For a team that has been stationary while enduring significant on-ice calamity, Thursday was a day in transit and without incident. They touched down in Chicago during the early stages of afternoon rush hour and bused to the team hotel, where they were joined by their newest teammate, Carl Hagelin.
Stimuli has been applied, but nothing has jarred any significant life into a group that has already dismissed its coach and traded an important outer core player in Tanner Pearson. They remain in last place, four points behind 30th place St. Louis, whose 52 goals for and against represent a balance significantly better than Los Angeles’ league-worst goal differential.
If the Kings aren’t able to be more competitive in games – they’ve lost by at least three in seven of 17 – and maybe even string together some wins, more changes will come.
“I mean, we’re struggling,” Jeff Carter said Wednesday at Toyota Sports Center. “We’re trying to stay positive in here and keep working at it. The only ones that are going to turn it around are the ones in here. That’s really the bottom line. If we don’t pick up our play and get things going here quick, we’re going to be in big trouble.”
They are in trouble, and if the rushing tide isn’t stemmed, they’ll probably lose some familiar teammates and friends over the remaining 65 games.
“And the guys right now, they are a little bit thrown off about what’s happening,” Willie Desjardins said. “They thought they could come out of it, they thought it would be an easier road to come out of it than it is, so they are a little bit shocked by it. Now we’ve got to take steps to build it back. You just don’t make a jump right away, you’ve got to make steps. We’d rather make jumps, but we’ve got to make steps.”
Despite the low point, there have been some steps the team has taken in five-on-five play. Keep in mind that Toronto’s power play was 3-for-6 against an Los Angeles penalty kill that had shown real signs of improvement as late; of course, as a counterpoint, even while L.A.’s even strength play began to even out, they lost the handle on their special teams detail. If it’s not one thing, it’s something else.
But the Kings have done a better job limiting the opposition’s odd-man rushes that had been problematic in recent weeks. L.A. is now in the black possession-wise and is just outside of the top 10 shot-suppressing teams, a familiar staple. They’ve cut down on scoring chances against, especially high-danger chances, per Natural Stat Trick. These underlying metrics are not particularly important – their Fenwick-close remains in the bottom quadrant – but do show that during five-on-five play, they’ve at least stabilized from earlier days this season.
“There’s a lot of hockey left,” Carter said. “You look at our division, yeah, we have 11 points, but we turn things around here quickly and I believe that we can be right back in there in our division. We’ll see what happens.”
The Pacific Division is wide, wide open, but that’s still a positive outlook. If they’re going to make the playoffs, they’ll need about 40 wins and five overtime losses, give-or-take, from their 65 remaining games.
So if they’re going to even contemplate operating with a .650 points percentage the rest of the way, they can start by raising a level of emotional investment that, if we are to be diplomatic, hasn’t shown encouraging vital signs. They took three first period penalties against an elite power play unit on Tuesday and trailed 2-0 before firing off their first shot. The slumped shoulders returned, as would be natural for any team in the Los Angeles’ standing.
“I think first and foremost, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and figure out how to get [ourselves] going, really, because if everybody individually does a good job of preparing themselves, we’re definitely going to come together as a team and show that on the ice,” Kopitar said. “Everything falls now on the individuals, and on top of that it falls down on the leaders of this team. It’s just kind of pave-the-way and get it going right off the get-go.”
It’s staggering to be writing these words about a team that very recently exuded a championship pedigree. They were the “cockroaches” who “just don’t go away,” according to Alec Martinez, who played, as shared by Justin Williams, with “inner arrogance” and “quiet confidence.”
It’s time to shelve some of those trademarks.
“It doesn’t mean it’s not in them, but I don’t think they’ve shown that right now. There’s for lots of different reasons, but I think the other teams around them are better. But they still have it in them. I just don’t think they’ve maybe shown it quite as much here lately,” Desjardins said.
“We’ve got to do things in practice. We’ve got to increase the pace of our play in practice. Like, we’ve got to be able to play quicker. All the good teams now, they play with more tempo, so we’ve got to find a way to play with more tempo in our game. So that’s probably the first thing. And you’ve got to give them a chance to be successful. I think our specialty teams haven’t been good enough recently, so if they’re better, if our specialty teams are really good the last four games, we get two of ‘em, for sure. Maybe we’d get three. But we’d get two, for sure. Then, it’s not great, but it’s OK. So, we have to get our specialty teams better. That’ll get guys excited, as well. And then each guy’s got to kind of look at themselves. Coaches have got to look at what they’re doing, players have got to look at what they’re doing.”
“We do have to make some changes. That was recognized. That’s why moves were made, and that is a process that’s underway now, to get back to where we were before.”
–Lead photo via Juan Ocampo/NHLI