Expectations

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 08: Andrei Loktionov #48 and Trent Hunter #47 of the Los Angeles Kings leave the ice after a 4-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild at Staples Center on December 8, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

[JftC members: this is my post-game review from the Minnesota loss, republished with a different title so that it will actually be seen. JftC non-members: you should be members.]

From my season preview:

Jewels from the Crown: 2011-12 Season Preview

It's that time. Game #1 is three days away (at 10am on a Friday, but I'll take it). Now that Drew Doughty has signed, the roster is more or less set. The fanbase -- if the internet contingent is any indicator -- is somewhere between gleeful and giddy. Fans of other teams are reverse-trolling us with compliments about "how great [we're] going to be this year." Talking heads have promoted the Kings tocup contender status. Everywhere I look, I see the phrase "cup run."

This worries me. Because last I checked, this was a team whose achilles' heel was that it buckled under the weight of big expectations. [...]

My feeling was [regarding the various 2010-11 issues] [...] this was a problem of leadership. Captains, core players, veterans, coaches, all of the above? -- that's almost impossible to say from the outside. But it looks like Dean Lombardi also felt like the team could use an infusion, because he brought inMike Richards, Simon Gagne, Ethan Moreau and Trent Hunter, which is the largest off-season addition of veterans since the glory days of 2007 (Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, Tom Preissing,Brad Stuart, maybe Kyle Calder, too, I forget). Meanwhile, Obiwan Handzus signed with San Jose,Alexei Ponikarovsky went to Carolina, wily veteran Ryan Smyth hightailed it to Edmonton, Oscar Moller (and Bud Holloway) absconded to Sweden, and Wayne Simmonds (and Brayden Schenn) were assigned to the Kings East affiliate. I have no way of knowing what the locker-room effect of swapping out Smyth and Simmonds for Richards, Gagne, Moreau and Hunter will be...but it will certainly be different than it was.

I have nothing but good thoughts and high hopes for these newest Kings, but good chemistry in the locker-room in the midst of change is far from guaranteed.

[...]

The third line is a bunch of question marks. It's not as robust as Poni/Frolov-Handzus-Simmonds, nor is it (so far) skilled enough to be a speedy-deadly offense-only third line a la Millen/Donnelly/whoever. And I wonder if in all the excitement about Mike Richards and Simon Gagne, people aren't forgetting what made the Kings tough to play against the last two years.

[...]

This time last year, I predicted the Kings would finish in roughly the same place as the year before that, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 points. That happened. My wish for the season was that the Kings would arrive at 100 points having been more consistent than they were the previous season. That didn't happen. The last two years have been defined by runs of extreme hot and cold. If the Kings continue to count on historic hot streaks to save them from catastrophic slumps, they're never going to have the confidence or fortitude to get out of the first round.

Here's Scott Burnside, this morning:

Los Angeles Kings shrinking back from expectations - ESPN

[...] The Kings want to be where evolving teams aspire to be: expecting to be in the playoffs, expecting to be a factor in the spring, expecting to be held to a higher standard. Yet having arrived at this threshold, the Kings seem to have shrunk from those expectations this season.

[...] "Right now you kind of feel it's just kind of stuck," Lombardi told ESPN.com in an interview in his office at the team's practice facility before Thursday's game. "I don't think anybody feels we're taking the step we need to take." On the plus side of the ledger, the Kings have created a culture of defensive responsibility under head coach Terry Murray [...] But as much as that part of the team's identity seems entrenched, the other, the offensive side, has regressed dramatically. [...] With the addition of former Philadelphia captain Mike Richards during the offseason, the Kings looked to match up suitably against the big boys in the conference. They looked like a team that could play it any way the night dictated -- up-tempo run and gun or buttoned-down close-checking. Now they look like a team that is offensively aimless.

The Kings may be able to play "up-tempo run and gun," however, as the old Monty Python joke had it:

"Can do. But. Won't."

They (seem to) play "buttoned-down close-checking" no matter what the situation calls for. They (seem to) protect leads they don't even have.

[...] Perhaps nowhere is the team's failure to evolve offensively more marked than in the play of former Norris Trophy candidate Drew Doughty. A dynamic young player who has excelled at every level, including the NHL, and who was among the best players for Canada at the Olympics in 2010. Now, Doughty is facing perhaps the first real adversity of his career. He held out for a big contract [...] but now he appears to be trying to do too much and in the end does too little. [...] Murray was talking before Thursday's loss about the need for the Kings' defensemen to get more pucks on net and help generate more offense. He didn't mention Doughty by name, but he didn't need to.

