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The Once and Future Kings: How Los Angeles Was Able To Skate Under the Radar and Into the Stanley Cup Finals

May 25, 2012

Features, Hockey

20 years. Its been nearly 20 years since the Los Angeles Kings were in the Stanley Cup Finals. And its been almost as long since they’ve been relevant. Back then, the Kings were led into battle by “Lucky” Luc Robitaille and Marty “Explosive Rage Issues” McSorley. Oh and another guy you may have heard of- Wayne Gretzky. But the drop off from the 1992-93 Kings team that played for a Stanley Cup was both rapid and significant. 2012 marks only the sixth time that the Kings have made the playoffs since their last showing in the Stanley Cup finals, and only the second time that the Kings have advanced past the second round in that same time span.

There are huge differences between the Cup team from then and the Cup team from now. The most glaring change is the change in play style, necessitated by a variety of factors that are too numerous to list here. Hockey is a very different game today from what it was even as recently as 1993. But perhaps bigger then this, is the fact that the Kings lack a bonafide superstar player. Granted, Anze Kopitar is among the most elite offensive players in the sport, but he doesn’t have nearly the notoriety that Gretzky or even Robitaille did. Jonathan Quick is quickly becoming one of the most respected goaltenders in the league, but most casual fans likely have little more then a passing familiarity with him. And an argument can be made that the most noteworthy player on the LA roster is Simon Gagnè, and he has been on injured reserve since the midway point of the regular season.

In fairness to the 2012 team, their talent is undeniable. In addition to Kopitar, the team fathers some of the most gifted young players in the league, from Quick to Jeff Carter to Mike Richards to Dustin Brown, the Kings have a great youthful talent pool. But youth is a double edged sword. And that showed early in the season.

Why the Kings Shouldn’t be Here

Many analysts expected to see a big step forward from the Kings this year. And the Kings were kind enough to disappoint them. The Kings started slow; offense was stagnant and even the soon to be Vezina candidate Jonathan Quick was unable to keep the team in the playoff picture early in the season. By December, the team had fallen all the way to 12th in the West and it was clear changes needed to be made. Blame for the team’s lackluster performance was placed on head coach Terry Murray, leading to his dismissal (the team’s performance issues were likely compounded by a lack of on ice veteran leadership, including the hard partying reputation of off season acquisition Mike Richards). Almost immediately, the rumor mill began to churn out the name Darryl Sutter as his replacement.

Before the month was out, Sutter signed on to replace interim coach John Stevens, and at first little changed. Some might argue that there still have not been significant changes, but those people would be doing a serious disservice to the quality of the coaching that Sutter provides. The team began playing more… well like a team. And even if they didn’t look like world beaters in those first few weeks under Sutter they certainly looked better, more unified if nothing else. But scoring problems persisted throughout the season and the team often looked like they were looking in from the outside of the playoff race.

However, in the final weeks of the regular season, the Kings were in a hotly contested division title battle. Granted, it was in the surprisingly awful Pacific division, but they competed none the less. Up until the final games of the year LA was in control of their own destiny, nearly securing the three seed in the West that eventually went to the winners of the Pacific Division, the Phoenix Coyotes. The Kings managed to slide into the playoffs as the 8 seed.

Why the Kings Deserve to be Where They Are

The Kings didn’t just back their way into the playoffs, however. In fact, they had to earn their way tooth and nail just to get in. As I stated earlier, Darryl Sutter deserves a great deal of credit for the quality coaching job he did in Los Angeles. Not only did he manage to drag the Kings out of the gutter, but he did so in wizard like fashion, with a precision and skill that proves him to be the (arguably) best coach in the NHL (a distinction he may have had already, if Calgary known that there is in fact a limit to the number of jobs one man can do and still remain proficient).

Darryl Sutter is also the least lipped and hardest frowning coach in NHL history.

Sutter realized that the scoring woes of the Kings weren’t in fact some symptom of a greater problem, but instead a symptom of what the team actually was. You can’t force a team to score, that’s true of any sport. What Sutter did instead was play to his team’s strengths. Rather then forcing the issue on offense, Sutter relied on his team’s defensive skill, and the talent of his man between the pipes, to keep the team in games. He then asked his top offensive players, mainly Kopitar, to step up in key situations where scoring was needed. Darryl Sutter isn’t a traditional Xs and Os coach, and while this may seem like a disadvantage, he more then makes up for it with intensity and an ability to motivate his players.

When the Kings stopped trying to become something they weren’t, they flourished. Their defensive approach prevented the types of lapses that too frequently left Jonathan Quick vulnerable. And their newfound balance allowed their offense to smooth itself out- they still finished next to last in scoring, but they scored when it counted, especially late in games.

And perhaps most importantly, the Kings got hot when it counted. After ending the regular season on a two game losing skid that cost them the number three seed, LA drew Vancouver in the first round and immediately exposed the Canuck’s every weaknesses from their lackluster blue line play to Roberto Luongo’s unsurprising inconstancy to the glaring hole left by the absence of Daniel Sedin early in the series. The Kings did what literally nobody thought they could do (but something that hockey fans should have been expecting) as the Canucks became the 4th Presidents Trophy winner in the past 7 years to be eliminated by the 8th seed in the first round of the playoffs, and LA hasn’t looked back.

But the Kings have only completed the first act of their meteoric rise. They still do not yet know who they will face in the Stanley Cup finals, and there are still huge obstacles for them to overcome. Their power play efficiency is atrocious, and regardless of who they play they will have to travel across the country for games 1 and 2. Both New York and New Jersey utilize the neutral zone trap, a scheme the Kings have proved themselves skilled at evading, but both Hedrick Lundqvist and Martin Brodeur are a caliber of goaltender that the Kings have yet to encounter. And perhaps most importantly, the Kings are no longer being overlooked or discounted. They are now perceived as legitimate threats, and nobody is going to lie down for them.

But don’t expect the Kings to lie down either. They’re within sight of the throne, and they won’t surrender it to just anyone, unless of course they’re betrayed by one of their own, leaving them to ponder the value of this year’s Cup run and what it will mean for the next generation of hockey players. Or something like that.

Stay tuned to TheFarmClub for an upcoming live blog of a yet to be determined game of the Stanley Cup finals, featuring yet to be determined guests (hint: nobody famous) with a yet to be determined format. So… look out for that.  In the mean time, head over to Twitter and follow me @30carpileup. Until then, I’ll just leave this here….

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