LA Kings vs. Winnipeg Jets Recap, Game #22: What I’m grateful for in hockey

Despite another carbon copy lackluster performance, Thanksgiving provides the time for me to assess the team and share what I love about hockey.

It was another unproductive start on November 22.  Another questionable performance by Jonathan Quick.  Another late goal by the Los Angeles Kings to put our hopes up.  And another goalie pull in the final minute, in vain.

Thanksgiving is traditionally the time NHL teams assess themselves, and see whether they are in good shape for the remainder of the season.  But this Kings team is hard to read.  The Kings have now played 22 games.  The season has passed its quarter point. After starting the season white-hot at 11-2-2, the Kings have now lost six of their last seven.  In those six losses, they have scored an average of exactly 1.5 goals per game, and have given up 16 goals.  And four of the six losses have been by only one goal.

The October 18 injury to Jeff Carter has proven exactly as devastating as feared.  The Kings cannot contend without their second line center, who led the Kings in scoring last season.  So far without Carter, not only have the Kings failed to compete, they have fallen onto their faces like beginners learning to skate.

After scoring 6 goals in 5 games, including a sizzling hat trick on October 18, Adrian Kempe has cooled off, with only 1 goal and 3 assists in the 11 games since, despite playing about 13-14 minutes a night.  Though he assisted on a lovely Tanner Pearson goal against the Vegas Golden Knights on November 19, moments like that have been less frequent for the Swede.

Nick Shore, who was originally slated to replace Jeff Carter’s 2C spot, has only scored 1 goal and 2 assists since October 18.  The few plays Shore has contributed have been lovely.  But Shore, who is also 25 years old like the Ontario (Canada) duo of Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, has largely failed to show his worth in the NHL in his fourth year in the league.  Though Shore plays about 13-16 minutes a night, he has mostly been a nonfactor in offense.  And though he is touted for his ability to win faceoffs, his faceoff percentage (51.7% so far) does not particularly stand out among those of other NHL players.

I have previously written that Toffoli and Pearson must score a lot for the Kings to earn a playoff berth. Toffoli is doing his part, with 10 goals and 6 assists.  Pearson, however, has only 4 goals and 8 assists.  It’s not for a lack of chances—Kempe has done an admirable job feeding chances to the two wingers.  Pearson still skates fast.  But he has nevertheless appeared invisible and low-energy, not doing enough to make his presence known on the ice.  With only one of the Ontario (Canada) duo producing, it may explain the bipolar play we have seen with the Kings this season.

How about Alex Iafallo?  The kid from Minnesota-Duluth has earned a spot on the top line, and we love how he keeps the shift going with his speed and his extra burst of “try”.  But his effort has not yielded him production—he only has 1 goal and 7 assists.  Though we can credit him for facilitating the renaissance of Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, how many of the four one-goal losses could have been wins if Iafallo put away a few more chances?

And yes, Andy Andreoff.  He finally scored a goal in front of the net against the Florida Panthers on November 18.  But how many times this season has he received the puck in front of the net, and failed to score?  Fans will stop calling for his removal from the roster if he keeps opponents more honest with a few goals.  I contend that he is still a necessity on the roster with Kyle Clifford injured.  Without an enforcer, Kopitar and Brown go down with cheap shots.  But Andreoff’s choice of fights has been foolish—after leading 1-0 against the Vancouver Canucks on November 14, an ill-advised fight against Derek Dorsett arguably fired up the Canucks and cost the Kings the game.

To make matters worse, Carter is not expected back until February.  The Pacific Division  and Western Conference are logjams.  As of today, Vegas is now ahead of the Kings by one point.  The Calgary Flames are only one point behind and threaten to burn our front door, and so are the surprising Canucks.  Only two points behind them are the always-hated San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, who circle our waters.  Perhaps the pundits are right and the Kings aren’t playoff material after all.

But despite all the trouble stirring in the Kings’ world, I am still grateful.

