LA Kings taking early lumps in NHL title defense

The Los Angeles Kings’ defense of their Stanley Cup title looks

a whole lot like their championship season so far.

They just haven’t got to the good part yet.

The club that turned a rocky regular season into the franchise’s

first championship last summer is off to another slow start. The

Kings climbed out of last place in the Western Conference with a

2-1 win over NHL-worst Columbus on Friday night, winning

consecutive games for just the second time this season.

The Kings (5-5-2) have been slowed by everything from injuries

and conditioning to a balky power play and a rough schedule during

the first quarter of the season – and in a lockout-shortened slate,

they realize every game has amplified importance.

Yet Los Angeles still has innate confidence after squeaking into

last season’s playoffs as the eighth seed and roaring to a 3-0 lead

in all four postseason series. Even while injuries and losses piled

up in the last few weeks, coach Darryl Sutter’s veteran Kings

believed they can get healthy and back on their game in time for

another postseason run.

”We just have to keep doing the things we’ve been talking about

improving, and we’re going to be fine,” said Kyle Clifford, the

Kings’ second-leading scorer with seven points. ”We’re still

confident.”

Yet with so many obstacles already in their way after just 12

games, the Kings have learned why no NHL champion has repeated in

15 years since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings. For starters, their best

player in last season’s playoffs isn’t in top form – which is a big

problem for a team built around defense.

Jonathan Quick, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner after allowing

just 29 goals in 20 playoff games, has allowed 25 goals in just 10

games this season. After posting a ridiculous .946 save percentage

in the postseason, he’s down to .891 this season while he plays his

way back from offseason back surgery.

Quick also isn’t getting the usual help from his defense, which

is missing half of last season’s six regulars due to injuries.

Defensemen Willie Mitchell, Matt Greene and Alec Martinez are all

out of the lineup with various ailments, forcing the Kings to trade

for Keaton Ellerby last week while giving ample ice time to

unproven youngsters Davis Drewiske and Jake Muzzin.

But Quick and his coach aren’t worried yet.

”Quite honestly, a lot of (Quick’s) issues I (blame on) our

coaching staff not doing a good enough job with him, starting with

me,” Sutter said Saturday before the Kings headed to Chicago to

take on the NHL-best Blackhawks, who spoiled the Kings’

banner-raising party with a 5-2 victory in last month’s season

opener. ”When you have limited practice time, you need more

quality out of your goaltenders, and I should pay more attention to

it during practice.”

With Mitchell, Greene and Martinez all out, Los Angeles must

lean heavily on its top three healthy defensemen. While Slava

Voynov has responded impressively to increased responsibility with

six points, Rob Scuderi is a minus-7. Drew Doughty, the former

Norris Trophy finalist who excelled in last season’s playoffs, is a

minus-9 and hasn’t scored a goal despite leading the Kings with

more than 27 minutes of ice time per game.

Doughty isn’t the only disappointing regular from last season’s

championship squad.

Simon Gagne, a seven-time 20-goal scorer, hasn’t scored a goal

this season. Justin Williams has one goal, while Jarret Stoll has

two – and they’re his only points in 12 games.

”We’ve got some older guys that still haven’t scored a goal

this year,” Sutter said. ”We’re actually a quarter of a way into

our season, so they’re on a pace that’s not really (matching their)

career averages. We’ve got to keep working with them.”

When Sutter was asked for his evaluation of center Mike

Richards, who scored just his second goal of the season Friday

night on a fortunate deflection, the veteran coach was blunt.

”We’re trying to watch ice time with these guys,” Sutter said.

”Some of these guys, quite honest, didn’t do what they should have

done in the summer. We’ve had to scale minutes back, and less is

more.”

Sutter has been similarly unsparing in his evaluation of Dustin

Penner, who has been a healthy scratch seven times this season.

Although the Kings didn’t exactly spend all summer partying with

the Cup, they also didn’t report to camp as the finely tuned

machine they could have been after keeping every player who stepped

on the ice during last season’s playoffs.

Yet many of the Kings’ strengths last season are still

strengths, including their puck possession and defensive discipline

despite the blue line’s major holes. Los Angeles’ dismal power play

is no longer the NHL’s worst, and the Kings are creating ample

scoring chances even when they’re not converting.

The grinding win over the Blue Jackets was the Kings’ only home

appearance in a nine-game stretch over the first three weeks of

February. After playing 11 of their first 15 games on the road, the

Kings will play 13 of 16 at home when they return from their

current three-game trip.

”We’re very confident in this roster and our abilities,”

Scuderi said. ”I think we proved what we can do last year. We know

we’ve got to prove it again, though.”