NHL on NBCSN: Kings’ big three keeping them in playoff hunt

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche. Kings-Avalanche stream coverage begins at 5:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When it comes to long-term outlook and potential, the Kings should be well positioned for a lengthy run of success over the next decade. While the current team may not be a contender as presently constructed, the combination of an elite farm system (led by Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte, and Arthur Kaliyev) and a favorable salary cap situation is enough to give LA fans hope that a Stanley Cup contender could be something that is ahead for them in the not too distant future.

But just because the future is something to be excited about, and just because the recent past has been a struggle, does not mean it is time to entirely abandon the present.

Since winning the 2013-14 Stanley Cup, the Kings have qualified for the playoffs just two times in six years with zero playoff series wins. The supporting cast around their core players weakened, while the stars themselves have slowed down over the past few years as they get deeper into their 30s. But the trio of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Drew Doughty has played well enough this season to keep the Kings surprisingly in the playoff hunt.

They enter Sunday’s game against the Avalanche in fifth place in the West Division and four points out of a playoff spot.

A win against Colorado could cut that deficit to just two points.

[AVS-KINGS PRE-GAME COVERAGE BEGINS AT 5:15 P.M. – NBCSN]

Given the expectations for the Kings at the start of the season just being in the hunt at the halfway point is a sign of progress.

This is, after all, a team that has finished in the bottom-four of the league in standings in each of the past two seasons. Given that the offseason was mostly quiet when it comes to the NHL roster, it was widely expected that the results this season would remain the same. Especially as Kopitar, Brown, Doughty, Jeff Carter, and Jonathan Quick continued to slow down.

Then something wild happened: The first three players mentioned found the fountain of youth and started to play at a level that is closer to their championship level form.

As of Sunday, Kopitar is having the best offensive season of his career with 31 points in 26 games, while playing the strong two-way game that made him such an impact player during the Kings’ Cup years. When he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Kings are outscoring teams by an 18-9 margin. His underlying possession numbers are not quite as dominant as they were at his peak, but he is still playing at an exceptionally high level on both sides of the puck.

But that is probably not a huge shock given how strong his play has remained the past few years.

The current play of Brown and Doughty should be a little more surprising.

Let’s start with Brown. He has already scored 13 goals in the Kings’ first 26 games this season and has been one of the most efficient goal scorers in the entire league. That has him on a better than 20-goal pace even in a 56-game season. Keep in mind he has scored more than 15 goals just four times over the past eight seasons, while topping 18 goals just twice during that stretch. That production has been a major surprise this season and has helped carry the Kings’ offense.

[Your 2020-21 NHL On NBC TV Schedule]

Then there is Doughty, whose career seemed to hit a wall the past two seasons both offensively and defensively. To the point where it looked like the remainder of his contract was going to become an albatross on the Kings’ salary cap situation. The 2020-21 season has instead been a resurgent one for him as his performance has improved dramatically across the board. His offensive production has been better, his ability to drive possession has improved relative to his teammates, and his defensive game has been closer to what we have seen from him throughout his career. For the first time in three years he is actually playing like a top-pairing defender.

In the short-term the Kings still have some flaws that are going to make clinching a playoff spot a challenge. Their depth beyond the big-three is not quite where it needs to be, and while Kopitar, Brown, and Doughty have been great, the other big member of the core (Quick) has again struggled and been the lesser of their goalies (behind Cal Petersen) when he has been healthy this season. That is something that is going to have to change.

This is a very top-heavy division with a trio of Cup contenders (Vegas, Colorado, and St. Louis) at the top and a much improved Minnesota team making a move. That is going to present a challenge in the second half.  But the Kings have managed to stay in the race and at least give themselves a shot at keeping things interesting in what seemed to be another lost, rebuilding season. The future is as bright as any other team in the league given the young talent and prospect pool in the organization. But the veterans are still keeping things interesting in the present.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Scroll Down For: