Their young captain is one of the reasons for the Kings' continued climb up from the Western Conference cellar.
The Los Angeles Kings have never won a Stanley Cup.
They’ve only won one Conference Championship and one Division Championship in their 43-year history; and yet, they are on the verge of a virtual stranglehold of the very tumultuous Pacific Division.
They have a young team with strong veteran leadership. Their offense combines the strong, scoring power forwards of Dustin Brown and Jarret Stoll with the finesse, accuracy, and experience of Marco Sturm and Michal Handzus.
Their defense is strong up front with Johnson, Scuderi, and Doughty, and their starting goal-tending has been arguably among the top five in the league since last year.
This season, they are struggling.
But even though they are currently sitting last in the Pacific Division and 12th in the Western Conference, their prospects, salary situation, and current talent over the next few years are all reasons why things might start looking up.
They have the look of the 2008-2009 Chicago Blackhawks. They are young, fast, smart, and strong. They have the ability to make great physical plays, along with consistent goal-tending and a will to win.
So let’s break down the top 10 reasons why if they continue drafting, developing, signing, and coaching at the level they have been the past few years, the LA Kings could start running away with the Pacific Division in years to come.
The Staples Center, where there fans have been consistently filling the seats for decades.
The LA Kings, for all their lack of postseason success, have been around in both the Forum and the Staples Center for 43 years and they don’t appear to be going anywhere other than up in the rankings.
The reason is clear—their fans.
In a city that has struggled to support pro sports teams—while being one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States—the Kings keep hanging around in the hearts of their die hard fan base.
While L.A. fans may not be as crazy about the Kings as they are about the Lakers, who play in the same building, when you take into account the disparity in the amount of success between those two teams, their continuing support of the Kings is nothing short of devoted.
They have packed the arena to around 90 percent capacity for the last 10 years and are slowly gaining TV market share, along with the rest of the NHL, which is up 6,000+ households from last year. The desire for a winning team is there, the team and front office just need to execute.
The rising star takes on the grizzled veteran; and in the long term the kid may very well win the war.
Although the Pacific Division has arguably been the most competitive division in the Western Conference over the last few years with the success of the Ducks, Sharks, and Stars, it continues to be the laughingstock of the Western Conference when it comes to the playoffs.
Since it was formed before the '93-'94 NHL season, the teams still currently in the Pacific Division have only accounted for four Stanley Cup Finals appearances.
Of those four, the Stars and Ducks each have two Stanley Cup appearances with each team winning one—despite a collective 37 postseason appearances by the division with 28 of those by the “Big Three” of San Jose, Anaheim, and Dallas.
Not to mention that—of those 37 appearances in the playoffs—19 of those bids were cut down in the first round, with only four of those first round fizzles being handed to the Kings.
The division is fiercely contested every year, but the two most dominant teams in its history—the San Jose Sharks and the Dallas Stars—have often failed to take advantage of their significantly talented and well-seeded playoff teams.
The Pacific Division is ripe for a coup, and the Kings are in a great position to orchestrate one.
Michal Handzus is a veteran who has been earning his pay in Tinseltown.
The front office of the Kings has been stellar over the last few years in beginning the long process of rebuilding a franchise that was never very strong to begin with.
However, in their trades, draft picks, and free agent signings, they have paid pennies on the dollar for the production they are getting.
So far this season, 70 percent of their goal scoring has come from only 45 percent of their payroll.
This isn’t saying that the other 55 percent of the team is slacking off, but that the seven players that make up that $27.325 million payroll slice are earning their pay.
But who really wants to pay big bucks for star players just to have them out-shined by cheap, last-minute free agent signings?
Sure, it’s a bonus when your cheap third and fourth-line forwards pay dividends, but front offices and fans want to see their highly paid first liners earn their keep.
On the back end, Jonathan Quick has played fantastic this year and is easily among the top 10 goaltenders this season, yet he only earns a $1.8 million salary.
That is right around what Dan Ellis, Dwayne Roloson, and Antero Nittymaki all earn. They either are, or were, considered their respective teams’ backup goaltenders when the season began.
Brayden Schenn is one of the top prospects already paying dividends for the Kings.
The proof of a GM—and for that matter, a front office—is in the pudding, and right now I bet Philip Anschutz—chairman of the entertainment group who owns the Kings—thinks that pudding is fantastic.
The Kings and their general manager Dean Lombardi have consistently taken full advantage of their draft picks since 1997.
However, since 2003, the Kings have drafted very highly-touted prospects in Dustin Brown, Brian Boyle, Jonathan Bernier, Drew Doughty, Brayden Schenn, and of course Anze Kopitar. Oh, and did I mention that those are only their notable first rounders?
Their entire system of prospects is touted as one the most promising in the league, especially on the back end with players like Derek Forbort and Thomas Hickey.
That is without including Jonathan Bernier who is widely considered one of the top five goaltender prospects in the game.
Plus, as some of their older or more expensive players move onto retirement or greener, more lucrative pastures, the Kings will be able to replace them from the depth within their own organization.
One of the keys to developing a strong team in almost any sport is a young, talented offense.
The Kings have two of the best young forwards in the league in Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar, and Justin Williams still has several years left in his prime.
What do these three forwards have in common? They are all in the top 50 in both total points and goals scored, with Kopitar placing 10th in both assists and total points in the NHL.
Add those together with feeds from arguably one of the best young, playmaking defensemen in the league—Jack Johnson, who is 19th in assists among all skaters this season—and you have a recipe for continued success.
