Since 2014, coming off a run that included two Stanley Cup parades in three years, the Los Angeles Kings have been plagued with constant questions surrounding what’s gone wrong. Theories have ranged from the loss of defenseman Slava Voynov to bad trades, from injuries to bad contracts, from a coach unwilling (or unable) to change his approach to a General Manager refusing to adapt his belief system. It’s no secret that fans have also thrown blame at Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Jake Muzzin, and a myriad of other players. Yet, nobody actually had the definitive answer, nor a solution.
Then, everything changed in Calgary on March 19, 2017.
It became even more clear 10 days later, against that same Flames team.
A light switch was flipped on. Clouds parted. Answers were now obvious.
And the worst part about this revelation is it was in front of everyone the entire time. Perhaps it was a secret that people knew and didn’t talk about… or it was just missed, until last month.
“It sure was,” said new General Manager, Rob Blake, when we asked if the Drew Doughty-Matthew Tkachuk incident was as eye-opening for him as it was for us. “I don’t know if we handled that exactly right. Kyle Clifford did a tremendous job in warm-ups. I’m just not sure we handled it ideally the first 10 or 15 minutes of that game, and then you saw the situation with Jarome Iginla. Here’s a guy that has played 1,500 NHL games; he knew exactly what to do in the situation. And from that point on, the game kind of turned. You saw the emotion in that, [something] we hoped would drag in more and more throughout the season. [However, there has been] a turnover of some pretty key players in our organization and now we have to establish that.”
He’s right. The 2016-17 Kings largely lacked a key ingredient that has actually been absent for a few years. What was it exactly, you ask?
“When you look at our teams that won, we were so surrounded by incredible leadership,” noted Kings Assistant GM Mike Futa. “If you think about it, they were borderline Hall of Fame leaders – Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll, Matt Greene. And Justin Williams, that’s another level or form of grit. The amount of ‘pack mentality’ that we had, as far as team toughness, it was incredible… And it was brought to a clear head in that Calgary game. Being out of the playoffs aside, or where we were in the standings, to see the way that all unfolded kind of brought more of a focus on what was missing. When Jarome Iginla, who had only been part of our family for three or four weeks, is the guy that answered the bell the way our entire 2012-2014 teams would normally answer the bell for each other, there’s a concern.”
Perhaps that’s an understatement. This is an LA Kings roster featuring arguably the best defenseman in the world in Doughty, a top-five goaltender in Quick, and a deadly one-two combination down the middle in Kopitar and Jeff Carter. Plus, all are in the prime of their careers. There is simply no reason for this team to miss the playoffs two of the last three years.
“Start with Willie Mitchell and Mike Richards,” said Mark Yannetti, Kings Director of Scouting. “This team doesn’t win the first Cup without them. Fine, we all know what happened with Richards, and we all know we couldn’t keep Mitchell [because of the cap]. Yet, now you have Kopitar, Doughty, and Carter in the position of being the guys to help us win. They were huge parts our success before — again, you couldn’t win a Cup without them – but, they were allowed to be secondary presences. They were allowed to have off nights. They were allowed to not drive the bus, so they didn’t deal with the same pressure. Instead of their Darwinian, natural evolution from rookie to cog to complimentary piece to leader, you have a year in which Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards, Slava Voynov – three catastrophic things that effect primary and secondary leadership, primary and secondary performance – all leave.
“Instead of that of that general phasing out of Richards, Stoll, and Mitchell and those guys, the natural selection process of Kopi and Drew and Carter becoming the primary elements of leadership — the primary elements of winning, the primary elements of determining the team’s course — all of the sudden, they get thrown into it. And not only do they get thrown into it, but they get thrown in under controversy, under uncertainty. It’s like being struck by lightning. You can’t prepare for it. You get hit on two fronts, and as you’ve seen, it’s hard. It’s not hard for Doughty to be the best player in the world, but it’s hard to determine the course of the franchise without continuing his apprenticeship.
“People forget how long [Steve] Yzerman had to learn from the guys before him. Don’t forget how long [Nicklas] Lidstrom had to learn from Yzerman. Don’t forget about those New Jersey Devils teams and how long the apprenticeship was for their guys to move from complimentary leaders into leaders, and all of it was linear. A lot of guys are still finding their way. Again, there’s a difference between being the best player and being the best leader. There’s a balance between being the best player and the best leader and that’s what you’ve seen with Drew. He performs at a high level every night, but now you have to find that extra way to inspire everyone else, take it upon yourself. It’s a hard thing, and now you have to do it without having that roadmap in front of you, not to mention uncertainty. Those three things happening at once, while they’re excuses, they’re valid excuses. Now we have to find a way to overcome that, and we haven’t found a way yet, it’s that simple. We haven’t.”
Although now uncovered, this problem isn’t simply about the guys who currently wear letters on their jerseys. Rather, it is a 23-man roster issue. Going back to Futa’s comment, they need a pack mentality. There is something missing beyond simply the maturation of the next wave of leaders.
“In a sense, I understand what you’re saying,” Yannetti continued. “The vast majority of this roster is the same roster that won three Game 7s on the road in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I don’t think that will ever happen again. They’ve already proven that they have character. However, those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. It’s hard to keep your hunger, your focus. It’s hard to be the Boston Celtics winning 11 championships. Sometimes, getting smacked in the mouth is a very good thing. I thought we got smacked in the mouth when we didn’t make the playoffs in 2015 and then we got smacked in the mouth again by San Jose in 2016. I would have expected us to have that be an eye-opening moment. I don’t think we got less competitive as opposed to stagnant. This can go from players to coaches to Hockey Ops to anyone in the organization.
