Jumping Off Point
What is the Kings’ outlook towards the remaining 23 games on the schedule?
Jeff Carter admitted to being a “little tired,” though Dustin Brown slept well in his first full night on North American soil. Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty appeared to be well situated when practicing with the Kings at the University of Denver on Tuesday afternoon, while Slava Voynov and Anze Kopitar’s body clocks were already adjusted after having spent four full days on their adopted home continent.
“It’s not too difficult, really,” Brown said. “From a mental standpoint, it’s good to get one here, get a practice in, get back on the ice with the group of guys and get ready to go.”
For Los Angeles’ six Olympians, it was mostly a typical practice day on the road in advance of the resumption of the National Hockey League schedule, though Darryl Sutter, who said that he was “really careful” in reacquainting the group back to the practice and game rhythm, offered the recently returned players an option to pull the chute during what was one of the more brisk and brief skates of the season.
“They could’ve left after 20 minutes,” Sutter said.
For a team with six Olympians returning to the fold – not including Head Equipment Manager Darren Granger, who won a gold medal with Team Canada – Wednesday’s game in Colorado, and Thursday’s game in Calgary, and the 21 subsequent games that follow suit will answer a pair of questions that many have mulled over for the last three weeks.
How will the Olympians perform upon their return to Los Angeles?
Where, exactly, is this Los Angeles Kings team headed?
The two questions are inevitably linked as the Kings will need to rely on performances from top players in their late season playoff push. The last time Los Angeles faced Colorado, the Kings were reaching their seasonal zenith as Martin Jones tied an NHL record with his eighth consecutive win to open his NHL career, and a team that improved to 25-8-4 after a 3-2 shootout win had its sights set on conference supremacy rather than the out of town scoreboard.
A slump exacerbated by a prolonged scoring drought led to a 6-14-2 record in the team’s 22 games leading up to the Olympic break, a trend the team will look to reverse with a challenging back-to-back Wednesday and Thursday, followed by an afternoon game on Saturday.
“We’ve got to get back on track,” Jeff Carter said. “We obviously didn’t head into the break the way we wanted, but we’ve got a confident group in here. We know what we’re capable of.”
Certainly they do, and perhaps gold medalists Carter and Doughty will be buoyed by their sterling Olympic performances and return to their club teams reinvigorated.
One counterpoint would be a 2012 study conducted by University of Massachusetts professor Neil Longley, which found found that (hyperlink necessary: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/25/sports/hockey/study-says-top-nhl-teams-may-decline-after-sochi.html?_r=1) for every player an NHL team sends to the Olympics, that team’s post-Olympic goal differential drops by 0.088 goals per game when compared to its pre-Olympic goal differential. The study, which examined results following the 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010 Games, favored teams that sent fewer players to the Olympics.
The Kings ranked ninth amongst the 30 NHL teams by sending six players to Sochi.
On the other hand, the Kings’ schedule eases up after a brutal start to 2014. In the 18 games since the turn of the calendar, 13 games were against teams that would be playoff-bound if the season ended today. Seven games were against current division leaders. Kings opponents since January first have operated at a .629 points percentage in the 2013-14 season.
Of the team’s 23 remaining games, only nine are against teams currently in a playoff position, while the combined points percentage of upcoming opponents is a less gauntlet-like .550.
Prior records mean little to Darryl Sutter.
“It really has no bearing on anything. I don’t know what it would have on anything,” Los Angeles’ coach said.
“You break it into the trips and homestands and five back-to-backs. Break it all out of that.”
While teams were competing in elimination games and playoff-style competition as recently as Sunday, don’t expect much of a post-Olympic hangover to, well, hang over this team.
“We’re wearing a different jersey now,” Jonathan Quick said. “That’s not a question.”
An Olympic teammate of his may have returned disappointed from a competitive standpoint, but the overall experience of playing on the highest international stage still left him with a positive outlook.
“It’s not what we wanted to do over there, but at the same time there’s not many guys that get to play in the Olympics,” said Dustin Brown, an alternate captain with the United States. “The Olympic experience was great. We just wanted to perform better.”
And then there’s Drew Doughty. Never mind the 24-year-old’s Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals. There’s still a lot more in store in the mind of the ambitious defenseman, who has been among the club’s brightest spots through the first five months of NHL action.
“Right now, it’s another Stanley Cup, obviously. That’s my main focus,” Doughty said. “I want to win a Norris Trophy too, personally. I feel like I’ve had a year that has that opportunity to possibly do it. These 23 games are going to be very important for me with the team, and me individually.
“My main focus, though, is just winning 23 of 23, if that’s possible.”
Possible? Sure, why not. Realistic? No. But given what Doughty and his teammates have accomplished both at the club and international level, that such gaudy proclamations have replaced the doom and gloom of the team’s pre-Olympic stretch represents a page being turned.