April 10, 2018 | 10:31am ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
THE GAME CHANGES NOW
LOS ANGELES, CA -- We’ll call this one the “Toss-Up” column.
I picked that title because when we started the marathon that is the NHL regular-season, it was a toss-up that I would be writing a playoff series preview for the Los Angeles Kings in April. You know the reasons why:
- Rob Blake ain’t Dean Lombardi
- John Stevens is Darryl Sutter 2.0, nothing is going to change
- Anze Kopitar isn’t worth $10 million per year
- Dustin Brown has the worst contract in the League
- Jonathan Quick is will get injured and he’s not elite, just average
A mere 98 points later, the Kings roll into the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs a confident, if not perfectly healthy, group. Not withstanding a final game flop against Dallas on Saturday, this team did what last season’s didn’t – in the season’s final weeks, they dug their heels in and ground out wins.
It was a tricky path to 98; the Kings took their fans on a roller coaster ride throughout – their inconsistency was maddening even to themselves. Maybe they enjoyed the drama of it all because after some disappointing March losses I heard the same refrain from multiple players – “we never make it easy on ourselves.”
In retrospect, maybe the easy way was not the preferable path to the post-season; the struggle to string together consecutive games never came, but apart from the first team on the post-season docket, the Vegas Golden Knights, the competition lingered as well. Even with inconsistency riding on their collective shoulders, they never fell more than a few points below the eighth spot in the West and in the final days, they gave their home fans optimism by winning six of their last seven at Staples Center prior to the Dallas finale.
You can debate what opening round opponent is the most advantageous match-up for Los Angeles, but only one thing is definitive: the last thing they wanted was to open against the Nashville Predators, the gift the Colorado Avalanche is about to receive for their sputtering finish.
Before we move on to Vegas – some final words on the regular-season.
Regardless of what happens next, this is a successful season for the Kings. I won’t classify them as a “house money” team because it would surprise no one if they emerge from the Pacific Division. But given where this team was a year ago, to get to this point is nothing short of a major accomplishment.
While allowing for the fact that the team’s core was mostly intact from its two championships – this franchise was fractured by the same regime that carried it to unforeseen heights. Had ownership not made the change that was necessary, my bet is that this team would have languished through another season that resembled the last. Even in an age where the average player makes a seven-figure salary for playing a kid’s game, I feel professional hockey more than any other sport relies on intangibles and proof of it manifested itself over the past nine months.
Coaching matters. Positivity matters.
Brown was left on a scrap heap, buried by Sutter and given no support by Lombardi, who was desperate to move him out but to no avail. Even Sutter’s favorites, like Kopitar and Drew Doughty, were weary of the negativity of the franchise and their performances showed it. You can minimize the impact that a change in regime has if one player like Brown experiences a renaissance, but when Kopitar and Doughty post career years as well, Stevens is clearly not Sutter 2.0.
Coaches will always be challenged on their lineup and in-game decisions (fans this season chose to harp on his resistance to use timeouts), but Stevens was brave enough to give untested and unheralded rookies as shot alongside his stars. He trusted Derek Forbort to play 20 minutes a night and despite his inconsistencies (that word again), down the stretch he was a reliable defender and some nights near the equal of Doughty. The lasting post-game interview image of Forbort in the game following his ear nearly being shorn off by Minnesota’s Zach Parise embodies what this team is about. Do they have the toughness of title teams? Not yet, as this group is not a battle-tested one, but clearly the Golden Knights know they will be in a fight for their inaugural playoff lives starting Wednesday.
While Stevens had always been a heartbeat away from the bench boss job for years, it’s a different game when you get the call to be the man again after more than seven years from making the final calls. Rightfully, the doubters were there from Day 1 and likely a few still around, but in observing him through 82 games, I feel that his sense of fairness to his players has gone relatively unnoticed.
Stevens is unafraid to criticize his under-performers, but doesn’t make it personal – he rarely criticized specific individuals, preferring to use phrases like “needing more from our younger leadership group” but also willing to point directly at a star player. Doughty’s emotional outburst that turned the tide in a brutal home loss against Chicago was classified rightfully as a selfish act, but because there exists a mutual respect between player and coach, the public criticism didn’t have a lasting effect on the player or the team.
As for Blake, he soft-pedaled his elevation to the corner office by making a substantial bet that if he could lift the clouds that had enveloped the team, results would follow. It wasn’t that easy as Blake wound up flipping 25 percent of his roster from opening night. But his defining move in his rookie season will be the gift that keeps on giving, the Dion Phaneuf trade.
Entering the season, there were questions about the defensive depth on this team and after a painful 7-3 loss in Carolina, Blake pulled the trigger on a trade for a player who, while he is far from perfect in Phaneuf (foot speed), he has fit perfectly in the Kings system and it only cost him Marian Gaborik and Nick Shore. And if that wasn’t enough, he toughened up the team by getting Nate Thompson into the bargain.
Shore has moved on to Calgary for a seventh-round pick and you guessed it, Gaborik is injured again which may prevent Ottawa from buying out his contract in June. In fact, Phaneuf could be a buyout candidate before his deal is done at the end of the 2020-21 season, but without this deal, the Kings would have been packing up for the post-season and doing exit interviews on Monday.
