Kings cling to faint NHL playoff hopes

Originally published in Eishockey News in 2007

By Lucas Aykroyd

They’re called the Los Angeles Kings, but for most of 2006-07, a better name would have been the Los Angeles Peasants. This club, which hasn’t made the NHL playoffs since 2002, has been mediocre at home and terrible on the road, and has recently battled Columbus and Chicago to avoid last place in the Western Conference standings. Injuries have been a recurring woe. L.A. fired most of its scouting staff in early January.

So a 3-2 overtime win over the Vancouver Canucks at GM Place on January 26, which snapped a seven-game losing streak, gave the Kings at least a little reason to feel good about themselves after the NHL All-Star break.

“We came back and decided to leave all the bad stuff behind,” said leading scorer Alexander Frolov. “In our situation, we have to think about each game as it comes and try to win each one. We have to try to build a better team game.”

Center Craig Conroy, whose offense has dried up in the second season of a four-year, $12.6-million deal he signed in 2004, pointed to youngsters like Frolov and Calder Trophy candidate Anze Kopitar as reasons for hope: “Frolov’s one of the strongest guys with the puck in the league. Kopy has one-on-one skills, and he can really skate and dangle. It’s exciting to watch those guys. They’re only going to get better. Even if we’re in last place, I don’t think you can go wrong with those guys.”

Where does the blame truly lie for the club’s terrible performance? Prior to games played on December 26, the Kings had scored more goals than 12 other NHL clubs, so it’s not a matter of inept forwards. The blueline corps features tons of experience with stars like Rob Blake and Lubomir Visnovsky and veteran leaders like Aaron Miller and captain Mattias Norstrom.

Although every team goes to great lengths to avoid blaming its goalies, this year Los Angeles has faltered in large part because their goalies have first played poorly and then gotten injured.

General manager Dean Lombardi inexplicably chose to offer free agent Dan Cloutier a two-year, $6.2 million contract after the former Vancouver netminder had failed four times in a row to lead the Canucks deep into the playoffs. Cloutier posted a league-worst 3.60 GAA and .860 save percentage before being sidelined with a hip injury that required surgery. Far from being a savior, he has not played since a 7-0 loss to Nashville on December 23, and will likely miss the rest of the season.

When Mathieu Garon, L.A’s other goalie, sustained a broken finger in early January, the craziness began. The Kings wouldn’t call up Jason LaBarbera, a veteran of 35 NHL games, as a replacement, fearing they’d lose him on recall waivers. Instead, the netminding duties were split between two prospects, former WHL standout Barry Brust and ex-Japanese national team member Yutaka Fukufuji. Neither proved capable of carrying the load, so the Kings grabbed 40-year-old veteran Sean Burke off waivers from Tampa Bay to fill the gap.

Burke enjoys being backed up by Fukufuji, the NHL’s first-ever Japanese player: “I sent a text message to [Philadelphia’s] Robert Esche the other day. I said: ‘I’ve played with you, a redneck. I’ve played with a Japanese backup now, and what’s next? I’ll probably be with the first woman who plays in the NHL!’ It’s interesting. He’s a breath of fresh air. It’s just awesome to see a kid that’s come from his hockey background make it to this level.”

The Kings will have to enjoy playing for one another down the stretch if they’re to have any hope of cracking the playoffs. “We’ve been microanalyzing the crap out of everything here lately,” said head coach Marc Crawford. “That’s because mistakes have been costly for our group. But it shouldn’t be like that.”

If the Kings can clamp down in their own end, they just might give the 16,000-odd fans that support them at Staples Center something to believe in–at least for next year. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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