LOS ANGELES — So, is it time to break up the Kings? Or has the potential fool’s gold of a four-game winning streak caused pulses to quicken and game plans to be revised in the club’s front office?
As recently as four years ago, “break up the Kings” was a plea, the league-wide recognition of a sizable threat. Their two Stanley Cups were still large in the rear-view mirror, and their reputation was still that of a team that was not only tough to play against but almost impossible to kill.
Today? Even after Thursday’s 2-1 victory over Arizona extended the win streak to four, there remains the cold realization that unless this roll extends over at least the next month or so, the best course might still be to strip the thing down for parts.
This is an example of how difficult it will be to catch up in the Western Conference: Even after Thursday night’s victory over an Arizona team that was next-to-last in the Pacific Division, the Kings are still last, and their 33 points are still eight back of the second wild card team in the West, Dallas. It’s not a totally insurmountable margin with 44 games left, but it’s a tall order with so many teams to catch and so many three-point games, with overtime and shootout losses enabling teams to pad their point totals.
And until recently, there was little evidence that this team, which already has made a coaching change and a significant trade, could make such a run. From that standpoint, the winning streak has provided a little hope, at least.
“I think it’s a good feeling for these guys to get a little taste of success as a team,” said Dustin Brown, whose goal early in the third period was the eventual game-winner. “It shouldn’t be fun when we’re losing, and it’s not fun when we’re losing. So to get three, four in a row is really good.
“The feeling in the room, the energy level, we have to find a way to use that and keep the momentum going the right way.”
That said, Brown noted that this was not that strong a performance, particularly the second period, but the Kings found a way to win. They were 0 for 2 on their power play, and their penalty kill – which entered the night 29th in a 31-team league – yielded a goal for the fifth time in the last seven games.
Also worth noting: Brown might have lost the captain’s “C” to Anze Kopitar after the 2015-16 season, but he still plays, acts and leads as a captain should. Maybe he should get that letter back, especially with the way Kopitar has struggled.
Even with their current streak, the Kings are still last in the league in goals, with 88 in 38 games, and have surrendered 25 more than they’ve scored.
And there is no cornucopia of prospects at Ontario poised to create a dazzling future. Most of the Reign’s studs are already here, playing supporting roles: Michael Amadio, Austin Wagner (who impressively stood up for goaltender Jonathan Quick during a scrap with Arizona’s Nick Cousins), Sean Walker and Matt Luff. The hope of the future, 2017 first-round pick Gabe Vilardi, is again dealing with back issues and was sent back to juniors to continue his rehab.
(Incidentally, not only did his injury force Vilardi to miss the World Junior Championships that are currently taking place in Vancouver, but the captain of Team Canada is Max Comtois, a Ducks’ prospect. Galling enough for you, Kings fans?)
Assuming this is indeed fool’s gold, and the Kings don’t somehow defy the odds, the analytics and the opposition and elbow their way back into the playoff race, at what point does it make the most sense to start selling parts, if not go totally into “lose for (Jack) Hughes” mode with an eye toward the first overall pick in late June?
That’s one question Kings fans are chewing on. The other: Is General Manager Rob Blake even capable of rebuilding this roster to Stanley Cup contender status? The jury remains out.
Blake already broke up That 70’s Line by trading Tanner Pearson to Pittsburgh on Nov. 14 for 30-year-old Carl Hagelin, who was supposed to add desperately needed speed to the lineup but promptly wound up on IR. Aside from an expiring contract, Hagelin doesn’t seem to represent full value for Pearson, who appears to have recaptured his mojo in Pittsburgh. (His huge grin after scoring against the Kings on Dec. 15 in Pittsburgh was self-explanatory.)
Who goes next? The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 25, and a team angling for a run at the Cup could and should take a hard look at Jake Muzzin, who is a plus-9, scored the Kings’ first goal on Thursday night, has been their best defenseman to date, has a cap-friendly contract ($4 million, signed through next season) and probably would bring the highest return.
Jeff Carter, a scratch Thursday night with an upper-body injury, would be of interest to a contender. But the specifics of his contract – and the salary cap ramifications facing the Kings should he be traded somewhere and then retire after the season, with three seasons left on his contract – would seem to give him some say over his eventual destination.
Tyler Toffoli has struggled this season – just six goals for a guy who had 31 in 2015-16 and 24 last season – but could be attractive to a team needing a sniper.
And then there is the nuclear option: Dealing Quick, who turns 33 next month but is still a big-game goalie. Before you think that’s a rash decision, here’s a prediction: Cal Petersen, the second-year pro out of Notre Dame who is currently backing up Quick while Jack Campbell is on IR, will ultimately be the Kings’ No. 1 goalie, and that day might not be that far away.
That’s about as nuclear as this scenario is going to get, by the way. Kopitar has a no-movement clause, as do Dion Phaneuf and Ilya Kovalchuk, and Drew Doughty’s kicks in when his eight-year, $88 million extension takes effect next season. And let’s just assume that no one in the league has enough assets to give the Kings full value for Doughty.
A dramatic turnaround would be a heck of a story. But while it’s OK to enjoy the current run of success, a swap meet is still a more realistic option.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter