No one wants to hear that they’re steering a sinking ship. So it was totally forgivable when, following a 3-1 road loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Kings’ veterans were ornery. Pointing out that the Kings’ 5-10-0 record marks their lowest point total through 15 games since 1987-88, pre-Wayne Gretzky, probably didn’t help matters.
“It’s certainly not ideal,” said Kings captain Anze Kopitar.
The newer Kings, the youngsters such as Carl Grundstrom or Adrian Kempe, can take the losses as steps on the road to their maturation as players. But what can the holdovers from the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup teams take from the defeats? Losing just doesn’t come naturally to guys like Kopitar, Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown. It’s such an uncomfortable topic that Quick rejected it altogether after Tuesday’s game.
“It’s not (harder) for the veterans, it’s everyone,” he said. “You want to win. Everyone wants to win. It’s f---ing bulls--- you guys saying ‘veterans, young guys.’ We’re a team, we’re all together. No one in here likes to lose."
It’s that very mentality that helped Quick win a Conn Smythe Trophy and a pair of Cups. Even though he’s a goalie, he’s a bulldog, a team guy, someone who embraces the war. So it’s not a surprise to see him refuse to divide the Kings up into the old and new guards.
Still, it’s difficult not to imagine all the losses, the three playoff misses in five seasons before this one, weighing on a veteran group that was so used to winning for so long. It manifests itself in flat denial of idea this team is struggling.
“It’s frustrating, yeah, but it is what it is,” Kopitar said. “We’ve got to play. And I think the scores are closer than it shows in the standings. We’ve got to put 60-minute efforts together, not 49 or 50, because the other 10 usually hurt us, and it was no different tonight.”
That may be the way Kopitar sees it. But the Kings’ have been outscored by margins of one, six, three, two, three, three, three, four, two and two in their defeats this season. Nine of their 10 losses are by multiple goals, albeit they’ve surrendered a pair of empty-netters. Only the Detroit Red Wings have a worse goal differential than the Kings’ minus-21. They allow a league-worst 4.00 goals per game. Their power play (10.3 percent) and penalty kill (69.8 percent) rank 29th in the NHL. The Kings do lead the league in shots per game and rank fourth in 5-on-5 Corsi, but they score on just 7.28 percent of their shots at 5-on-5. We could call that number unlucky, but they converted 7.47 percent of their shots all last season. It’s less a luck problem and more a skill problem. If you don’t have many natural finishers, that shooting percentage isn’t necessarily going to recover.
So Kings are a bad hockey team despite Kopitar’s protestations. What is he supposed to say, though? He, just like the other long-time veteran Kings, isn't used to losing and may never get used to it after sipping from the Cup multiple times. Kopitar is signed four more years after this one, Quick three more years, Brown and Jeff Carter two more years, Doughty seven more years, so they’ll have to grit their teeth and gut it out.
“We’re looking at one game at a time,” Quick said “That’s the only way to approach it. I’ve been lucky to play in this league for a long time. If you’re looking at the road (ahead), you’re f---ed.”
The good news: Kings GM Rob Blake and his scouting staff have started assembling an exciting prospect generation. Eventually, the likes of Alex Turcotte, Rasmus Kupari, Arthur Kaliyev and Gabe Vilardi will get their shots. And, when they do, they’ll have at least a few hardened veterans still around to learn from – veterans who absolutely detest losing. That mindset can make for some uncomfortable post-game interviews during these lean years, but it will come in handy once the team is ready to contend again.
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