Terry Murray is a strong willed visionary determined to bring the Kings to center stage in the NHL for the first time in the team's history.
I am not the kind of guy who puts all my blame eggs in the basket of the head coach every time a team fails to do well. Sometimes teams have a bad year or players just give up, regardless of how skilled they are.
The same goes for when a team does very well—coaching can help, but sometimes the talented players just play well in spite of lackluster coaching.
That being said, I’ll be shocked if Kings head coach Terry Murray isn’t one of the big reasons for their likely rise to dominance in the Pacific.
His coaching career got off to a bumpy start in Washington in the early '90's. That was a different time in the East though, especially with the Patrick Division containing a strong New York Ranger team and a dominant Penguins group that took back-to-back championships during Murray’s tenure—both times defeating Murray's Capitals in the process.
When he returned to head coaching midway through the season in '94, things were very different. Led by the “Legion of Doom” line, his Flyers marched to their first back-to-back division titles in almost 10 years.
They followed that with a second place division finish and a 4-0 loss to the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals before Murray was unceremoniously fired in the offseason.
After a three-year stint with the much-maligned Florida Panthers, Murray returned to coaching in Los Angeles in 2008 where he turned things around after just two seasons with the team.
From the '08 season to the '09 season, the same core team earned a staggering 12 more wins and 22 more points in the standings, earning their first playoff berth in seven seasons.
He is tough. He is a scholar of the game, and most importantly, he has the desire to win.
Matt Greene is one of the hardest—and most often—hitting defensemen in the league this season.
While it is true that the Kings may have a tough offseason re-signing some of their core team, they already have a head start on defense.
Davis Drewiske is a very promising young defenseman who understands the little things that are important at the NHL level—such as not committing needless penalties.
He is also locked up for two more seasons at a measly $600k a year, which is a bargain if you ask me.
Then there is the one-two punch of Matt Greene and Rob Scuderi. At 32, Scuderi is no spring chicken, but he is still getting the job done.
He is currently tied for 12th among all defensemen in plus-minus, and also has 11 assists over 49 games this season.
Greene, on the other hand, is fulfilling the role he was expected to play. With 133 hits this season—tied for third most in the NHL—he is a force to be reckoned with on the Kings’ back end.
With two more years on Scuderi’s contract and three more on Greene’s, their defensive core is sure to be around for long enough for the rest of the team to catch up to their level of play.
Team general manager is a position sometimes overlooked by team owners and fans alike. It is easy to blame or praise players and coaches for a team’s success and forget the man responsible for putting those pieces together.
Dean Lombardi was responsible for the building—almost singlehandedly—of the great San Jose Sharks lineups in the late '90's by drafting effectively, trading for veteran talent, and building depth from within, and the philosophy hasn’t changed since he moved further down Highway 1.
He's been responsible for such great draft picks as the “Twin Johns” in Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier in goal, Anze Kopitar up front, and Drew Doughty on the back end.
Lombardi has also signed or traded for many established veterans and core players such as Matt Greene, Michal Handzus, and Marco Sturm—whom he drafted during his tenure in San Jose.
He has accomplished all of this in just four and a half seasons, all while maintaining and back-filling one of the top three farm systems in the league with extremely talented and valuable prospects.
I don’t know if being a Lombardi makes you a sports visionary, but if there is one person responsible for the amount of hope and promise in Tinseltown who doesn’t lace up a pair of skates, it’s Dean Lombardi.
There is nothing worse for a team than earning high draft picks and drafting future Hall of Famers just to watch them sign their big contract with someone else as soon as they can.
With Kopitar, the Kings have no reason to worry. The big, physical center has gathered 285 points in just over 300 NHL games, with 113 of those coming from goals.
He has also been voted the LA Kings’ MVP twice, and was named their most popular player in his rookie season.
He isn’t slacking now either, since he has been named alternate captain, scoring 16 goals with 33 assists in 49 games this season, along with being a staggering +17 in the plus/minus column.
He is also going to be drafted in the All-Star Fantasy Draft on January 28th and will play in the 2011 All-Star game in Raleigh, NC on Sunday.
Add all that to his seven-year, $47.6 million contract extension signed in 2008, and Anze’s future in LA is secure. The stars are bright in Hollywood, but Kopitar’s star shines as bright as any film star in town.
Arguably the best goaltender 25 and younger in the league, Quick is picking up where he left off last year.
Could there possibly be a better reason why the Kings are on the cusp of running away with the Pacific Division in the coming years?
Jonathan Quick would be enough of a reason for their goal-tending to be No. 1, but when you add Bernier to the mix, the 25 and 22-year old net-minders are the biggest reasons for hope in the City of Angels.
In essentially two full seasons of play—including 72 games in his first season as the starter—Quick has been an impenetrable wall in the Kings’ crease. He has earned an 82-58-0-10 record for LA in only 156 games, with a .911 save percentage and a 2.45 GAA.
He is also 15th in save percentage this year (.920), fourth in goals against (2.16) and third in shutouts with 5—all while winning 21 games in 36 starts, which is seventh most in the league.
Bernier has been off to a rougher start this season in his backup duties, but is a great prospect being asked to fulfill expectations that may be too high at this point. He has still earned a .897 save percentage and 2.99 GAA over his 21 NHL games for the Kings in three seasons.
I can only hope that the Kings can put all the pieces together in the next year or two, because Quick deserves the chance to play his absolute best—with a strong team in front of him—and be a very likely contender for the Vezina Trophy for years to come.