective than Cammalleri in his short stint, a subsequent move behind it was a small move, but in retrospect, a tip to where this roster was moving. The Torrey Mitchell trade will cost them, at worst, the 2018 fourth-round pick gained in the Dwight King deadline deal of last season. Given his speed (that word again), his effectiveness on faceoffs (undersold move coupling him with Adrian Kempe to assists on faceoffs yet can play keep pace skating-wise) and surprising productivity, he has strengthened the bottom six.
The big fish deal: When you move your 14th forward (Gaborik) and a player that used up all his chances to prove himself (Shore) for 4-5 defenseman and a tough, veteran center – in the moment it’s a win. Gaborik was looking at a buyout this summer and who’s to say what you get from Phaneuf for the balance of his contract, so the optics may change as the days pass. Phaneuf looks refreshed and has surprised with his powerplay prowess, but the key to this season in the short term is how another defenseman plays in the current blueline alignment.
Derek Forbort and Phaneuf’s seasons are going to be intertwined for the balance of the season. Forbort, the least dynamic defender of the group has been quietly effective and must contribute a minimum of 20 minutes of relatively error-free hockey a night. If he can deliver, it puts Dion in the 17-18 minute per night neighborhood and at that level of usage, he is an upgrade. He will be in tough against speedy teams like Vegas, but keeping in his time-on-ice in the teens will allow him to take the occasional 20-minute assignment when Forbort is not up to the challenge.
Thompson for Shore is all about character. Shore was presented with numerous chances to demonstrate he can be an effective center in Los Angeles. The prevailing thought to start the season was that the coaching change from Darryl Sutter to Stevens would raise the level of his play but during his fourth season it was apparent it would not happen here. Thompson’s offensive game is no better than Shore, but if he approximates the 56 percent faceoff win percentage he produced for Ottawa, he’ll be an asset on the penalty kill and in late-game situations.
Wing watch: With Rieder joining the wingers group, it’s a further sign of where Blake’s transition of the roster has initiated. While not a top-notch finisher (a mid-teen goal scorer at best), he possesses speed to burn as noted from a text from a Kings player on Wednesday, “don’t really know Rieder, just know he’s fast.” A partial quote from Blake in the Kings press release announcing the trade reinforces the direction he’s headed, “We continue to look for opportunities to improve our team speed and Tobias will bring that dynamic to our club.”
If you can’t skate fast, you probably can’t play wing for Rob Blake’s Kings.
With Carter, Rieder and Trevor Lewis added to the mix, Andy Andreoff and Kyle Clifford should stay close to their phones through Monday’s lunchtime. Neither player is a rental and Andreoff’s increased productivity on this trip may attract a taker. Clifford has been the good solider in nine seasons for the Kings; he’s one of those who lead without a letter on his sweater and is unafraid to answer the call when the gloves need to drop. He should get the greater return between the two and Blake must weigh that against subtracting a long-time leader from his locker room.
As they hit the ice on Thursday against a Stars team with a lot of frustration and a lot of goals left in their sticks courtesy of Anaheim’s Ryan Miller on Wednesday night, the question is – are the Kings a better team than the one that staggered off the ice in Carolina?
Indeed, they are, via trades and increasing health on paper this roster is stronger once Carter and Lewis return. Given our caveats, the defense looks to be solidified and they must have a healthy Jonathan Quick to get to the top eight in the Western Conference.
The larger question is – should Kings fans be stashing cash in anticipation of a deep (read: multiple round) post-season run?
Not yet - there are too many variables to put them in the class of Nashville or Winnipeg (I love what Vegas has done, but I want to see them do these tricks come Game 83), specifically the effectiveness of Carter. You can’t assume an immediate return to form of his usual 30 goal, 35 assists production, but if he does nothing more than facilitate a much-needed Toffoli and Pearson revival, this team can make reach the post-season and perhaps make some noise.