“The players created a philosophy, a game plan, their performances, the way they played and the style they played, won two Stanley Cups and lost a Conference Final to the Stanley Cup winner. Why wouldn’t that continue working? Why wouldn’t we continue to win? We’re the Kings. We step on the ice and win. Just like on the management side, you forget all the extra work that went in. The mini-breakthroughs and little evolutions in the way you did your job that resulted in the payouts. It’s the same for the players. We didn’t win those three Game 7s because we’re the Kings. We won it because we took the team by the throat and we won. We came back from a two-goal deficit to Chicago in the seventh game twice. Why? Because the Blackhawks let us win because we’re the Kings? No, because we absolutely would have rather died than lost.”
There it is again, that intangible. That thing that can’t be measured.
“It gets back to that grit factor,” Futa explained. “That’s part of the issue; the piece that was missing to take us to another level. We have a bunch of champions; we have a great core still that had an incredible leadership group around them to learn from, and is now being asked to be that core leadership group. Then, you take that next wave of guys that we’re trying to infiltrate, our Calder Cup Champions, and the synergy was off, the mesh was off. I think it’s time to develop that chemistry between the two, and getting that ‘pack mentality’ that we’re all one.”
It’s also a notion that isn’t unique to only the players. This needs to extend to all members of the organization, from the bench all the way up to the highest ranks of management.
Still, can this missing ingredient – character, leadership, grit, or some magical elixir of all three — be taught? Does it happen organically? Or do some people just have it?
“It’s a combination,” Futa explained. “Some guys just have it. When I met Kyle Clifford for the first time – during a period Dean [Lombardi] was saying, ‘We need to have a culture changing draft’ — there might have been better players at the top of the second round, but there wasn’t a better person or culture changer and you could see it. You didn’t have to teach Kyle Clifford how to play the game or the game-within-a-game or how to stand up for his teammates or put himself on the line and be selfless. Trevor Lewis has it, in a different form. His doesn’t come in the form of fisticuffs, but he has it. He competes on another level. You can see it in their fitness results, their preparation, and in every aspect. You’d like to say it is teachable. It’s a dream when it’s inherent and it’s in you. I think Jonathan Quick has been a competitor and had it his entire life. Drew Doughty, same thing. There’s different forms and different levels of it, but I think it becomes contagious when you have an abundance of it and there’s enough of it — if this makes any sense, you have enough of it around you that it’s natural, and it’s not scripted. You respond to a situation instinctively, not scripted.”
Futa and his new boss appear to be singing from the same song book when discussing this topic, which is a good sign.
“If you look back at those Cup teams, Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards, Matt Greene, Willie Mitchell – that part of this team had to be changed just because of the age of the player and where they were in their career,” Blake added. “Now, we’ve replaced that with some young guys. It takes a while to establish it. It took Jarret Stoll a long time to become the player that he was. The grit and things are the different situations when you’re losing and they come out in a third period and do something to change the momentum of the game. Mike Richards was unbelievable at it. He had a game-sense that you can’t teach. Those are some of the qualities that you look for. Now, it takes time to develop that. When some of these young players first come in the league, they’re just trying to fit in. They’re like, ‘I just want to play in the league.’ The next step is, ‘Now I have to get a contract in the league.’ Then you finally realize, you have to win in the league too. You want that transition to happen fast. Naturally, there is a little time in that. I think the team that was assembled when they won, those guys were at a stage of their career — the meat of the organization was at a stage in their career — where they needed to win. We need that. We need Muzzin, Martinez, Toffoli, Pearson to take that step, and continue to drag the young guys into that level.”
With five months remaining until opening night of next season, time is ticking to re-tool the roster in such a way that the Kings will be more competitive in 2017-18. Getting them back to being championship contenders will involve more than roster additions and subtractions.
Something more has been missing. It’s that special something that guys like Richards, Stoll, Scuderi, Mitchell, and Greene brought to the table. There can be different amounts of this missing element; it can most definitely vary by individual. However, it absolutely cannot be missing. Instead, it must be the thread that stitches scraps of fabric into a larger tapestry. In a league full of parity, the talent must come together as one to gain an advantage.
This isn’t about statistics. In fact, this is about some of the most important elements advanced stats can’t measure – heart, character, and grit.
“I agree,” remarked Yannetti. “As management, now you have to bring in the right guys. A bridge player can be a bridge leader. A bridge player can be the guy who brings out the guy in Kopitar, Doughty, Toffoli, and Carter. We have to fix that chemistry. The players have to fix that chemistry and management has to fix the chemistry. I don’t think we are as far away as people think we are; but, as an organization, we need to make adjustments to give us the best possible chance to accelerate that process. I think it’ there, I think just needs to be — you have a bunch of chemicals and you don’t quite have the catalyzing agent. I’m not going to sit here and say I have all the answers. I don’t know what they catalyzing agent will be. I know it’s there, and that’s our job, everybody’s job, to find out what the final ingredient is.”
— The Mayor John Hoven (@mayorNHL) April 16, 2017
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