With the NHL playoffs three weeks away, the Kings have established themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference, if not the league. Their 7-6 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Sunday at Crypto.com Arena extended their points streak to a franchise-record 12 games (10-0-2).
Since the All-Star break, the Kings are 15-2-3, putting them in contention for the Pacific Division title and the top spot in the West. Beginning play Tuesday, they were tied for sixth in the NHL with 96 points.
A second consecutive postseason for the Kings (43-20-10) is a virtual lock. The only lock for the Southland’s other team, the Ducks, is that they will miss the playoffs for the fifth season in a row. Anaheim is 23-41-10 and 29th out of 32 teams in points.
Can the Kings seriously contend for the Stanley Cup? And when will the Ducks be back in playoff contention? Times columnist and Hockey Hall of Fame honoree Helene Elliott, along with Times hockey editor Hans Tesselaar (a former Kings season-seat holder) and Times staffers Curtis Zupke (former beat writer for both teams) and Jim Barrero ( a current Kings season-seat holder) discussed these topics and more.
What should the expectations be for the Kings this postseason?
Elliott: They have to get at least two rounds deep for this to be considered a successful season. The Kings are scoring well, defending well, getting production from their power play and getting balanced scoring. They gave up a franchise icon in Jonathan Quick plus a first-round pick for Joonas Korpisalo and Vladislav Gavrikov, both whom can walk as unrestricted free agents. To exit the playoffs early and then face the possibility of losing both players without compensation would be a big setback. General manager Rob Blake went for the home run, knowing there’s no dominant team in the West they must fear. It was the right call, but there’s no guarantee he will succeed.
Zupke: The second round, at the very least, which would, remarkably, be their first playoff series win since 2014. I think what it boils down to with their playoff run is: How are they going to fare against Colorado, Dallas or Vegas, because that’s who they’re eventually going to have to go through.
Barrero: At minimum, the Kings need to advance one round and even that might be considered a disappointment. But with the West being so open and the Kings playing their best hockey of late, reaching the Stanley Cup Final wouldn’t be unreasonable. I think I would realistically be satisfied anywhere in the middle of those two.
Tesselaar: A season ago, making the postseason — after missing out for three years in a row — was the goal. The expectations are higher this season and should be considering their level of play. Reaching the Western Conference final at a minimum should be the goal.
It’s impossible at this point to say who the Kings will play in the first round. But who would they match up best with? And who would be the team to most avoid in the West?
Elliott: They’ve beaten Edmonton twice this season but be careful about rooting for a matchup with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, because you might get more than you can handle. They’re 0-1-2 vs. Seattle, including a 9-8 overtime loss, and they don’t want to get caught up in that kind of game. They’re 2-0-0 vs. Colorado and 1-1 vs. Winnipeg. Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has good playoff numbers (2.46 goals-against average, .921 save percentage in 35 postseason games), so that could be a problem for the Kings.
Barrero: Frankly I feel good about any team the Kings would play in the first round since it probably takes Vegas out of the equation as the teams teams battle for the top spot in the Pacific. The Kings’ defense keeps them in most games and therefore I don’t see a “bad” matchup. Is it crazy to say Seattle might be? The Kraken have won all three games this season, but those were early. Let’s revisit after their game in Seattle on April Fool’s Day. Lastly, if the Kings finish first in the Pacific, I don’t think I would be too fond of them matching up with Colorado if the Avs were to fall into a wild-card spot. Not likely, but you never know.
Tesselaar: Colorado is the defending Stanley Cup champion, so a matchup with the Avalanche would be as stern a test as possible. What is really needed is a Kings-Vegas series with Jonathan Quick in goal for the Golden Knights. Just imagine the story lines.
The Kings traded Quick on March 1 and since acquiring Korpisalo and Gavrikov, they haven’t lost in regulation. It’s too easy to say that’s the only reason they’ve played so well this month, but what has the trade done for the Kings?
Elliott: It has given them new life in the form of a bigger defense that’s better balanced in terms of lefty-righty shooters, and a calm, reliable goaltender. They’re still not very big on defense but Gavrikov gives them a physical presence and has good instincts on when to go forward. Players were genuinely surprised that Blake traded Quick — and Drew Doughty has made it clear he didn’t like it — but they’ve realized how much Gavrikov and Korpisalo can contribute toward the team moving forward and taking a big step toward contention.
Zupke: Gavrikov was probably an overlooked part of that trade. He’s exactly what they needed on the blue line — a big, rugged, left-shot defender who can play a safe, simple game. But I think what’s really going on with the Kings is that their lineup is ideally slotted now — they’ve got a balanced attack, a go-to-line (Trevor Moore-Phillip Danault-Viktor Arvidsson), a 20-goal scorer on the third line (Gabriel Vilardi). Everyone knows their role, which is a hallmark of a successful playoff team.
Barrero: Once the initial shock of the traded subsided, I think the players realized this was a move that showed belief in what this team could be in the here and now. Take the emotion out, and this was a brilliant move as it shored up two very important areas. The Kings have the best goals-against average in the NHL since the trade and have given up more than two goals in regulation and overtime only once this month (11 games). Their two losses have been in shootouts. In watching Gavrikov, he does so many things that won’t show up in a box score or basic statistics. It’s clear the new players have seamlessly fit in and strengthened an already strong chemistry.
Tesselaar: Quick’s place in Kings history is secure. The trade may help the franchise create even more history.
The Ducks host the Kings on April 13 in a game that will end another disappointing season for Anaheim. What must the Ducks do to make themselves relevant moving forward?
Elliott: Where to begin. … Clear out all the older players and turn the reins over to Troy Terry, Trevor Zegras, Lukas Dostal, Mason McTavish, and the deep pile of prospects they’ve drafted and/or developed. They also need a new coach. GM Pat Verbeek inherited coach Dallas Eakins and knew there was no hope the team would contend, so Verbeek hoped Eakins could at least hold the fort and help their kids develop. Time for a new coach who can set and enforce higher standards. Also, they have to hope they win the draft lottery.
Zupke: Defense has to be a big part of it. They’re giving up a league-worst 4.04 goals-against per game and it’s often looked comically bad. Obviously it’s going to be an important offseason for Pat Verbeek with the draft and free agency, but a lot of has to do with building identity. Who’s going to be their, say, Phillip Danault?
Barrero: I’m a bit stumped that the Ducks weren’t better this season, but perhaps they’re asking too much of Terry and Zegras at this stage. Rob Blake and the Kings have been criticized at times the past few seasons for being too slow to give their kids a shot. But perhaps the Ducks are a case study as to what happens when you do it too soon. In their case, maybe it’s out of necessity. That said, until they establish three solid defense pairings, they won’t be going anywhere. John Gibson can only do so much. And losing defenseman Jamie Drysdale in October certainly didn’t help. The Ducks’ minus-112 goal differential is by far the worst in the NHL.
The Boston Bruins could set an NHL record for wins and points in a season. They are the overwhelming favorites to win the Cup. Can anyone beat them four times in a series?
Elliott: Probably not in the early rounds. By the time the conference final and Cup Final come around, every team has some bumps and bruises. If the Bruins can withstand some nicks and bruises, they can win it all.
Zupke: The short answer? No. But there’s going to be tremendous pressure on them. I remember when the Ducks we’re about to make their playoff run in ’07, and the big question was: Can you imagine if they lost that first playoff game? It’s really more about how they handle adversity. And can we just skip right ahead to that Boston-Toronto series?
Barrero: I honestly don’t see anyone beating them, though the Bruins have shown some vulnerabilities the last few weeks. But after losing three of four, they’ve won seven in a row since, so maybe it was just a natural letdown in a grueling season as the postseason nears. Frankly, if Boston falls short and doesn’t win the Cup, it will be an utter failure after the bar that has been set. But hockey can be a strange sport, with Presidents’ Trophy winners falling short more often than not over the years.
Tesselaar: As Jim points out, winning the Presidents’ Trophy doesn’t guarantee anything expect home-ice in every series. The 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks are the last Presidents’ Trophy winner to capture the Cup. Still, it’s hard to see a team that has only 11 losses in regulation dropping four out of seven in a series.
It’s the middle of June. What are the Kings doing at that point? And what day — wink, wink — is the parade?
Zupke: I’m done covering parades! The Metro section is going have to step in. Again, it comes down to whether they have the horses (ahem, goaltending) to knock off, say, a Colorado or a Dallas. I’m not completely sold, but they’re playing as well as any team right now.
Barrero: We’ve seen what adding a dynamic playmaker and scorer such as Kevin Fiala can do, but perhaps adding one more similar player would be at the top of the wish list. Oh, and re-signing Gravrikov and Korpisalo. I’m already sold and I hope they see the opportunity this team has over the next several seasons to make some noise and factor that into wanting to be here. Lastly, make sure the parade is on a Monday or Tuesday so I can attend on one of my off days.
Elliott: Starting their Stanley Cup parade in your backyard, Hans?
Tesselaar: I better get the lawnmower gassed up just in case.
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