The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup as an eighth seed last year.
How many times have you been reminded of that leading up to the playoffs this year? From how many people? For how many purposes? For the favorites, it’s a warning. For others, it’s an inspiration.
“I guess,” said Kings center Anze Kopitar, “we’re the perfect example of squeaking in and then going all the way.”
Anything can happen.
“That is kind of pervasive now throughout the league, that whole sentiment,” said Kings general manager Dean Lombardi. “Just get in.”
But what does that mean to the team that set the example, the team that cemented the sentiment? The Kings don’t want anything to happen now, unless, of course, the anything that happens is a repeat championship.
What the Kings did last year was unprecedented, and what they’re trying to do now is unprecedented in its own way.
No one has repeated since the NHL introduced the salary cap in 2005-06. Only one champion has even returned to the final, the Detroit Red Wings, who won the Cup in 2008 and came within a game of winning it again in ’09.
The NHL has had seven different champions in seven years in the cap era. It has had nine different champions in the past nine playoffs if you go back further. No one has repeated since the Wings won the Cup in 1997 and ’98. The word “dynasty” was already dying, or at least being redefined, even before the cap.
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The challenge has been an intellectual one for Lombardi, who researched repeat champions of the past across professional sports to see what might apply to the Kings. It is interesting to note that the NFL, NBA and MLB all have had repeat champions more recently than the NHL.
The challenge hasn’t been physical for the players, who came back in January instead of September thanks to the lockout. But it has been mental – and even more difficult than usual. If it’s hard to motivate yourself for the regular season after winning the Cup, it’s even harder when you know you just won the Cup as an eighth seed. Just get in, right?
Now the Kings are in again, and they’re arguably better than they were last year. They’re more experienced. They’re more confident. Some individuals have grown. They’re not an eighth seed, either.
But they’re still only a fifth seed, and their defense looks different, and they won’t sneak up on anyone as the defending champions. Quite the opposite. Their opponents in the first round? The St. Louis Blues, whom they swept in the second round last year. The Blues did their own research, trying to learn from the Kings.
“We’ve climbed that mountain before,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown. “It’s just a matter of starting at the bottom again.”
* * * * *
Before considering whether the 2013 Kings can win the Cup, understand that the 2011-12 Kings were not a Cinderella story.
Yes, they struggled to score. Lombardi changed coaches, firing Terry Murray and hiring Darryl Sutter. Lombardi made a major trade, adding sniper Jeff Carter. They finished a tumultuous regular season by snagging the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.
But this was a team that was expected to contend, with core pieces like Brown, Kopitar, Mike Richards, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick. They played in a difficult Pacific Division and came within three points of winning it, which would have given them a third seed, changing how they would have been perceived.
And when they finally clicked, they went on an epic run. On one hand, they illustrated the NHL’s parity. On another, they made a mockery of it.
“We were 16-4 in the playoffs,” Lombardi said. “It’s not a Cinderella run when you’re going 16-4.”
Lombardi brought back the team virtually intact and had to figure out how to sustain success. It was a nice problem to have. It was still a problem.
The Kings were still young, and they had skipped some steps. They had gone from failing to win a playoff round to winning four straight. They had gone from failing to win their division to winning the Cup.
“They had to learn how to deal with failure. That’s the first test of your character,” Lombardi said. “Once you’ve been there, you’ve got to learn to deal with success. It’s a very different challenge.”
Lombardi looked at teams in baseball, basketball and football as well as in hockey. He sought advice from a wide range of people – executives and coaches and players, some who had repeated and some who hadn’t. He took copious notes and had long conversations with his own coach, who had taken the Calgary Flames to the final in 2004.
Entering this season, he tried to take a positive attitude. Instead of worrying about the hangover, don’t stop the party. Focus not on what will be harder, but on what will be easier now that you know what it takes.
The Kings struggled early, anyway. They went 3-5-2 in their first 10 games. Quick was coming off back surgery. Key defensemen Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell were out with long-term injuries. Others struggled, partly because of the predictable letdown.
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“In retrospect,” Lombardi said, “I don’t know whether in fact you can avoid it. It’s more recognizing it and hoping to get through it. I think there’s a difference between researching something and coming up almost like with a physics formula that says, ‘OK, this is what will happen, and you do this.’ I don’t sense it.
“All I can say is, at least when I recognized certain things, it wasn’t totally foreign to me based upon those discussions. I said, ‘OK, I see what they were talking about.’ But could I have any way done something to head it off at the pass? No.”
Lombardi traded for Keaton Ellerby to fill a hole on defense. But generally, he stuck with his guys.
The turning point came Feb. 10 in Detroit, when the Kings outshot the Wings, 47-31, and tied the game late, only to lose when a puck trickled through Quick in the final seconds. Lombardi could be seen talking to Brown in the dressing room after the game, walking with Kopitar to the bus.
The Kings won in St. Louis the next night, 4-1, and went on a 7-1-0 run. They went 10-4-3 in their final 17 games.
If another GM comes to Lombardi for advice someday, this is what Lombardi might say:
“There’s going to be a different set of challenges than dealing with failure. But it’s still going to come back to the character and your commitment to each other, and you’re going to have to go through it just like you had to go through failure.
“If you had to have a heading and then bullet points under it, that would probably be your heading. You’ve just got to trust your players and your coaches.”
* * * * *
How do the Kings feel entering the playoffs compared to last year?
“If you look at it,” Richards said, “we should be a little bit better.”
The Kings have the experience and confidence gained in the Cup run. Quick has had time to find his form. The defense has evolved. Doughty and Slava Voynov learned to play without Greene and Mitchell as security blankets, and rookie Jake Muzzin got a chance to show he could play. Lombardi has added Robyn Regehr to replace Mitchell, and Greene has returned. The forward group is much the same as it was last year.
But will the Kings win the Cup again? Will they go 16-4 in the playoffs again? No matter how much you plan and prepare, no matter how good you are, the odds are still stacked against a repeat – and especially a repeat of a run like that.
After the final last year, assistant coach John Stevens pointed out internally how important it was for their growth that they responded the only time they faced any real pressure in the playoffs – when they took a 3-0 lead over the New Jersey Devils, lost the next two and closed out the series in Game 6.
“There could be more of those types of challenges going forward,” Lombardi said.
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It should be noted that Voynov has struggled lately, Greene has struggled since coming back, Regehr is still getting on the same page with Doughty, his new partner. Dustin Penner has been so bad that he has been a healthy scratch, and he scored some key goals for the Kings last year, and the Kings are going to need more key goals. They’re going to need health and breaks.
“As close as it is, there’s a lot of luck involved,” Richards said. “You work hard to create your luck, but at the same time, you have to have it.”
Anything can happen, right?
No matter what happens to the Kings, Lombardi will have another intellectual challenge this summer. There is repeating. There is also keeping your team in the mix year after year – “the age-old question of ‘the window,’ ” in Lombardi’s words – in a salary cap system. There is no formula for that, either.
How do you define dynasty today? How do you define window today?
“There’s not a definitive answer,” Lombardi said. “It’s a new challenge for us to wrestle with as general managers. Anybody who says they have experience answering that question, I’d like to see a fact pattern that backs it up.”
How do you achieve lasting success today?
“I don’t know the answer,” Lombardi said. “I don’t pretend to. We just keep on trying.”
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