Another season is in the books for the NHL, and for the second time in three years the Los Angeles Kings were (ahem) crowned Stanley Cup champions. While the Kings’ victory may have come as a surprise to many hockey pundits, it shouldn’t have. The Kings are, whether their regular season finishes showcase it or not, the best team in the NHL; on paper, on the ice, and particularly in the playoffs.
The Kings are built to win a seven game playoff series, and in the past three years they’ve proven that in every way imaginable. Either as an eighth seed who never had home ice advantage during the playoffs en route to a 16-4 demolishing of the competition in 2012, or as a sixth seed this year, being down 0-3 in the first round, becoming only the fourth team in history to erase such a deficit, and then winning three game sevens on the road before dispatching the New York Rangers in the finals, the L.A. Kings are the quintessential playoff team. And now they are the model every other General Manager in the league looks to in hopes of building a championship team, or at the very least a team more equipped at competing with them in the playoffs.
There has been talk in the media of the Kings being a post-lockout dynasty, and deservedly so. They are the most successful playoff team thus far in the past decade, and they can only get better, and keep winning. No team has repeated as Stanley Cup champions since Detroit in 1997-98, before a salary cap league created more parity, but if any team can do it, the Kings are poised to in 2015, further elevating their status as a true modern day dynasty. Here’s why.
5. Marian Gaborik
There was no bigger signing in the off-season than the Kings’ re-signing of Marian Gaborik to a seven-year, $34 million contract. Sure the veteran forward has had his share of injuries over his career, but with a cap hit of less than $5 million per year, he took considerably less money to stay and win in L.A. than he would have made on the open market, especially given his playoff performance where he scored 14 goals and had 22 points in 26 playoff games. Furthermore, he is one of the biggest reasons why the Kings, the lowest scoring team to make the playoffs, averaging only 2.42 goals per game in the regular season, became the highest scoring team in the playoffs netting an average of 3.38 goals per game. Playing on a line with arguably the most underrated two-way centre in the league in Anze Kopitar pushed both players offensively and both were rewarded, finishing atop the league in playoff scoring. With the re-signing of Gaborik to play along side Kopitar and captain Dustin Brown the Kings have kept intact one of the most dominate top lines in the NHL.
4. Justin Williams
What can be said about the reigning 2014 Conn Smythe winner? Coming off his third Stanley Cup win with two separate teams in the past eight years, Justin Williams just wins. The 32-year-old has solidified himself as one of the most clutch playoff performers of all time. Since winning the cup as a rookie with Carolina in 2006 Williams has played in seven game sevens and his team is 7-0 in those contests. Furthermore, Williams is tied for the all-time lead for most game seven goals in history, with seven, and holds the record for most game 7 points of all time with 14. He also seems to score a big time goal anytime the Kings need one, either to start an epic comeback as the team did so many times during the 2014 playoffs erasing 2-0 deficits at will, or by scoring the game-winning goal in game 5 against the Rangers to clinch the cup victory. In a big game, is there anyone else currently in the league a coach would rather have on the ice? Highly doubtful.
Because of the amount of talent on the team, and because of coach Daryl Sutter’s continuous shifting of line combinations, the Kings are one of the deepest teams in the NHL, and they maximize what each player brings to the table. As captain, Dustin Brown said:
“When you are able to play six defencemen, four lines, it goes a long way in games… We don’t rely on one, two or three guys. If you look at it over the course of these playoffs, we got big games from different players each night. We share the workload which makes it a lot easier collectively on us as a team.”
It seemed each series there were new heroes emerging. Whether it was the Kopitar/Gaborik combo that erased the 0-3 deficit against the San Jose Sharks, or the Carter/Toffoli/Pearson line that scored nearly 50 points against Chicago in the Western Conference Finals. Or maybe it was a timely short-handed breakaway goal from Brown in the finals, multiple goals from the blue line (including two OT winners from Alec Martinez), or a Dwight King deflection to begin a comeback, or it could have just been Justin Williams scoring big goals like Justin Williams is prone to doing. The Kings had everyone buying in and playing to win. No team rolls four lines and six defencemen better than L.A., and whether his statistics showed it or not, this playoff in comparison to the 2012 cup run, Jonathan Quick stole a few games for the Kings, and made the big saves, many of them miraculous, when he needed to, proving (wrist injury and all) that he is indeed the best goalie in the league.
Much has been made about the Kings’ 2014 cup run being tied for most games played in a playoff year. Even more has been made about the fact that the team has now played 64 playoff games since 2012, winning two cups and losing a Western Conference final along the way. That type of schedule will wear down any player, and it was particularly evident by game four of the finals that the Kings were exhausted, centreman Jarret Stoll even saying as much after winning the cup, stating that by the end the team was “out of gas.”
As brutal as such a grinding three-year period of hockey can be for a team however, the experience of such a run is invaluable, especially for young players. The experience in winning the Kings have is remarkable. Justin Williams won his first cup in 2006 with Carolina and was the only cup winner on the roster until 2012. Now, 14 Kings from this year’s championship are returnees from the 2012 Stanley Cup run. Furthermore Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty both won their second gold medal with team Canada this year. Mike Richards also won gold with Canada in 2010. Beyond that, many Kings have learned how difficult winning a Stanley Cup truly is by losing one first, as both Richards and Carter, likewise Jarret Stoll, Robyn Regehr and Matt Greene have all lost a cup final before, but in the process gained valuable playoff experience that no doubt propelled their game when competing in the playoffs with the Kings.
With that much experience on their resume, you’d be forgiven if you assumed it was a team of grizzled veterans entering the twilight of their careers being discussed, but far from it. Shockingly, there are only five players on the Kings roster that are 30 years of age or older and of those players, Robyn Regehr is the elder statesman at 34. No other King is older than 32. Among those 32-year-olds? Playoff goal scoring leader Marian Gaborik and Conn Smythe winner Justin Williams. Hardly players in the twilight of their careers. The veteran leaders on L.A. are far younger than what would normally constitute a veteran leader on a cup contender, and what’s even worse for the rest of the NHL? The Kings three best players, Drew Doughty Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick are 24, 26, and 28 respectively. Think about that. Drew Doughty has two Stanley Cup rings and two gold medals at the age of 24.
Sure, we all know it’s almost impossible to repeat in today’s NHL, and the Kings have played the most playoff games of any in the past three years, but they are experienced and more importantly young enough to handle the rigors of another long regular season and grueling post season. While I may be eating my words next June, the fact remains no team in the NHL has that perfect mix of championship experience, leadership, skill and grit that L.A. does. It may be near impossible to repeat nowadays but if anyone can, it’s the Los Angeles Kings.