“Every single one of us is getting massacred/on a frozen path.”
So say the Dears, a Montreal band, in their song, “Gang of Losers.” Sounds a lot like what’s happened to the NHL team in Los Angeles this season. They’ve won just 40 times, losing 27 and tying 15. Had just a few of those ties, or OT and shootout losses, gone their way, they would be much more likely to be prepping for the excitement of next week instead of heading back home to, as players love to say, “Get prepared for next year.”
But is it about the OT/shootout? Not really, when you look at their record. They didn’t string together huge streaks of losses, but neither did they string together long records of outright wins. The exceptions to this were six wins, bracketed by OT losses, in October, and eight wins in a row in February.
At that time, it looked like all was going to be right with the world in LaLaLand. But in retrospect, this might have been a bit of an artificial perception. The record of the Kings is much more spotty than not. Kind of reminds you of Morse Code: LLL-W-O-L-WW-L-O. Hopefully that doesn’t spell out some kind of threatening message for those of you who run ham radio operations.
Goal production was and is the problem, and this goes back well into the Terry Murray era. I’ll repeat what I used to say was his strategy: score one goal a game and have Jonathan Quick get a shutout. This year, the team has scored 216 times (coming into Saturday, 220 when the left the day), which is as low as Colorado, just under San Jose, and under every team that made the playoffs in either conference (with Boston at 211 pending their outcome versus Tampa Bay, and their playoff hopes pending as well, as I write this). That’s just not going to get it done.
Their goal differential, which is a measure of more than netminding, of course, puts the Kings right down near zero. They were +12 coming into the day. They left it at +15. Nobody in the playoffs in the West is as low except Anaheim, and they’re as likely to get bombed out of the postseason on their goaltending as on any other lack the team might have. This is partly because their coach is famous for being fidgety about his goalies come the post-season, but that’s a story for next week, when we’re covering the Anaheim playoffs.
Those who did make the playoffs in the West are sporting goal diff numbers like +45 (St. Louis) and +29 (Calgary). LA just dooesn’t compete. Why?
Sutter likes a tight game. People out here are always talking about how the Kings play defense first. They brag it up that Kopitar is good in his own end. He even won the “Best Defensive Player” award this year.
Hello? How are you going to win games and make the playoffs if arguably your most talented offensive player is spending his time distinguishing himself for his defense? It’s just stupid. And boring to watch, though you can’t argue that two Cups and a Conference Finals appearance sandwiched between is a great record over the past three years. But it didn’t work this time, and the Kings know that they can’t stand still. Going back to the old plan, the one that worked last year, or in 2012, isn’t how pro sports teams and coaches have success or make their living.
Put the LA situation right now down to long segments of underperformance by their scorers and you have a handle on the problems that have destroyed fans’ hopes this season. Look at the numbers: of the players in the lineup Saturday for the noon start, just three had more than 20 goals. None had 30 or more. Only eight had double-digit goal numbers. And the high points getter was Kopitar with 64, followed by Carter with 61. Kopitar had played 78 games, Carter all of them. By the end of the day, Carter had bumped his total by an assist.
And the Kings had won, after going behind in the first 1:38. Scorers were Toffoli, McNabb, Gaborik, and Andy Andreoff, into an empty net. But so what? The Sharks were lame all around, getting just 21 shots to the Kings’ 36. They were outshot by LA 17-5 in period three.
Quick, of course, has been amazing as usual this year. But having played 72 games over the year, he’s well on his way to becoming old before his time. He did record a 2.26 GAA and .917 save percentage (coming into Saturday), both of which went up slightly Saturday on his letting in just one goal, and it might surprise you to know that his counterpart, Martin Jones, was even better in his 15 games, with a 2.25 GAA and a slightly worse .906. But Jones’s record was a losing one, 4-5-2.
The Dears’ second stanza could also describe the LA Kings, who are going home Saturday afternoon losers in the race to the playoffs:
“You and I are on the outside/of almost everything.”
Happens to the best of them, but to my recollection, only four times in the past few decades have teams won the Cup one year and then not gone to the post-season the next. To a degree, this was predicted by the team and their fans at the end of last year’s run. At the parade-rally held around and in Staples Center, everyone was saying the same thing, “And we’re going to do it next year,” while I was thinking, “I think you’d better enjoy it a little bit more this year.”
Perhaps that they did it the hard way, playing so many games and going seven in their first three series in 2014, was the better predictor of this year’s failure. Exhaustion pure and simple. Sutter, after Saturday’s game, seemed to hint that the long grind of their last three playoffs affected the team: “The long haul, a little bit. When you think of the attrition of it, when you get in those long parts of the year, I think we saw it from our group a little bit. You also saw it from the younger players. Guys who might have won one or two Cups . . . they probably didn’t get enough out of that experience for this year. But this experience will make them better players.”
The good news comes later in the Dears’ song: “We’ve got the same heart,” the song goes.
In this, for Kings fans, there is comfort. What used to be a disconnected, fragmented fanbase, people scattered here and there over the vastness of the city and region with its ten million inhabitants is now a tight-knit, and numerous, group.
The days when the team’s slogan was “play hard,” when the expectations were maybe, possibly, the Kings would make the playoffs. When the big moment in most fans’ minds was the two-series “run” in 2001. Those days are gone. The team, the city, the players, and the coach all know what it is to win. And they know what it is to lose, which is what makes them exactly not a “gang of losers.”
“It’s a bar you set. We won the Cup, we lost the Conference Finals. This feels the same [as that did],” Sutter said. Not winning the Stanley Cup just isn’t good enough for LA any more, at least not while this group is on the payroll. Fans can expect a recharged team when hockey begins again next fall.
Robyn Regehr, the rugged defenseman who has played with the Kings for a few seasons after earlier being with Coach Sutter in Calgary and then with the Sabres, announced in the locker room that he’s retiring. He’s been in nearly 1100 regular-season games.
Until hockey in LA starts again, why not celebrate a great player of the past by reading my new book, Facing Wayne Gretzky? Failing that, try Growing Up Hockey or one of my others.