Anyone who is writing off the Kings hasn't seen them play

It's not surprising -- in fact, it's predictable -- that folks in the various media would leap on the story of the sudden demise of the Los Angeles Kings. In the two days since Kopitar broke his ankle, the consensus seems to be that the Kings now have little chance of going deep in the playoffs, if they're even able to get into the playoffs in the first place. NHL on the Fly just advised me that "expectations" must be lowered in the wake of Kopitar's (and Justin Williams's) season-ending injuries. 

My theory is that these guys love their narratives, and most of them have been looking for a reason to let themselves off the hook of their pre-season "Kings are cup contenders now" predictions. The Kopitar and Williams injuries have wiped the slate clean. It's a pundit win-win. If the Kings don't go deep, it was the unforeseeable injuries (as if any injury to Justin Williams can be called "unforeseeable"); and if they go deep "against all odds," well, they'll be all over that story, not to mention the fact that it validates their original prognostication. Funny how that works.

Meanwhile, back in reality,

there's no question that subtracting Kopitar and Williams from the Kings line-up creates a void. Whether it's a huge void or not depends on which Kopitar we would have seen. The dominant one we see periodically, the one we all expect him to be someday?  The invisible one who doesn't score for a month here or there, but is still solid defensively? The one who is suffering because Lombardi won't give him decent wingers to play with? I've spent about half of the last two or three seasons reading about "what's wrong with Kopitar?" And now that he's out, suddenly we're doomed? You can't have it both ways. 

I think the desire to have it both ways is really the desire to manage anxiety. When Kopitar isn't scoring, people are afraid maybe he isn't the superstar he's supposed to be. Or, alternately, that management is sub-par since they won't "give him good linemates." Either the player is flawed, or the GM is flawed, or the coach juggles lines too much and is flawed. Someone has to be to blame for last night's loss (none of this comes up after a win).

And now that Kopitar is done for the season, this year's playoffs -- as Helene Elliott put it last night -- have "that wait till next year feeling." But everything gives Helene that feeling. 

It's a fact

that those two players are important cogs in the Kings' machine.  But I don't believe any part of the narrative that Kopitar and Williams are somehow the equivalent of Crosby and Malkin, or Ovechkin, or pick your own favorite franchise player(s) who got injured.

All due respect to Anze Kopitar, but he's an up-and-coming, potential franchise player. He's not a franchise player yet. He's a two-time 30, three-time 20 goal scorer who has some sweet moves, plays good defense, logs big minutes and has a lot of room to grow. 

And Williams? I said in an earlier post that Justin Williams might be my MVP for the season. Most of the reason for that is he and his linemates (Jarret Stoll and Ryan Smyth) were the best line in the league when Kopitar was nowhere to be found. But Williams missed the second half of last season and effectively missed the playoffs too (he came back from injury too early and was benched). And what was that but an opportunity for others to step up?

The Kings had their ups and downs last season, as they did this seasons, but the "downs" didn't correspond to Williams' absence. In fact, the Kings played their best hockey last year when Ryan Smyth and Williams were both injured -- only to go on an immediate losing streak as soon as the two veterans came back. The Kings also played like cup champions back in November when Drew Doughty missed several games with a concussion, only to slump when he returned.

So I don't have any special concern that the Kings won't be able to fill the void. And I think I figured out why.

A year ago

  • ...the Kings were mired in a post-Olympic slump. 37-20-4 at the break. 9-7-5 after the break. 
  • Jonathan Quick, the brilliant before the break, sat in the stands for two weeks at the Olympics, became a new father, and proceeded to suck terribly for the rest of the season, before recovering somewhat (but not completely) in the first round of the playoffs. 
  • Quick was 4-7-4 after the Olympics. Bernier was 3-0-0. Ersberg was 2-0-1. 
  • The whole time, I was pretty shrill about the fact that Quick was obviously exhausted and Jonathan Bernier needed to be playing with the big club. I was told I was nuts. Murray denied there were any issues with Quick's stamina or focus, until after the season was over, at which point he said he rode Quick too hard. 
  • This is an example of one line-up Murray used during the Vancouver series (though obviously he changes lines more than socks): 

Smyth/Kopitar/Simmonds

Frolov/Stoll/Richardson

Modin/Handzus/Brown

Ivanans/Halpern/Williams

Scuderi/Doughty

Johnson/Jones

O'Donnell/Greene

Quick

Ersberg

  • Okay, so let's take that line by line. Last year, Smyth/Kopitar/Simmonds. This year, Penner/Handzus/Moller. At the risk of being overly optimistic, I'm going to call that a wash. Yes, Kopitar is more of a threat than Handzus. But Handzus is better defensively. And the Kings are built, for better or worse, to win games 2-1.
  • Last year, Frolov/Stoll/Richardson. This year, Smyth/Lewis/Brown. 2011 wins that one.
  • Last year, Modin/Handzus/Brown. This year, Ponikarovsky/Stoll/Simmonds. Modin was quite good last year...but I really like this Poni/Stoli/Simi line. Advantage 2011.
  • Last year, Ivanans/Halpern/hobbled-terrible-Williams. This year, Clifford/Richardson/Westgarth. Halpern was useless, hobbled Williams couldn't help sucking. Ivanans vs. Westgarth is a wash. But Clifford/Richardson is great/good. And I am hopeful Lombardi will call someone up to play instead of Westgarth, or else we'll just see the RW4 spot used as a double-shift reward for the top nine forwards. Which is what Murray did last year.
  • Now, the defense. First pair last year, Scuderi/Doughty; this year, Doughty and Willie Mitchell.
  • Second pair, last year: Johnson and Randy Jones. (pause for effect) Okay? Got that? Randy Jones, top four defenseman. This year, it's Johnson and Scuderi. That's a stratospheric upgrade.
  • Third pair, last year: Sean O'Donnell and Greene. This year, Alec Martinez and Greene. I love SOD, but by this time last year, the mileage was wearing him down. And Alec Martinez is young, FAST, responsible and not afraid to shoot the puck. Another huge upgrade.
  • In: Penner, Moller, Lewis, Ponikarovsky and Clifford. Out: Kopitar, Williams, Frolov, Modin and Halpern.
  • In: Mitchell, Martinez. Out: Jones, O'Donnell.
  • In: Bernier. Out: Ersberg.
  • Also...this time last year, Quick was not well. Now: Quick is in top form. Better than last year even.
  • Last year, he was tired. This year, not.
  • Last year, no backup. This year, Bernier.
  • Last March, Kings sucked. This March, not.
  • And I don't think you can discount the fact that Trevor Lewis and Oscar Moller both look better than they've ever looked. I can't say "I know they're ready for prime time," but it's exciting that we get to see if they are.
  • I would also note that Doughty and Johnson are a year older and a year better. Remember that pair on the power play against Vancouver last April? What if they can harness that again?
  • Last point: I love that the defense got better both defensively (Mitchell) and offensively (Martinez). That's a huge deal, and three of those guys (Martinez, Doughty and Johnson) are still in hockey-puberty.
  • Oops. Real last point: as much as I like Justin Williams, that's one or two dangerously bad passes per game I won't have to watch. And I do think the power play will magically improve now. 17.1% is the mark to beat.
  • And maybe I would consider bringing up Dwight King to play instead of Westgarth. 

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