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Patience: The Summer of Restlessness

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What’s the real plan, guys?

NHL: Los Angeles Kings Press Conference Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Before I get to the meat of this rant, I want to punctuate that I’m not a hockey journalist or reporter like the other LA media pundits are. I am a fan first. I protect the fans. I voice our opinions, rational or not. The fans pay the bills and too often we are told to be patient, or to stop whining, or that this is a business (“show business” not “show friendship”), or something along those lines. There always seems to be a lecture directed at us, and quite frankly, that isn’t fair.

For the record, twenty plus years ago, I wanted to name my son “Gretzky”. It seemed right considering I had high hopes he would be something special (still do) and announcing him as the Great One with a named introduction was a delusional aspiration that seemed perfect in 1999. Smarter heads prevailed and the Gretzky Plan was eliminated.

Maybe this is why the precipitous fall from grace the Kings have fallen into since lifting that second Stanley Cup is so alarming to me.

The current Kings core player group brought us our first championship in 2012 and a second title two years later. They followed those two title runs with two playoff berths (1-8 in those games) and three seasons of playoff misses, including the absolute worst season in decades. Since April 2017, Kings management managed to replaced the most successful Kings coach ever with lazy hire number one: John Stevens, a bland, non-innovative, Mr. Nice Guy coach only to up the ante and replace him with Willie Desjardins, the least-liked, most incompetent head coach of my lifetime (that’s 50 years and counting). They’ve allowed Dean Lombardi, the franchise’s most successful general manager, to be summarily axed just three seasons after winning a championship. All things considered, maybe a little patience that we, as the fans have been asked for regularly lately, would have been nice for Lombardi.

All of the great moves Lombardi made in those Stanley Cup years disappeared as he lost trade after trade and failed and all of his last poker plays finally bankrupt the draft picks and left the Kings top-loaded with contracted players that were aging and not producing. Still, I will remember Lombardi as the guy who managed my team when we twice did something that, for all of my life, I devoted an unreasonable amount of time fretting they would never do. Who cares if it ended badly?

Through it all, I never lost faith in what the Kings are trying to do. Maybe this is why I pictured Rob Blake as The Mad Scientist for the last nine months hoping he would “relentlessly pursue and develop talent to become a team that is capable of winning in today’s NHL.” These were the words Kings President Luc Robitaille put out a message to season ticket holders on January 29th after they traded Jake Muzzin.

After the great lottery failure of 2019 dropped the Kings to fifth in this year’s draft, we were all reminded that patience was a must because, hey, we won two Stanley Cups since 2012 and all of the upcoming misery would be well worth the glory we were lucky enough to experience. As it turned out, the 2019 NHL Draft was kind to the Kings (as I covered here) and the future was getting a little bit brighter. We could start there…

Now that the Kings have a bit more financial flexibility ahead and a better pipeline, the team’s management seem to expect fans to (1) simply make-believe the past few years never happened, and (2) believe in their big-picture plan once again.

How about we begin with an e-mail excerpt from Amy, a Beverly Hills reader, who reached out a couple of days after free agency began:

“Watching the Kings limp into free agency is one of the most disheartening things I’ve seen in recent years. Then watching Ben Hutton (who?!) turn down Rob Blake’s offer officially confirms my stance that I’m at the point where my relationship with the Kings is much like being married for 12 years and you’re not in love anymore but you stay together for the kids.”

Out of all the emails I received, this is the best analogy I’ve heard. I mean, as a fan, we are in a deep relationship with our teams. We spent hundreds of dollars every game on tickets, food, parking, and merchandise. We understand the deal. The team rents the players for a period of time and we remain loyal with the caveat that the team won’t take advantage for too long.

Last season reached a point where you needed to seriously address this relationship. Most of us spent our nights hate-watching the black and while and praying we bottomed out in such a ludicrously horrible way that they would trade everyone to clear salary cap and grab a top two player in the draft.

But something much deeper was happening within the Kings organization. While Kings management leaked the “entitlement” angle to the local media as a cover-up for such poor play on the ice and ineptitude behind the bench, they wound up morphing into something I have yet to define. Kind of something between “snake oil salesmen” and “entitled.” Maybe an “entitled snake oil salesmen.” Let me take that down a notch for sensitive fans who love Rob Blake and Luc Robitaille because, after all, they delivered all of those Kings championships all by themselves back in the day. Oh wait, they both went to other franchises to win their Cups. Never mind.

Upon further review, “entitled snake oil salesmen” is way too harsh a term. More appropriate would be “corporate double-talkers.” Yes, that’s much better, so let’s continue there.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings Press Conference Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the apathy from both towards addressing the massive concerns of fans reached an epic level. They panicked and they fired John Stevens, a coach that should have never been hired. Then they went lazy (again) hiring Willie Desjardins, a coach who was run out of Vancouver because he mismanaged lines, scapegoated players, disliked guys who were not from North America, couldn’t score goals, or set out effective special teams. I mean they didn’t even meet with Desjardins in person before gifting him this job. Big mistake, huge!

