In the NHL’s off-season last summer, the Los Angeles Kings looked like a team that was ready to make the leap from Stanley Cup playoff outsider to championship contender.
Kings GM Rob Blake assembled a lineup that had direct connections to L.A.’s Cup glory years, but he also clearly was aware a roster rebuild was necessary, and made moves to give the Kings a balanced attack that could make noise in the relatively weak Pacific division.
However, it’s safe to say that even people who believed the Kings would improve in the standings this season weren’t expecting them to be as competitive as they are. People believed they probably would be in the mix for a lower-seed playoff berth, but with the caveat that they still had a ways to go before being an elite team. While that’s still true to some degree, right now, the Kings look terrific, and they’re exceeding expectations. Although they're essentially capped out on the salary cap front (with only $319,000 in cap space, per CapFriendly.com), don’t be surprised if Blake makes a couple of moves before the league’s March 21 trade deadline, to cement L.A.’s place in the standings, and even challenge for top spot in the Pacific.
At the moment, L.A. holds the No. 2 spot in the Pacific, with a 34-21-8 record and 76 standings points – better than the Vegas Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers, and only five points behind the first-place Calgary Flames (though Calgary has three games in hand). The Kings have the league’s eighth-best defense (averaging 2.76 goals-against per game), and the impressive part is that they’ve excelled despite the injury bug taking a large bite out of their game. Star defenseman Drew Doughty has appeared in only 39 games; fellow blueliners Olli Maatta and Alex Edler have played 47 and 22 games respectively; experienced hands Dustin Brown and Matt Roy currently are sidelined. Yet they’ve been extremely resilient, and almost always have a good chance to win against any opponent.
Head coach Todd McLellan has, quietly, guided the Kings through the schedule and got them to perform admirably. L.A. has recently pulled off wins against the highly-skilled Florida Panthers and veteran-laden Boston Bruins, and in their 19 remaining regular-season games, they’ve got very winnable showdowns against Chicago (three times), Seattle (three times), Anaheim (two times), and Columbus. Barring a massive collapse, they’re going to make the playoffs, and the only question is whether they’ll have home-ice advantage in the first round.
Blake’s targets at the trade deadline are likely to be blueliners and bottom-six forwards, as he tries to prepare them for a playoff run. Goaltending isn’t a problem, thanks to the tandem of Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen. It’s about depth and edge for them, and Blake wouldn’t hesitate to include another franchise in order to make a trade fit under the cap. It’s crucial to ownership to see real improvement, and given that the Kings haven’t made the playoffs in the past three seasons, and haven’t won a playoff round since they won a Cup in 2014, the post-season revenues that would be generated would be a big deal for them.
The Kings have surprised analysts with their play thus far, and a deep playoff run would be even more surprising. Many people expect them to lose in the first or second round, and Kings fans would likely be happy just to see them get that far. But it doesn’t look like L.A. is ready to settle for that. People underestimating them is likely to be a motivating factor, and the lack of a large media force around the team will keep the pressure on them relatively low. They can go about their business, continue to play well, and by the time the playoffs begin, they can be darkhorse to go further than they have in the past seven years.
So, don’t sleep on the Kings. Just because they’re in arguably the NHL’s worst division doesn’t mean they’re not capable of winning high-stakes games. They’ve shown this year they’re ready and able to take that next step, and move into the upper tier for years to come.