Things are getting ugly in Los Angeles. The Kings woke up this morning in 12thplace in the Western Conference, five points behind the Canucks in the race for the second wild-card berth. L.A. has won just two of its last 10 games after getting throttled 4–0 on Tuesday night by the Capitals. And even when the Kings do pull a game out, as they did on Jan. 28 against the Blackhawks, they do it in spite of being outplayed for long stretches.
If it was any other team, we’d be ready to write off its season.
But that’s the thing about Los Angeles. It isn’t just another team. If there’s anything about the defending champs on which everyone can agree, it’s that they have a remarkable ability to get up off the mat.
The Kings demonstrated that in 2012, becoming the first team to win the Stanley Cup as a No. 8 seed.
They proved it again last year, recovering from a staggering pre-Olympic slump to punch their postseason ticket by winning 14 of 18 after the break. In the spring, L.A. climbed out of a 3–0 series hole to knock off the Sharks in the first round on their way to a second dance with Stanley.
Those Kings thrived in the face of adversity. “It's a blend. You’ve got to have a special blend,” defenseman Jake Muzzin said last spring. “We’ve got guys that have been around, they’ve seen it all, done it all, won, lost. It helps with the younger guys coming in giving them advice on what to expect and how to handle it.”
But this year’s group is bending under the weight of it.
“We’re not the same team. It’s quite a bit different team,” coach Darryl Sutter said after the loss to Washington on Tuesday.
That’s not just frustration talking. L.A. has cut ties with Mike Richards, costing the team veteran leadership up front. And the Kings are nowhere near as deep on the blue line after losing Willie Mitchell over the summer to free agency and Slava Voynov to a league suspension last fall after he was charged with assaulting his wife.
The underlying numbers back Sutter up. The Kings are giving up more shots this season (27.6 per game, up from 26.2 in 2013–14). Their even-strength save percentage is down from 93.5% to 92.4%. Their penalty kill is a porous 77.6%, down from 83.2%.
But none of those stats are as telling as the one that’s right out there in the open. Last season, Los Angeles was the league’s top defensive team, allowing just 2.05 goals per game.
This year it’s 15th, at 2.58.
Blame exhaustion after two physically and mentally draining trips to the Cup finals in three years. Blame the defense that hasn’t stepped up enough to cover for the personnel losses. And blame Jonathan Quick. The team’s No. 1 goaltender has been painfully human this season, his save percentage hovering at .910, down from his career average of .914 and ranking 27th in the league. He’s been lousy since Dec. 6, allowing 59 goals on 500 shots for an .882 save percentage.
“I have to be better,” Quick said.
Just to grab a wild-card spot, the Kings will have to scramble past the Stars, the Wild, the Avalanche and Vancouver, and the odds are stacked against that happening. According to Sportclubstats.com, Los Angeles has a 31.3% chance of making the playoff cut. To have something better than a 50-50 shot of getting in, the Kings need to finish the regular season on an 18-11-3 roll. That’s a winning percentage of .609, well ahead of the .540 pace they’ve been on through the first 50 games of the season.
The schedule sure won’t help. For all the problems that his team has had this season, Sutter has done a decent job of covering up L.A.’s deficiencies with the help of the last line change at home. On the road though, it’s been a different story. The Kings have won just five times in 22 games away from Staples Center and now have to finish the season playing 19 of 32 on the road. Eight of those games are against teams that are currently out of the playoffs, but that still leaves a heavy dose of the Sharks (2/21), the Ducks (2/27, 3/18) and Chicago (3/30), and a tough East Coast swing in which Los Angeles will play both the Rangers (3/24) and the Islanders (3/26).
And the Kings can’t just break even on the road. They have to tear it up.
How does that happen? It starts with Quick finding his game. If he’s not approaching a .920 save percentage on a consistent basis, nothing else will matter. It would help if GM Dean Lombardi were to bolster his blue line via the trade market—both the Maple Leafs’ Cody Franson and the Hurricanes’ Andrej Sekera are rumored targets. The Los Angeles PK also has to stop leaking goals. And the team needs more from their veteran forwards. Richards was the most obvious problem, but players like Dustin Brown and Jarret Stoll are struggling to carry their weight. And with the Kings’ second line in flux due to injuries and illness, the top line has slumped against heavier checking. They need Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik to meet the challenge.
If they can’t, L.A. will become the first team since Carolina in 2007 to win the Stanley Cup one year and and miss the playoffs the following season.