Can Kings ‘turn the ship’ ahead of pandemic-shortened season?
It was a scene emblematic of an uncertain present.
Inside the auxiliary rink at the Toyota Sports Performance Center, rubber flooring covered the ice. Chairs were placed across the surface, spaced out by several feet. Kings players filed in socially distanced, masks covering their faces.
Such was the setting for the Kings’ first meeting of training camp in El Segundo last month, a stage only this pandemic-altered season could create.
When coach Todd McLellan began to speak, however, he pointed his message in a different direction, laying out the important next steps in their pursuit of a promising future.
“He spoke about a foundation and a process that was fully engraved last year as the season went on,” general manager Rob Blake said. “Now it’s time to reinforce that and build on it.”
It was the reiteration of a theme that McLellan, Blake and the rest of the organization has been touting throughout this extended 10-month offseason. The Kings finished second to last in the Western Conference last season, but also ended it on a seven-game winning streak.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says it would be cheaper not play this season, but feels it’s important for the game to proceed.
They might not be all the way back in “go-for-it” mode yet. But the darkest days of their rebuild may be over.
On this year’s team, Stanley Cup-winning veterans Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Jonathan Quick will provide experience. Capable acquisitions Olli Maatta and Andreas Athanasiou should add stability. And such developing prospects as Gabriel Vilardi, Mikey Anderson and Cal Petersen could rekindle hope.
“The players that are coming back this year, they’re long-term players for us,” McLellan said leading up to camp. “I heard Rob Blake talk to each of the [five veterans] saying, ‘Listen, we are basically done with the initial phase of the rebuilding.’
“We’ve moved players around and out and brought different players in. It’s time to turn the ship. Let’s start growing all of this.”
It wasn’t long ago that the Kings originally wandered off course. After riding high for the first half of the 2010s — five consecutive playoff berths, 10 playoff series victories and the franchise’s first two championships — storm clouds slowly emerged.
There was the suspension of defenseman Slava Voynov and a dip in performance under former coach Darryl Sutter. There were years of salary-cap gymnastics and personnel decisions that didn’t work out. The last two times the team made the playoffs (2016 and 2018), they were dispatched with ease in the opening round, winning only one of nine games.
By the time they realized they were sailing in the wrong direction — when they finally committed to a full teardown after a porous start to the 2018-19 campaign — they were too far adrift to be rescued by any quick fix.
Instead, the Kings tried to start over. They cycled through much of an aging and expensive roster. They hired McLellan to install a more dynamic style of play. They suffered through two losing seasons, but found encouragement in every little success.
“You need the foundation in place and then you need the process that the players trust and buy into,” Blake said. “I think we developed that last year. Now we need to take that another step forward.”
The Kings begin this season with one of the strongest prospect pools in the league (ranked No. 2 by NHL Network). They have oceans of cap space, and are set to benefit from even more financial flexibility next offseason when most of the dead money from Dion Phaneuf’s buyout and Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract termination come off the books.
Most of all, they have a team that will be largely unencumbered by the uncertainty of trade speculation and roster turnover, one that will give Blake and the front office their first real look at how much more development needs to take place.
“We’re trying to make our team better,” McLellan said. “Trying to push now up the hill rather than just waiting — not necessarily to bottom out, that’s a bad term — but for the cleanse to finish.”
This year will be about taking stock. Can Kopitar and Doughty, at 33 and 31 respectively, still be the centerpieces of a contending team? Can Vilardi, the club’s first former-lottery-pick rookie since Brayden Schenn, thrive over a full, albeit shortened, NHL season? Can Petersen cement his status as the franchise’s goalie of the future? And will there be enough other young contributors to keep the team afloat?
Most Kings players believe a postseason appearance is possible. With only three bona fide contenders in their temporarily realigned eight-team West division (the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues and Vegas Golden Knights), the region’s fourth and final playoff spot could be up for grabs.
With the Kings working through player absences, there’s a chance that Quinton Byfield’s NHL debut could be coming sooner than expected.
“I expect us to compete really hard for a spot like that,” McLellan said, hoping to couple improvements among the goalies and defensemen with a gradual uptick in scoring. “Shame on any team who’s not approaching the season that way.”
Accomplish that, and maybe the front office will be more willing to utilize cap space and assets to accelerate the reconstruction of the roster next offseason.
If not, at least they’ll know they need more time to keep nurturing their pipeline and integrating new prospects into the team.
“At the end of the season, whenever that does end — and hopefully it goes long,” McLellan said, “we can sit back and we can evaluate where we’re at again, just like we did this past season, and adjust as we go.”
But whatever happens, they know that no fire sale is on the horizon, that the choppiest waters have already cleared.
“We understood at the trade deadline last year we were going to take some good players off this team,” Blake said. “But it fully changed the day after the deadline. Now everything has moved. [It’s] about getting better.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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