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.