The first step in the unwritten instruction book on how to salvage a bad season is to fire the coach. The Kings did that after they won four of their first 13 games and ranked last in the NHL in points, goals scored and goal differential.
If step No. 1 doesn’t work — and it has had no appreciable effect — proceed to step No. 2, which is to make a significant trade. On Wednesday, the morning after a shudderingly bad loss, they announced a deal whose impact goes beyond exchanging one disappointing winger for another. “I think enough messages have been sent around here where we’ve got to wake up,” Anze Kopitar said.
Consider this a thunderous alarm for a team whose speed has been limited to its slide toward oblivion. Sending unproductive Tanner Pearson to Pittsburgh for swift Carl Hagelin gives the Kings future salary-cap space — Pearson has this season and two more at a cap hit of $3.75 million, while Hagelin’s contract is up after this season — and it brings the plodding Kings much-needed speed. Above all, trading a player they’d nurtured and once considered a future leader, a player who contributed to their 2014 Stanley Cup championship, signaled no one is safe. And no one should be.
They’ve tried Steps 1 and 2. What’s next?
“We win some hockey games,” defenseman Drew Doughty said.
There’s an idea.
“This is the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my hockey career, that all of us have had to deal with in our hockey career,” Doughty said Wednesday. “You want to put a finger on it and you want to know exactly why this is happening but it’s hard to figure out. It has to come from within. We can’t be waiting for guys to make it happen. We can’t all be looking at Kopi for him to take the reins and take it over. We all need to individually pick it up ourselves and one by one we need to go out there and do exactly what we’re supposed to do and not wait for other guys to do it for us.
“We’ve got to take the bull by the horns and do it ourselves. And that’s the biggest problem I see with our team right now.”
So much has gone so wrong that it’s almost impossible to list it all.
The Kings knew scoring again would be a problem, but they hoped their lack of speed could be minimized by speeding up their tempo. That hasn’t worked. Their defense has struggled, too, surprising because they won the Jennings Trophy last season, awarded to the goaltender or goalies on the team that gives up the fewest goals. Goaltending hasn’t been an issue: Jack Campbell played well after Jonathan Quick underwent knee surgery, and neither Peter Budaj nor rookie Cal Petersen was to blame for the 5-1 shellacking Toronto inflicted on the Kings on Tuesday.
What’s missing can’t be quantified with advanced or basic statistics.
When Willie Desjardins was appointed the Kings’ interim coach he said he knew their veteran players from having coached against them while with Vancouver. “I know how hard they were to play against. That was a team that when they turned it up, they were so hard to stop,” he said.
“I haven’t heard other players talk about our team like that in two or three years. We need to get back to that. Yeah, we don’t have the same guys but we have the same core and we know how those older guys used to do it, so we can teach these young guys how to do it and they’ve just got to go out there and do it.”
Step 1 hasn’t done much. The impact of Step 2 won’t be apparent until Hagelin gets acclimated in a good spot. Step 3 would be a total breakup, a challenging task given the lucrative contracts — some with no-move or no-trade clauses — many players got for their Cup efforts. Center Jeff Carter isn’t ready for that. “There’s a lot of hockey left,” he said. “You look at our division, yeah, we have 11 points, but we turn things around here quickly and I believe that we can be right back in there, in our division.”
If they can’t, the next message will be loud and clear and it will involve trades of core players and a full rebuild. Desjardins said he thinks the Kings “still have it in them” to be the commanding team they were during their Cup years. If that’s true, now is the time to prove it. They’ve been warned. Twice.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen