Progress is relative and it can be fluid, sometimes difficult to quantify but unmistakable when it pierces the gloom of a dismal rebuilding process.
The Kings are a long ways from turning the corner, but they’re inching forward. That’s not based on them scoring a lot of goals or winning a lot of games, because that’s not happening. The scoring part won’t happen until they upgrade their finishing skills, whether this season or next.
“Two goals a game [isn’t enough] in this league anymore; I know we did it in the past, but it was a 2-1, 3-2 league back then,” defenseman Drew Doughty said of the Kings’ solid defensive play and low-scoring wins during their 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup seasons. “Now it seems more like a 4-3 league, so we need to score more goals.”
Where they’ve moved forward recently is in playing with a cohesiveness they lacked in the early weeks this season and a competitiveness that was far from consistent during their first 20 games. They trust their structure and their coaching, and with good reason.
For the Kings, who followed an abysmal season with a 4-9-0 start under new coach Todd McLellan and gave up at least five goals in seven of those games, close losses have become the equivalent of moral victories and close wins are precious gems. Their 2-1 victory over the Ducks on Thursday at Honda Center was a satisfying result for a team that is confident, after some unfortunate detours, that it’s finally headed in the right direction.
Doughty, always blunt, believes players are buying in to McLellan’s system. The Kings aren’t getting run out of the rink anymore, for one thing. “We haven’t had one of those in a while. As much as we’ve lost a lot of games we haven’t had any full lopsided games at all,” Doughty said. “So I guess in a way we are happy with that. Even though we have too many losses we’re improving all the time. Everyone’s getting better individually and as a team and yeah, it’s exciting, but we have a lot of work to do.”
They also have a credible and organized coach in charge. “Just having this new coaching staff, implementing these new things that we always have to be thinking about and demanding us to do these things,” Doughty said of the advancement he has seen. “We finally got that, I feel like, and now it’s just individually getting our games better. I definitely feel that we’re on the right track and guys are getting better every day and I think we do have some more talent coming up soon, so it’s looking bright for us.”
“I would like to still, hopefully, somehow get in the playoffs this year,” he said. “I know we’re in last and it’s a long way away but I still want to try.”
Bless him for being ambitious, but that’s unlikely. And making the playoffs would take them out of the draft lottery, where they’d have a chance to find high-level talent to accelerate their rebuild. Putting a solid foundation in place and staying together through those close losses should be their main concern, and that seems to be their thinking.
“Our game has improved incrementally and slowly but not dramatically over two or three weeks,” McLellan said after the Kings opened a stretch of six straight road games and eight of nine away from Staples Center. “We’ve been playing the same game — we just haven’t been getting the wins or a bounce here or there. Maybe now they’ll start to go our way but I think the group has improved immensely from Day 1 at training camp through the first four or five games in a lot of different areas and we’re making progress. Finding some rewards every now and then with wins is always reassuring.”
The Ducks, who have won only three of their last 10 games, are two points ahead of the Kings near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Both teams missed the playoffs last season but the Ducks had stockpiled enough young forwards to think they’d be far ahead of the Kings this season. But their kids haven’t produced, and that’s becoming an issue. “I would have expected a little bit more production out of them,” coach Dallas Eakins said before Thursday’s game. “The good thing is they’ve still got lots of time left.”
True, but Troy Terry (three goals in 31 games), Sam Steel (two goals in 27 games) and Max Comtois (who had an assist on Thursday but has two goals and six points in 16 games) must start contributing because there’s little scoring depth. The Ducks are 4-6-4 in one-goal games this season.
Eakins wants to see more net-front play. “We do at times get caught off the side,” he said. “The game is different now. If it was 10 years ago you’d maybe lose a leg or part of an arm going to the front of the net and you can just certainly go there now, and we’ve just got to keep pounding that home.”
Without a lot of pure skill, they have to grind and get in the mix for rebounds, tips and screens. “We know we’re going to score by committee,” defenseman Cam Fowler said. “We need to be a team that has all four lines contributing. We know we have to play stingy defensively, which we’ve been doing.
“We’re in these games. We need to find a way to tip the scales and get on the right side of them. You can talk so much about being so close and being right there, but eventually you need to get results.”
Defenseman Josh Manson had a lot of time to observe his teammates while he recovered from a knee injury and missed 19 games. Manson, who returned to the lineup at Minnesota on Tuesday, took no consolation from the narrow losses he saw. “We were close in a lot of games and that can be a real bad thing because you become satisfied with it almost, like, ‘These games will turn.’ Sometimes they don’t turn,” he said.
The Ducks have to make those games turn in their favor. “Exactly,” Manson said.
Until they can do that, they’ll continue to move sideways. The Kings might slip again but their overall direction is forward. Remember, progress is relative and at this point, even the smallest gain is a major victory.