If you want an idea of how things are going in Los Angeles to start the 2018-19 campaign, consider that we’re little more than two weeks into the season and the Kings’ fanbase has already heard one of the most dreaded three-word phrases in sports: closed-door meeting.
On Saturday, after Los Angeles was handed a 5-1 loss by the visiting Buffalo Sabres, the Kings barred the dressing room doors post-game while the players and GM Rob Blake discussed the team’s ugly start to the season. Make no mistake, either, it has been hard to watch. After posting a 2-1-1 record through the first four games of the campaign, Los Angeles has dropped four straight games in embarrassing fashion, losing road tilts to the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs and home games against the New York Islanders and Sabres by a combined score of 21-5. That includes a pair of 5-1 thumpings and a humiliating 7-2 loss at the hands of the Islanders.
As one would expect, inquiries about what was said in the meeting were met with platitudes about hard work, effort, passion and looking in the mirror. But the most revealing — and the most worrying — response about how to right the ship came from Kings coach John Stevens.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t have an answer at this second,” said Stevens, per L.A. Kings Insider. “I thought after the way we played the other night (Thursday’s loss to New York) we’d have come and ripped the doors of the hinges tonight…I don’t have an answer right now.”
Of course, Stevens has fallen in the line of fire for the Kings’ shortcomings over the past week. One needs only peruse a social media search of Stevens’ name for a minute or two to see the calls for his head. But in fairness to Stevens, who helped Los Angeles to a 12-point turnaround and playoff berth last season in his first year as the Kings’ bench boss, there is no simple solution for Los Angeles’ troubles.
The high-profile signing of Ilya Kovalchuk has not been some panacea for what has ailed the Kings’ attack in recent years. Sure, his two goals and five points are tied for first and second, respectively, among skaters in Los Angeles, but that those meager totals put him among the Kings’ statistical leaders is representative of how bleak the offensive upside is in Hollywood. Long the standard bearers of the possession game, too, Los Angeles’ underlying numbers are mediocre at best. The Kings rank 20th in Corsi for percentage, 27th in shots for percentage and 24th in scoring chances for percentage entering Monday’s action. And when Jonathan Quick, upon his return for injury, is getting shelled to the tune 10 goals on 54 shots across roughly 105 minutes of action, you know nothing is going right.
So, what is the way forward for the Kings? As it pertains to this season, there may not be one. That’s not to say the Kings are destined to lose their remaining 74 games, but to suggest that Los Angeles simply isn’t going to be much more than a mid-table outfit with some glaring holes. The Kings may very well recover from this and capture a wild-card berth. Los Angeles could instead fall a few points short and continue their pattern of being an on-again, off-again playoff team. This isn’t a team so bereft of talent that it’s going to wind up at the bottom of the Western Conference, however. Kovalchuk, Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown all but ensure that won’t be the case.
But that brings with it its own set of problems. By staying in the mix, by continuing to be a team in the mushy middle, the Kings have continued to give themselves false hope about where they stand in the NHL hierarchy. That leads to off-season moves like adding a high-priced veteran scorer, or in-season moves like acquiring the final three-plus seasons of Dion Phaneuf’s contract, which would seem to indicate Los Angeles believes they’re only a piece or two away from contention.
That’s exactly the mentality the Kings need to do away with, though, because it hasn’t done them a lick of good. First and foremost, continuing to chase veteran players has only added to the lack of team speed. Kovalchuk can still score, to be sure, but he’s no longer the burner he once was. Phaneuf has never been confused with the most fleet of foot defensemen, either. And in adding these kinds of player, the Kings have remained a bubble team that hasn’t been able to restock an already-thin cupboard.
Consider that In The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2018, a panel of scouts ranked the Kings’ prospect pool 26th in the NHL, with Gabe Vilardi (20th) as the only Los Angeles prospect in the top 50. Kale Clague and Jaret Anderson-Dolan were the only other Kings prospects ranked within the top 100. That’s almost to be expected, though, when the franchise hasn’t had a single selection pick higher than the 11th-overall pick in the past nine drafts. That selection, used to take Vilardi in 2017, was also Los Angeles’ only pick in the top half of the first round over that span.
The Kings can’t address either issue, their speed or their prospect pool, if they continue to hold onto this notion that they’re only this signing or that trade away from getting back into the NHL’s winner’s circle, though. It simply won’t happen. They’re doing more harm than good by attempting to spend their way out of their problems, and that is most certainly what they’ve done in recent years. Rather, the Kings should be considering the kind of retooling that all successful teams need to undertake at times. That means admitting the halcyon days of championship contention are over and acknowledging some bottom-of-the-standings finishes wouldn’t be the worst thing for this team.
In doing so, the hope would be that a few top-15 draft picks, and possibly a few acquisitions by way of some tough personnel decisions, allow the league’s second-oldest team to steadily turnover the roster around foundational elements such as Kopitar and Doughty while injecting some youth, speed and talent into the lineup. Embracing some tough seasons for the long-term betterment is probably the only way the Kings move forward, too. And maybe, in that sense, Saturday’s closed-door meeting can become a watershed moment for Los Angeles, the moment that the organization realized that change is finally necessary and it is high time to let go of the past.