Johnson: Why are the defending Stanley Cup champs so ordinary?
Much of the same lineup that captured hockey’s holy grail last spring is barely above the league cellar this season
L.A., of course, is infamous for rolling slipshod sequels to hit shows off its vast assembly line.
Remember, for instance, The Sting II (Jackie Gleason? Mac Davis? ... MAC DAVIS?!!!!)? Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Stars Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace, Jaws 3-D, Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Crytstal Skull?
Or not, depending upon your personal pain threshold.
The L.A. Kings, the City of Angels’ runaway sleeper hit only last June, are fighting to avoid joining that rather dubious list.
Over and above the customary championship hangover, the Kings’ regular-season struggles of the present mirror those they manned up to only 12 months ago.
Languishing 14th in the conference and dead-last in goal production ahead of Tuesday’s clash up north at Rexall Place, as the Kings mark their first visit into the Scotiabank Saddledome as Stanley Cup conquerors on Wednesday evening, the vexing question everyone’s asking is this: What in tarnation is wrong with the champs?
Not that the woes of a team as loaded as L.A. is keeping Calgary Flames’ boss Bob Hartley awake nights. Pain, after all, is relative. Hartley has other, closer-to-home issues on his mind in the wake of Monday’s 4-0 flaying in Glendale, Ariz., by the Phoenix Coyotes.
Such as his choice — Joey MacDonald or Danny Taylor — as starting goaltender. The fact that his Big Three in attack — Jarome Iginla, Michael Cammalleri and Alex Tanguay — all chose to huddle underneath Harry Potter’s Invisibilty Cloak together on the very same night.
They do get L.A. on the rebound ragged end of to back-to-backs, but that hasn’t seemed to offer any sort of profound advantage so far.
A year ago, given the indisputable wealth of accumulated talent, it was confusing watching as the Kings struggled to gain a foothold during the regular season. Which is why GM Dean Lombardi tied the can to the warm and fuzzy Terry Murray and installed old Silicon Valley pal, the less-warm, less-fuzzy Darryl Sutter, in Murray’s place on Dec. 20th.
Well, despite still making it far tougher on themselves than anyone could’ve imagined, the Kings wound up pipping the Flames by five points to the eighth and final playoff spot and then cranked up the heat to bulldoze through four reputation-defining playoff rounds.
Virtually the same cast. Size. Speed. Depth. Parsiminous goaltending. A sandpaper style. Relentlessly demanding boss. And, as a capper, a silver, jug-eared Cup to hoist at the end of it all as verification of worth.
Shortened season or not, L.A. looked to have the lot in a bid to mount a rare successful defence of the crown.
So to see them in this present predicament seems even more utterly preposterous.
“We have to focus in on the details right now ... that’s what’s killing us, plays along the wall, getting to the blue-paint,” Kings’ captain Dustin Brown told the Edmonton Journal prior to Tuesday’s game against the Oilers. “We have a skill team, but we have our best success when we’re the hard-working team we can be, but there’s been lapses in that mentality.”
Most pressing problem: They can’t score goals. Weirdly enough, same ailment as year ago, when a pauper’s total of 194 over 82 games placed them ahead of only the perennial bunt-to-move-the-runner-over Minnesota Wild.
A group counting among its number Anze Kopitar, Brown, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Drew Doughty charging up to join the rush ranked 30th in goal production? That, ladies and gentlemen, qualifies as an authentic head-scratcher.
As with all unpleasant surprises, though, it isn’t just one thing with the Kings. The power play was ranked 24th as of the Oiler clash, the penalty kill 17th.
And they’d scored just 21 times at even-strength. That balance, the envy of 29 other teams, simply has not been there with a quarter of this truncated season already in the books.
Individually, Brown had contributed only three snipes and six points. Pre-season Norris Trophy front-runner Doughty had no goals and was wallowing in a league-worst minus-11. Nothing goal-wise whatever for Simon Gagne, and only one for Justin Williams.
Netminder Jonathan Quick, an absolute force field the entirety of last season, has been OK, but his GAA, 2.56, and a save percentage under .900 (.896) aren’t nearly up to snuff.
The loss of two stalwart, defensive-minded and under-appreciated cogs of the Stanley Cup run — Willie Mitchell (knee) and Matt Greene (back surgery) — conspired to cripple the back line more than anyone on the outside can possibly imagine, but that’s still no rational explanation as to why even the Nash-less Columbus Blue Jackets can generate more bite in attack.
Repeating as Stanley Cup champs is a tall order: Only two franchises — the ’91-92 Pittsburgh Penguins and ’97-98 Detroit Red Wings — have managed the feat over the past two decades.
On the flip side, only three title titans since as far back as 1970 — the ’70 Habs, ’96 Devils and ’07 Hurricanes — have suffered the embarrassment of whiffing on playoffs altogether in their next turn at bat.
These Kings indisputably still possess the means. And they were down this rocky road not so very long ago, fully understand its pressure points and the dangers of procrastination.
There was never any guarantee that the sequel could live up to last spring’s surprise mega-hit, but there’s no reason it has to be, say, Blues Brothers 2000.
Over half a season to go, it’s hardly time to panic.
And yet, given this claustrophobic 48-game schedule, time is still very much of the essence.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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