The Kings finally have built a new identity. Are they ready to be contenders again?
It’s what Todd McLellan didn’t see that encouraged him the most.
With his team trailing by two goals at Arizona on Saturday night, the Kings coach noticed no panic from his players. Sensed no alarm on his bench. Felt no concern with his group’s state of mind.
The previous night, when the Kings faced yet another two-goal hole against the Vegas Golden Knights, he witnessed the same scene — composure, calmness and confidence exuding from a club that has been molding itself into something different this season.
“There’s a belief within our group that we can play and come back,” McLellan said. “We believe we can play against anybody.”
Those weren’t feelings the Kings often had in recent seasons, when they not only missed the playoffs three consecutive years but never even came close as they turned over the roster and built for the future.
This season’s team, however, is proving capable of much more. In Las Vegas, the Kings rallied for a 4-3 overtime win against the Golden Knights. The next night, they finished with a four-goal flurry to bury the Coyotes in a 5-3 victory.
With two months to play in the regular season, it’s clear they’re emerging from their rebuild with a new approach and elevated aspirations, a rebirth they hope results in a playoff appearance this year and return to a championship contender in the not-too-distant future.
“We haven’t had this much fun in a couple years,” defenseman Drew Doughty said. “Every game just feels so important, and when you pull it off and win, I don’t know how to really explain it in the room. It just feels so good.”
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There was no singular turning point McLellan or his players can point to, no sudden plot twist that spawned what has been one of the biggest turnarounds in the NHL, with the Kings (26-17-7) entering Wednesday tied for third in the Pacific Division with 59 points through 50 games (their best 50-game point total since 2016).
Instead, it has taken shape slowly, blending long-tenured leaders, newly arrived veterans and the first wave of prospects from a talent-rich pipeline to construct a fresh style of play and reconfigured DNA.
Like a child marking heights on a wall, the Kings’ growth has come in gradual, subtle increments, ever-present in revealing high-pressure moments — and crystallized by perhaps their most important accomplishment of this season so far:
“Having an identity,” McLellan said. “And a belief in it.”
The ceremony was technically recognizing Doughty. But after almost 15 years and two Stanley Cup titles together, any honor for one of the Kings’ core four veterans usually ends with all of them sharing the spotlight.
Thus, when the franchise celebrated Doughty’s recent 1,000-game milestone during a pregame ceremony last week, forwards Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown and goalie Jonathan Quick ended up alongside him at center ice, posing for a photo huddled in one another’s embrace.
“Those guys are my brothers for life, I love them so much,” Doughty said afterward.
Echoed Kopitar on the team’s television broadcast: “Between me, Brownie, Quickie [and Doughty], the fact we did it all here is pretty special.”
When McLellan was hired almost three years ago, his rebuilding efforts began with this group. Instead of inheriting a blank canvas, he had to incorporate a rare veteran core that had survived its club’s nadir.
It wasn’t a simple process. Though McLellan received immediate commitment from the championship quartet, he was still asking them to spearhead major changes to the Kings’ style of play, hoping a franchise once built on physicality and a methodical possession game could embrace a new system revolving around speed, pressure and movement away from the puck.
There were spurts of optimism during McLellan’s first two seasons in charge but mostly just growing pains, as the team finished in the bottom seven of the NHL standings both times.
“There was the path to a new identity,” McLellan said, “but I think we were walloping and wallowing around a little bit, trying to maybe be something we weren’t yet.”
As the Kings have turned the corner this season, playing some of their best hockey during a 6-1-2 stretch over the last nine games, the veterans have led the way, adapting their skills to the team’s transformed approach.
Kopitar has flourished as an open-ice playmaker, leading the team with 47 points and ranking 19th in the league entering Tuesday with 33 assists.
Doughty has reemerged as one of the sport’s premier two-way defensemen, bouncing back from an early-season knee injury to record 29 points in 31 games while also excelling defensively against oppositions’ top lines.
Brown, the oldest player on the team at 37, has settled into an important third-line role alongside the 2020 No. 2 overall draft pick, Quinton Byfield, helping mentor the rookie center while also playing key minutes on both special teams units.
Quick, who once seemed to be fading toward a backup spot, has rediscovered near-vintage form in net, forming a goaltending combination with Cal Petersen that has graded out analytically as one of the best in the NHL.
“The way we approached them and laid it out, included them in a lot of things, I think that’s helped,” McLellan said. “Those four can send the message further down the line. That’s where those secondary [players], they feel it, they see how the others are treated, and they’re OK with it. Then it just blossomed.”
A kaleidoscope of black, white and gray jerseys whirled around the ice, the Kings going through drills in efficient harmony at their practice rink in El Segundo last week.
