Column: Kings say fans could be allowed to attend games at Staples Center soon
The Kings remain on course to take the next step in their rebuilding process — and club executives are optimistic that fans will soon be able to witness the team’s evolution in person at Staples Center or via seven games that will be broadcast on over-the-air TV.
Because of state and county health restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kings have played in front of empty seats this season. As conditions have changed around the country, more than half of the NHL’s teams have allowed spectators to attend games. Kelly Cheeseman, chief executive officer of AEG Sports — the Kings’ parent company — said it’s possible fans will be allowed into Staples Center soon.
“We’re getting closer,” Cheeseman said Friday during a state-of-the-franchise event held virtually for season-ticket holders. “We’re having continued, ongoing dialogue about fans coming back here indoors in a number of weeks. I don’t have an exact date yet, but we’re hopeful in the next few weeks we’re going to get an opportunity to bring some fans back before the season ends.
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“In all things COVID there’s no guarantees, but we’re hopeful that in the next few weeks we can get some people in. It’s going to look like it’s been in other venues across the league. We’re going to have a small percentage first, and that will be our first step.”
Fans would be grouped in pods of one to six tickets, and the pods would be at least six feet apart. Social distancing rules would be in effect in the building and masks will be required. “Just an opportunity to get fans in here soon is something we welcome,” he said.
Those who can’t attend games will get a bigger chance to watch some games on TV. Six games were moved to Ch. 13, and one game, on May 1, was shifted to KDOC because of scheduling conflicts on Fox Sports West with other local teams. Fans who have cut their cable cords and rely on streaming services have had difficulty watching games because many streaming services stopped carrying Fox Sports West. The first of those shifted games is next Friday.
“We definitely see this as an opportunity to showcase our team to people that might have not had the opportunity to see our team before,” team President Luc Robitaille said. “We don’t control the situation but at the same time we’re going to try to take full advantage of the situation.”
Anyone who hasn’t seen the Kings in a while will notice improvement in many areas. They’ve been more competitive this season than they were in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, which was Todd McLellan’s first as their coach. Familiarity with McLellan and his system has helped elevate their special-teams play, and the progress of some of the young players they’ve stockpiled has given them much more energy and considerably more skill. The resurgence of veterans Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter has provided good balance and direction to a team that hasn’t made the playoffs the last two seasons and three of the last four.
“I go back to training camp. We had a few goals that we wanted to establish,” McLellan said. “We wanted to reestablish structure. We wanted to reestablish our habits real quick. We hadn’t played in nine months. And for the most part, I think we got that done. We gave away some games early in the year where we had two-goal leads and that got away on us a little bit. We weren’t quite as polished as we needed to be.
“But I think we got up and running as quick as any team in the league and that helped us off to a good start. What’s gone well for us is the veteran leadership. The five players that have won Stanley Cups have been tremendous this season. They’ve come in and led and sacrificed and done all the things that true leaders need to do. And when you have good leaders, you should have good followers, and the rest of the group has done their thing.”
A playoff spot is still a long shot, but the Kings’ progress has been real. “Between the veteran leadership and the young players integrating real quick, things have gone fairly well for us,” McLellan said. “We’d still prefer to have a better record, but the belief system is still there that we can continue to push and fight for one of those playoff spots as the year goes on.”
Even if the Kings don’t get one of the four West Division berths, the experience of playing close games and being in the playoff scramble should benefit their younger players. “We wanted to make sure we’re competitive all along,” general manager Rob Blake said. “Todd talked integration [of] some of the younger players and the resilience and compete level of some of our older players. They’ve led the way all year.”
The Kings have nearly $10 million in projected salary cap space, according to the website capfriendly.com, and Blake was asked whether that will allow him to sign a scorer or defenseman in the next phase of his rebuilding plan. Spending big bucks on a big scorer might not make much sense as a primary strategy before the April 12 trade deadline — one player isn’t likely to put the Kings over the top and turn them into Stanley Cup contenders this season — but it’s a pleasant and reasonable future option Blake will soon be able to consider.
“There’s lots of discussion, and we’re involved in any discussion that shows that we can actually improve our team,” Blake said. “So we’ll continue to do that.”
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It gets complicated, though, because the gate-dependent NHL has experienced enormous revenue losses that will keep the salary cap from rising much, if at all, over the next few years. But the Kings can benefit from that by swooping in when other teams must trade high-salaried players to stay under the cap. The Kings have young players and draft picks to offer in return.
“We’ve got to keep adding, and we’ve got to strive to make the team better. I think we put that stage, after the deadline last year, we put that foot forward,” Blake said.
“As far as cap space, obviously with the projections of a flat cap for another four to five years, we will look at a lot of different options where teams may have to shed or move cap space. We will have that ability going forward. ... We project usually probably three to five years out on the cap situation knowing there will be free agency, but there will also be opportunities to acquire players from some teams that will have to make different moves according to the cap. So we’re exploring, looking at all those options.”
Adding size on defense is on his wish list, though he said he likes the current group’s competitiveness. Size will be important against teams like West Division-leading Vegas. “The bigger guys, they’re hard to find that are very mobile and can do all things,” Blake said.
McLellan said Vegas and Colorado are “head and shoulders above the rest of the teams” in the Kings’ division but added that Colorado is a good example of how patience and relying on young talent can fuel a team’s rise from the depths to the top. “They were where we are. They were rebuilding a few years ago, and they’ve done a really good job of drafting and developing and we respect what they’ve done,” he said. “It’s fun to play against them, but we’ve still got a ways to go to catch up to them.”
At least the Kings’ chase of the league’s top teams is worth watching now. And soon it will be even easier to watch in person or on TV.
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