When we quickly figured out that Desjardins was a charlatan of a coach, Blake could barely muster a response for months rising just above “no comments” with the standard “we think he’s a good coach” rhetoric while Willie looked barely awake behind the bench and spoke of “good efforts” from his players in loss after loss as if this were Juniors or the OHL. Then just prior to the season ticket letter, Robitaille tells us all that the cycle of losing is unacceptable. Ugh!

I’m sorry but toeing the company line while simultaneously placating the fans with visions of change and the “Plan” was never good enough, especially when the plan changes monthly.

Is this a reset or a rebuild or reboot or…? We never get a straight answer.

We’re not asking for fire and brimstone or scorched earth along the lines of what Jim Lites did to the Dallas Stars last season, but an occasional straight answer would be refreshing.

But then it got worse. As Willie’s feud with Ilya Kovalchuk reached Hatfield and McCoy territory to the wonderment of national and local media alike, Kings management went silent. They let it grow and seemed to back the interim coach with this silence. Despite being a team top scorer while missing a bundle of games and being mistreated, the stain of this feud lingers on at the “Kovalchuk Situation” and the “Enigma of Ilya Kolvachuk.” Love him or hate him, the result of the Kings silence may have blossomed in a massive butterfly effect for the organization.

The media-smear campaign of Kolvachuk that followed Willie’s arrival and subsequent benchings played out like a McCarthy hearing filled with analytics that backed the fact that our prized free agent’s per-60 averages were the worst on a team filled to the limit with dreadful per-60 averages. The only problem was that many fans caught on to what was happening and knew he wasn’t fully to blame.

After a 98-point 2017-18 season, the follow-up was a an 82-game campaign where everyone except Jack Campbell stunk to the high heavens. Kovalchuk got his comeuppance at the World Championships with his Russian comrades supporting. His PR strategy was something to behold as he put his friends to work. Bestie Evgeni Malkin giving up his beloved “71” for the tournament, Alex Ovechkin yielding his captaincy, and Evgeny Kuznetsov publicly telling everyone that Kovy was a positive force in the [locker] room and “the type of guy you want to play with.” Kings fans knew that Willie was the problem and this only [very loudly] underscored the fact that the Ilya Kovalchuk Situation was actually the “Willie D. Situation.”

The Kings only response to this Kovalchuk PR win was to tweet it out and again hope the fans wouldn’t catch on because, after all, the Kings were still extending an olive branch of peace, right?

Here’s the butterfly effect. While Blake and Robitaille continue the propaganda campaign of “patience” and “building from within” as the reasons to accept future years of losing, here’s what concerns me going forward: I can’t dream up any scenario why any marquee free agent would come to Los Angeles. Who would want to sign with this franchise when the entire “We will bury your reputation if this doesn’t work out” message has been undoubtedly established. Would you want to work for these guys?

The Kovalchuk smear campaign is what free agents remember out there and don’t trick yourself that this isn’t fact.

Prior to the beginning of the season, Artemi Panarin’s camp leaked that his top four choices in free agency were the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, and the Kings. Do you know the only team of these four that didn’t get a meeting with the Breadman? Yes, you guessed it, the Kings. (Please don’t @ me about the fact the Kings are terrible because the Rangers and the Panthers were lottery teams last year too.)

Around the time free agency was gearing up and teams were set for their meetings, Blake came out with his declaration that, “we’re going to improve this internally.” To me (and my media colleagues who spin things positive for a living) this was a not-so-transparent attempt to hide the obvious fact that the Kings couldn’t get any substantial free agency meetings. Again, Rob and Luc, don’t BS a BS’er. This is the intended consequence of silently backing the worst coach ever and throwing players under the bus in the process.

Here’s the fact that Kings management seems to be missing: you bought a lot goodwill based on 2012, 2013, and 2014. Patience would have been an easy thing to sell IF you didn’t go lazy on the coaches and then blame the players for being entitled. After Tyler Toffoli’s “pathetic practices” comments, you should have gotten out in front of this whole situation and fallen on the sword. We would have really appreciated the honesty. Personally, it would have made me feel better about the $3,836 I spent on everything Kings this past year taking my two kids to (mostly) unwatchable games.

I can’t lie. Unless the Kings were going to go on an extended dynasty run, it’s been a boatload of fun to have the defective and semi-clumsy Kings back in my life. Like comfort food when you fight with your girlfriend or spouse. It’s been a fountain of youth remembering those 1970s teams who couldn’t win for losing. The last have of this decade is like one of those awkward family reunions where everyone winds in the same house and it becomes evident that the reason we all stopped getting together is because we are all crazy.

Welcome back, dysfunctional Kings. This feels entirely normal.

Feel free to pack your bags as soon as possible.

My patience is wearing thin on this act already.