First, the disclaimer: I am just a fan, trying to reason this out, more or less out-loud. I don't have any inside information or special wisdom, and I certainly don't presume to know what's actually going on behind closed doors. I assume that it's not possible to wave one's magic wand and produce a season-saving blockbuster trade. I also assume it's not simply a matter of "giving a full effort," or "buying into the system" or "learning to work through adversity." Those tropes may well have some actual truth to them, but as they are not especially actionable ("I know, I'll just TRY HARDER, THINK LESS AND YET MORE, and NOT GIVE UP DESPITE HOW BAD EVERYTHING IS") they don't qualify as a solution, or a plan.
As a fan -- whose family comes from Chicago, where they have been rooting for the Cubs for (literally) 90 years -- I try not to get overly worked-up by winning streaks (12-3-0) or losing streaks (12-19-1), since these things tend to even out. I predicted:
Los Angeles Kings Preview: Five Burning Questions About The 2010-11 NHL Season - SBNation.com
Last season, the Kings finished with the third highest point total in franchise history. But the Kings are still improving. Does that mean 101 points is the floor, not the ceiling? I think many fans will be disappointed if the Kings finish with anything less. However, here's a look at the Kings 90+ point finishes, and what they did the next year:
That little string of Andy Murray teams (2000-2002) is the only time the Kings didn't plummet the year after a 90+ point season. I think it's reasonable to expect the Kings to defy the trend and finish at least in the mid-to-high 90s. Still, it's more important to for the season to have a smoother arc, fewer peaks and valleys, and to have the proper surge of momentum leading into the playoffs. I would rather the Kings finish with 96 and be firing on all cylinders in April than to finish with 101 but burn out down the stretch, as they did last year.
- 1975, 105 pts; 1976, 85 pts (-20)
- 1981, 99 pts; 1982, 63 pts (-36)
- 1989, 91 pts; 1990, 75 pts (-16)
- 1991, 102 pts; 1992, 84 pts (-18)
- 2000, 94 pts; 2001, 92 pts (-2)
- 2001, 92 pts; 2002, 95 pts (+3)
- 2002, 95 pts; 2003, 78 pts (-17)
- 2010, 101 pts; 2011, ??
As I said a couple of weeks ago ("Fantrums"), losing streaks happen, even to great teams, even to cup-winning teams. I said that going 5-for-13 was bad, but not out-of-place in otherwise great seasons (like the Kings' season last year, or the Penguins' the year before).
That of course assumed that the Kings turned it around, instead of just continuing to lose.
Two of the last three losses have actually been pretty good games for the Kings. The Dallas loss and last night's "loss" to the Coyotes, these are losses you can be more-or-less proud of, in the larger context of a winning season. But the Kings have pissed away that context, so now there are no noble losses left in the budget.
You have an infection in your foot; you don't want to lose your foot; you assume that antibiotics and other treatments will save your foot, because that frequently happens to feet; but there is a point beyond which you have to amputate the foot, no matter how attached you are to it, no matter the plans you made that depended on having feet.
The foot is the season.
The point is, you need a cold, rational plan, not a plan that is governed by our emotional attachment to "the season," or the fact that the Kings were predicted by a bunch of babbling talking heads to be the "it" team or whatever. Conversely, you also need a plan that doesn't err in the other direction: e.g. "MANAGEMENT SUCKS, COACH SUCKS, TEAM SUCKS, BOB MILLER SUCKS, BAILEY SUCKS, HEIDI WILL LEAVE US BECAUSE WE SUCK FIRE EVERYBODY SCUTTLE THE SHIP!!"
Here's what I think the plan should be:
- The trade deadline is February 28. That's five weeks away. The Kings have 15 games between now and then. And 20 games after.
- In order to have any reasonable hope of making the playoffs, I think the Kings need to get to 68 points by February 28. This would require them to go 13-7 to close out the season (to get to 94 points; and yes, I'm quite sure that will be enough), which is doable, if unlikely. I'm willing to accept "unlikely" but I think beyond 13-7 we're crossing over into fantasy-land (especially since, if we need to go -- say -- 15-5 to close out the season, it means we've only played .500 hockey between now and the deadline, which means we would have to play as good as we played at the start of the season just to squeak in; counting on playing your best hockey at the end, when you've sucked the rest of the year...why, that would be like sucking for 55 minutes and then expecting to pull it out in the last 5; and we know how well that works).
- The Kings have 15 games to get to 68 points. They have 49 points now. That's 19 points in 15 games. That's 9-5-1 (or 8-4-3, or 7-3-5, or 6-2-7, or 5-1-9, or 4-0-11). That's the target. The minimum.
- As long as we're on pace to be 9-5-1 en route to the deadline, we're a playoff team.
- As soon as it's clear we're not going to hit that target, the Kings should, I believe, shift into selling mode.
- This has no impact on the so-called long-term plan. It has nothing to do with Kopitar, Brown, Simmonds, Clifford, Lewis, Doughty, Johnson, Scuderi, Mitchell, Greene, Bernier, Quick, Martinez, Muzzin, Loktionov, Moller, Schenn or indeed any of the blue-chip prospects.
Michal Handzus, Marco Sturm and Alexei Ponikarovsky (all UFAs) all would have value to playoff teams and should be traded for picks and prospects. Maaaaaaybe we could find a trading partner who would send us a useful roster player back, but there's no way those players are going to yield any pie-in-sky superstars.
- Justin Williams is also UFA this summer, and would be attractive to playoff teams this spring, but I actually think it would be nice to re-sign him for a couple of years, if this is possible. I actually have no idea if it is. I don't know what Williams thinks he can get on the free agent market, or how much DL is willing to spend to keep him; my guess is, if he thinks he's getting a raise, he will not be back, and if he will not be back, Lombardi will trade him, too. And should. But I hope he's affordable and amenable. Because he's been one of the season's MVPs this year.
Ryan Smyth. I think it would be great for Smyth to finish out his contract here (i.e. stay through next season). And I think it would be hard to trade that contract. If he didn't have another year on his deal, he would be an attractive option for buyers. But most playoff teams don't have $6MM+ cap space for next season to fit Smyth in. So he probably stays.
- Jarret Stoll. Lombardi knows whether he thinks Brayden Schenn or Andrei Loktionov, or both, will be ready to step into C2 and C3 next season. My guess is he thinks one, but not both, will be ready, with the other being ready the following year. That's almost certainly the prudent outlook. My heart wants to say, trade Stoll now and let Schenn and Loktionov be ready next year. My mind says, Stoll can take Handzus's place as C3 and then can leave when his contract expires. Or, at the deadline next year, he can be dealt, passing the torch to Loktionov or Schenn at that time.
- If we're sellers, sell. Handzus, Poni, Sturm. Davis Drewiske, Peter Harrold, Brad Richardson (because we have Trevor Lewis, Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin) -- we're talking about getting picks here. Remember, Loktionov was a late round pick. Picks are good.
- And after we're done selling, bring up Oscar Moller and Muzzin (in addition to Loktionov) and let them play.
- But if we get it together -- 9-5-1 -- stand pat.
Aside from all of that -- determining where the fork in the road is, and which path to take -- there's another issue to be addressed. Namely: what the hell just happened?