A half-eaten pizza sat between Carlos Mancillas and Veronica Castillo late Saturday afternoon. At their corner high top inside the Proud Bird restaurant, the pair’s focus was elsewhere.
Kings fans since the club’s days at the Forum, the couple from Downey was about to receive a three-hour reprieve. In the midst of another maddening season, the Kings’ 3-1 Stadium Series win on Saturday was a rare moment of magic.
“It’s a special game,” said Mancillas, one of the hundred or so fans who attended the team’s watch party at the bar near Los Angeles International Airport.
For the Kings, most of the 2010s were a special decade too. It birthed the franchise’s first two Stanley Cup championships and included seven playoff appearances in nine seasons.
The last two years, however, have been a different story. Even after Tyler Toffoli’s hat trick lifted the team to a win in Colorado, it remains a distant last place in the Western Conference. Toffoli was traded Monday, and it appears a second straight summer will be consumed by draft pick positioning rather than playoff hockey. Those who follow the club are trying to make sense of their newfound reality.
“Very disappointing and frustrating,” Mancillas said. “But we’re fans. We’re sticking with the team. We’re going to be here for the rebuild process.”
Determining the exact temperature of a fan base is an imperfect science. But those who took in the Stadium Series game offered an interesting window into the psyche of the Kings’ supporters.
“We’ve been through some lean years and some really good years, but a team you’re a fan of, you’re always going to be a fan of,” said Chris Demonbrun, 45, of Covina. “We’re not pleased right now, but then again we saw some really cool stuff happen. … That’s got to be worth something.”
Randy Elkins of Ventura County agrees. A Kings fan from the start — he was 13 when the Forum opened down the street from his childhood home in Torrance — Elkins has seen the Kings go from a long-suffering franchise (no titles and only one conference championship in its first 43 years) to one suddenly spoiled by success. Now, fans such as him are having to reset expectations again.
“These last two seasons, it’s more magnified because you had new fans that came along during the elite years,” Elkins said. “That’s not to say we’re satisfied with this, but I think there’s a level of patience because you became a fan in 2012 and you just expected this would be a perennial top-level team.
“In the 50 years I’ve been watching the Kings, there’ve been many more bad years than good. I think you’ve just got to be patient.”
That’s been the message from the Kings’ front office, which has a week to maneuver before the NHL’s Feb. 24 trade deadline.
After weeks of little activity, the NHL trade market loosened Sunday, when the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning each gave up a high-round draft pick and high-end prospect to acquire impact players for a playoff push.
Though the Kings, who this month already dealt Kyle Clifford and Jack Campbell to the Toronto Maple Leafs, might not be able to demand quite as hefty a return, they still have several valuable players who can be swapped for future assets. Toffoli, who is in the last year of his contract, topped that group before being traded to Vancouver for two players and two draft picks. Several others, including fan favorites such as Alec Martinez and Trevor Lewis, could be on the move too.
“We’re understanding of the fact that this is a business,” said Demonbrun, who watches most Kings games while stick-handling in his garage. “You have to trade players you don’t want to trade. … I’d be fine trading just about anybody. We need to get draft picks and develop a younger team.”
Understanding the plan, of course, hasn’t prevented all apathy. Attendance at Staples Center is down from last season. At times, engagement in the building has been subdued too. For some fans, the jury is still out on the Kings’ front office, led by general manager Rob Blake. Almost all of them, however, realize it will take time to make the team competitive again.
“He’s trying to obtain a lot of draft picks for the next couple years, which is a good thing,” Mancillas said of Blake, now in his third year as GM. “I know it was kind of a mess when [former general manager Dean] Lombardi left, with some of these big players and some of these contracts. I kind of see what Blake is doing.”
Castillo chimed in: “It’s going to take a few years.”
Which, given the circumstances, is about as measured a take as could be expected. After a rollicking near-decade-long run, this current rebuild feels like something of a hangover.
“Obviously, what goes up must come down,” said Andres Marandon, 39, of Los Angeles. “But hopefully, they develop their young guys. Draft well. Develop them well. And maybe make the playoffs in a couple seasons. But I’m enjoying them. They’re a fun team to watch, even though they’re not doing too well in the standings.”