Los Angeles Kings Could Really Use a Successful Road Trip

Jan 21, 2017; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty (8) celebrates his goal against the New York Islanders with teammates during the third period at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 21, 2017; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty (8) celebrates his goal against the New York Islanders with teammates during the third period at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

I’m an optimist by nature. Positive thinking has its benefits, but it’s also important to be objective in the face of potential adversity. This road trip for the Los Angeles Kings is going to be crucial in determining the postseason viability of this team.

Following their loss to the New York Islanders, the Kings have now lost 3 straight games and 4 out of their last 6.

They have 48 points through 46 games, and are currently in 4th place in the wildcard standings in the Western Conference.

The St. Louis Blues, Calgary Flames, and Vancouver Canucks have all played more games than the Kings, who trail St. Louis and Calgary by 3 points, and Vancouver by 2 points.

The Winnipeg Jets have 48 points and the Dallas Stars have 47. The only two teams in the Western Conference who aren’t in realistic contention for a playoff spot are the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche.

I’ve maintained to this point that the Kings are in great shape to make the playoffs, simply because they’re hovering around a wildcard spot despite bad circumstances that have befallen the team nearly this entire season.

Star goaltender Jonathan Quick has been injured since opening night. 30 goal scorer Tyler Toffoli hasn’t played since December 20.

Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, and Jake Muzzin have all gone through prolonged scoring droughts at different points this season.

The offense has been carried by Jeff Carter to an absurdly disproportionate degree, and few other forwards have exceeded expectations from a production standpoint.

Tanner Pearson already has 14 goals this year when he has never scored more than 15 goals in an entire season. Trevor Lewis has 15 points through 46 games this season after scoring 16 points in 75 games last year.

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Among their defensemen, Alec Martinez is in the midst of a career year, already totaling 25 points through 46 games after racking up 31 points in 78 games last season.

Drew Doughty has been rewarded with an All Star selection, and the reigning Norris Trophy winner is having another great season.

Peter Budaj has filled in admirably for Quick this year in the crease. Among qualified goaltenders, he ranks 6th in the NHL with a 2.14 GAA and 8th in wins with 20. However, he has benefited from a stingy defense not allowing many shots against him, and ranks 24th with a .916 save percentage.

There has been significant underachievement from key players, and as such, it’s tempting to count the Kings out of realistic contention at this point.

This is a team that has won 2 Stanley Cups within the past 5 seasons, though. Maybe I’m falling victim to overvaluing the intangibles that come with being champions, but I’m not ready to give up on this season yet, especially before Quick and Toffoli return to the lineup.

Assuming that Quick gets back to his typical form, the goaltending duo of him and Budaj would  become one of the most formidable in the league.

Toffoli will help an offense that has struggled to score goals consistently outside of Carter and Pearson this season.

Kopitar, Gaborik, and Muzzin have all begun to pick up their scoring rates recently, and if those trends can coincide with successful returns from Toffoli and Quick, I don’t think there’s a reason to significantly doubt the team’s playoff chances.

As for the argument about their potential playoff longevity, if they can catch fire right as the regular season ends, I think they’d make a lot of teams nervous about engaging in a playoff series with a squad that has won 2 out of the last 5 Stanley Cups.

Maybe I’m living too much in the past, but it just seems hasty to count out this team. Not only are they not even fully healthy right now, but most core players are still around from their last championship.

Justin Williams, Mike Richards, Slava Voynov, and Jarret Stoll being gone are the key differences from the 2014 Stanley Cup team compared to now, besides an almost 3 extra years of aging.

None of those 4 players scored more than 43 points during the 2013-2014 regular season, and only Williams ranked among their top 11 playoff scorers.

The depth is certainly affected with those solid performers are gone, and Williams himself scored an impressive 25 points in 26 playoff games that year, but the same basic core of Kopitar, Carter, Doughty, Toffoli, Muzzin, Gaborik, Martinez, Quick, and Dustin Brown remain.

And you can add Pearson to that main group now after playing only 25 regular season games in 2013-2014 as a rookie.

Of the 16 players who scored at least 5 points for the Kings during that championship run, 12 are still on the roster. It’s not as if this team is drastically different from the squad that won the Cup less than 3 calendar years ago.

Continuity aside, is this team as good as it was 3 years ago? Clearly not, and it’s evidenced by the fact that the Kings went 46-28-8 during the 2013-2014 regular season, finishing 3rd in the Pacific Division with 100 points with largely the same roster they have now.

However, their performance this season needs to be critiqued with some notable qualifiers. This season has been minus the services of Conn Smythe winner Quick, with a notable absence from 30 goal scorer Toffoli, and several strange slumps from key players.

We’ve all learned throughout the history of the league how valuable the play of a goaltender is for a playoff run. Quick has proven capable of carrying a team to a title.

We don’t know exactly how he’ll look when he returns from the injury, but it stands to reason that he’ll manage to regain at least some semblance of his remarkable talent.

Part of the reason why it’s critical that both Quick and Toffoli get back in the lineup sooner rather than later isn’t just to make it easier for the Kings to win games, but to really see what this roster is capable of accomplishing when everybody is available and playing up to their normal standards.

The recent loss to the Islanders is troubling, particularly because of how the Islanders were at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

It’s not quite as bad of a defeat when the fact that this Islanders team made the second round of the playoffs last season is considered, but coupled with the circumstances of Los Angeles right now involving the playoff picture, it isn’t easy to brush off such a performance.

This road trip is going to be crucial, not just because of how their place in the standings in a competitive Western Conference can be affected by a scarcity of wins, but because it’ll indicate whether this team can make a realistic push for the playoffs as notable players begin to return.

Morale is definitely low right now, but I still don’t think it’s officially time to panic yet. Even if this road trip ends up being poor, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

The important thing is that they continue to tread water until the reinforcements get there, and as productive players further reestablish their groove.

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The challenge is going to be to keep from sinking, because if the deficit they have to make up becomes too steep, it’ll be a moot issue in terms of star players returning.