The night before, following the pregame ceremony for Doughty, the Kings had lost to the Edmonton Oilers in a return from a 13-day All-Star break, slipping against one of several division foes jockeying with them for playoff positioning.
It wasn’t a bad performance — the score had been tied with less than five minutes to play — but it still left McLellan and his players dissatisfied, especially with their back-to-back road trip against Vegas and Arizona looming on the schedule.
So, they took to the ice and displayed another small moment of growth, running through a clean 40-minute practice that included everything from odd-man rushes to defensive zone coverage.
“We’re not recreating the game from now until the end of the season,” McLellan said afterward. “We’re cleaning things up. We’re trying to advance a little bit. … Recover from the blows we receive and get over the successes. Move on every day.”
The Kings’ upcoming stretch run will be their biggest test this season. Beginning Wednesday, they will play their final 32 games in a span of 65 days. There won’t be time for many on-the-fly adjustments or systematic tweaks.
They will have to rely on the identity they believe they’re cementing — one that has been crafted by the veteran core and reinforced by newfound depth.
The Kings’ two most notable offseason acquisitions, forwards Phillip Danault and Viktor Arvidsson, have combined with winger Trevor Moore to form one of the club’s most consistent threats on the second line, coming up clutch in Friday’s win against the Golden Knights by scoring the game-tying goal late in the second period.
Increasingly seasoned role players have also stepped into their own. Fourth-year defenseman Matt Roy has the best plus/minus rating on the team’s blue line. Sixth-year winger Adrian Kempe has a team-leading 23 goals, including two apiece during the comebacks in Vegas and Arizona.
Rookies from the club’s highly rated farm system are starting to make an impact. Three defensemen aged 23 or younger — Tobias Bjornfot, Mikey Anderson and Sean Durzi — have become mainstays on the back end. Winger Arthur Kaliyev, 20, has played in all but one game. Byfield has returned from an ankle fracture to appear in each of the last 10 games.
McLellan believes it has created a balanced mix of talent, experience and options, crediting fifth-year general manager Rob Blake for “[giving] us more tools to work with. It allows the veteran guys to be protected some nights. It allows the kids to evolve at a better pace.”
Each of the Kings’ role players has bought into the team’s new direction as well.
Said Arvidsson: “We know our identity. We got to play hard and make it frustrating for the other team.”
Added Kempe: “Being as aggressive as we have been all year, and maybe even more in the last two months, shows how good we can be and that we can play with all the best teams in the league.”
Echoed Roy: “We’re excited. We believe in ourselves. And we know it’s there, that if we come prepared every night, we have a good chance of making the playoffs.”
Sitting in an empty conference room hours before his team’s game against the Coyotes on Saturday, McLellan swiveled in his chair while weighing short-term progress against long-term objectives.
For as promising as this season has been so far, it’s still a first step. While making the playoffs would be a significant achievement — FiveThirtyEight gives the Kings a 62% probability — there is a long way to go before they’re a finished product.
“The biggest mistake we can make is to think that we’ve arrived,” McLellan said. “The teams that consistently get there — into the playoffs and compete for [a Stanley Cup] — are always in transition.”
The Kings believe they have the pieces to be a perennial juggernaut, that years of shrewdly collecting assets and flooding their farm system with high draft picks has them positioned to become a legitimate championship contender far past this resurgent season.
Some of their top prospects remain in the minor leagues, including three former first-rounders in Rasmus Kupari, Alex Turcotte and Gabe Vilardi. Their American Hockey League affiliate in Ontario is showing signs of promise as well this season, something McLellan noted with excitement.
His hope is that, as more of that talent arrives at the NHL level, the hard-checking, high-paced Kings can become a more natural offensive threat. The team ranks just 18th in scoring and 25th on the power play.
“The variable that’s unpredictable is time,” McLellan said. “You don’t know how fast or slow it’s gonna happen. You don’t know the peaks and the valleys within it. You don’t know individual players’ development timelines. All of that’s a huge challenge.”
Drew Doughty, Adrian Kempe and Trevor Moore scored in the third period for the Kings, who overcame a two-goal deficit to beat the Arizona Coyotes 5-3.
Continued improvement requires a foundation, a structure and a culture for that next generation to grow into — an identity the Kings have finally started to realize this season.
For now, they have two months to prove they belong in the playoffs. Only then will they truly know how close they are to being Stanley Cup contenders again.
“We realize how much work is left to do,” Doughty said. “We got so many games ahead of us, so many big games. And we don’t want to just come in third in our division, or seventh or eighth in the conference. We want to move up if we can. I know it’s gonna be hard. We got some big teams ahead of us. But we’re trying to get as high as we can in the standings.”
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