The Los Angeles Kings are in danger of achieving one of hockey’s rarest feats: failing to make the playoffs after winning the Stanley Cup the season before. Repeating as Stanley Cup champions is a rare art, given to a precious few. The last repeat winner was the 1997/98 Detroit Red Wings. Still, even though teams seldom repeat at least Stanley Cup winners can usually remain playoff contenders. Imagine the ignominy of failing to make the playoffs even though you won the Stanley Cup the season before?
The Kings are flirting with this rare brand of failure.
For the record, since 1917 the act of failing to make the playoffs after winning the Stanley Cup the season before has occurred nine times by six different teams. Toronto did it four times in 1918/19 (when they were the Toronto Arenas); 1923/24 (when they were the Toronto St. Patricks); 1945/46(when Hap Day was coaching); and 1967/68 (when Punch Imlach was coaching). Detroit did it once in 1937/38 when Jack Adams was coaching) as did Chicago in 1938/39. Montreal did it in 1969/70 (when the recently deceased Claude Ruel was coaching the Habs). Jacques Lemaire’s New Jersey Devils also did it in 1995/96 and the last NHL team ever to suffer this humiliation was Peter Laviolette’s Carolina Hurricanes in 2006/07.
The Kings have been playing .500% hockey since their initial surge out the gate last October. Their vaunted defense has been compromised with the suspension of Slava Voynov (and the ensuing controversy caused by that suspension); and the concussion suffered by Alec Martinez a few days ago. Last season the Kings were 1st and 11th in defence and penalty-killing. This season the Kings are 13th and 27th in defense and penalty-killing.
The team is in torpor and one wonders if the 26 game-marathon they endured and won during last season’s playoffs took more from the team than meets the eye? Did the psychic strain of having to win so many elimination games leave the team’s collective soul depleted and emptied? Or was it the fact that their second Stanley Cup victory in three seasons has left the team sated and self-satisfied; unwilling to move beyond themselves and summon up the effort a team needs to make to maintain their championship bearing?
Sixty years ago (when player salaries and endorsement were leaner) Toe Blake motivated his Habs dynasty by posing a rhetorical question? Are you going to let the rest of the league take the Cup away from you?
In today’s NHL motivation becomes more complex. It takes a great effort to find newer and more exciting ways to motivate a group of players to maintain that Cup winning edge.
The Kings are confronting that challenge and are failing the test thus far. They are only 5 points away from the eighth seed but the way they are playing now is woefully insufficient to meet the need. The Kings need to remember the hunger; the sting and shame of falling short; and remember what they had a year ago that helped them overcome the obstacles and win the Cup.
Time is running out and if they fail to reach the playoffs then they will make NHL history in a way they never intended in the first place; and that is a dubious honor they do not need.