Tag: Jeff Carter

Overthrown Royalty

It’s not unprecedented: A major sports team wins a championship and then fails to qualify for the post-season the following year. Before the Los Angeles Kings just somehow managed to do it, the Carolina Hurricanes did in 2006-07. It happens in other sports more frequently, baseball being a perfect example, but what makes it such a, uh, accomplishment in hockey is that so many teams make the playoffs. 16 to be exact. That’s more than half. 

And what makes it such a monumental shock to many is that the Kings were in the midst of a mini dynasty, with two Stanley Cup Championships sandwiched around a Western Conference Finals loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. 

It didn’t take long for the excuses and the finger pointing to start. And granted, some of it is valid. Those pointing to injuries could accurately say that the loss of young superstud Tanner Pearson for much of the season with a broken leg severely impacted the team’s offense. They could say that the weeks Alec Martinez, he of the game winning goal from last year’s Stanley Cup Final, missed with a concussion had a profound impact on a defense already thinned due to the season-long absence of Slava Voynov while his domestic violence case moves forward. They could say that losing Andrej Sekera to a leg injury just a few games after they acquired him to thicken the aforementioned thin defense was another nail in the coffin. All of these points have some validity. 

Then they point to all the extra hockey the Kings played the last three seasons. Extra hockey… what a bunch of crap. The point is, of any professional sport, to play as much extra of it as you can! Because that would mean you’re in the running for a championship. You didn’t see all that extra hockey impacting the New York Rangers, who have the league’s best point total, despite the lengthy absence of Henrik Lundqvist.

The blame game usually starts with Mike Richards and his disproportionately huge cap number compared to his offensive production. Similar vitriol is thrown at captain Dustin Brown, whose paychecks are similarly gaudy while his offensive production is equally meager. 

And again, these points are not entirely devoid of merit, nobody wants to put any blame where it really belongs – with the coach and general manager who were at the reigns for the team’s first two championships in…well, in ever. Kings fans should be forever grateful to Darryl Sutter and Dean Lombardi. But as happens frequently with success, complacency and/or arrogance never lurks far away. It’s worth noting that in Sutter’s coaching career, he’s won less than half of the games he has coached. So, while there has been some success, it hasn’t all been chocolate and roses. And Lombardi, while having been general manager of some very good San Jose Sharks teams from 1996 to 2003, had plenty of detractors in hockey circles for failing to fill out those rosters with the players to take the team from good to championship level. It explains why he eventually wasn’t employed there anymore.

Now, good coaches/executives don’t get every decision right. Billy Bean doesn’t get every decision right. Bill Belichick. Vince Lombardi. Pat Riley. (Phil Jackson is being intentionally omitted). Bruce Bochy. They get decisions wrong. What makes these guys better than everyone else is that they get more calls right than they get wrong. Fred Claire trading Pedro Martinez to Montreal for Delino Deshields would have been forgivable if there had been two or three moves where the scales tipped back in the other direction. But they didn’t.

Moving back to this past off-season, Dean Lombardi made two decisions that would ultimately prove fatal to the Kings’ playoff hopes. First, the decision was made to not re-sign defenseman Willie Mitchell. He may not have a ton of household notoriety, but those who know hockey know that Mitchell is an exceptional player. Not all defensemen score like Erik Karlsson or PK Subban. Some just control their defensive end, move the puck well, and chew up huge, productive minutes. And the decision not to re-sign Mitchell was reportedly due to…wait for it… they didn’t want a defense partnership with two left-handed shooting defensemen. Yeah. Never mind that they won two Stanley Cups with that arrangement, and when they lost to Chicago in the Conference Finals, Mitchell was out with a knee injury. Coincidence? Lombardi the compounded ludicrously inept bit of business by giving Matt Greene a new four year deal. Greene was once a borderline serviceable third pairing defenseman who worked hard, was a favorite of fans and in the clubhouse, and wasn’t afraid to drop the gloves to protect a teammate. Then injuries hit. And more injuries. And at this point he would be overmatched on the junior circuit and should seriously consider retiring and beginning a coaching career. If you want to criticize Lombardi further, you can also point out that he failed to take advantage of the opportunity to amnesty Richards, instead giving the veteran a chance to prove he had something left in the tank…at a cap hit of just under six million. Bad call? Possibly. But let’s move on to Sutter.

Quick, what do Jonathan Quick, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty have in common? If you said they’re universally regarded as four of the best players in the NHL, you’d be right. Then you have super sniper Marian Gaborik, puck possession monster Justin Williams, young star Tyler Toffoli. There are so many great pieces to the Kings’ puzzle that it’s incomprehensible they failed to make the post season. Sutter epically screwed up so many different things this season that it’s hard to pick just 12. So let’s just start ripping off a few. Repeatedly jacked with line combinations that were working…because who effing knows why? Demoted the underperforming Mike Richards to the minors to send a message, and replaced him with the woefully inept Nick Shore. And when he did have Richards in the lineup, put him on a fourth line ill-suited to his abilities. Somehow kept throwing Jarret Stoll in the lineup instead of, well, anyone with a pulse. Paired two top notch centers who own the puck in Kopitar and Carter on the same line. The team had fifteen overtime/shootout losses, and only three wins. The only way a Stanley Cup champion team can have that woeful record in overtime and shootouts is if 4 on 4 skating and penalty shots were never practiced. 

