Between 2012 and 2014, the Los Angeles Kings took home two Stanley Cups and made three straight Western Conference Final appearances. They boasted tremendous center depth, superb goaltending and a relentless physicality that opponents wanted nothing to do with. Unsurprisingly, that style exacted a serious toll on them too. As the league’s pace of play quickened and attrition — as well as a couple of off-ice incidents — caught up to them, the Kings lost their bite.
They couldn’t seem to adapt.
In the five years since L.A.’s last championship, it hasn’t made it out of the first round once. It’s missed the playoffs altogether on three separate occasions and last season’s 71-point campaign was the Kings’ worst in a decade. Head coach John Stevens, who served as Darryl Sutter’s assistant during the club’s purple patch, tried to cling to the formula that had proved so successful. Over the first month of the season, L.A. controlled 50.3% of the shot attempts (13th), 49.3% of the scoring chances (21st) and 52.9% of the high-danger opportunities (11th) at 5-on-5. The possession-oriented framework was still largely in place, but the personnel was no longer as impressive. As a result, the Kings weren’t as suffocating and the opposition could capitalize on their inevitable mistakes.
This stubbornness yielded a 4-8-1 record (30th) that got Stevens fired. Unfortunately, his replacement wasn’t any better. Though Willie Desjardins was eager to abandon the team’s old ideas, he had no new ones of his own. It was as if he was content with simply removing Stevens’ scheme and throwing his players out there to fend for themselves. The Kings definitely played a freer game under Desjardins…and that was often to their detriment.
Combining a lack of firepower with a lack of structure was unwise. The Kings did score a bit more without their shackles, but they paid little attention to the details and relinquished control over the proceedings. The new bench boss produced a 47.7 CF% (27th), 46.8 SCF% (27th), 46.2 HDCF% (24th) on the road to a 27-34-8 record (27th). Moreover, Desjardins seemed unwilling to give aging Russian star Ilya Kovalchuk a fair shake. The 36-year-old looked solid in October, registering eight points in 11 contests in a top-six role. Once Stevens was canned, Kovalchuk’s minutes dwindled and his impact followed suit. He produced at a 40-point pace throughout the rest of the year when the team was begging for a source of offense beyond Anze Kopitar (60 points in 81 games), Dustin Brown (51 points in 72 games) and Drew Doughty (45 points in 82 games).
Former 30-goal scorer Tyler Toffoli mustered just 34 points. Veteran sniper Jeff Carter, who dealt with a nagging lower-body injury, posted 33 points. Adrian Kempe (28 points in 81 games) didn’t look quite as promising following a 37-point year in 2017-18. Fresh off consecutive 40-point campaigns, Tanner Pearson eked out a single point in 17 games before the team shipped him to Pittsburgh for Carl Hagelin (5 points in 22 games). The speedster was a hair more productive, and he was then sent to Washington to bolster its third unit.
L.A. took a flier on 2014 first-round pick Nikita Scherbak (1 point in 8 games) that didn’t pay off. Fellow youngsters Austin Wagner (21 points in 62 games), Matt Luff (11 points in 33 games) and Michael Amadio (13 points in 43 games) didn’t move the needle either.
Despite the Kings’ activity throughout the season, they were stuck in the mud. This was a team that could neither keep up in a track meet nor buckle down and grind out wins.
Desjardins’ coaching — or lack thereof — merely served to expose L.A.’s defense.
Doughty is a brilliant two-way blueliner, but his biggest weakness has always been feeling as though he has to do it all on his own. When his team is competitive, there’s no better defenseman in the world. When it’s hanging on for dear life, he starts forcing the issue out of desperation. The sad state of the club facilitated his breakdown in 2018-19, as the 29-year-old had a truly awful year. With the puck, he was trying too hard to make the winning play. Without the puck, he was sprawling all over the place, once again resorting to hero hockey rather than the steady, near-immaculate game he had built a reputation on. For the very first time in his career, the Kings were actually better by most metrics when he was on the bench. That was a staggering development.
