Kingsâ€™ title defense put on ice
Instead of experiencing a thunderous ovation during the pageantries of a banner-raising ceremony inside of Staples Center prior to a game against the New York Rangers on Oct. 12, it’s now looking more likely that Kings center and alternate captain Anze Kopitar will ring in the hockey season in Mora, Sweden, a town of almost 11,000 located 200 miles northwest of Stockholm.
He has been negotiating with Mora IK, a team in HockeyAllsvenskan, Sweden’s second division, as reported by Hockeysverige on Sunday as the first wave of player deals became known following the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement late Saturday night.
Instead of rookie camp and players trickling back to the Toyota Sports Center in sweatshirts, shorts and flip flops and instead of talking about what Los Angeles must do to become the first NHL team since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings to successfully defend the Stanley Cup, we’re left with a void, the dreadful thought of a hockey-less autumn and the gradual evaporation of breakthroughs made in the Southern California sports space.
Though the NHL lockout comes as a dousing of cold water to so many Kings fans still elating over the club’s first Stanley Cup, the team has built up enough on and off-ice capital to be among the most able to withstand an intermediate or prolonged work stoppage.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were placed in a similar situation when they waited 16 months to begin their 2004 Cup defense in October, 2005.
By the time the spring of 2006 came along, Tampa Bay closed out the season with a 9-5-2 record to edge out Toronto and Atlanta for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference before being bounced in five games by top-seeded Ottawa. Though the team returned its core of impact forwards such as Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards and was backed by a returning defensive group of Dan Boyle and Pavel Kubina, amongst other formidable skaters, the Lightning had lost the services of Nikolai Khabibulin to the Chicago Blackhawks after the lockout and were overmatched in goal against the Senators’ NHL-best offense. John Grahame was pulled in two games as Tampa Bay allowed 4.6 goals per game in defeat.
Of course, fans are hoping that such an expanse of hockey won’t be lost due to the labor disagreements, but even if a significant chunk of the season is eliminated, the Kings will be well poised to avoid a scenario like the Lightning’s. Goaltending tends to smooth out many rough edges, and what Jonathan Quick should be able to provide, post-lockout, is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the goaltending Tampa Bay received in 2005-06.
A shortened lockout could also allow Quick ample recovery time from surgery to mend a disc fragment and inflammatory cyst in his back, a rehabilitation period that was likely to have cut into training camp. The focused goaltender is committed to playing in Los Angeles after having signed a 10-year, $58-million contract in June, and any wobbly post-lockout hangovers experienced by L.A. will be tempered by someone who emerged as among the best goaltenders in the sport a year ago.
With one of the youngest offensive cores in the league and a superstar in 22-year-old defenseman Drew Doughty, the Kings aren’t in any great danger of losing a step comparatively against many other teams. Of the five players signed through at least 2015-16, Jeff Carter is the oldest at 27. Among top-six forwards, Justin Williams turns 31 in October and after several injury-plagued seasons from 2007-10 has once again found his durability and consistency and is under contract to the Kings for another three years.
Age will not be as much of a factor as complacency in Los Angeles’ ability to rebound from a work stoppage. Though he has graduated to more rigorous off-season preparation than earlier in his career, Doughty still experienced an on-ice hiccup after his contract holdout last summer and hasn’t been at his most effective early in the last two NHL seasons – though injuries have also played a part in that.
Following a Cup-winning spring and the disappointment of having to delay the team’s title defense, would he be fully ready to immediately step into an NHL lineup after a brief interim period in Europe, should he choose to play overseas during the lockout?
Dustin Brown revealed to John Hoven of MayorsManor.com on Friday that he had received several offers to play in Europe, including proposals from KHL teams. Hoven suggested that an experience in the KHL could be used as an opportunity to get comfortable with playing in Russia prior to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a notion that Brown reinforced by saying, “That’s the idea.”
The Kings will still have the benefit of Jordan Nolan and Slava Voynov maturing within their system after both were re-assigned to Manchester last week, but for Voynov – who over parts of four seasons has appeared in 231 AHL games due to L.A.’s blueline resembling the 405 freeway – loading up for bus rides to Worcester, Syracuse and Rochester must be a major disappointment after he patiently waited his turn to join the parent club and was able to showcase his skill with an encouraging 54-game, 20-point rookie season.
A re-assignment actually came at the perfect time for a 20-year old Brown, whose 74-point 2004-05 season under Bruce Boudreau in Manchester was an effective bridge between the 31 games he played as a King in 2003-04 and the more assertive 28-point, 80-penalty minute season he experienced in 2005-06.
With plenty of time to witness player development firsthand, general manager Dean Lombardi is sure to be on several of those American Hockey League stops, according to a report by Lisa Dillman of the LA Times.
“It’s a great opportunity to walk the shop floor,” Lombardi said to Dillman last Monday. “Really consolidate our thinking and dig into things that often times I’ve wanted to do, but we just get behind on. The idea is that there is nothing to do – there’s plenty to do.”
“I’ll go to the minor leagues, travel with my pro guys, my amateur guys. This is a great opportunity – I don’t want to say reinvent the wheel – but dig into things more deeply. Then I can spend time on the road with them, and that often gets neglected because you’re with the big team and putting out fires, particularly like last year.”
In these disappointing times, Kings fans can take some comfort in knowing that the next time NHL regular season hockey is played at Staples Center, a brand new banner will be unfurled. There are 29 teams without that credential, the majority of which are not as well positioned to withstand a work stoppage from both a competitive and business standpoint.
Los Angeles is poised to sell its entire season ticket allotment for the first time since moving to Staples Center in 1999, according to multiple reports, and like the Lightning in 2005-06, should sell out every game of the season despite a hike in ticket prices announced in February. Savvy marketing, outreach and fan development have added newcomers to an intensely loyal fanbase, and from a gauge of interest, the team easily reached its post-Gretzky peak.
“We don’t run this team to make a profit, and the good news is, we haven’t,” Tim Lieweke said to Rich Hammond of LA Kings Insider in April. “This is a team that, ultimately, we are passionate about because it helped build AEG. This is not about, ‘How much money can we make on the Kings?’ We’ve never made a penny on the Kings. This is about getting to a point where they can be a stand-alone, break-even proposition, and trying to get ticket prices back to the middle of where the league is.”
Regardless of entering the season as defending champions, the Kings aren’t in the forefront of sports discussion in Los Angeles in the fall, a time of the year when college football and baseball blunt early season hockey analysis. The Lakers practically demand attention for 12 months of the year, and with the arrivals of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and with sustained Clippers optimism, there wasn’t an extraordinary amount of attention to be shared this fall with the Kings. If this work stoppage were to end in or before December, there shouldn’t be any major depletion from the gains hockey made in the L.A. sports landscape last spring.
There’s no fan misery gauge or litmus test, and to say that one fanbase has it better or worse than another during or after the lockout isn’t really on point. We’re all hockey fans; we all lose immensely from a work stoppage, as do the families of players who may be losing a husband and dad to a different continent and time zone.
For Kings fans, checking the schedule to circle the first visits of the season by Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix has been replaced by scouring the internet to read continually negative reactions and the dearth of hope in getting the 2012-13 season started on time. Such a shallow labor disagreement is in stark contrast to the vivid nostalgia of overtime goals by Jarret Stoll, Dustin Penner, Kopitar and Carter, and emotions experienced over the final minutes of Game 6 against New Jersey.
Right now there is no encore, only ennui.