There should be some sort of crossroads approaching for the LA Kings, one in which some larger-scale decision on personnel or coaching or management is made, but it doesn’t appear any new course will be set on Friday, one day after the Kings lost for the seventh time in eight games as their traditionally airtight defensive play yielded at least three goals for the eighth straight game. With Florida’s win over Winnipeg in Helsinki earlier in the day, Los Angeles sits alone in 31th place.
You’re aware of the details, the statistics and what’s shaping up as a critical mass that precipitates the type of organizational decision used as a means to avoid writing off seasons one month into them. But as of Friday morning, when the team returned to practice, the internal discussion and focus was on what it has always has been, albeit with perhaps some visible stress and weariness that only a tiny minority of teams exhibit 12 games into the season. The Kings were talking about ways they can improve their game. They sat down to look at their shortcomings on video and held meetings and discussions before hitting the ice for a nearly 40-minute practice.
“You have to go through the process of consciously, physically, emotionally preparing yourself and how hard it is to play and how hard you have to work and how hard it is to win in this league,” John Stevens said in response to a question about the team’s poor starts. “I think that’s something we need to do a better job of, and that starts with practice. Practice usually is an indicator of how you’re playing, and the preparation for the game tomorrow starts today.”
And thus the Kings began, again, to attempt to fix their issues by hunkering down and getting to work. On the team’s slow starts, Stevens noted soft plays with the puck early in the game that allowed momentum to swing towards Philadelphia. When the team improved over the latter stages of the second period, they were playing faster, supporting each other both with and without the puck and maintaining better gaps, as Stevens noted.
But there were still issues on top of the puck and getting plays stopped, sealed and turned around quickly. “It’s not always going to be pretty, it’s a fast game,” Kyle Clifford said. “But when things do break down, it’s got to be broken down at one mistake, not two or three. That’s where they start generating momentum, and, obviously, offense.”
Clifford is a player whose expertise in dressing room constitution and preparation shouldn’t be questioned. But it has been a slog for Clifford this season, as it has been for a number of his teammates. He’s in his ninth season and has been scratched as many times as he has reached 10 minutes of ice time.
But for someone who does represent the type of commitment and culture – or any other seemingly flighty but valuable intangible that describes a finely conditioned player with good preparation and practice habits – and who has embodied so much of what the team wants to champion, this 3-8-1 record has got to be driving him absolutely nutty.
There are others that this start drives crazy as well, but Clifford has been a player singled out by Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yannetti as “a generational character guy, a generational human being.” He’s as approachable and friendly as players come, and if it was possible to determine the strength and source of neutrinos in the dressing room, there’s one corner in which their concentration would light up PKE Meters.
I wanted to speak with this leadership pillar on Friday.
“Obviously we’re not getting the results we want,” Clifford said. “When things aren’t going well, you go back to the core stuff that has been a staple. Our team’s identity needs to be there, and that starts with work and playing smart. We’ve always prided ourselves at keeping the puck out of the net, and that’s kind of been the staple of our game. Right now it’s lacking, and I think you’ve got a guy like Jack Campbell that’s gone in and done a great job. He’s given us a chance to win every night. It just comes from everybody pulling it together and working. It’s not easy when you get into these ruts, but you just have to go back to what you’re good at and focus on that and go one step at a time.”
Again, when questioning team figures, the answers they seek are derived from digging in and the sense that a more focused stream of work can get them out of this mess. I’m not sure I agree with that. What, then, about the fact that the team only two weeks ago was saying similar things after back-to-back shellackings by the Islanders and Sabres?
“It comes from work, it comes from detail,” Clifford said. “Like I said, we’ve always prided ourselves keeping the puck out of the net, and I think that’s got to be a focus of our game. I thought last year we took a step forward with our offense, and we need to get back to what made us successful last year with that. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s got to be everybody. There’s no way to get out of it if you get two guys going or five guys going. It’s got to be everybody, every night, every shift.”
Of course, Clifford’s not going to run around like a chicken with its head cut off wearing a sandwich board reading WE ARE HOPELESS. “Hope” springs eternal in sports, so it has been said, and perhaps nowhere is that as profound as in the dressing room of a hockey cooperative early in a season gone awry. Clifford knows that the Kings are in a difficult predicament from which there may not be a navigable stream towards success this season. But he goes out on the ice, he practices, he sweats, he bleeds, he takes punches for the team, and he’ll never be anyone to concede an inch of anything – the team’s climate, standings and statistics be damned.
And so Los Angeles will again attempt to work their issues out through practice and better preparation and better detail and habits on the ice. Against Columbus on Saturday, they’ll look to get plays sealed and killed, improve their puck management and work at handling speed and aggressive forechecks better than they had to this point in the season. For those in the coaching staff and in the dressing room, absent of any movement, what is there to do but dig in, really?
“I sat down with the team,” Stevens said of the team’s focus Friday morning. “Quite honest, we have to play a lot faster. That starts with your checking. When the puck gets put in our zone, we should be in peoples’ way. We should have outlets with our feet going up the ice. We check faster, we play faster, bottom line. We’ve got to play the game a lot faster without the puck, and we’ll play the game a lot faster with the puck.”
–There was hope that Paul LaDue (upper-body) would skate Friday, but he did not take the ice with the team. “Wasn’t able to skate. That’s all I can tell you,” Stevens said.
–Defenseman Sean Walker logged only 6:03 on Thursday and didn’t see the ice after Oskar Lindblom’s second period goal that was propelled into the net off his stick. “Not just him, but we were in trouble, especially around our net,” Stevens said. “We decided just to shorten the bench and go with five, kind of like we did up front with there. Muzz and Marty seemed like they were holding water pretty good, get them a little more involved.”
–Lead photo via Noah Graham/NHLI