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 to cup 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.
After the Kings' loss in game four a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled "Is this is pattern?" In that post, I covered the Kings' recent history of peaks followed immediately by collapse. I won't rehash that now, except to say that I identified several key moments over the last two seasons, in each of which the Kings collapsed in the face of success.
- 2010 Playoffs against Vancouver, with a lead going into the third period of game four, and a chance to go up 3-1 in the series.
- 2010-11 first fifteen games: the Kings are 12-3, #1 in the league.
- December 27, 2010: Kings dominate the Sharks 4-0 (the game with the amazing Kopitar to Brown aerial pass).
- Trade deadline day.
- 2011 Playoffs against San Jose: up 4-0 in game three with a chance to go up 2-1 in the series.
I'm No Psychiatrist
but it's hard not to notice that virtually every time the Kings do something reasonably big, they lose focus and fall apart. By "reasonably big" I don't mean "a win" or "a good record." But if it's big enough to make them Big National News -- like being number one in the league, or clinching the playoffs, or making the biggest splash on deadline day, or pushing a cup favorite to the brink -- they suddenly stop doing what they were doing to get themselves to those various lofty heights, and play more or less like kids playing street hockey, each with his own Stanley Cup Final play-by-play running in his head. [...]
So if the issue is losing focus, who is to blame for that? The stock answer: the Kings are young. They're making youthful mistakes. Is that it?
Handzus, Stoll, Smyth, Williams, Greene, Scuderi, Mitchell, Ponikarovsky, Penner, Richardson, Parse, Westgarth, Brown, Drewiske and Harrold are all 26 or older. That's 15 guys. So, no. Youth is not the problem.
Besides, we're not talking about one incident. What happened in the Vancouver series, I was more than willing to write off as a learning experience. [How about the] several versions of "we've arrived/not-so-fast" that transpired over the course of this season[?] [I might be wiling to] consider those laboratories for learning, banking the wisdom they will then apply when they get to the playoffs again.
But that's where we are now [San Jose series, April 2011], and the Kings are somehow having to learn the same lesson yet again. Which suggests to me that the lesson simply isn't sinking in.
Sometimes a team comes into a playoff series and they're just dominated from start to finish. Then you can say the team was simply over-matched; they didn't have the skill to compete with an overwhelmingly better team. But I really don't think you can say that when the teams are separated by one point in the standings (Vancouver and LA last year) or seven points (the Kings and Sharks this year). You can't say the Canucks or Sharks were/are undeniably and far-and-away the better team when in both cases there were multiple overtime games and in both cases the supposedly inferior team was in a position not only to win the series. I'm not saying the Kings are better than either of those teams; the only way to demonstrate that is to actually win the series. And the Kings haven't done that.
In both series, the Kings were in a position to close and didn't close. And closing, in both cases, meant doing the very thing they had been doing all season, the very thing that was their calling card: playing solid defense. As I said ad nauseum in the last post: sticking to the system.
Doing that doesn't require superhuman ability or in fact superhuman anything, except possibly this: focus.
Coaches can't play the game for the players.
We hear that all the time. But they can guide the focus of their players. In fact, that's all they can do. That, in a nutshell, is their job.
That was me, after game four. Here's Lombardi after the series was over:
LOMBARDI: "[...] I don’t like the fact that we put ourselves in situations where we had to face adversity, but I liked the way we dealt with it. The way they responded after putting themselves in that position in late January, we went through a stretch there for a month and a half where we only lost four games, and every one of those games was critical. The way they found a way to win, that, i think, is progress. [...] But on the other hand, [...] it was almost like we had trouble dealing with success. I put success in quotes.
We had the 12-3 (start), and there’s such a thing of feeling good about yourself in the wrong way.
Then we had another stretch where we were really good, and it looked like we had learned from the first one, then we fell off and put ourselves to where we had to fight our way back and play at an incredibly high winning percentage to get in (to the playoffs).
Then you almost look at the playoffs too, a 4-0 lead (in Game 3). [...] Again, I put this in quotes, but it’s a version of `success,’ and dealing with it.
[...O]n the one hand, I liked the fact that we responded to putting ourselves in a predicament, and not giving up, and on the other hand, we have to learn from this and not get in that situation in the first place. So you lose a 4-0 lead, and then you find a way to go back up there and win Game 5 and take them to overtime. Even in Game 6 there, the first 30 minutes, they’re all over us, and the last 30 minutes are ours. So they’ve shown they can respond to it, but the point is that to be a really good team is to learn to be professional.
If you look at the good teams, you have to define the problem and then recognize the signs that this is not going to seep in again. That’s the responsibility of your captains [...], that when you get off to 12-3 and you start seeing that slide, knock it off. Detroit, when they’re in a slide, they’ve be .500, but you don’t go 0-8 or 0-9 or whatever.