Going on at this point would be self-indulgent to my own disgust at how the Kings were run this year. Fortunately, the core of a great roster remains. Fans will just have to hope it’s run by new and competent leadership next year. And I still can’t believe the team only had three more overtime/shootout wins than my cat did this season. What a joke.

Stanley Cup Final Preview

The Participants: New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings

How They Got There: Neither team has had it easy. The Kings have advanced to this stage on the merit of three Game 7 victories over tough Western Conference opponents. The Rangers have played only one fewer game, managing to oust the Montreal Canadiens in six. One could argue that the Kings have had the tougher path, coming back from a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 series deficit in the first round against San Jose, followed by winning the last two against the mighty Anaheim Ducks (see what I did there?) and finally beating Chicago on the road in overtime in the deciding game. Additionally, they had to dust off veteran blueliners Matt Greene and Jeff Scultz after injuries to the steady Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr. But the Rangers’ own improbably comeback against the formidable Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round shouldn’t be minimized either. They’re resilient and tough. 

Who to Watch – Rangers: Rick Nash. Honestly, you could pick any number of guys here. You wouldn’t know it by some of the high-scoring games the Kings have been involved in these playoffs, but they were the NHL’s stingiest defense during the regular season. Nash’s days of being among the league’s top goal scorers are likely in the rearview mirror, but the Rangers will need someone apart from the ageless wonder and surefire Hall of Famer, Martin St. Louis to offer a consistent offensive threat. Look for him, not to steal a basketball term, but “post up” on the talented but comparatively small Slava Voynov to try and create havoc in the slot. 

Who to Watch – Kings: Tyler Toffoli/Tanner Pearson. Ok, I’m cheating by using two guys, but they’re essentially causing the same problem for opposing teams. The Kings were towards the bottom of the league in offense during the regular season, in stark contrast to their defensive excellence. But it’s not a coincidence that once these two youngsters started playing a prominent role on either side of the prolific Jeff Carter that the team’s offense spiked. Sure, the Marian Gaborik acquisition turned out to be winning lotto ticket, but these two kids’s emergence give the Kings three lines that pose a threat, so the criminally underrated Ryan McDonaugh can’t always be on the ice against an offensive threat. 

Why the Rangers Can Win: Henrik Lundqvist is probably the best goalie in hockey, and plays his best when it matters the most, if these playoffs are any indicator. If a team is going to win that isn’t the best of the two, which on paper the Rangers are not, their goalie will have to steal a win or two and Lundqvist is up to the task. 

Why the Kings Can Win: Their top two centers, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, are top shelf. No disrespect to Derek Stepan and Dominic Moore, but they’re not on that level. If the Kings’ centermen, including third and fourth liners Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards assert themselves, it will be tough for the Rangers to make their mark. 

Why the Rangers Can Blow It: It kind of depends on how the series is officiated, but if the series is called closely by the referees, the chippy style of guys like Brian Boyle and Chris Kreider might end the Rangers up killing more penalties than they want, and a man short is not the way to beat the league’s top regular season defense. Kreider is a key cog in the machine for New York, but the microscope will also be on him after he took out Montreal’s top goalie Carey Price. Kreider swears he isn’t dirty, but Price isn’t the first netminder he’s injured. See: Anderson, Craig. If he plows over Jonathan Quick, you can bet there will penalties and a possible suspension. 

Why the Kings Can Blow It: Quick has been pedestrian. That’s actually generous. He’s been shockingly poor. When they won the Cup two years back, he was an impenetrable fortress. This year, he hasn’t “stolen” a single game for the Kings. In fact, one could argue that he’s handed a few games away. This 21 game stretch of the 2014 NHL playoffs is statistically among the worst of his whole career. Carelessness on rebounds, being out of position, not fighting through screens, it hasn’t been vintage Quick. If he’s as bad as he has been the first three rounds, it won’t matter that the Kings are so good on defense.

The Wild Cards: The officials. Admittedly, I have not seen every game of this year’s playoffs, but in many of the games I have seen the men in stripes have been shockingly bad. It’s borderline miraculous the Kings were able to get past Chicago as the calls went the Hawks’ way for the vast majority of the series. The Rangers have had their own zebra complications to overcome, as anyone who looks at Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin cross-eyed gets a 37-minute major. I’ve been accused of being a conspiracy theorist before, and to a certain extent that’s accurate, but this is a New York Los Angeles championship series. The best thing from a business standpoint for the NHL would be for the series to go seven games. To me it’s not a stretch for the officials to be inclined to do what’s in their power to make that happen, in either direction.

The Prediction: Kings in six. Yeah, they’re probably a little beat up. But the general rule is that the team with the preponderance of the good players should win a series that is best of seven. Add to that that the Kings have Drew Doughty, who has been the best hockey player on the planet for the last six weeks, I just don’t see the Rangers having enough. They’ll put up a fight, but it will be a valiant effort in a losing cause.