The Kings’ scoring woes were so bad early in their latest road trip that the bye week that followed nearly became a bye-bye week, as in time to say farewell to a playoff berth this season.
A four-point performance by MVP contender Jeff Carter launched them into their break with a win and possession of the second Western Conference wild card spot. But they’ll face more challenges after they reconvene next week and they can’t count on an impact trade to bail them out before the March 1 deadline.
“I don’t see us getting into it, and I certainly don’t see us getting into it to any degree where we’re throwing around first-round picks anymore,” said General Manager Dean Lombardi, who wasted a first-round pick on defenseman Andrej Sekera in 2015 and traded another first-rounder to Boston for Milan Lucic, who left via free agency after one good season.
“You never say never, but I have no problem saying I don’t see us doing anything. I don’t see a difference-maker. … You could always be surprised, but I think we’ve got to focus on what we have.”
What the Kings have is a mixed bag. Trading those first-round picks slowed the infusion of youthful skill into the organization. Their salary cap space is still limited by Lombardi’s mistake of not buying out a declining Mike Richards when he could have done so without affecting the cap. They have too many interchangeable brawny forwards and could use more speed. Stripping the captaincy from Dustin Brown and giving it to Anze Kopitar was awkwardly done, and the responsibility hasn’t helped Kopitar navigate through his offensive struggles.
In addition, there’s no timeline for the return of goaltender Jonathan Quick, who sustained a groin injury on opening night and only recently began skating with the team. If he doesn’t make major progress in the next few weeks it’s possible Lombardi will seek a veteran goalie who can share the load with Peter Budaj.
But as uncertain as the Kings’ prospects are, their situation could be a lot worse. Although they have only 17 regulation wins, they’re 10-1 in overtime. Left wing Tanner Pearson has scored a career-high 16 goals. They still have the core of their 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup teams and Lombardi sees resilience in the current group.
“I can think of some critical moments where it would have been easy to find an excuse, but they didn’t,” he said, “and they’ve got to do it again.”
It’s nearly miraculous that they’ve stayed in contention without significant contributions from Kopitar or Marian Gaborik. Kopitar, the team’s scoring leader the last nine seasons, has six goals and 32 points; at his current pace he would finish with 10 goals and 50 points, down from 25 goals and 74 points last season. It’s baffling, unless he’s hampered by a hidden injury. As a team, the Kings have averaged 2.49 goals per game this season, down from 2.72 last season. Their possession stats are good but possessing the puck doesn’t mean much if you can’t put it in the net. No wonder they will shuffle some personnel after the break. “We’ll see a few players come through shortly,” Lombardi said.
“Obviously we’re not scoring at the pace we’d like. Carter has been at a whole other level and I don’t think it’s any secret that Kopitar expects more out of himself in terms of production. I think if you thought Kopi would be wherever his goals are and you lose your No. 1 goalie and we’d still be in this … I certainly think he’s going to get it going.”
They’ve stayed afloat by playing cohesive team defense while phasing defensemen Derek Forbort and Kevin Gravel into the lineup, restoring some of the depth that eroded with the departures of Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi and Slava Voynov. Paul LaDue, who made his debut before the break, should get an extended look. “I think we’re starting to see that reassert itself. We’re in the process,” Lombardi said of again having high-caliber strength on the back end.
As their bye week began, the Kings ranked fourth in team goals-against average at 2.42, compared with 2.34 last season. Their average of 25.7 shots against per game was the NHL’s lowest and better than last season’s 27.5.
“A lot of teams have had injuries and things, so you can’t use that [as an excuse], but I think there’s something to be said when you lose an elite goaltender,” Lombardi said. “[Budaj] has done a good job, but I think that’s a collective number when you look at how little we’ve been giving up on most nights.”
The schedule, usually an enemy, could be an ally. The Kings have played 31 road games — a league-leading total through Thursday — and 24 home games. Two of their remaining 10 away games are at Anaheim. The light travel requirements should be an advantage. “Overall, I expect us to be better after the break,” Lombardi said.
They set a high standard by winning the Cup twice in three seasons but have fallen far short since then, missing the playoffs in 2015 and losing in the first round last spring. Another miss or early exit could mean saying bye-bye to this group as we’ve known it.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen