The Los Angeles Kings entered the 2018-19 season with high expectations, at least in-house that is. After landing prized veteran forward Ilya Kovalchuk and getting Jeff Carter and others back to full strength, the Kings and many of their fans and pundits felt that this was a team that could truly contend for the Stanley Cup.
Today, L.A. lost 5-1 to the Buffalo Sabres. On Thursday, they lost 7-2 to the New York Islanders. That’s a combined 12-3 result against two non-playoff teams from last season. The Kings are currently 2-5-1 and suffering through a four game losing streak with a combined score of 21-5. The team is 30th in goals per game and 27th in power play efficiency, continuing their scoring struggled from last season. Except now they are 23rd in goals against per game and 24th on the penalty kill, struggling to prevent goals for the first time in recent memory.
The problem is not anything short-term. Yes, Dustin Brown has yet to play this season and Jonathan Quick has missed time. Yes, Anze Kopitar, Tanner Pearson, and others will surely improve their production. However, these minor fixes are not solving the major problems.
Beat writer Jon Rosen reports that this has become increasingly clear to those in and around the organization early on this season. The team held a closed-door meeting after the game today, not long after defenseman Jake Muzzin told the press that the team plays without a passion to win and have “accepted being okay”. For his part, Rosen believes that the problems with the Kings may be more connected to what Muzzin stated, calling them “abstract issues” such as “identity and culture”.
Helene Elliott of the LA Times gives a more tangible opinion of the team’s shortcomings, blaming management for relying too much on an aging core from the team’s 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup runs. Meanwhile, the pace of the game has passed up that core, as youth and speed now dominate and the Kings instead rely on experience, structure, and a more old-fashioned style. Even those old hallmarks have begun to crumble, as the team has failed to find suitable secondary scoring and locker room leadership to support their struggling core.
So what next? There’s no easy answer. If playing style and leadership is what the team truly feels is their biggest flaw, perhaps head coach John Stevens needs to be replaced. If the core that the team has trusted in for so long is no longer up to snuff, the Kings could take a look at the trade value for a Muzzin or a Carter. Maybe the biggest issue is simply a lack of secondary support. Could the team simply replace aging checkers like Trevor Lewis and Kyle Clifford with young scoring prospects or trade acquisitions? Could the team get a good return for Pearson, who is beginning to look like a player who needs a change of scenery? Or maybe this is a problem with an internal solution if, as Rosen believes and Muzzin all but confirmed, this team is in need of an attitude shift and a dose of reality. Is this scenario reconcilable without major change, though?
The Kings are built like a perennial contender, with several expensive long-term contracts and even role players with lengthy contracts. The only problem is that they are built to win in a game that has passed them by and their current roster looks far from contending any time soon. Something needs to change. So what will it be?
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