[...] [O]ne thing that’s troubling[:] [...] all of a sudden, the playoffs start and we were very uncharacteristic in what is supposed to be a staple of our game. I told you this three years ago, that we’re going to build this from the back out. Defensively, it’s the first step. We were fourth in the league in goals against, and we accomplished that. Then we got in the playoffs and we scored goals and all of a sudden we’re giving them up. So that’s something we’ve got to look at closely.
[...] The staple of our game, where was that? What was going on there?"
"What was going on there?"
My feeling was, one way or another, 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 in Mike 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.
Handzus was the hub of the defensive system the last few years. His line was almost always the "stopper" unit. There were stretches of the last two seasons in which Handzus's line was outscoring Kopitar's. Not only is Handzus gone, but so are the rest of his linemates going back three years. That would be Simmonds, Ponikarovsky and Alex Frolov (who left after '09-'10). As I mentioned in the weekend's reprinted post, Poni and Simmonds shouldered the toughest minutes on the team.
Who is going to do those jobs this year?
- Jarret Stoll -- Stoll occupies Handzus's vacated C3 spot. He's faster and better on the draw than Handzus. He's not as good "on both sides of the puck." And he's not big enough to move people. I'm willing to kind of maybe accept Stoll as a workable replacement for Handzus. As long as the other pieces fit.
- Ethan Moreau -- That's a downgrade from both Poni and Frolov. An upgrade in leadership, I guess. (Does this mean Voynov has to make the team just to fill the "enigmatic Russian" void?)
- Trent Hunter -- If we're very lucky, Hunter could stay healthy, remember how to score and might even replace Simmonds' scoring. Maybe it's just that I really liked Simmonds and everything he "brought", but I am not thrilled with subtracting one of my favorite players and replacing him with a reclamation project.
- Trevor Lewis -- I can actually see Lewis blossoming into the RW3 role. He's not physical like Simmonds, but he's fast and he's more skilled than he's given credit for. As a prospect, he was known as a smart, well-rounded hockey player. I choose to root for him to take the Simmonds slot. (Plus, Stoll-speed and Lewis-speed are two great tastes that taste great together -- one player removed from my Stoll-Loktionov-Lewis crackpot dream line).
- Kyle Clifford -- I love Kyle Clifford and hope the Kings retire his jersey. I don't know if he's ready for the tough defensive minutes, but what do I know? Clifford-Stoll-Lewis, I would probably enjoy that. But to think it can do what Poni/Frolov-Handzus-Simmonds did, that might be wishful thinking.
During the pre-season, the idea of Andrei Loktionov and Viatcheslav Voynov both working the second power play unit had me feeling pretty rosy about this year's power-play. Now Loktionov is in Manchester, and Voynov -- I hope he sticks around, but I have a feeling he'll be in Manchester soon, too. At which point, I'm not sure how our power-play is any better than last year, when it frankly sucked to the point of costing us playoff wins (a 5 minute major powerplay in the 3rd and OT of a playoff game?). Smyth and Handzus were pretty important pieces of the power-play, too, and I'm not sure who is supposed to be the guy sticking his butt in the goalie's face now. Richards and Gagne are probably an upgrade over those two, but I have to label this another area where improvement isn'tguaranteed.
We still don't really have a concrete answer on who actually runs the power-play -- is it fan-unfavorite Jamie Kompon? Is it Murray? -- but until there's a change of philosophy I don't expect significant improvement.
At least with Loktionov and Voynov there was movement. I'm tired of Anze Kopitar on a lazy-susan at the half-wall, telegraphing passes to Stoll or Johnson for the blistering high/wide shot at the glass.
Smyth, Simmonds and Handzus are out. That's 50 goals right there. It's reasonable to expect Richards and Gagne to replace that. Last year, I thought it was possible for the Kings to have ten 20 goal scorers. That didn't happen. (We ended up with five: Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams, Smyth, Stoll.)
This year, I'm hoping for 20+ goals from Kopitar, Penner, Williams, Gagne, Richards, Brown, Stoll and one of Doughty or Johnson. If Parse survives this week and gets his train rolling, I would add him to that list. If Loktionov were still here, he'd be on it, too. Everyone on the top two lines is capable of scoring 30. I'm going out on a limb to say I think Penner and Richards will.
All the nerdy analysis of shoot-outs since the lock-out indicate that the outcome of any given shoot-out is essentially random. A team may have a great run or a hideous dry spell, but over time, everyone regresses to the mean. This worries me. Stoll (9 goals, 10 attempts, 90%, 4 game-deciding goals) and Jonathan Quick (10-0 record) were miraculous last year. I hope they continue to be, because the Kings wouldn't even have made the playoffs if they hadn't grabbed 10 out of 12 crap-shoot points (best in the league, by the way).
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.
I have no clue. So here you go: the Kings' conference seed will be determined by this equation:
x = 12 - y - (z-5)/2
x = conference seed, y = number of 20 goal scorers, z = number of shoot-out wins. Results are rounded to the nearest counting number.