30 in 30: Kings not satisfied, hungry for second Cup
The feeling among Los Angeles Kings players as they parted for the offseason was mutual disgust.
Surely this wasn't their first time losing a playoff round, but it was the first time they lost one after winning the Stanley Cup. That's why it felt so terrible to go out in five games against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final.
"You don't know what you've lost until you've won it," Kings captain Dustin Brown told NHL.com. "Doing what we did in 2012 showed not only the players, but the staff and management, what it actually means and how special it is to win it, so the next year when you don't win it you feel like you've lost a lot more than you did."
Brown is realistic. He knows the Kings, even with their championship core players intact and signed long-term, can't win the Stanley Cup every year. It's been 15 years since a team has repeated.
But the Kings thought they should have done it last season -- and that feeling hasn't changed.
Every NHL team enters training camp with the goal of winning the Cup; the Kings expect it now and think they're better prepared to do it again because of the lessons they learned last season on how to deal with success.
They went from the hunters to the hunted and figured out the latter comes with its own supply of challenges, namely a target that doesn't go away and only feeds a hungry opposition.
"I can remember the night we got beat in Edmonton in overtime, I remember walking down to the dressing room and the fans were yelling, 'We just beat the Stanley Cup champions!'" Kings general manager Dean Lombardi told NHL.com. "That speaks to the challenges of having a target on your back and dealing with that. That rhymed with some of the things that I had been told."
Lombardi is talking about conversations he had last summer with champions in other sports. He spoke with John McVay, the chief executive who presided over four Super Bowl championships with the San Francisco 49ers from 1982-90. Lombardi met with former 49ers safety Ronnie Lott, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Everything they told him about trying to repeat, about being hunted, dealing with the inevitable adversity they avoided in the 2012 Cup run, it all came true.
The Kings had injuries to deal with before the regular season began. Willie Mitchell couldn't play and ended up missing the entire season with a knee injury. Matt Greene injured his back on his first shift of the season-opener against the Blackhawks and missed the next three months.
That's one-third of the Kings defense and their two most important penalty killers.
After getting through the regular season as the fifth-place team in the Western Conference, L.A. lost the first two games of the quarterfinals to the St. Louis Blues before rallying to win four straight. The Kings had to go blow-for-blow with the San Jose Sharks before finally fending them off in Game 7 with a 2-1 win.
The Kings lost three one-goal games to the Blackhawks in the Conference Final and were ousted 91:40 into Game 5 when a turnover in the offensive end gave way to the wizardry of Chicago's Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
"I can remember those guys on the 49ers telling me the second one was harder to win than the third and fourth one," Lombardi said. "Now that's just ridiculous how many championships that is, but even that statement, I get that now. I'm not sure I got it when they said it, but I can see that. Once they had won the second one, they knew exactly what they had to do to win the third one … but you've got to go through these next hurdles and it comes down to the heading of learning to deal with success. That's a very different challenge."
By most measurements, the Kings succeeded as they learned how to deal with it. It just wasn't the level of success they were now used to in L.A.
The Kings were one of the final four teams playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and an overtime goal away from taking the series against Chicago back to L.A. for Game 6. Yet the Kings left for the summer feeling they didn't play up to their standards in the playoffs.
KINGS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
Those standards, of course, are extremely high.
"We didn't play up to our potential and we made it the Western Conference Final," Brown said. "I don't think that's a surprise, but in a roundabout way it's a positive out of a negative. We were one of the final four teams and I don't think we played anywhere near to our potential."
What does that mean for this season? How does it help the Kings to know they didn't play up to their high standards and lost?
"They can expect the best out of themselves," Lombardi said. "They can critique themselves. Whether it's individually or collectively, the ability to critique yourself is critical if you're going to be where you want to be. They went home and they weren't happy. That shows you some growth, and when they leave and they're ticked off you're hoping that lends itself to coming back hungry."
Based on their expectations, it had better.
"We've reached the level of winning the Stanley Cup, being in back-to-back Western Conference Finals, so going forward it's not going to be acceptable to lose in the playoffs," Brown said. "That's a high expectation, but that's the expectation that the players have, the group of guys in here now. We know what we're capable of doing."