“The Los Angeles Kings are old!”
It’s true, and coming into the season, it was a knock on LA. And for good reason! Based on average age, The Athletic pegged them as the third-oldest team in the league. The only two teams older are Ottawa and Detroit, who are completely lost at sea. Thirteen players 30 or older have played for the Kings this season. And sure, the four oldest players they’ve used this season (Mike Cammalleri, Marian Gaborik, Jussi Jokinen, and Brooks Laich) have all long since departed, but LA also acquired three other players 32 and older this season, two of them after The Athletic tabulated their rankings. Guys that age are supposed to decline, and several them already have.
But! In a league where teams with flashy young stars are taking over (with one very prominent exception), the Kings are going to be the oldest team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And they’ve largely done it because of those old players, not in spite of them. Four of those 13 “old guys” are gone, but the other nine all played on Monday night, and either eight or nine will be in the Kings’ lineup for Game 1 of the first round.
The contrast between the Kings and their opponent in Game 80 of the season was about as stark as it gets. Only two players under 25 appeared for LA, compared to seven for Colorado. Nine players aged 30 or over for LA, and just two for Colorado. Yet the Kings had more in the tank against a team that had played the night before, and they closed in on a return to the postseason with a 3-1 win.
How about those three veterans LA acquired this season? I’ve had very, very mixed feelings about Torrey Mitchell, Nate Thompson, and Dion Phaneuf this season, but they did everything they were asked to against Colorado. Mitchell’s goal in the first period was either lucky or opportunistic depending on who you ask; Thompson’s long wrister caromed off the boards and between Bernier’s legs, where Mitchell pounced. Neither has been a standout in the possession game, but both have improved since dire stretches early on in their Kings tenures. Stevens has lightened the PK load for both players and lowered their even strength ice time, and they’re better in those limited roles.
Phaneuf’s role isn’t getting more limited. With both Jake Muzzin and Derek Forbort out for the foreseeable future, he’s the de facto number three defenseman on a likely playoff team. It was a good time for one of his better games in an LA uniform, and being paired with Drew Doughty seemed to suit him. We’ll see if he skates with Paul LaDue as he did in Wednesday’s morning skate, or if he’s asked to hold it down with another inexperienced dman.
Either way, he won’t be playing more than 30-year-old Alec Martinez. Martinez set a career high — regular season OR playoffs — with 32:11 of ice time on Monday night, and though that was obviously inflated due to Forbort’s injury, he’s going to be asked to do more than he’s ever done before. His play has gone from subpar to okay to great since he signed his extension, but this year it really depends on who you ask. His possession numbers are brutal while his goals-against numbers are terrific, so in essence, he’s done a good job the hard way. However, he’s been solid lately, upping his game along with Phaneuf in recent outings, and the 32-minute effort (with zero goals against) was a stunner.
Throwback efforts from Trevor Lewis and Dustin Brown this year have been instrumental to LA’s success as well, and each got on the scoresheet against Colorado. The Lewis assist on Kyle Clifford’s goal was nothing to write home about, as it was a blocked shot that bounced to #13, but it did give Lewis a new career high in points (26) to go with likely career highs in goals (14) and ice time (15:16 per game). With the top six seemingly sorted out, Lewis has been spending a lot of time with Adrian Kempe lately, and they’ve been effective. I don’t need to tell you any more about Dustin Brown, though, who has been a revelation. He’s a goal short of his first 25-goal season in seven years, he’s got a career high in assists, and despite more ice time than in any season other than 2011-12, he shows no signs of slowing down with 11 points in his last 10 games. Brown scored a shorthanded goal on Monday that put LA in the driver’s seat, because yeah, he’s doing PK work too. I can’t say enough about him.
(He’s not 30 yet, but like Lewis, Clifford is a veteran of 500+ career games, posting an above-average CF% with primarily defensive zone starts, and scoring more than usual. Good on you, Kyle.)
Then there’s the three guys you expected to make or break this team. Jonathan Quick and Jeff Carter have had to bounce back from injury — Quick from a 2016 groin injury that forced him to miss 59 games last season, Carter from a 2017 leg injury that forced him to miss 55 games this season. Carter was expected to be very good but he’s blown our expectations out of the water, scoring at literally a 50-goal pace since his return to the lineup. Carter’s Corsi For% at 5v5 is just 48.3% but his Shots For% is a considerably better 52.1%, and not surprisingly, the team just scores when he’s on the ice. Quick, on the other hand, was expected to be... I dunno, fine? His SV% in the last four seasons was .915, .918, .918, and .917, which are fine figures but not particularly remarkable. This year, however, he’s got a .924 going, even as a slight reduction in starts has been offset by an uptick in shots faced. Since the All-Star break his save percentage is .929, the same as it was in his standout 2011-12 campaign. He’s been massive.
And then there’s Anze Kopitar. His assist on Brown’s goal put him at 91 points, 10 points past his previous career high, and in the 13:46 of even strength time he and Nathan MacKinnon were on the ice, the Avalanche mustered only two shots on goal. We’re going to write a full rundown of what he’s done this year, and needless to say, it’s all spectacular. The thirties are treating the Kings’ captain quite nicely, and there’s good reason he and Doughty (also a veteran now!) are getting awards pushes.
Are LA’s vets going to run out of steam after a long season with only two games to relax at the end? Or will their experience and their recent level of play carry them through a difficult first-round matchup with a division rival? Either way, for a team many thought would be on the outside looking in, LA has gotten contributions great and small from their oldest players, and it’s mattered.