October 30, 2017 | 10:12am ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
"HOCKEY IS FUN AGAIN."
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 win.
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 volumes.
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 beyond.
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 Chayka.
Expectations are at opposite ends of the spectrum with these two teams, but showing either the door would only serve as a punitive measure.
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 end.
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 past Friday.