Another Sunday, another day that the LA Kings sit atop of the NHL standings. How long can those who don’t follow the team look at the numbers and tell themselves that it’s OK not to pay attention to the far West because it’s still early going in the season?
Doing so might deprive fans in the East of an opportunity to watch while one of the great stories of the year, and one that is not an accident, but a culmination of a number of years’ preparation.
The reason the team gets ignored by the hockey establishment might be the distance. It’s 2785 miles from LA to New York, 2522 to Toronto. It might be that they’ve been on the losing end of things for half the average North American lifespan (and people live a long time these days). Or maybe it’s just that there’s no flash on this team. No superstar.
Actually, there are a couple of guys who ought to get more attention that they do. One, Ryan Smyth, played his 1000th game on Saturday night with the team at home against the Predators. The other, Justin Williams, is closing in on 600 games, but what is notable about his year is that he’s flying, and scoring, with six goals and eight assists in 13 games to date.
Williams came from Carolina a couple of seasons ago, but has been hurt on and off in his career, including in LA. He played only 49 games last year, missing more than two dozen with a broken leg. Earlier in his career, he had knee and shoulder injuries, and knee surgery, but in each of his two complete seasons, from 2005-07 with the Hurricanes, he scored over 30 goals.
Smyth is the gold standard for blue-collar guys. He wears the same blue t-shirt under his equipment all the time, and he’s using the shoulder pads he broke into the league with fifteen years ago, albeit with a lot of repair over the years. His role is to get bruised up in front of the net, whether that be by opposing defensemen’s sticks or pucks shot by his own players. Because he’s there, the puck finds him, and it often goes in. He has scored 336 career goals, almost none pretty, but every one a lift for the teams he’s been on.
The latest of those happened at 6:47 of period two on Saturday, and it would end up being the insurance goal, the Kings’ third in a 4-1 win. Smyth was near the front of the net when a slap-pass came from the point off of the stick of Rob Scuderi. Smyth fought past the Nashville defenseman trying to remove his head from his shoulders, going left to right, and he deked with a backhand and put the puck in the open right side he had created by so doing.
It was a nice goal, gritty to a point, and something to celebrate, but two other things that happened in the game perhaps define him more. The first occurred when the PA announcer acknowledged his 1000th game in the third period. As fans clapped and cheered, Smyth stood between the crease and the faceoff dot in his own end, waiting for the puck to drop. He gave just the tiniest wave of his left hand to suggest he even knew what was going on. Humble.
The second very Smyth-like moment was late in the third, with LA up 4-0 and no real challenge coming from Nashville. The Kings were on the power play, and there was Smyth, in front of the goalie (by this time Anders Lindback, Pekka Rinne having been pulled after letting in four goals on 22 shots in about 31 minutes of playing time). Smyth set a screen, and watched as a slap shot from the point zinged past him, wide. Brave.
Afterwards, he was his usual deprecating self as he described the night.
“I thought the boys played well, and I thought Kopi [Anze Kopitar] and Brownie [Dustin Brown] and [Scott] Parse started us off great and give us some energy,” he said. “We just kept going. All around, we had a lot of depth tonight, and it was important to get the win.”
The only thing he said about himself until pressed was a quick acknowledgement that the team had come out to warmups with mullet wigs on in his honor.
It’s also interesting to note that Smyth singled out Scott Parse. The highly thought-of prospect was hurt in training camp and in just his second game. For him, playing with Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar is a big chance, and he must perform or feel the hot breath of other good youngsters in the Kings’ system, notable Andrei Loktionov and Oscar Möller, both currently in Manchester. For a veteran to notice him, and offer a compliment, means a lot.
Smyth also said that he was glad to share his night with him mom, who is visiting, and coincidentally having a birthday. He credited his wife as well, saying that she has given up a lot to further his career and that on this night, she had surprised him with all his friends coming in, as well as family.
“People that have supported me through whatever occasion it’s been, that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
When he got around to talking about the thousand-games milestone, he said, “It’s an honor. I can still remember the first game, but it’s been a long thousand games. You look back, and there’s some great times and some tough times. Sad times. You go through so many emotions. Obviously I can’t remember them all, but it’s an honor to play in the NHL.”
One memento of the night is his stick, or rather, sticks. He explained that he had used quite a few throughout the game, and when asked what he’d do with them.
“I kept my stick. I have a few people in mind [for them],” Smyth said. “Obviously my kids, my brothers, and some charities and stuff.”
As he says this, I look at him. He’s not big for a guy who spends so much time in the toughest area of the NHL ice. And he’s not spectacular physically—not the rock of solid steel that someone like Teemu Selanne is. Smyth is a toned athlete, certainly, but the best impression of him is that he’s slight.
“You develop. You’re like brothers in the locker room, and on the ice, you go to war for each other and you learn,” Smyth added. “You learn from young guys; you learn from older guys.”
OK, that’s true, but the real truth is bigger. The real truth is that it’s Ryan Smyth who’s doing all the teaching, not by mouth necessarily, but by deed. That’s why he only looks slight until you glance at his chest, right about where his heart is. From that point of view, he’s a giant.
The Kings hope that his leadership and the zip of Williams continues to lead them to wins. The coach said after the game that he has, in the past, divided the season into segments of five or ten games so that goal-setting is more immediate than it might be. But he explained that that ends up backfiring, because guys get criticized for not meeting goals in small segments. He has decided to stick more with the short-term focus of winning game by game.
“The tough part about doing that [creating segments and goals] is that you set goals for players, and at the end of my years of doing that, I don’t like it anymore,” Murray said. “If you have a player who doesn’t get to that point, you end up talking about that, ‘You’ve got to get going, you’ve got to push it,’ and maybe he’s actually playing really well. You don’t always have to put points on the board to contribute to the team’s success.
“We try to keep it pretty short as far as the focus, not looking at next month, but right now, keep it on tonight.”
The team has a bit of an odd schedule of late, with three empty days last week and four upcoming. That means, of course, that rhythms are hard to keep going. For backup goalie Bernier, who got his second win of the season (he’s now 2-2), that might mean quite a long rest until he finds himself in game action again.
Murray said he has not thought about who will play on Remembrance Day. Actually, he said Thursday, but that’s for you Canadians, and for all of those who died in WW1. And notably, Murray and the Kings’ staff are wearing poppies in their lapels.
Kyle Clifford has played nine games, Brayden Schenn eight, so each player has to be returned to junior (after nine) or stay. Murray noted what he plans to do, and he did not say that a decision has been made during the postgame press conference. He pointed to the fact that with four days off until the team next plays (Thursday), there is practice time where they can evaluate the system play and the checking part of their games.
“Dean’s [Lombardi] in town, and we’re getting together every day,” he said. “It’ll just be after practice one day, we’ll [talk].”
The bet is that they’re headed back to Junior. Schenn is getting about 11 minutes a game, Clifford six or so. Saturday, the latter had eight, and Schenn didn’t play. With the contract situation the way it is, neither will be well-served sitting or playing a handful of minutes a game, and unless one of them were able to fill the potentially open left-wing spot on line two (where Parse is trying to take hold), there’s no spot except on the fourth line, or in the press box.
Willie Mitchell left the game in the second period with an “upper body injury.” Murray had no further information after the game, and said the injury happened in the corner past the Nashville bench and out of his view.