For Kings, Not a Team Problem

“Of course it affected them. They’re human beings.” It was words to this effect that Kings head coach Daryl Sutter spoke in the aftermath of the team’s first home game last year, a loss to Chicago.

And what he referred to was the squad’s being distracted by a ceremony where they got their Stanley Cup rings and paraded the Cup around for one final grand moment as champions. The loss didn’t matter that much in the end, with the team managing to go deep in the playoffs. But it did set a tone, a precedent if you will, that you wouldn’t like to see repeated.

Perhaps it was not in mind as the team dropped their home opener to the Rangers, but it might as well have been.

Now a year removed from their reign, the Kings are, remarkably, almost precisely the same team they were in June of 2012, and that, perhaps, is the most unlikely of feats in a day of constant change of NHL rosters.

In fact, a quick scan down the list of players on this iteration of the team would be an almost Rip-Van-Winkle-esque experience. It’s like no time has passed since the Cup’s concluding game. The only names not there then but there now are Keaton Ellerby (who was with the LA team last year but scratched Monday), Daniel Carcillo (also scratched), and Matt Frattin. Then there’s one name well familiar to LA fans but absent all of last year: Willie Mitchell. He was hurt all of 2012-13, to the point that most prognosticators said that he’d played his last game with the club. The matter was the fodder for anxious questions to the GM at one point last season, in fact. Now, he’s back.

Of course, you’ve noticed that I have not, to this moment, used the “B” word. Backup goalie. Wait. That’s two words. I mean, rather, “Bernier.” Where is he? Last I checked, he was beating up Buffalo’s Ryan Miller. And winning a game to start the season, and then another, and posting a 0.64 GAA. That’s not a misprint. So he’s obviously not in LA. Who sits in his place?

Does it really matter? Quick’s going to play most every game. OK, since you’re curious, the name is Ben Scrivens. Now, you might wonder who that is. He’s the one with the 33 games in Toronto over two seasons. The one who might be more notable as the former goalie for Cornell University. Name their greatest former netminder if you can. Give up?

Ken Dryden. And that’s probably the only time you’ll see those two players’ names in the same sentence.

But back to the Kings. This year, that oh-so-familiar roster has not paid off in automatic or easy victories. Coming off an initial two-game road trip, the team was 1-1. Their first contest, a 3-2 win, came in Minnesota. They then took a venture north to Winnipeg and dropped a 5-3 game. Now they’re home, at least for a couple of nights. Then it’s back on the bus, er, charter plane, for a trip that will take them to the farthest east coast. Good news? They’re playing Tampa, Carolina, and Florida, and so should come to mid-October in possession of at least a decent handful of points.

But against the New York Rangers, they were failing. The Sutter Kings, built on defense, didn’t show up. Instead, a group of guys who were willing to give up chances and just plain cough up the puck turned up. These included Drew Doughty, who got beat at the blueline on the boards by Derek Stepan, hooked him, then continued to do that all the way to the net. It was one of three penalties he took in period two, and not as egregious as his turnover which led to a Rangers’ goal.

After the game, an eventual 3-1 loss for the home side, Coach Sutter was unwilling to take the team to task for what had gone wrong. It was what certain people had done, he said. Stay with me for more on that.

Part of what looked odd about the Kings was that their defense was scattershot. That is, the blueliners. Further, the appearance on the ice, for some reason, didn’t match the numbers on the sheet. Get this: in period one, it looked like every other pairing was Regehr and Doughty, Mitchell and Voynov. But the sheet at the end of period one saw the backline minutes spread nearly evenly between those four and Greene and Muzzin.

By the end of P3, the minutes were spread out a little more, with the high going to Doughty (near 24, but it would have been more had he not had those three minors in period two) and the low Matt Greene (around 15). The low pairing was Muzzin and Greene, as noted earlier, and about which more in a minute.

If that wasn’t enough, the LA offense, at least the first goal, was provided by Muzzin, albeit not until period two and not until the team was down by two goals. The play came while he came late into the slot and took a pass from Richards across. Muzzin deked and shot, beating Lundqvist.

It was a nice goal, but where were the offensive players on attack? In fact, the Kings had 29 shots on the night, but managed just the one goal. The shots were spread amongst forwards and defense, with just eight of them coming from blueliners.

In net for New York, Lundqvist was good, but he didn’t have to be great. And at the other end, Quick was good bytimes, and terrible in giving up the goal you’ve probably seen on TV by now, a 180-footer that came from the left circle in the Rangers’ end and then got by him to his left—in other words, to the right in the Kings’ zone.

His coach was not willing to let him off the hook for the mistake. A reporter asked Coach Sutter after what Quick has done for the Kings whether the Bronx cheer he got after the goal was not a little cruel. “Nope,” was the reply. When asked if he’d talked to the netminder, he replied, “There’s nothing to talk about. He dropped his stick. What are you going to talk about, tell him not to drop his stick? His job is to stop the puck, so obviously he thought he didn’t need his stick.”

What to make of these mistakes? To Daryl Sutter, it wasn’t a team problem. In fact, it was each individual who had to take the responsibility for his own problems. “I think there’s some execution issues. Obviously when players have the puck on their stick and give it to the other team.”

He claimed that five-on-five scoring was not his concern. His problem with his team was the mistakes. “First one Doughty gives Nash the puck; second one Muzzin gives Nash the puck; third one the goaltender dropped his stick from 200 feet away.” He later added the zinger about the young defenseman: “Muzzin has to learn not to turn the puck over if he wants to play, period.”

“Don’t get so philosophical about it,” he reprimanded on questioner. “When you have the puck on your stick and you give it to the top player on the other team, that’s not a team turnover. That’s a top player turnover.”

Richards, for his part, said, “Sometimes you get a lot of chances and they don’t go in. Sometimes you get one or two and they both go in. I think it was coming; it was bound to happen eventually. The line had some good chances and were buzzing for a lot of shifts. It’s good to get rewarded.”

It would have been 4-1 with the last an empty net goal had Voynov not followed Nash across the crease and hooked him right at the final buzzer. He did record a two-minute minor for his efforts.

To sum up regarding the Kings, then, Sutter indicated that Martinez would likely draw into the lineup. Obviously that would leave Muzzin out. And he was not willing to claim responsibility for the loss. What he didn’t comment on was the general look of discombobulation that the Kings exhibited. Forget turnovers. It was the looseness on D, the gaps that the Rangers seemed to have, their freedom crossing through the high slot with the puck that was scary. This can be remedied at the team level.

Kings Notes

The Senators are in town Wednesday. Their GM and coach were in the press box scouting on Monday evening.

Denis Potvin, perhaps the greatest defenseman in the history of the game and certainly the best since Orr, was also in attendance. I shook his hand, and it occurred to me how very frightening it would be to bring the puck down into his end. Huge mitts on the guy. But a huge smile also, and time to do an interview as well.

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