Following hockey for the last 12 years or so, I have been able to compile some knowledge on the subject. Hockey is more fun than most people think.
The game, which those on the other side of the northern border consider the national sport, is gaining a lot of popularity here in Southern California.
We have seen this before though. Anybody remember someone by the name of Wayne Gretzky? The player known as The Great One, who accomplished so much it would be impossible to list in this column?
The ice buzz around town hasn’t been this big since Gretzky roamed the rink in Inglewood at the old Great Western Forum. Hockey is finally relevant again.
The new Los Angeles Kings are giving fans a lot of reasons to smile about and hope for a bright future.
This being said, the Kings have a legitimate shot at contending for Lord Stanley’s cup. No, I am not crazy, but this combination of young and old players has all the makings of a championship-winning team.
Hockey was big here when the Anaheim Ducks won the championship in 2007, but it’s not the same thing when a team from Orange County wins and the hometown team that’s been here since the 1970s doesn’t.
So a year after making the playoffs and being mediocre for about a decade prior to last season, the Kings seem to be following a blueprint that will take them to the top.
Sure, they have lost seven out of their last eight games, but they still have the keys to a future championship.
1. Talented core — This team has a talented young core that is NHL-ready and eager to make an impact. Center Anze Kopitar, captain Dustin Brown and defenders Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson are a great foundation to build on. None of them are older than 26, with Doughty being the youngest at 20. Just to get some perspective, Doughty and Johnson are Olympic medalists, both starting for their respective countries. Kopitar is coming off a monster 34-goal and 81-point season, both career numbers. The team is still trying to find consistent scorers, but they do have promising right wing Wayne Simmonds and veteran Justin Williams, who has been providing the offensive spark this season, leading the team with nine goals.
2. Defense wins games — A problem area for the Kings in past years has been defense. As hard as it is to be a netminder in the league, try playing without guys protecting you; the defense just wasn’t there. Now with the Johnson-Doughty tandem protecting talented goalie Jonathan Quick, it’s a lot easier to win in all situations. Quick is allowing fewer than two goals a game, ranking fourth with 1.91 goals against average. As a team, the Kings rank sixth with 2.5 goals against per game and are fifth in penalty killing with 86.7 percent. This last statistic is one of the most significant improvements because it says the team is incredibly hard to score on when it’s short on skaters due to a penalty.
3. Administration — I would say this is the most important of all. For a team to operate smoothly, they need the brain to function in a healthy manner. Owners hired Dean Lombardi to serve as general manager and president in April 2006. He has improved the team every year, if not in the standings, then in the farm system. Lombardi is responsible for drafting several young players who will make an impact soon, Doughty being the most notable. He also hired head coach Terry Murray, who is regarded as a player’s coach. Murray has gained the respect of the young players, who have bought into his system. Murray has made the playoffs nine times out of his 13 seasons as the head honcho, including last year in only his second season as Kings’ coach.
The Kings have been following a carefully crafted blueprint since Lombardi took over, not overpaying for free agents who will prove to be busts.
The reluctance to overpay can best be exemplified by the offseason saga of winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who was the NHL’s biggest free agent this year. The Kings needed a top scorer, but they didn’t want to hinder their future by filling up the cap space they accumulated over the years.
This team is the youngest in the league at 25.9 years and still has a lot to learn. They have the pedigree and hunger of a veteran club. Playoff experience is limited, but most players were on the playoff roster last season.
The team is a piece or two from competing for the oldest trophy in sports. Fans, I will say this: be aware of what will come out when the drawbridge drops.