No one singular issue plagues the LA Kings. Responsibility for a 19-point year-over-year drop-off through 61 games is shared by a number of involved parties, from management to the players to the coaching staff and those who’d held those positions in previous regimes.
There are more concrete representations of how this team has fallen short that are depicted in standings points and statistics, as well as more nebulous shortcomings. There are questions about team identity, about practice habits, about buying in to the coaching staff, as well as how the two staffs this season have reached the players. This has taken place as the team’s most acclaimed and nearly NHL-ready prospect Gabe Vilardi is out indefinitely with a back injury that has plagued him since his arrival in the organization, while a former prospect, 21-year-old Erik Cernak, is logging heavy minutes as a physical, right-shot rookie defenseman for the Tampa Bay Lightning, whom the Kings will face tomorrow.
And that’s not to simply throw a handful of shallow protestations towards the wall, but rather to illustrate that these shortcomings are shared. Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Tyler Toffoli, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick and a number of others have fallen short of prior marks – marks set as recently as last season. But why have so many players fallen so short? How did this happen so abruptly across the board for a core that isn’t just championship-tested, but one that catalyzed a 98-point performance one year ago as several forged career renaissances and were finalists for league awards?
Anze Kopitar, on why so many key players are collectively having off-years:
That’s really tough to answer, and I really don’t really have an answer for you. Just sometimes that’s how it goes. Even during the good seasons you go into spurts where you struggle a little bit and I don’t think I’ve been on a team where everybody is in that kind of mode where just nothing’s going right – and even last night. I mean, that’s just the way the season’s been going where [it’s] 1-1 on the power play I miss the net and rifles around right on the guy’s stick and he goes down and scores. I mean it’s just kind of almost like a season in a nutshell, but I hate standing here and making up excuses because we’re certainly not that type of bunch where we’re looking for excuses. But it’s been frustrating, very frustrating for myself and for everybody inside this locker room. The thing you can control is go out and work hard and give it all you’ve got.
Kopitar, on his message as captain going into a game against the NHL’s top team on Monday:
Play with structure and intensity and work hard, really. I mean, there’s nothing to it. In this league, anybody can beat anybody, so we’re not going in there waving a white towel, certainly not, but we’ve got to go in there and work hard and play together and with a lot more urgency. [Reporter: What will give you that indication that you’re team is doing that early on in the hockey game?] We’ll just see. If we’re moving the puck, if we’re skating, if we’re in position then we’re going to see it early.
Kopitar, on whether the mental challenges will ease after the trade deadline:
Yeah, I think so. I mean, whether you like it or not or don’t want to think about it or not, there’s always a little something in the back of your mind. That’s something about the deadline that it’s ‘scary,’ if you will, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. [Reporter: And it’s got to be. With your families-] See, that’s the thing. I’m not going to say it’s easy even if you’re 22 and single and, you know, with three suitcases. It’s certainly not, because you’re going in a completely different environment than you’re already used to, obviously, and then there’s guys that are married with wives and kids and school programs and all that stuff. I mean, that’s hard. I’ve been obviously very fortunate that I haven’t been in that position. Hopefully I won’t be ever in that position, but yeah, it’s got to be nerve wracking. That’s bottom line.
Drew Doughty, on why so many key players are collectively having off-years:
I don’t know what it is. You know, I think just as a team we’re not performing well. Obviously, that means individually we’re not all playing well too, but it’s frustrating when you’re not coming together as a team. It’s hard to get yourself going because you’re so worried about the team going and then it’s just like a domino effect. Once our guys up top aren’t playing well, it just goes down through the lineup. I don’t have a reason for you. It’s been a tough year with the coach firing and we never really responded to that on time and I don’t know. It’s just been a tough year all around. I don’t really have a reason for you.
Doughty, on whether he feels any pressure to live up to his large contract:
No, no pressure at all. I deserved that contract, I don’t feel any pressure at all. I one-hundred percent deserved it. Yeah, I’m minus-22 this year, but I’m still playing good hockey. I’m still playing as hard as I possibly can. Playing good defense, playing good offense and, you know, the numbers aren’t there, but the numbers aren’t there for the whole team, and when you play thirty minutes a night and you’re on the last place team in the league, you’re going to be a minus player. That’s the bottom line.
Doughty, on losing teammates via trades and breaking in younger players on defense:
I don’t know, I think the young guys have done a good job. It sucks obviously that we had to trade away Muzz and stuff like that, but I’ve got to help ‘em. I’ve got to teach ‘em the ropes. I had guys like that like Sean O’Donnell and Matt Greene when I was a young guy that helped me on and off the ice and that’s my job now. They’ve got a lot to learn and I have a lot of knowledge that I can teach them and so do some of the other veteran D on our team. I like playing a lot of minutes, so that’s not an issue for me. But playing with different partners often is definitely tough for the D-core, but it’s something that we have to adjust to because it’s just the way it’s going right now.
Dustin Brown, on why so many key players are collectively having off-years:
I mean there’s a lot of reasons that go into that. Sometimes it’s a mental thing with players, but I think our habits in practice haven’t been nearly as good as they have in years past and that affects us in games. I think we’ve been better, quite honestly, since the All-Star break with our practice habits, but if you look at the really good teams and how they practice – that attributes a lot to some guys’ struggles.
Brown, on whether there has been a shift in the culture and approach from earlier days:
Yes, I mean, it’s not where it needs to be, but there’s little things that need to be shored up. The big things will take care of themselves, but right now it’s a learning process for a lot of guys. I said this the other day – is a lot of the guys on this team have never been on a team like this. They’ve been on good teams their whole career, and there’s something to be said about learning how to do things when you’re at the bottom of the standings. That’s probably when it matters more, quite honestly.
Brown, on whether he had any inkling that the team was due to take a competitive hit:
No, I mean it’s really hard to say that now. If I had a real good answer for you I’d give it to you, but sometimes stuff like this happens and I mean obviously the deadline is tomorrow, I think it’s important the guys that are here realize that we still have good players here. It’s about doing things the right way, day in and day out.
Jonathan Quick, on why so many key players are collectively having off-years:
I think you said it. It’s hard to put your finger on it and if we were able to that, we’d have it figured out and we haven’t.
Quick, on how difficult this season has been for him personally:
You always try to play one game at a time, you know? We’re getting ready for Tampa right now, but to be where we are in the standings, it’s frustrating. But, obviously still trying to get better and learn from my mistakes. Obviously, we had quite a few of them last night, so you work on that and at the end there you kind of just keep working and that’s about it.
Quick, on losing teammates via trades and the possibility that more teammates could be traded:
It’s tough, especially when Hags goes the other day. He was a great guy, a great teammate and he’s only been here for half a year. So, obviously Thom was here last year and he’s gone. Muzz won a cup with us and same with Pears. It’s tough, you know, you don’t want to be in that situation where because of a lack of performance guys are leaving. We’re used to the other way around because we’re usually this time a year playing well and we’re looking to add a piece or two. So, obviously it’s different from that standpoint and it’s just tough. It’s tough to see guys go.
–Lead photo via Juan Ocampo/NHLI