There are going to be some certainties about the NHL’s upcoming season: the Colorado Avalanche, defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Vegas Golden Knights are going to be excellent; Oilers stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews are going to pile up the points. The league’s officiating standards are going to change from what they were in the regular season to what they are in the playoffs.
All these things, we know.
But there are going to be surprises this season. And one of the biggest ones very well could be the Los Angeles Kings – an organization that has missed the playoffs in five of the past seven years, and that hasn’t won a playoff round since it won the Cup in 2013-14. It’s not going to be a cakewalk for them this year, but the Kings have made enough acquisitions this summer, and have enough talent still remaining from that Cup-winning team, to be this writer’s pick as the sleeper team to keep your eye on in 2021-22.
“Rob Blake has been patient with his group, and I think that patience is going to be rewarded this year,” a pro scout told THN.com this week, speaking on condition his name not be used. “I’m not saying L.A. has enough to win a bunch of playoff rounds, but in that (Pacific) division? I definitely can see them making enough improvement to be one of the top four teams. They’re going to surprise some people for sure.”
You can see why that scout is optimistic about the Kings this season. Blake didn’t make wholesale change after they finished sixth in the West Division last year; rather, he targeted a few key areas, and went after veterans who can help make a difference.
Blake signed a pair of unrestricted free agents – former Montreal Canadien Philip Danault and former Vancouver Canuck Alex Edler – to shore up the second-line center and defense position, respectively; he traded for winger Viktor Arvidsson, a two-time 30-plus-goal-scorer for the Nashville Predators; and he left himself some wiggle room on the salary cap – approximately $2.7 million in available space, according to CapFriendly.com – to make adjustments as this season unfolds.
In short, Blake kept the majority of his team intact, and added skill and depth to give them a leg up this year. That tacit endorsement of the squad head coach Todd McLellan will have in 2021-22 infuses them with confidence they’ll stay together for the most part, and their core of veterans, most notably, center Anze Kopitar, winger Dustin Brown, blueliner Drew Doughty, and goalie Jonathan Quick, will be there to help the younger players continue to grow. The alternative would’ve been to trade those vets, but their core earned the right to stay together by winning two Cups in three years.
“Listen, are Kopitar, Doughty, Quick and Brown the players they were when they won Cups? No, they’re not – but they all still have the ability to contribute,” the scout said. “Even if Arvidsson only gives you 20 (goals), and Danault gives you 15 (goals), both those players make them tougher to go up against. And if you protect the minutes you give Edler, you make him more of an impact player than he was the last couple years (in Vancouver); and if you don’t ask the world of Doughty, he can give you solid minutes. Load management is going to be important for many guys on this team, but the division they’re (back) in is probably the weakest in the league, and if (goalie Cal) Petersen and Quick hold up their end, I can absolutely see them taking that next step as a younger unit and grabbing one of the final couple spots in (the Pacific).”
In the flat-cap era the NHL now is experiencing, it was going to be almost impossible for the Kings to tear it all down, especially with the basically untradeable contracts of Brown and Quick. So Blake did what he could, traded for talents like Trevor Moore and Andreas Athanasiou, and developed what he could from within. And now he has a fairly balanced mix of youth and experience, of championship pedigree and championship hunger, of knowhow and want-to-knowhow. In the Pacific, where the Golden Knights and Oilers are the only can’t-miss-the-playoff teams, that mix could be just enough to raise the Kings’ boat to a level it hasn’t been at since 2017-18, when they finished fourth in the division.
Is it a guarantee they will? Nope, especially not in an Olympic year where injuries and a compressed regular-season schedule could adversely impact them. But if you’re looking for a long-ish shot to upset the Pacific’s applecart and earn a shot in hockey’s toughest tournament, you could do much worse than picking the Kings. They’re a sleeper team worth taking a chance on.