Kings for a day - and more?
The Los Angeles Kings aren’t running away with anything yet in the Western Conference, but with the season’s midpoint fast approaching they are separating themselves from their recent past - a protracted stay in NHL oblivion that has seen them not make it to the playoffs since 2002.
Two of the biggest keys: the offseason acquisitions of Ryan Smyth, acquired in a swap with Colorado, and Rob Scuderi, the former Boston College blue liner who won a Cup with the Penguins in June and then departed as a free agent for a four-year deal worth $13.6 million.
“Two real solid pros,’’ noted Dean Lombardi, the Kings general manager who grew up in Ludlow and is now in his third season of attempting to reverse the team’s fortunes. “We needed guys who fit as players, obviously, but it was equally important that they help us get to that next level, where guys believe in themselves. That’s an important phase for a building team to get through, where they believe in themselves and want to win for each other.’’
On the ice, Smyth, the gritty former Mr. Oiler who recently returned from a rib injury, has opened up space for Anze Kopitar, helping the young star forward gain confidence and also muscle in among the league’s leading scorers. Scuderi has added depth and stability to a backline that had flashy rookie Drew Doughty, who just turned 20 earlier this month, shoulder too much of the burden in 2008-09.
“Funny, you grow up watching the Bruins and you get spoiled in Boston,’’ said the 51-year-old Lombardi. “First there was [Bobby] Orr, then [Ray] Bourque and you think, ‘Heck, doesn’t everyone have guys like that?’ But of course they don’t. I love to talk to Harry [Sinden] when we’re in Boston, and last year, when we were in town, he called me during the game and said, ‘Gee, you told me about that No. 8 [Doughty] - he’s a helluva player.’ Well, he’s young to be considered in that Orr or Bourque class, obviously, but he’s got that ability to see the rink, you know, first find the right play, then make the right play . . . you see him do that over and over and you’re just left shaking your head. You can’t teach that. He’s got that gift.’’
The Kings, who will host the Bruins for a matinee Jan. 16 then come to the Garden Jan. 30, spent a couple of days last week holding down first place in the Western Conference. Headed into last night, they were tied with San Jose and Chicago for the conference lead in points (47) and already had 22 victories in 37 games, after winning only 34 last season and averaging 33 wins the last six (also-ran) seasons.
The 22-year-old Kopitar, born in what was then Yugoslavia, has been stifled on offense of late, but still stood at an impressive 16-22 -38 after Thursday night’s 2-1 loss in Calgary. As of yesterday morning, he was tied for sixth overall in points with Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin. Heady company. Now halfway through his fourth NHL season, he’s no longer an emerging star, but a bona fide stud, an offensive presence who attracts the opposition’s best checkers and defensive schemes.
“He’s finding out what it’s like to be on top of the mountain,’’ said Lombardi. “It’s hard to get there, and once you get there it’s even harder to stay. But remember, this is a kid who came from Slovenia, never played in any major tournaments. He hasn’t been putting up points lately, but this is a kid who really cares, puts a lot of pressure on himself. So while maybe the points aren’t coming like they were for him at the start, he’s learning more of a backup game, contributing on defense, filling out his overall game. No question in my mind that he’ll bounce back.’’
Another key factor for the Kings has been the play of former UMass star Jonathan Quick in net. Quick, likely to be picked as one of the three Team USA Olympic netminders, has provided stability in goal that the Kings haven’t had since maybe the Kelly Hrudey (mid-1990s) era. No more trying to keep the net stitched together with the likes of Dan Cloutier, Jason LaBarbera, and Mathieu Garon.
“Quick’s been really, really good,’’ said Lombardi. “It helps immensely when a goalie can come up and steal a game for you. That just has an unbelievable impact on your team. He joined us on an East Coast swing last year, played great from the start, and you could see our guys thinking, ‘Oh . . . that’s pretty good.’ ’’
The good times are starting to roll again in LA, where the Triple Crown Line is long gone, The Great One is a fading memory, and fans of the former Purple and Gold still await their first Stanley Cup.
On Monday, the Canes placed ex-Boston blue liner Aaron Ward (above) on waivers, his age (37 next month) and salary ($2.5 million) making him an obvious target for a sinking club looking to rearrange the deck chairs. The move also accomplished something previously believed impossible - silencing the ever-gregarious Ward.
“I appreciate your calling,’’ Ward said upon hearing a familiar voice on the phone from Boston. “But for a ton of reasons I won’t go into, I’m just going to shut up. Sorry.’’
Ward cleared waivers Tuesday, but played in Wednesday’s win over Dallas and Friday night’s loss at Florida. What happens to him after this week’s brief Christmas break is unknown, but a likely scenario would have the Canes go through the technicalities of recalling him on waivers, a move that would entice another club to claim him. A 50-50 split of his remaining salary, per the CBA, would have the acquiring club add blue line depth for a cap hit of only some $700,000. A very enticing discount for a three-time Cup winner.
Boston’s mounting injuries on the backline, especially with Mark Stuart sidelined with a fractured sternum, could have GM Peter Chiarelli interested, especially at Ward’s Building 19 discount price. But other clubs are hurting, too, and rumors late in the week had both San Jose and Chicago evincing some interest. Detroit, where Ward won two Cups, has been decimated by injuries, including Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan
“You know,’’ said Ward, “a crazy game sometimes, isn’t it?’’