From Conn Smythe-winning goaltender Jonathan Quick to the top six defensemen to the top 12 forwards, every established NHL player on the Los Angeles Kings’ depth chart saw substantive action in their 2012 Stanley Cup championship run.
Leaned-on winger Simon Gagne, one of the few not to play at least half of the postseason, returned from a concussion for the last four games of the final round.
This means, come the tentative start of training camp on Sept. 21, head coach Darryl Sutter will have hardly a single set of fresh legs at his disposal. At least not in comparison to any of L.A.’s 29 adversaries, apart from perhaps the better part of the Cup finalist New Jersey Devils.
The same will apply on the night the Kings install their banner and officially commence their title defense on Oct. 12. Their top 20 are on pace to go 123 days, barely one-third of a calendar year, between meaningful games with a thoroughly unruffled roster that had a short, celebratory summer on top of a nine-month charge to a championship.
Nothing wrong with a freshly hardware-laden franchise avoiding tweaks for the long run, especially when one’s roster has no one older than 35 and no more than six men who will be in their 30s by opening night.
With that said, L.A. fans should take caution in how they whet their appetite for an unhesitant follow-up on last year’s title. Per the scientific laws of modern major professional sports, but especially one whose nature and season is as taxing as the NHL’s, a lull all but inevitably awaits on the horizon after a title.
Having every last piece from the clinching game reassemble and return to the same intensive activity within four months only compounds that danger.
Then again, if all 30 NHL fanbases were made to wait a couple of months longer than usual for hockey to resume, maybe the Kings’ rooters will not have to wait as long for their team to replenish its championship caliber persona.
It could happen. It is no secret that the likelihood of a normal start to the 2012-13 season is evaporating at more than a glacial pace.
The worst fear, most naturally, is a rancid reprise of the 2004-05 campaign that never was. But it is not inconceivable to predict that the gridlock between the NHL and NHLPA will loosen when the specter of losing key elements of the post-lockout league (e.g. Thanksgiving Showdown, Winter Classic) catches up to the parties in control.
In that event, we could see the NHL follow the NBA’s course from a year ago, when roughly two months were ultimately deleted from the schedule, but a resolution was reached so as to salvage the nationally televised Christmas Day games.
If hockey finds itself copying that course and restoring normal operation sometime between Thanksgiving week and the days leading up to New Year’s, that might be the best bet for a win-win in L.A.’s title defense.
It would potentially mean opening the regular season anywhere from six to eight to 10 weeks later than originally slated.
To measure that from a different angle, the reigning champions’ accumulation of rest would be the same as if they had missed the last postseason or been bumped out of the first round. Conversely, some of their chief challengers who stopped playing in April or May could be at risk for rust, which in some cases might prove critical in the standings.
The Kings might not end the league’s peerless 15-year hiatus without a set of back-to-back champions. But with a one- or two-month extension on their offseason, they could at least stave off the effects of post-title hangover and residual wear and tear more convincingly than the majority of their predecessors.
The physical booster that comes with extra rest would speak for itself. Furthermore, the extra time filled in by off-ice, league-wide headlines would also put the 2012 championship at a greater distance and make it easier to resist the temptation to glance back when it’s time to push forward.
Granted, there is enough evidence to believe the Kings can still have a meaningful run even if there is a normal, October-to-April, 82-game regular season. This core group itself is the ultimate testament to what ought to be the NHL’s official playoff mantra: “If you’re in it, you can win it.”
Still, there is equal reason to believe 2011-12 was a bit of an anomaly. More often than not, the suggested mantra aside, higher-seeded teams with home ice for at least a couple of rounds are going to win the Cup.
Los Angeles, for all of its timely peaking and road ravaging last spring, should now strive to be the class of the Pacific Division and Western Conference year-round.
Odds are the circumstances would offer the 2012-13 Kings a better chance of that if they were to receive a one- or two-month delay to the start of their title defense.