Defensive depth has Kings in sight of another Cup
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- On April 26, defenseman Jeff Schultz was playing at Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, in front of a little less than 8,000 people in the American Hockey League's Calder Cup Playoffs.
A little more than a week later, he played nearly 20 minutes for the Los Angeles Kings in Game 2 of the Western Conference Second Round against the Anaheim Ducks. He continued to play for six more games with the eventual champions of the West.
There have been plenty of words written and said extolling the virtues of Kings rookie forwards Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli and how their line with Jeff Carter has helped Los Angeles evolve into a potential Stanley Cup champion.
But this long, incredible run might not have been possible without the team's depth on defense. The Kings lost their two most experienced defensemen, Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr, to injury, but the rest of the corps behind superstar Drew Doughty helped Los Angeles survive.
"That's what this team has been all about. It has been contributions from all sorts of guys," Regehr said Friday. "There are all sorts of situations that go on, whether it is guys playing more or playing less, guys out of the lineup and other guys coming in. You have to deal with it and do it in the best way you can in whatever role you're asked to play.
"We've had that. A guy like Jeff Schultz, for example, had a tough year and probably wanted to be up here but didn't get a chance all season long. Then he steps in and does a great job in the Anaheim series. A guy like Matt Greene didn't probably have the season he wanted to with some injuries and being in and out of the lineup, but he's gotten in there and done a great job for us."
Mitchell has returned to the lineup, but he missed eight games, including Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks and the entire second round against the Ducks. Regehr left early in Game 1 of the Anaheim series and has missed 14 games, but coach Darryl Sutter said he probably will play Saturday in Game 2 of the Final against the New York Rangers at Staples Center (7 p.m.; NBC, CBC, RDS).
Los Angeles leads the best-of-7 series after a 3-2 overtime win Wednesday.
Neither player is what he once was, but each remains valuable to the Kings. Replacing regulars on the blue line is something they did not have to do in 2012 when they won the Cup. The Kings were able to use the same six defensemen for all 20 games of that run, an incredibly rare feat. This time, they've had to adjust and rely on others to survive.
"I'm sure when those two guys went down, a lot of people were counting us out," Schultz said. "[Doughty] and [Jake Muzzin] really stepped up, and then as a whole everyone knew we were going to be focused on and I thought everyone on the back end did a great job coming together. The forwards picked up some of the load too."
Doughty is the fulcrum for the Los Angeles defense and might be the Kings' leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Mitchell played with Doughty in 2012, but Muzzin has pushed his way to the top of the depth chart on the left side. He's one of the most improved players from last season and a big reason the Kings have better depth on defense behind Doughty than some might have thought.
"I think the big thing is consistency with him," Regehr said. "I think he showed flashes of what he can do last year, but this year he's done a much better job being more consistent. That's led to him being on the ice more and having more responsibility. He's really handled it quite well. He needs to just continue on down that path."
Slava Voynov is the Kings' No. 2 defenseman, though he anchors the second pair instead of playing with Doughty, in part because each is right-handed.
Voynov has had some wobbles during the playoffs, but especially during the Western Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks he was defensively sound and dynamic. The Blackhawks might have the best top-four forward group in the NHL, but thanks in large part to Muzzin and Voynov, the Kings were not outmatched in that series.
"I don't really say, 'We have to be better than their D corps.' It's not something we focus on, but you do want to outplay them," Muzzin said. "Slava's been solid the whole season, the whole playoffs. He does a lot of stuff that maybe doesn't get noticed, but he's solid on the PK, solid at 5-on-5, a solid power-play guy. He's been rock solid on that right side for us all year."
Mitchell and Regehr are probably the Kings' fourth- and sixth-best defensemen at this stage of their careers, but Voynov's play ticking upwards when Mitchell returned to the lineup was not likely a coincidence. They have played more than 1,700 games between them and can help some of the younger Kings mentally as much as they might help the team while on the ice.
Schultz was a wild card for the Kings. He had regular-season success with the Washington Capitals but struggled at times during the playoffs. He was signed as insurance in case Mitchell, who missed all of last season, wasn't able to continue his career.
Schultz didn't dress for a regular-season game with the Kings but stepped in and played fourth-defenseman minutes and did not look out of place.
"It's a good feeling knowing that you helped contribute to get the team where we are today. It's a good feeling, and hopefully it caught someone's eye and there is something for me next year," said Schultz, who will be an unrestricted free agent July 1.
"Looking back, there was a couple Game 7s [with Washington] that if they could have gone the other way, we could have been that much closer to doing something like this. I never thought I would be sitting here and skating guys during the Stanley Cup Final. It's something to always remember. You definitely think, 'Will this be the only time I ever get here?' So I've definitely been trying to soak it all in and enjoy it while I can."
Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer