Oh, how quickly things can change in the NHL.
Two years after winning their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, the Los Angeles Kings find themselves down 3-0 in their first-round series with the San Jose Sharks, one loss away from getting swept out of the playoffs without even winning a game.
Dating back to last year’s Western Conference Final versus Chicago, L.A. has now lost seven of its last eight postseason contests. As a result, some are wondering if changes need to be made.
Time is running out on their season and, maybe, on this group.
They’ll always have their 2012 Cup triumph, the sweet memory of rising from the No. 8 seed to dominate every playoff series they won and bring indescribable joy to fans who had suffered through decades of disappointment. But with a young team and a stud goaltender in Quick, that seemed like only the beginning of an era.
Now it seems near an end, because the mix simply isn’t right anymore.
Los Angeles has six players signed to long-term deals: Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov, and Jonathan Quick. Anze Kopitar is only locked up for the next two seasons, but it seems unlikely the Kings would ever let him become an unrestricted free agent. Youngsters Jake Muzzin and Tyler Toffoli probably aren’t going anywhere either.
Besides those 10 players, though, one has to wonder how much the roster could turn over in the next year or two. The NHL is a young man’s league, and key cogs of that 2012 championship team — veterans like Willie Mitchell, Justin Williams, and Jarret Stoll — aren’t getting any younger.
There’s also the matter of goal-scoring. Specifically, the lack of it. As much as the Kings control the puck, they just don’t put many in the net. In 2011-12, L.A. finished the regular season with the second-worst offense in the NHL. A championship helped that fact get overlooked. The offense improved to 10th in the shortened 2013 campaign, but it struggled again this season, finishing fifth from the bottom of the league, averaging just 2.42 goals per game.
Some of that could be related to personnel, and maybe there’s a bit of bad luck mixed in there, too. But for general manager Dean Lombardi, it’s at least worth asking if coach Darryl Sutter’s system is stifling the Kings’ creativity. Because let’s put it this way: a player with Doughty’s considerable offensive talents is capable of more than 37 points in a season.
Now, that being said, there’s always the risk of overreacting. We’ve seen what happens when teams try to become something they’re not, and the results can be ugly. (Just ask fans of the Capitals and Canucks.) The Kings won the Cup with great defense and goaltending, plus a healthy dose of size and strength. The core is still fairly young. Heck, save for a bad bounce, they could only be down 2-1 to the Sharks, with a chance to tie the series Thursday at home.
Still, if you’re not constantly trying to improve, you’re asking for trouble in the NHL, where there’s not a ton of difference between a championship team and first-round victim.