A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.
Theme of the Week: So What Do the Kings Do Now?
Hockey fans, some of them at least, have been thinking it for weeks, maybe even months. But it’s only been in the past few days that some have finally started saying it out loud: The L.A. Kings don’t look like they’re going to make the playoffs.
Even as the Kings sputtered along through most of a season spent on the outside looking in, most of us just assumed that they’d flip the switch, make a late push, and get in with room to spare. As recently as last week, this space all but brushed off the possibility that they wouldn’t make it. After all, they’re the defending Stanley Cup champions. And more importantly, they’ve done this before, sleepwalking through large chunks of the season in both 2011-12 and 2013-14, only to slip into position late and go on to win it all.
But by Saturday morning, they were sitting in 12th in the West, needing to pass four teams to earn a spot. An impressive win over the Lightning bumped them up to a three-way tie for ninth, but they’re still five points back of the wild card with 30 games to play. That’s not an impossible task, but it would take a hot streak or two coupled with a dose of good luck. And if we’re being honest, this team just hasn’t looked like a contender in any meaningful sense — at 22-18-12, they’ve lost more games than the sad-sack Blue Jackets.
So what should they do? In both 2012 and 2014, the Kings made a major midseason trade that helped turn their season around.1 With this year’s trade deadline now less than a month away, does that mean it’s time for GM Dean Lombardi to pull the trigger on another big deal in an attempt to push them over the top?
A few days ago, I threw that question out on Twitter, along with my argument that the team’s front office all but has to go out and make an aggressive move. Giving up future assets for a short-term boost is just about always the wrong move for a bubble team — they usually don’t end up helping the team make the playoffs, and even when they do, sneaking in as an eighth seed is typically just a ticket to an early exit. But the Kings aren’t a typical bubble team. They know they can win a Stanley Cup with this roster, my argument went, and that’s a window that rarely stays open very long. The Kings should be doing everything in their power to get into the playoffs this year, even it means sacrificing some of the future.
I was surprised by how many Kings fans pushed back on that idea. This year’s team is done, they told me. After a 2013-14 season that included a long playoff run coupled with several players participating in the Olympics, this year’s team can’t overcome the fatigue factor. The blue line hasn’t recovered from the loss of Willie Mitchell and the ongoing suspension of Slava Voynov. And besides, they don’t have the cap room to make a big move. Better for the team to fold their cards, maybe trade a depth veteran or two, rest up over the offseason, and then bring the core of the team back next season for a real run at another title. (Several even mentioned Connor McDavid, because in today’s NHL, everyone wants to tank.)
All of that adds up to a pretty strong argument. And yet … this is the Stanley Cup. You get only so many shots. Taking a knee on one of them, pragmatic as it may be, just seems wrong.
At this point, there’s little indication as to which way Lombardi and the Kings are leaning. But there’s a good chance we’ll find out soon. This week, the Kings will play three winnable games, against the Blue Jackets, Flames, and Capitals. If they’re ever going to gain some ground, this may be the week.
Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best
The five teams that seem most likely to earn the league’s top prize: the Stanley Cup.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning (34-16-5, plus-36) Yesterday’s 5-3 win over Anaheim was impressive, although they really should have let the Ducks score one more late to mess up their one-goal-game mojo.
4. Detroit Red Wings (31-12-9, plus-30) The Wings make their second appearance of the year in the top five, powered by going 9-1-0 in their last 10.