"You can't miss training camp," Murray told ESPN.com before Thursday's game. "Not in this game. You can't miss training camp. You can't miss the start of the year. That takes a big bite of everything away from you. "Now you come in with expectations that are an incredible burden, incredible. With that kind of contract, and the only way a lot of people are going to look at him is to be a Norris trophy winner, finish first with the Presidents' Trophy and win the Stanley Cup. "

To me, the fact that Murray is saying this now is fascinating. Yes, we all know Doughty is holding his stick too tight right now, along with just about everyone else, but what's the motivation for airing this out in public? That's kind of a rhetorical question. I pointed out last post that if Doughty were on a pace for 20 goals, he'd have 5 or 6 more goals than he has now. Not enough to make a difference in the over-all team offensive crappiness.

"We've still got one of the youngest cores in the National Hockey League, so the expectations have grown very quickly here in a couple of years, and that's OK," Murray said. "That's a good thing. That's needed as an organization to push everybody to get to places where they never thought they could be before and that's where we want to be. We want to keep those expectations coming." All of which imbues the Kings' struggles with even more urgency than might otherwise be the case. [...] But the disappointing offensive showings have amped up calls among Kings' fans to make some sort of move, make a trade, fire the coach. No different than in other any market. [...] "There's a mental growth that has to take place," Lombardi said of his team. There may be a cap on talent, "but there's no cap on mental toughness" [...].

We went through this last year, twice. Two long slumps, which required a record-setting hot streak to correct. I'm sure Terry Murray is making all sorts of changes to his game-plan, but from the outside looking in, through both slumps it looked like the strategy was to hold firm, to keep doing the things they "know" work ("shot mentality", "compete", "battle for pucks", "blue paint", "traffic", "speed on entry", "crash the net", "keep it simple"). This model is called "the system works if you actually execute it, so just do it". Close on the heels of this is, "I need more."

The players have to do what they're told. They are, after all, "character" guys who "want the right thing." The locker room is "tight." They "care about each other." When those ideals are trumpeted so often, does anyone expect the players to take a left turn when told to go right? There is no locker room leader -- or bigger-than-life personality -- on a par with (for example) Alex Ovechkin, or Chris Pronger, or Scott Neidermayer, or Scott Stevens. The Kings are, on the whole, a bunch of diligent students who want to please the teacher.

The coach has the option of continuing with the plan (which from experience he knows will not work for stretches during any given season), tweaking the plan using a method akin to reordering your letters in Scrabble in hopes of stumbling on a 50 point word, or ditching the plan entirely. I believe Terry Murray is heavily invested in his plan. It will work if only you execute it.

Lombardi has the option of addressing the troops (a coupon that can be played maybe once every couple of years), giving entertaining but inscrutable interviews (he is in a way the Alan Greenspan of hockey GMs), talking to the coaches (oh, how I would love to be a fly on the wall of those meetings), or making personnel moves. The only actual option he has is to let his personnel do what they were hired to do (I mean players and coaches), or to change personnel. In the past, he's been able to play the "we're ahead of schedule" card, but the trading for Richards, signing of Doughty and spending to the cap ceiling effectively put an end to that. I don't think I've heard him say we're ahead of schedule for months now. Which means, somewhere in the schedule, there is a line in the sand, beyond which Lombardi is going to be forced to make personnel changes or risk taking the fall himself.

This morning I was enjoying the fantasy of Lombardi firing the entire staff and hiring Randy Carlysle. There's something delicious about watching the Ducks have to continue to pay Carlysle to beat them over and over from the other bench. But Lombardi is stubborn in a mostly admirable way, and in this case I can imagine him hanging on to Terry Murray to Lombardi's own detriment.

And if there's a trade? I would say Anze Kopitar, Richards, Gagne, Doughty, Jonathan Quick and Rob Scuderi are safe. Dustins Brown and Penner are not, for different reasons. These are two players I really like. But Penner is expendable and Brown is "the" leader on a team that has leadership issues. So how safe can he be? I also wouldn't be surprised to see Jarret Stoll moved. As for Jack Johnson, I am pretty sure Lombardi will hang onto him, because his upside is so big (and I think he likes JJ's fire; I suspect Lombardi likes a guy who pushes back), but of all the Kings not named Kopitar, Richards or Doughty, it's JJ who is the easiest to imagine other GMs taking as the big piece in a Big Trade. If I had to bet, I would say Johnson will stay, and I hope he does. But I bet there are going to be some interesting phone calls for a few weeks here.

Me, I'd rather just get a new coach who can make better use of the tools we have.

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