Column: Los Angeles Kings paid the price (no playoffs, again) for their lack of scoring punch
The Kings postponed the inevitable for a few days, but Sunday night they lost their last faint hope of sneaking into the playoffs. Their 2-1 loss to the lowly Arizona Coyotes was a tiresome repeat of a stale pattern: They got good goaltending and generated scoring chances from the perimeter but rarely went to the net and couldn’t finish. For the 42nd time in 78 games they scored two goals or fewer. Change the name of the opponent and it could have been almost any game this season.
“We’re out. We knew it would be pretty difficult for us to get in anyway,” defenseman Drew Doughty said. “We left it too late. That’s just the bottom line. We weren’t good enough the entire season and we don’t deserve really to be in playoffs.”
They will be out for the second time in three seasons, a first-round exit last spring wedged between. They’ve won one playoff game since their 2014 Stanley Cup championship, the price they’ve paid for remaining a rumbling dinosaur in a league that favors speed and skill over pure brawn.
Their last two acquisitions exemplify the stubbornness of General Manager Dean Lombardi, who has a year left on his contract. When his team urgently needed scoring he acquired goaltender Ben Bishop, apparently hoping the Kings would win a lot of 2-1 games. When his team needed speed, Lombardi added revered but limited 39-year-old winger Jarome Iginla, whose flashes of combativeness put many of his teammates to shame.
Change is inevitable as players age and get bigger contracts that can’t all fit under a hard salary cap, but the Kings haven’t adjusted well. They threw away a first-round draft pick on Andrej Sekera in 2015 and spent another in a trade for winger Milan Lucic, who scored 20 goals last season but left when the Kings wouldn’t give him the term and money he wanted.
They miss the third and fourth lines that were vital to their success in 2012 and 2014 and lost the veteran presence they had on defense with Willie Mitchell, Robyn Regehr and Rob Scuderi. Lombardi couldn’t have anticipated that No. 2 defenseman Slava Voynov would be suspended by the NHL and serve jail time after pleading no contest to domestic abuse charges and eventually return to his native Russia. The Kings haven’t recovered from that loss.
“Obviously we are disappointed and this season’s end result is not acceptable,” said Dan Beckerman, CEO of AEG and the Kings. “With what we have built and the roster that we have, we should be preparing for another run at the Stanley Cup.”
The Chicago Blackhawks, three-time Cup winners since 2010 and contenders again, have infused youth into key spots while managing their salary cap with a tightrope walker’s skill. Lombardi could have used a compliance buyout on Mike Richards but instead is saddled with a $1.57 million cap hit through 2019 for Richards. Lombardi also is overpaying Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik; at least Brown plays hard, despite being physically depleted by the Cup journeys.
Things went wrong for the Kings from Day 1 this season. “Obviously our goalie going down didn’t help,” Doughty said of the groin injury suffered by Jonathan Quick in the opener. “There’s a lot of reasons why were not in the playoffs and there isn’t just one that stands out in our minds.”
The odd thing is that goaltending, which figured to be their downfall when Quick was injured, isn’t to blame. Peter Budaj did a fine job until Quick returned Feb. 25, and through Sunday’s games the Kings ranked third in the NHL with an average of 2.40 goals against per game. However, they scored an average of 2.38, which ranked 26th. The other problem is they’re 11-13-2 within the Pacific Division, which includes fast, young squads in the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Coyotes.
“In some ways we were fortunate to still be in it when you look at it,” Coach Darryl Sutter said Sunday, “but in other ways, a lot of that X-and-O and a lot of that data stuff, we were really good at. But I just think it’s the division that’s holding us back.”
No, their feeble scoring held them back. Stripping Brown of the captaincy made him marginally better (11 goals and 32 points), but giving the captaincy to Anze Kopitar in the first season of his eight-year, $80 million contract was a mistake. Kopitar went from 25 goals and 74 points last season to 12 and 49. He seems the last guy who’d become complacent because of a bigger paycheck, and it’s possible he never overcame an early arm/hand injury. Whatever the reason for his decline, it hurt the Kings immeasurably.
“A lot of guys, I think, me being on top of that list, I don’t think the production was there the way we expect from ourselves and from each other,” Kopitar said. “You can go on and on right now but like I said, it’s a very empty feeling.”
KINGS VS. EDMONTON
When: Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. PDT.
On the air: TV: NBCSN. Radio: 790.
Update: This game has meaning for the Oilers, who trail the Pacific Division-leading Ducks by two points. The Oilers have won the last three of four games they’ve played against the Kings this season, including on March 20 and March 28 at Edmonton. Oilers center Connor McDavid leads the NHL with 94 points and is a strong MVP candidate.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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