The collective won the day for Los Angeles this hockey season – management, coaches and players chose to trust each other when the doubters said no, injury took one of their major weapons away for most of the season (Jeff Carter) and as a result, the pride that remains with its championship core resurfaced.
But now on to Vegas...
I asked around and of the three likely Pacific Division opponents, apparently the majority got their wish. The bottom line is while the Kings would have gladly engaged the Ducks or Sharks with as much ill will as the post-season neophytes, they are very eager to see how Cinderella responds in the very different game that is the NHL Playoffs. I think we’re all eager to see what happens at 12:01 AM.
The Kings will be tested by a team that comes at you in waves, never cheats on a shift and has a home ice advantage few expected when they opened the doors at T-Mobile Arena in October. They will be a facing a team that has experienced more revelations than themselves because you didn’t have William Karlsson scoring 43 goals, Jonathan Marchessault registering 75 points and Erik Haula potting 29 goals, either.
The team with a chip on its shoulder the size of the Empire State Building won’t take a step back when Los Angeles throws its two Stanley Cup rings into the ante. They haven’t been intimidated all season and I doubt they will start acquiescing now. I can’t wait for the pot to be stirred by David Perron and Doughty, maybe we’ll see a heavyweight match between Kyle Clifford and Ryan Reeves and in a first round that has some delicious match-ups like Ducks-Sharks and Penguins-Flyers, LA-LV stands to be the most entertaining of the eight to be contested.
The pound-for-pound match-up favors the Kings decisively, they hold the advantage in two of the three categories that often decide playoff series – superiority at center and on defense. Vegas will have the headache of trying to defend both Kopitar and Carter for the better part of 10 days and despite a possessing a defensive depth chart which doesn’t possess a defenseman close to the quality of Doughty, they have been good enough to finish eighth in goals-against. Their tempo at which they play helps and a major part of defensive play has to do with will as much as it does skill, something no team has more than the Golden Knights but in the skill department, Los Angeles has the edge.
Where the Kings don’t have a decided edge is in the third component – goaltending. Even with Quick’s best statistical season since 2012-13 (.921 save percentage that includes a .936 percentage in the third period), he doesn’t have the edge when he stares down at the other end of the ice and sees Marc-Andre Fleury.
If the Flower Man had been healthier, he would have been Vegas’ MVP with his sterling numbers (2.27 GAA, .927 save percentage) and he is the heart and soul of this franchise. Always smiling, positive and without question one of the most approachable players in the game, Fleury must be at his playoff-tested best for the Golden Knights to move on in the tournament. An average series by Fleury won’t get it done against a team with superior talent, but if he can summon consistently the type of performance he fashioned last May in Game 7 at Washington, the Golden Knights will move on to face their second California opponent.
The one point I do question is how much of an impact his championship experience will carry in the Vegas locker room. Without question he has delivered in the past in a big spot, but consider during the moments in the locker room before those big wins, he looked across and saw Sidney Crosby, Geno Malkin and Phil Kessel and those security blankets are still toiling hard in the Black and Gold in Western Pennsylvania as the post-season commences.
If both teams are able to match performances from their top guns – Vegas doesn’t have answer for Kopitar and Carter, the Kings banged up blueline has trouble with the swiftness of Vegas and the goalies play to a standoff, Los Angeles will need more from their cast to win a playoff series for the first time since winning the Cup in 2014 and it likely comes down to the performance of two wingers who were instrumental when they vanquished King Henrik and the Rangers.
Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson have been afterthoughts in this comeback season and were adversely affected by Carter’s 55 game absence, but his return for the final 21 games didn’t galvanize either player. Pearson posted five goals and five assists, while Toffoli matched Pearson’s goal output with five and had eight assists and spent extended time on the Kings third line. Stevens said it was to balance out the scoring lines, a reasonable explanation, but Toffoli on the third line seemed more like a challenge for him to raise his game.
Truth be told, 39 goals combined between 2/3 of the former That 70’s Line can only be classified as a disappointment regardless of Carter’s absence; the pair simply did not grasp the reigns without him and frankly have a lot to prove starting on Wednesday night. I’ll venture to say that a disappointing post season from either or both may have Blake looking at other options in the off-season. Both have term remaining on their deals at reasonable cap hits (Pearson has a $3.75M hit with three seasons remaining, Toffoli comes with a $4.6M with two seasons remaining) so their futures in Los Angeles may be dependent on their post-season performances.
It’s been a long time coming, but the Kings finally have forward depth – the organization loves the speed Tobias Rieder brings to the ice, Adrian Kempe's destiny still may be on the wing, Alex Iafallo creates space, if not goals, alongside Kopitar and Brown, and with Gabriel Vilardi looming in juniors, if Blake wanted to look at swapping out either Toffoli or Pearson off an unproductive post-season, it’s not a stretch to think it happens at the NHL Draft in June.
But if the pair does rise up and deliver it will put the Kings in a position most aptly put by defenseman Alec Martinez. When asked how far this team can go, his succinctly said, “I wouldn’t count us out. We can do some damage.”
Kings in 6.