So does the Kings’ strategy now become “Lose for Hughes,” or do they maintain their so-far unsuccessful course and hope to stay afloat while goaltender Jonathan Quick is out indefinitely as he recovers from knee surgery?
The “Hughes” of “Lose for Hughes,” is Jack Hughes of the U.S National Team Development Program, a small but smart and skillful forward who’s projected to be the top selection in the 2019 NHL entry draft. Keep losing — something the Kings have become good at lately with a 3-7-1 record and league-worst seven points — and they’ll be in the draft lottery and have a shot at the No. 1 pick. If they don't get Hughes they could still get a potential impact player.
That tactic makes sense for an organization that’s short on elite prospects, like the Kings are, but taking the wait-‘til-next-year approach isn’t an easy choice for an older group.
Despite the evidence that accumulated last season and a league-wide trend toward youth and speed, general manager Rob Blake and team president Luc Robitaille believed the players who formed the backbone of the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup champion teams could win another title if they got help on the wing and on the power play. That led Blake to lure 35-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk back from Russia with a three-year deal worth $6.25 million per season — a year longer than other teams offered — with no-move clauses in each of the first two seasons. That investment doesn’t fit into a tanking strategy. Nor does signing Drew Doughty to an eight-year, $88-million deal that kicks in next season but includes a no-move clause this season, according to capfriendly.com. The rich contracts that follow Cup triumphs are difficult to trade.
All indications on Wednesday were the Kings won’t immediately try to trade for a goalie. Instead, they’ll stick with Jack Campbell and Peter Budaj and will count on goaltending coach Bill Ranford to wave his magic goalie stick over them. Ranford has done it before. He helped shape Quick into an elite goalie and polished the games of Jonathan Bernier, Martin Jones, Ben Scrivens, Darcy Kuemper and Budaj, among others. Quick suffered a Grade 2 groin strain in November 2013 and played just 49 games that season but with Ranford’s guidance, Jones (1.81 goals-against average, .934 save percentage and four shutouts in 19 games) and Scrivens (1.97 goals-against average, .931 and three shutouts in 19 games) stepped up. The Kings traded Scrivens in January but Quick and Jones got their names on the Cup that spring.
Ultimately, unless they can score more goals it wouldn’t matter if they put Rogie Vachon in net, and he’s 73.
The Kings are last in scoring in the NHL at an average of two goals per game. They’re last in points, too, with seven, and it’s foolish to say it’s early. Points gained now are as valuable as points earned in March or April. Maybe more, because points banked now can reduce the need for a desperate late-season push. The 4-3 victory they earned last Sunday over the rebuilding New York Rangers in the first of seven straight home games lifted their mood in practice this week because it ended a six-game losing streak, but it didn’t solve all of their problems.
“It was obviously a big win that we needed and important to build on but I think this homestand is important. We need to be really solid throughout this homestand,” said Dustin Brown, whose leadership was noticeable in a season debut delayed by a broken finger. “Look around the league, especially our division. No one is letting up, so we have to climb and dig ourselves out of the hole we put ourselves in. I think just building on one win can help.”
That win didn’t guarantee the continued employment of coach John Stevens, though he apparently will make it through the four-plus days between Sunday’s game and Thursday’s matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers at Staples Center. The accelerated pace he has pushed for hasn’t consistently materialized and the power play hasn’t been able to set up Kovalchuk often enough. Not all of it is on him: he can’t make gold out of the less-than-stellar material he has been given, but it’s easier to fire one coach than completely revamp a roster.
Stevens alienated some players recently by suggesting the team had stopped working, but Brown said players still respond to him. “I think this stretch of play, players have taken responsibility internally and realized it has nothing to do with the coaching or the system,” Brown said on Wednesday. “Some of the play hasn’t been up to par. It hasn’t been good enough. And that’s on the players.”