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Column: No more excuses. The Kings must make the playoffs this season

Kings defenseman Sean Walker celebrates a goal with teammates Gabriel Vilardi and Drake Rymsha.
Kings defenseman Sean Walker, middle, celebrates a goal with teammates Gabriel Vilardi (13) and Drake Rymsha against the Colorado Avalanche last season in Denver.
(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)

Someday for the Kings is now.

The Stanley Cup playoffs have been a distant dream for too long. They can’t continue to make vague promises about when they’ll be competitive again. That dream must become reality this season for the sake of their credibility and their fan base.

They’ve followed the right plan: constructing a team around the draft takes time, but it’s the only realistic way to build in the NHL. Extra picks or young players can be leveraged in trades to fill lineup needs. If they have the right people behind that plan, their work must pay off this season with a playoff berth.

In the early days of their tenure general manager Rob Blake and team President Luc Robitaille misread the NHL’s trend toward speed and youth and thought they could get another championship out of a group that aged fast while playing heavy hockey. By now, Blake and Robitaille have had time to retrench and replenish the talent pool and produce results.

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They’ve advanced to the stage of adding veterans rather than subtracting old, bloated contracts: signing shutdown center Phillip Danault as a free agent and trading second-and third-round draft picks for winger Viktor Arvidsson gives them two serviceable top-six forwards who should ease pressure on the kids. The worst of the pain is over.

Players are scheduled to report to training camp in El Segundo on Wednesday. On Thursday they’ll begin official scrimmages. Why wait? After missing the playoffs three straight seasons and four of the last five, after earning one victory in two playoff series since they won the Stanley Cup in 2014, someday for the Kings is now.

The U.S. won its first gold medal in curling at the 2018 Winter Olympics. The sport has surfaced again with a TV show filmed at Great Park in Irvine.

Asked what he’d tell fans, Robitaille delivered a strong message. “We’ve turned the page. We’re done with this you can call it whatever, rebuild, and it’s time to start trending upward. Trending upward means you’ve got to get in the playoffs. You’ve got to compete,” he said in a phone conversation on Tuesday. “You never know what can happen in the playoffs, but you’ve got to get in.

“We appreciate that our fans have been patient with us, but now it’s time to take it to the next level.”

They should have competed harder for a playoff spot last season but they imploded with a 10-20-1 finish that included four losses to Colorado and five straight overall in their last five games. “We didn’t even have a chance. Not even close,” defenseman Drew Doughty said during his exit interview when looking back at the games against the Avalanche. “As a team we just need to be better and get better, and that’s not just on the players.”

They had nothing at stake and they played like it. That’s not acceptable.

“I certainly was disappointed. I think were all disappointed in the last month, month and a half,” Robitaille said. “There wasn’t any excuse, whether there was injuries or COVID or anything like that. I definitely thought we would be more in the hunt at the end. It just seemed to slide quite a bit and that definitely can’t happen.”

Kings coach Todd McLellan and team President Luc Robitaille attend the first round of the 2019 NHL draft.
Kings coach Todd McLellan and team President Luc Robitaille attend the first round of the 2019 NHL draft on June 21, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada.
(Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

In that same exit interview Doughty urged management to pursue capable veterans because the Kings’ Cup-winning core was “running out of time” to win again together. Danault and Arvidsson should provide an upgrade. Signing 35-year-old defenseman Alex Edler to a one-year deal should buy time for a solid left-shooting defenseman to develop while allowing young incumbents Mikey Anderson and Matt Roy to continue their impressive growth.

“You look back in most of the history of the game, there hasn’t been too many mistakes when teams were patient with young players. There’s been a few mistakes when teams rush young players, but it’s pretty rare that you hear there’s been a mistake because they’ve been patient. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it,” Robitaille said.

“We’re definitely set up that we can be a little more patient now by getting Phillip Danault and Viktor Arvidsson, and that being said, if a young guy comes in and takes a job, it’s his job. It was the same when I was a player. No one knew if I was going to make it. I had a good year the year before but it was my job to take.”

Cal Petersen staked a strong claim for the No. 1 goaltending job over Jonathan Quick but Robitaille said nothing is a given. “I would never count against Quickie,” Robitaille said, though he might be putting more weight on sentiment than analysis. The Kings left Quick, 35, available in the expansion draft but Seattle passed on the two years at $5.8 million each left on his contract.

NHL players will participate in the 2022 Beijing Games, per an agreement by the league, NHL Players’ Assn. and the International Ice Hockey Federation.

The Kings on Wednesday announced they had signed Petersen to a three-year, $15-million contract extension.

“Cal has certainly played at a level that we’ve expected but just like the other young guys on our team — he’s not quite as young — but we expect him to take another step,” Robitaille said of Petersen, who will be 27 next month.

Robitaille also said there’s “a spot or two” for young forwards to win during training camp. “That being said, what we expect whenever the kids are playing is to take that next step and then you could see that they’re going to come in to help us win,” he said.

Those kids aren’t here to push a rebuilding process forward. “We’re not building this team to try to make the playoffs. We’re building this team to try to help us win the Stanley Cup,” Robitaille said. “If you want to win the Stanley Cup you’ve got to get in the playoffs. So definitely that’s the goal.”

Time to make that goal a reality. This season.


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