The LA Kings playoff hopes this season could rest on their performance versus the Vegas Golden Knights, who could once again break their hearts.
I know some will read this headline and think, “did this guy forget about San Jose and Anaheim”? Both have traditionally been the LA Kings biggest rivals, given their close geographic proximity and shared division since the Sharks and Ducks entered the NHL. Still, things have changed, and there is a new hockey power that has risen in the desert just over the Nevada border. That power is the Vegas Golden Knights, and in their short three-year existence, they have surpassed (for now) the Sharks and Ducks as the LA Kings’ biggest rival.
On a recent episode of the Hockey Royalty Podcast with The Fourth Period’s Dennis Bernstein, he stated that the team whom the Kings will need to get aggressive this offseason to compete against is the Vegas Golden Knights. I couldn’t agree more – although I disagree with him about the Knights not having favorable expansion draft conditions for two reasons.
They were the first team in NHL history to have a salary cap in place at the time of their draft, which without a doubt, had some GMs making deals with the Knights that they normally would not make. The second reason is the protected lists for this draft were set up so that most teams were going to end up leaving at least one decent player exposed in the draft (look at past expansion draft lists to see why most other expansion teams started off at the bottom), which helped set Vegas up for success right off the hop.
Certainly, no one could blame the Golden Knights for taking advantage of this, and they did an excellent job of it. In all reality, the league made the right call by designing the expansion draft so that these new teams would at least be competitive right from the start. Much to the chagrin of the rest of the NHL, the Vegas Golden Knights took being competitive to the next level.
Despite the presence of the Ducks, Sharks, and even the Coyotes, for the longest time, Las Vegas was considered to be LA Kings territory. They played the first outdoor game of the modern era there against the New York Rangers in 1991, and from 1997 through 2016, the Kings held Frozen Fury every preseason in Las Vegas. Once the Knights came to town, Frozen Fury ended, and the LA Kings were booted from their home away from home.
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The Vegas Golden Knight’s inaugural season was 2017-18, and they went on a cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final. Their opponent in the first round of the playoffs was, of course, the LA Kings. The Kings lost the series four games to none, even though all four games were extremely close. Perhaps more stunning than the loss was the massive numbers of Golden Knights fans in attendance for the games at the STAPLES Center! A power shift had occurred, and the new kids were suddenly kings of the hill.
While the Kings, Ducks, Sharks, and even the Coyotes entered various rebuilding stages, the Golden Knights have built a powerhouse in Sin City. The LA Kings have not played a playoff game against the Ducks or Sharks since the 2016 playoffs when the Sharks defeated the Kings, and the only real battle that has happened since in the battle of California is who is going to get better lottery draft spots. Meanwhile, Vegas has become a perennial favorite to win the Pacific (or West this season) Division.
Despite having a strong presence in the American southwest for decades, and bitter, long-standing feuds against both the Anaheim Ducks and the San Jose Sharks, the Vegas Golden Knights are now the team the Kings will have to get past to return to prominence. They still have a chance to get into the playoffs this season, but starting Sunday, three of the Kings’ next five games are against the Golden Knights. To stay in the playoff race, the Kings will need to win at least two of those games – lose these games, and the Kings playoff chances will most likely take a severe hit.
Of course, there will always be a heated rivalry (some would say hatred) between the LA Kings and both the Sharks and the Ducks. Until those teams get better, however, and become more of a playoff factor again, the Vegas Golden Knights will be the team to beat – and therefore, the Kings’ biggest rival.