October 27, 2018 | 12:09am ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
KINGS TAKE A 10 COUNT
LOS ANGELES, CA – The Los Angeles Kings dragged themselves onto the plane in Minnesota Thursday evening as they concluded one of the worst 10-game stretches the franchise has played over the last decade.
They took a 10-count against the Wild to extend their losing streak to six regulation games, the longest since an eight-game losing streak in December 2007 when GM Rob Blake was Captain Rob Blake and patrolled the ice with the likes of Kevin Dallman and Peter Harrold.
It’s been that long.
The more painful part is that the Kings haven’t been pounded into submission by their opponents; they haven’t been overrun by new age offenses. When you are consistently on the losing end of pillow fights the optics are worse than being floored by a devastating right cross.
In two-game road flop ahead of the longest home stand of the season, both victors played average hockey. A solid 120 minutes of execution and effort would have brought home four points but instead the Los Angeles is looking to avoid rolling an unlucky “7” on Sunday afternoon against another non-contending team, the New York Rangers.
So, who’s responsible for this mess? A month ago, I considered the Kings a solid 2/3 seed in the Pacific Division and with a few breaks they could snatch their first Pacific title in franchise history. The prospect of building on a 98-point season with a legitimate take – now fans are calling for a “Lose for Hughes” season. They now suggest tanking the season in deference to the next generational player, Jack Hughes who stands atop the June 2019 Draft Board.
I’ll let those fans stay in a dream state for the next seven months; I’ll stay in the moment and address the causes for this awful stumble.
It takes a village to underachieve to this level with the amount of proven talent on the roster. Blake sought more offense, thought he brought it in Ilya Kovalchuk, but the returning Russian Sniper has not re-acclimated to the NHL in general and this team specifically. The defense has held down its end of the bargain by being structurally deficient and Jonathan Quick has contribution looks to be affected with his now-annual early-season injury. The collective has formed a deserving 2-7-1 record and the reactionary move would to be to give Coach John Stevens a leash the length of the 200-foot ice surface to turn it around.
I believe that a 10-game sample size doesn’t undo what he established in 86 games last season (and in fairness, some say the team’s decline start in last season’s second half) but the reality is that if the Kings produce a similar effort in the next 10 games as they did in the first 10, it will give Blake little choice given the results expected when the season started.
So, is it fair to say that Stevens is coaching for his job? Standings.
But the reality is that while Stevens may ultimately pay the price, he is not the major factor in the level of play delivered by the Kings. I have supported him throughout his tenure, but he is not immune from criticism. I don’t subscribe to the popular take that the team is old and slow, they are in the top third in average age but there is less than a year separating them from most rosters in the league. While they have enough speed to compete in the new age NHL, they do not PLAY fast and that the biggest coaching challenge for this team and one that Stevens owns.
In tandem with that, the players need to work harder to get open and the defense needs to move the puck when they do. The word “speed” inundates the hockey conversation, but I have yet to see a player who is faster than the puck and I feel the requisite speed need to win is present.
You can say that Blake didn’t assess properly what was needed to take the team to the next level, but with such a small sample size, it’s the equivalent of looking at the shell of the new football stadium being built in Inglewood and saying, “Yeah, that structure isn’t going to hold 70,000 people, bad architectural job.”
Dustin Brown’s return to the lineup on Sunday should solidify the forward wall, at the bare minimum it eliminates rookie Sheldon Rempal, now back in Ontario, from being including in the same sentence as “top six forward.”
For those screaming for a massive trade for a game changer like the still-unsigned William Nylander or the unwilling-to-return-to-Columbus Artemi Panarin make sure you look venture over to CapFriendly first and examine what Blake’s options are when Drew Doughty’s $11 million cap hit locks in.
Conversely, if things continue as they have in the opening games of the homestand, Blake must make a move of consequence to get his team’s attention. He waited until mid-November last season to effect roster change; he may not have the same luxury this one.
But the large body of work was signed, sealed and delivered by players who at times look disinterested and lack confidence to even the most casual of observers. You don’t have to be around this team every minute to see they aren’t very angry with this start even the most passionate of them all, Drew Doughty hasn’t bashed his stick on a crossbar or cursed out a referee from the penalty box. Others have a look of despair when the puck doesn’t bounce their way but the biggest difference is this team from last year’s model is a glaring one.
There is zero resilience, something that was so abundant last season when the team routinely battled from behind and had one of the best third period goal differentials in the league. When the opposition scored the first goal, it was routine, part of the winning script and shrugged off last season – this season, it’s been the game-deciding goal.
Except for Alex Iafallo, the youngsters have done nothing and two of the players I pointed at as pivotal to the Kings hopes (Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli) are not leading by example.
Toffoli has been the far better of the two, but is not the game changer the team needs now. Pearson’s game had regressed the furthest . . . . until this week when Adrian Kempe took the belt with stretch that would put him in Ontario if I was in Blake’s shoes.
Kovalchuk has played hard, no one can question his commitment, but the lack of structure in his game makes it essential that either Anze Kopitar or Jeff Carter figure out a way to play with him and get him chances in goal scoring areas.
As I understand, Stevens has been tough at times, more caring at others with his emotionally frail team as the losing streak lengthens, but above all he has been honest with his assessment of individual’s play. Any assertion that this team has quit on him is not factual and if I suggest another less obvious overarching factor, this team has become too comfortable.
The criticism that motivation is the coach’s responsibility can be answered in this way – these players make crazy guaranteed money to play a game, and in general there is nothing a GM or coach can do to motivate the player, it must come from within. The rare player may be lifted by a coach’s venom (think Brown/Darryl Sutter at trade deadline in 2012), but by and large it’s on the player to change his mindset and be better. There is not a single player on this team playing for a significant contract, the core is settled in and making millions of guaranteed money playing hockey by the beach. They must be the change agents, not Blake or Stevens.
I’ve advocated since Opening Night that Brown’s absence from the lineup was a major loss and with each game it becomes more abundant. His emotional presence is as needed as his as net front presence, but lest you think he will enter Staples Center Sunday afternoon riding on a white stallion to rescue the Kings’ season, he can’t do it without the buy-in from the other 21 players on the roster. The abyss the team has plummeted into is too deep for one man to lift it out of, no matter how big his shoulders are and how strong his resolve is.
But it sure can’t hurt.
If you believe in silver linings, there is a very slight one to hold out hope on. The Pacific Division refuses to throw dirt on the grave the Kings have dug for themselves. On the same evening the Kings delivered mediocrity in the State of Hockey, the Flames surrendered nine goals to Sidney and Co., and the Ducks seem determine to have a 1 and 1A SoCal entry in the First Coach Fired Derby by getting run out of another visiting building in Chicago.
The slightest of winning streaks would conceivably put the Kings back in the pack, as unrealistic as it seems, but it must start Sunday.