Until the numbers simply wouldn’t add up, Luc Robitaille believed the Kings would make the playoffs this season.
“Because we did it in 2012,” he said, referring to the late surge that got them in as the No. 8 seed and launched their first Stanley Cup run. “I was like, ‘At some point we’re going to go on a streak and we’ll win a bunch of games, 2-1, 3-2 ,and we’re going to turn it around and we’ll be dangerous in the playoffs.’”
That point never came. Too stale, too slow and too feeble offensively, the Kings flailed when Robitaille expected them to fly. For parent company AEG, a second non-playoff finish in three seasons — and the belief general manager Dean Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter weren’t getting enough out of a talented roster — provided enough reason to fire the key figures in the most successful era of the Kings’ 50-year existence.
“We’re in a results-driven business. Our fans demand it. Our players demand it. Our ownership demands it,” Dan Beckerman, AEG’s president and chief executive, said Tuesday at a news conference at Staples Center. “The unfortunate truth is that we didn’t reach our goals the last three years. But it was an extremely difficult decision.”
Beckerman said Lombardi and Sutter “took the franchise to new heights and set the bar extremely high and for that we’re all forever indebted to them for what they did for this team and this franchise,” but Beckerman left no room for sentiment. Yielding to sentiment was among Lombardi’s faults; it led him to award bloated contracts to players and to keep a fading Mike Richards when he could have bought out Richards’ contract without impact to the salary cap.
This was a time for hard judgment. Things weren’t going to get better as they were, with the NHL getting faster and younger and Sutter reluctant to play kids groomed by Lombardi’s development system.
One of the NHL’s lowest-scoring teams, the Kings scored two goals or fewer in 43 of 82 games. Lombardi slowed the infusion of talent by trading his 2015 and 2016 first-round draft picks and had no cap space to add an impact scorer. His lifeline to a goal-starved team was the acquisition of goaltender Ben Bishop.
“We believe that this team has the core in place to contend for the Stanley Cup,” Robitaille said, nodding toward Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty in the front row at the news conference, and adding Jonathan Quick to that list.
If Robitaille is right, they weren’t going to do it again while Sutter emphasized physicality over finesse and speed.
“We’ve been taught with the same things over and over for so long we’re almost easy to read because we’ve been doing it for so long,” said Doughty, who professed he wasn’t completely shocked by the double dismissals. “So I think bringing a new coach in will definitely change the way we play and therefore make it harder for our opponents because they’re not going to be used to what we’re usually doing.
“Definitely speed is one of the things we want to bring in. We have a lot of guys that can skate real fast and we need to bring that out of them and I think a different system might bring that out.”
It will be up to Robitaille, who has final say on hockey operations as the Kings’ president, and to Rob Blake, who inherited the GM title after four years as Lombardi’s assistant, to hire a coach who can bring out all that supposedly untapped talent. They also must decide the futures of associate head coach John Stevens and of Michael Futa, vice president of hockey operations and director of player personnel. Assistant coach Davis Payne was let go Tuesday.
Other decisions loom, such as possibly buying out Marian Gaborik and devising a protected list for the expansion draft. But their overriding priority is clear.
“We don’t score. It’s been that way this year. There needs to be some emphasis on how we’re going to do that,” Blake said. “There’s time now through this offseason to come up with those different philosophies. Whoever the head coach, when he’s hired, will have a major impact on that.”
Carter, whose 32-goal, 66-point production was among the few commendable offensive performances, said the Kings already have all they need to succeed again.
“Player-wise, we’ve just got to get back to the grind and having fun and get the confidence going again,” he said. “It was a tough year for everybody. Things just weren’t rolling that well.”
But Carter and Doughty insisted players didn’t tune out Sutter, who became coach in December 2011.
“We listened to Darryl right to the last game, even the last three games that didn’t mean anything to us,” Doughty said. “We all believed in his system. Maybe it was time for a change. I’m not disagreeing with that, but at the same time we didn’t tune Darryl out. He was our leader from the day he got here until the day he left.”
Sutter and Lombardi forever lifted the bar for the Kings, winning two more championships than most fans ever imagined they’d see. But that bar had slipped, and it’s up to Blake and Robitaille to restore it to those triumphant heights. It’s time for business, not sentiment.