I’m grateful for the resurgence of Kopitar and Brown.  After scoring only 12 goals last season, Kopitar has shouldered the Kings with 9 goals and 15 assists already.  More satisfying is the renaissance of Brown.  After four seasons of 15, 11, 11, and 14 goals, the 33-year-old is proving the critics wrong and showing he still has NHL life left in him.  He has 8 goals and 11 assists so far.  It’s satisfying to see the team’s leaders lead again.

I’m grateful for the chance to see the game from the 200 level of Staples Center for the first time.  I did so on November 12 against the Sharks.  It was eye-opening.  The ice seems spacious and abundant on television and from the nosebleed seats.  But at the 200 level, you can see how small the ice is, and how little time the players have.  They must react in a snap, and time their passes 100% precisely, at all times.  One slightly bad pass not only can ruin your breakout, but can also cause the other team to steal the puck, break out cleanly and score.  I witnessed the true challenge that NHL players face each night, and have developed an even greater appreciation for the game.

I’m still grateful that despite their struggles since 2014, the Kings still have two top centers (Kopitar and Carter), the best defenseman in the world (Drew Doughty), and the best goaltender in the world (Jonathan Quick).  Though Doughty and Quick might not lead in the fanciest stats, which is why the latter has not won the Vezina Trophy, if I had to pick one goalie and one defenseman who will keep the game close for me to have a shot at the Cup, it would be Doughty and Quick, hands down.

I’m so privileged and spoiled to see greatness from Jonathan Quick each night (except his last two starts).  In plays that should have been sure goals, to see the puck somehow saved by Quick when you least expect it, is mesmerizing indeed.  The way he contorts his body to save the shot.  The intensity to be enforcer himself if necessary. It is empowering to know that even when the defense lays an egg, Quick will do whatever it takes to keep the game in reach for you.

I’m thankful that more Angelenos and Californians are discovering the “coolest game on earth”.  The fast but rough action, while skating on the bright white ice—what’s not to like?  It can’t be beat.  The NFL is testing the patience of fans due to its politics, and even the NBA’s product is turning stale with the computer play that is the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.  In junior high I was maligned for liking what other Asian kids called a “white sport”.  I replied that there were more Asians in the NHL than in the NBA, but that fell on deaf ears.  When I saw the parade after the Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012, and I witnessed the diversity of the fans, I was vindicated but not revengeful.  I was happy to see others discover the joy that I’ve long known about.  I am a proud hockey evangelist and I love to bring new fans to the game.  I’ve taken my former college roommate, friends of friends, and dates to games.  Hockey energizes me because it is so much fun.  The toughest, most depressing day at work can be made better because hockey is on that night.  Hockey is popular in California now, and I am pleased.

I’m thankful that in high school my dad let me sign up for the a chance to experience hockey firsthand, to learn and play the game at the former Iceoplex in North Hills.  I was a useless winger like Shore, but I scored an assist from Gretzky’s office once, and that was my claim to fame.  Many teenage weekends were spent there with the free ice sessions they gave when I signed up for a hockey season.  There were other high schoolers there.  We were the rink rats, and I befriended a few of them as I kept seeing their faces.  In the heat of the San Fernando Valley it was the cool place to be.  I still need to upgrade my wooden stick to graphite—I hear even the beer leaguers are using graphite now.

And lastly, I am thankful that the Kings have won the Cup twice.  After years of futility, and that stupid illegal stick, I thought it would never happen in my lifetime.  In college and law school, Shaq and Kobe were the big ticket.  I lived away from Los Angeles so the then-obscure Kings were hard to follow.  But since 2008 or so I kept reading one exotic name—Kopitar, and he seemed quite good.  The 2012 run was so unreal, so dominant.  It was a feeling of release and purification after years of bitterness and frustration.  And in 2014, after defeating the honorable opponent that is the Chicago Blackhawks, Clifford passed the puck to Toffoli, who shot it off the pad of Henrik Lundqvist, and then....