Prior to the current NHL regular season, some hockey analysts – yours truly included – were big proponents of the Los Angeles Kings’ fortunes this year.
It took a little while for them to grow as a group, but under the coaching of Todd McLellan and the GM-ing of Rob Blake, the Kings are just about the hottest team in the Pacific Division: they’ve got a 19-13-5 record, have won three straight and are 7-3-0 in their past 10 games; only the Vancouver Canucks, with a 7-2-1 mark, are better, but Vancouver also has lost two straight).
L.A.’s standings surge hasn’t guaranteed them anything; the fifth-place Calgary Flames are only three points behind the Kings for third place in the Pacific, and Calgary has three games in hand on the Kings. Meanwhile, the fourth-place San Jose Sharks are two points behind L.A., but the Kings have a game in hand on them. And the sixth-place Edmonton Oilers are five points behind Los Angeles, and the Oilers have three games in hand on the Kings. You can see how a bad week or two could waylay anybody’s Stanley Cup playoff aspirations.
But at the moment, the Kings have their sights set on leapfrogging Anaheim, and given that L.A. is two points behind the Ducks, and that the Kings have three games in hand on Anaheim, it’s entirely possible that Los Angeles could claim the second spot in the Pacific. Catching the first-place Vegas Golden Knights (five points ahead of the Kings, with L.A. having two games in hand on them) will be difficult.
But the whole point is that, in L.A., a major market for all media, the Kings are playing important games again. The playoffs are a real possibility for this team. They might even secure home ice advantage for the first round. Big things are coming.
Naturally, there is still a long way for the Kings to grow into a true Cup frontrunner. Of any team currently in a playoff position, Los Angeles has the fewest road wins, with a 6-5-3 mark away from home. They’ve got the NHL’s sixth-best defense, averaging 2.57 goals-against per game, but the Kings’ offense is not nearly as much of a threat thus far, with them having the 12th-worst goals-for average per game (2.81). Yes, there are stars still around from their Cup-winning glory days – captain Anze Kopitar (22 assists and 33 points in 37 GP), defenseman Drew Doughty (15 assists and 19 points in 18 GP), and star goalie Jonathan Quick (11-8-4, 2.38 goals-against average, .921 save percentage) all have made valuable contributions. But it’s the assimilation of newer players to the organization that has helped the Kings turn the corner on being a rebuilding team and heightening expectations for itself.
Off-season acquisitions Philip Danault (12 assists and 19 points in 35 games in a defensive role at center), Viktor Arvidsson (12 assists and 21 points in 30 GP on the wing) and Alex Edler (10 assists and 11 points in 26 GP) have chipped in something of value, and they’ve made the Kings an all-around better group. It’s true they must generate more offense if they’re to wrest away a division title from the Pacific’s other teams. However, Blake is expected (per CapFriendly.com) to have nearly $8-million in salary cap space, and don’t be shocked to see him use it.
When hockey executive Marc Bergevin was fired by the Montreal Canadiens in late November, he would’ve had multiple job offers waiting for him, but he chose to join the Kings as a senior adviser. He knows a team-on-the-rise when he sees one. L.A. has gone 9-3-1 in their past 13 GP, and they’ve got tough tests ahead, particularly when playing the defending Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the mighty Colorado Avalanche in two games over three nights on Jan. 18th and 20th. They may stumble, but they may also learn lessons about what it takes to be truly elite in hockey’s top league.
The Kings were a sexy pick before this year for a reason: if you talked to scouts and management/coaching people, many of them were talking about L.A. as a team to keep an eye on. They know the upper ceilings for teams over the years, and they know when on team’s ceiling is being raised. That’s what’s happening in Los Angeles.
The bar is higher, and the Kings look ready to clear it.