Los Angeles Kings defenceman Slava Voynov receives high-fives from the bench after scoring a goal against the San Jose Sharks in the first period of Game 1 of their NHL Western Conference semifinal series at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Voynov has three game-winning goals in the five L.A. victories so far in these playoffs.
Photograph by: Jeff Gross, Getty Images
LOS ANGELES — The Stanley Cup win a year ago was no fluke. The path the Los Angeles Kings took to it, however, was pretty close.
Chiefly, the idea that a team could go three months using the same three defence pairs — never getting an injury bad enough to keep any of them out of a single game — was just this side of ...
“Impossible,” admits coach Darryl Sutter.
“I’ve said a lot of times, that will never happen again to use the same six defencemen basically from trade deadline through the middle of June. That’ll never happen, it’s impossible.”
Nor was it confined to the blue line.
“Looking back on last year,” he said, “we used different forwards, but we just mixed our top nine around. They all played every game.”
Fast forward to 2013 — emphasis on fast, as in a 48-game compressed schedule that began with a hurry-up training camp, no pre-season and a lot of injuries.
The Kings lost Willie Mitchell for the season, Matt Greene for most of it, and were forced to scramble to fill the holes.
It was a pretty nice job of doing so by GM Dean Lombardi, acquiring still-young former No. 10 overall pick Keaton Ellerby from Florida for a fifth-rounder to help the defence through some very rough patches, then getting Robyn Regehr at the trade deadline — basically negating the loss of Mitchell with an even more physical, equally reliable stay-at-home veteran — and elevating offensively-gifted puck mover Jake Muzzin from the minors.
“The 48-game game schedule tested everybody’s depth for sure. Everybody that’s still playing, (depth is) probably the reason they are still playing,” Sutter said.
The transition to new defence pairings — only the Rob Scuderi-Drew Doughty pair has remained intact from the Stanley Cup team — was “not seamless at all,” said the coach.
“Marty (Alec Martinez) was one of our regular six last year, he was a 12-14 minute guy. His partner was Greene, so you had left and right, veteran and a kid. Marty struggled at the start, he got hurt and then he didn’t play. So it really knocked that right out. Willie Mitchell was Slava (Voynov)’s partner. We brought Muzz in, he played a few games two years ago, sort of the eighth or ninth guy in the whole program when you look at it. He came in and it wasn’t seamless with him. It was an in and out thing. We just sort of pushed him into it.”
That’s how it was for Voynov a year ago. Now, he’s arrived, incredibly with three game-winning goals already in the five L.A. victories in these playoffs.
“Slava is that next guy after Doughty on the right side which means he has to play against top players,” Sutter said. “And it wasn’t seamless for him, either. He stepped in and played really well as the start. For a while he was probably our best defenceman. Then he had that stretch around March 1 where, because the minutes were up, his game really went off.
“He’s got it back, and that tells you something about the kid. But it also tells you he’s still a kid. There’s peaks and valleys there.”
It’s worth noting — especially by critics of Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault’s strict meritocracy — that Sutter has been willing to throw kids into the lineup, live with their mistakes, knowing that they couldn’t grow into larger roles without learning from practical experience in the biggest arena.
That’s how Martinez emerged two years ago — albeit under Terry Murray — and Voynov a year ago, and Muzzin this season.
Then again, Vigneault has never had the same quality of prospects playing in the minors.
“We’ve had guys get hurt, go in and out of the lineup, play on different pairs,” said Martinez. “I guess I’ve played with Slava, played with Scud, played with Muzz (this season).
“There’s a bit of a change with a new partner, but keep in mind that a lot of us played together in the minors, too, like Muzz and I played together, Slava and I were partners there for a while ... and if you can’t play with Drew Doughty, you have bigger problems.”
The loss of centre Jarret Stoll to concussion after a hit by San Jose’s Raffi Torres in Game 1 of their series on Tuesday means another test of depth — Stoll’s spot on the third line being filled by Brad Richardson, the 28-year-old journeyman who played 13 games for the Kings during their Cup run a year ago.
“He has to play well,” said Sutter. “You look at San Jose’s four centremen, if they use Joe (Thornton), Logan (Couture), Pavelski and Gomez as their four centremen, you have to match up. That means Brad has to play against somebody, whoever it is.”
As it happens, Sharks coach Todd McLellan planned to start Pavelski on the wing with Couture and Patrick Marleau for Game 2, but admitted it wasn’t written in stone.
Doughty, around whom all things on the Kings’ blue line revolve, said adjusting to injuries and adversity — which the team had relatively little of a year ago — hasn’t affected their confidence.
“It’s definitely different (from 2011-12), but we’re still happy with the team we have out here,” said Doughty. “The guys that have had to step in for those players have done a great job so far. Richardson plays very similar to Stolly, he’s a good two-way centreman, works hard and he’s going to bang bodies.
“So I know we can overcome these things. The team that’s still in here can do it.”
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