No one else bothered to step up either. Jake Muzzin (21 points in 50 games) remained solid on the second pair and his play convinced the Toronto Maple Leafs to acquire him for their postseason run. Alec Martinez (18 points in 60 games) offered quiet, perfectly replaceable performances. Derek Forbort could no longer piggyback off Doughty and struggled to pull his own weight. Dion Phaneuf (6 points in 67 games) has deteriorated so dramatically on both ends of the ice that he looked out of his element in a limited role on a terrible team.
Sean Walker (10 points in 39 games) and Paul LaDue (5 points in 33 games) showed glimpses of promise, but they were hardly difference-makers. Calgary added Oscar Fantenberg (3 points in 46 games) as a depth piece for the spring in exchange for a fourth-rounder.
Jonathan Quick’s goaltending, which had long been the centerpiece of L.A.’s success, fell off a cliff in 2018-19. The 33-year-old was decidedly uncomfortable with the team in front of him, posting a 3.38 GAA and 88.4 SV%. 2010 11th overall selection Jack Campbell (2.30 GAA, 92.8 SV%) was actually quite good in his 31 showings, but quality netminding was never going to suffice on a team that ranked 30th offensively and 22nd defensively. The Kings no longer had depth or an identity to rally around.
General manager Rob Blake is hoping to rectify that issue. He kicked Desjardins to the curb and hired longtime San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan. Formerly a heated rival of the Kings, the new man in charge must generate a clear vision for his team because it won’t win on the back of its personnel. Kopitar, Doughty and a few decent players won’t cut it. Moreover, Blake hasn’t really restocked the cupboard in free agency. He signed Adrian’s older brother Mario Kempe (9 points in 52 games), fringe scorer Martin Frk (6 points in 30 games) and former Sharks defenseman Joakim Ryan (7 points in 44 games) in the offseason. Those three won’t make enough of a splash to push the tide back in L.A.’s favor. There’s no guarantee that all three will even cut the opening night lineup.
With that said, the silver lining surrounding L.A.’s recent woes is a very intriguing pipeline of prospects.
Alex Turcotte (2019 5th overall pick), Tobias Bjornfot (2019 22nd overall pick), Arthur Kaliyev (2019 33rd overall pick), Samuel Fagemo (2019 50th overall pick), Rasmus Kupari (2018 20th overall pick), Akil Thomas (2018 51st overall pick) and Jaret Anderson-Dolan (2017 41st overall pick) represent a terrific crop of up-and-comers. Gabriel Vilardi’s status (chronic back issues) is unclear, but if the 2017 11th overall pick ever gets healthy, he’ll only bolster an already formidable depth chart.
Granted, these kids are likely a couple of years away from the NHL. For now, 25-year-old Nikolay Prokhorkin will join the club after a few productive years in the KHL. Undersized college star Blake Lizotte (5’7”, 172 lbs) should be offered a chance to crack the lineup. Carl Grundstrom, who was part of the package L.A. received from Toronto for Muzzin, scored five goals in 15 games with the Kings last season. The 21-year-old has good hands in tight and loves to attack the belly of the beast, as 64% of his shots came from the slot or closer. Such players rarely stand out on poor teams, but they become invaluable once a club turns the corner.
On the back end, Kale Clague (2016 51st overall pick) should push for a roster spot on a defense corps that no longer features Muzzin, Phaneuf and Fantenberg. The field is wide open and it’s up to the 21-year-old to seize his opportunity.
In the short-term, 2019-20 will likely be another forgettable season for the Kings. Kopitar and Doughty may well bounce back, but the team as a whole doesn’t possess the scoring or defensive depth to challenge the top dogs out West. Moreover, McLellan couldn’t find a way to maximize his top-heavy roster over three years in Edmonton. His ability to pull off that feat in his first season with the Kings is questionable.
If we’re taking the long view, though, there’s finally cause for optimism in L.A. Quicker, hungrier and more talented reinforcements are en route. It’s just a waiting game now.