The doors to the Kings’ locker room at Staples Center stayed closed for more than 20 minutes while general manager Rob Blake talked to them after their latest debacle, a 5-1 surrender Saturday afternoon to the perpetually rebuilding Buffalo Sabres. That’s four losses in a row for the Kings by a cumulative 21-5, shocking for a team that last season allowed the fewest goals in the NHL. Twenty minutes of venting couldn’t begin to cover the depths of the problems they face.
The worst part about their latest loss — and there was a lot of competition for that distinction — is they didn’t push back. Not when Jason Pominville, who lived at the net all game, scored from near the left post at 10:24 of the first period, not when they lost board battles and lost track of Jeff Skinner when the veteran forward scored the first of his three goals, at 3:31 of the second period, to give Buffalo a 2-0 lead, not when Skinner scored on a wraparound to make it 3-0 before the middle period ended. They sagged and lagged and deserved every boo that was launched from the announced sellout crowd.
“We’ve accepted being OK and it’s not OK . It’s not working,” defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “It would be a long year, and guys would be moved, if this continues. It’s not what we want, so we’ve got to take a look in the mirror and turn this ship around.”
This isn’t what they want but it’s what they’ve got because team executives overestimated the ability of an aging core to win another Stanley Cup championship in a league that has become younger and faster. "We’ve got to get that fire and that passion back in our game and not be OK with what we’ve done in the past and accept that. That’s done," Muzzin said.
It’s what they have because management hasn’t been able to find and develop secondary players who can become major contributors and locker-room leaders. Tanner Pearson has regressed. Adrian Kempe hasn’t scored consistently. Austin Wagner is fast but hasn’t shown an ability to finish. Probably their most talented prospect, 2017 first-round draft pick Gabriel Vilardi, has been plagued by back problems that cast a cloud over his future. Ilya Kovalchuk (two goals, five points in eight games) hasn’t been part of the problem, but the 35-year-old winger hasn't been part of the solution. This is the first of three seasons at $6.25 million per season, remember.
And this is what the Kings have because their coach appears to be losing his influence on a group that welcomed him barely a year ago as a reprieve from the gruffness and unreasonable demands of Darryl Sutter. It’s probably too early for a coaching change, at least until Dustin Brown comes off long-term injured reserve next week and the team is relatively whole, but the relationship between John Stevens and his players might be fraying.
Stevens’ assertion that players had stopped working during their loss to the New York Islanders on Thursday was angrily rejected the next day by Drew Doughty, the Kings’ emotional fulcrum. In addition, Stevens badly misread the team’s likely response to his criticism. “I thought after the way we played the other night we’d come and rip the doors off the hinges tonight,” he said. Instead, they slogged through a 5-1 loss, the lone goal coming during a power play. Stevens pulled goaltender Jonathan Quick with about four minutes left but the Kings couldn’t score; Skinner finished off his hat trick with 24.9 seconds left in the third period.
What must happen for this to turn around? “I’ll be honest,” Stevens said. “I don’t have an answer at this second.”
Those aren’t encouraging or inspiring words.
When the meeting ended and the doors opened, Doughty spoke honestly. “It’s a very frustrating game,” he said. “Once again, we’re doing a lot of talking, and talking about what we need to do, and we know what we need to do and we know all the right things to do but we’re just not going out there and doing it. We just all need to pick up our own game individually and look at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves if we’re doing the things we need to do to make this team win, and if you’re not doing that we’re not going to win because we need every single guy on the team to do that.”
Even had everything gone right the Kings figured to battle for a playoff spot. What’s unacceptable is that they’re not pushing back. “I do feel like when things go bad that we do really go south rather than when things go bad we pick each other up and come back and get a goal,” Doughty said. “When things have gone wrong — a bad bounce here or there — things have been going real south.”