“The term younger guys, we’ve played 82 games I don’t know that we have a rookie on our team. We don’t have younger guys anymore, we have players that have experience now, we have players that have played in the playoffs before, we have players that have played large parts of important games in different situations. They need to produce, simple as that.”
That was Todd McLellan speaking this morning, when asked about the experience gained by “younger players”.
Last season, the Kings had a large group of guys making their playoff debuts. That group included players like Matt Roy, who you wouldn’t consider to be inexperienced. It included guys like Arthur Kaliyev, who you might have.
In total, the Kings had 11 players take part in their first playoff game at the NHL level. They didn’t all play together or in each game, but that’s half a lineup on a given night. Of the players currently on the roster, only three have never played in a playoff game entering Game 1. That’s a vast difference from a season ago. The Kings have younger players by age, but those players are no longer young by experience.
Now, there’s gaining experience and then there’s using experience. That’s the line the Kings are trying to find themselves on the right side of approaching this series.
“Experience is an interesting thing, it’s only valuable if you do something with it,” McLellan said. “The fact that we’re playing Edmonton again……the majority of our team [has been] able to feel what the arena is like, what the intensity is, what to expect, it’s valuable. We didn’t have that last year, but we also have to remember the other team gained a lot of experience playing against us too.”
McLellan is, naturally, spot on. Having the experience is great and I think we can all look at the situation and understand that. It’s better to have a crop of second-year playoff performers as opposed to a large group of players going in raw. Players who play big roles on this season’s Kings team now have those games under their belts and the fact that the matchup is the same only helps that comfort level.
From here on forward, though, the experience is simply a tool in their belt. Now, it’s about going out and applying it on the ice.
Take Sean Durzi for example. Earlier this season, he told a story about how jittery he was on the bench prior to Game 1 in Edmonton and how Dustin Brown gave him a reassuring pat on the leg and it helped to calm him down. There will always be some Game 1 jitters, sure, but that was a young player, sitting on the bench in a raucous, playoff atmosphere for the first time. There won’t be those first times for Durzi this year and that’s important.
“Last year going into the playoffs, I probably had more nerves than excitement and this year, having the experience, you just get that excitement,” he said. “Knowing what you’re going into, it’s not completely unfamiliar territory, we’ve had seven games of hockey and going seven gives you a lot of experience. You learn a lot about yourself and the team.”
Mikey Anderson echoed similar thoughts.
Like Durzi, Anderson experienced playoff hockey for the first time in Game 1 a season ago and immediately he was thrust into the role and responsibility of logging big minutes against the opposition’s best. Anderson’s most common opponent in his first taste of playoff hockey was Connor McDavid. At all strengths, he saw McDavid for more than 10 minutes, not to mention nearly eight against Leon Draisaitl. And that was just Game 1.
He’ll be asked to play a similar role here in 2023, but he’ll do so with 2022 under his belt. There’s something valuable to that.
“For all the guys that were able to experience last year for the first time, now we have a little bit of an idea of what the schedule is like, how the games happen, the pace of play, everything that kind of changes from Game 82 to Game 1 of the playoffs,” Anderson said. “Going through it last year was a great experience and I think it adds a little comfort level for all of us coming in.”
When Kaliyev took the ice in Game 1, he was just 20 years of age. While he’d spent the entire season with the NHL club, appearing in 80 of 82 games, he had never played in the postseason.
Like Anderson and Durzi mentioned, the unknown was one of the biggest things in Game 1 a season ago. He could imagine what to expect, he could ask about what to expect, but he had never lived it. Now he has and he’s better off for it.
“Now we know what to expect – It’s going to have more intensity, the crowds are more into it and the game is faster,” Kaliyev said. “I know more of what to expect this time around than I did last year, so I’ll be ready.”
With younger players in a better place, the team’s veterans around them believe it will better serve the group moving forward.
Drew Doughty has played in more than 80 playoff games throughout his career. He’s been a part of several on the road, including Game 7’s and Stanley Cup Final contests. He knows that routine can change due to energy and emotions, especially before a Game 1. It can be difficult to overcome those emotions when it’s your first time experiencing them. While he wasn’t with the group on the ice last year, he believes those who were are better off because of their experience.
“You need to get playoff games under your belt to know what it’s like,” Doughty said. “Playoff games, sometimes it’s hard to nap before games, it’s hard to not get your emotions too high and let your game slide on you. It’s good that they got that experience in because it’ll help them a lot this year.”
Like Doughty, captain Anze Kopitar has a similar postseason experience, with 86 games to Doughty’s 84. Unlike Doughty, Kopitar was on the ice a season ago alongside several of those players and saw their experience and growth first-hand.
“Last year was a good experience for our team, a lot of them had never been in the playoffs, never been in a situation like that before,” the captain said. “To go and play seven games, I think we gained a lot as a team, we gained a lot as individuals. To learn what you need to do, where you can do better or how to prepare yourself, all those things you take into account to get ready for Game 1.”
The Kings gained experience and they’re clearly better for it, as all involved have mentioned. The Kings weren’t the only team getting more experienced, though, as Edmonton played in those seven games as well, on top of the two additional rounds that followed. The Oilers reached the Western Conference Final and enter this series with Stanley Cup aspirations and wide-ranging external predictions to get there. What they won’t have, however, is an advantage in knowing what to expect tomorrow evening at Rogers Place. Everyone involved will know and will be ready to handle what’s to come.
Experience is not the only factor that will determine this series, but rather one of many in play. Both teams have gained it over the 12 months between last season’s series and this season’s. Game on, says McLellan.
“The whole experience factor will be important for whoever uses it to the best of their means. I’d like to think we can do that.”