On Saturday, three NHL teams were eliminated in Game 7 of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs: The Toronto Maple Leafs, Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins all wound up on the wrong side of the win/loss register, but the reaction to those losses was different in all three cases:
In Boston, there was disappointment and melancholy, given the expectation star center Patrice Bergeron may have played his final game. In Toronto, there was anger and dismay, given the fact the Leafs blew another series lead and bowed out in the first round for the sixth consecutive post-season.
But in Los Angeles, the mood wasn’t quite so dim. The Kings may not have been the Edmonton Oilers in Round One this year, but L.A. is a different animal at this stage in their competitive cycle. The Kings have a few key holdovers from their Cup-winning seasons, but they’re a team in transition between the stars of past years and stars-to-be in the years ahead. They were expected to be in the playoff race this season, finished higher than many expected when they placed third in the Pacific Division and were playing with no great amount of pressure to beat Edmonton.
This post-season for the Kings was about getting valuable experience at this level for young players like defenseman Sean Durzi and forwards Adrian Kempe, Alex Iafallo and Arthur Kaliyev. This was about capitalizing on the talents of first-year Kings forwards Philip Danault and Viktor Arvidsson. All those players will be back, and in theory, at least, be better for going through this first-round series.
Otherwise, the Kings still will be able to depend on star center and captain Anze Kopitar next season, as well as a healthy veteran blueliner Drew Doughty, who missed their entire first round with an injury. Forward Dustin Brown has called it a career, but L.A. GM Rob Blake has been doing his best to slowly bring up youngsters that can contribute – wingers Trevor Moore and Andreas Athanasiou, to name a couple – on the offensive end of things.
The picture is a little different in the Kings’ net, where veteran Jonathan Quick finished out the season and playoffs as L.A.’s No. 1 goalie, and Cal Peterson will serve as his tandem partner. Quick will enter next season in the final year of his lengthy contract, and Blake may choose to start actively looking for someone younger and with the ability to thrive in a platoon netminding system.
As per CapFriendly.com, the Kings currently are projected to have more than $20.6 million in salary-cap space for next season, but they only have 14 players signed, meaning Blake will have to be picky with the additions he makes this summer. He has a base of talent to build upon, but he can’t make moves just for the sake of making moves. In a Pacific Division where Edmonton, Calgary and Vegas likely will be at or near the top of the standings. L.A. will need development from within to be just as meaningful as any new faces Blake brings in via free agent signing or trades.
Sure, it stings a little for the Kings to lose such a close series. But they’re now in a position where they should be expecting to make the playoffs. Next spring, a first-round playoff loss would be harder to swallow. They’ve raised the bar of expectations - maybe not yet to the point they think their bona fide Cup frontrunners, but rebuilding a team is a process that takes time and that isn’t always linear.
For now, at least, there’s good fun to be had in being a Kings fan again. Better days are ahead, and a little bit more patience in getting there should go a long way in seasons to come.