That old truth-teller, defenceman Drew Doughty, was on the ice in the midst of another Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup celebration, alternately hugging family members who’d make the trek in from London, Ont., to answering questions from pesky inquirers about how they happened to do it again.
Two championships in three seasons were not supposed to occur in the NHL’s salary-cap era, which supposedly balanced the playing field. Within a narrowly defined range, every team in the league could spend roughly the same amount on personnel a year. In theory, that meant player turnover would be rapid and constant, and the standings were supposed to reflect an ever-changing guard.
Instead, the Kings – and their equally impressive Western Conference rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks – have hit upon a formula that defies the financial odds: Assemble a talented core group and then tweak it around the edges as needed.
The Kings performed escape acts throughout these riveting 2014 playoffs and the one explanation as to why that kept happening generally came back to trust. The time they’d spent together, growing as a team, got them through all the hard times, with different players stepping up at key times, unexpected heroes such as defenceman Alec Martinez, who scored the game winner in a double-overtime 3-2 victory Friday night that eliminated the New York Rangers in five games.
The Kings were as streaky in the regular season as they were in the playoffs. Their season featured one eight- and two six-game winning streaks, plus a stretch in November, when they went 11 games without a regulation loss. But there was also a period between Christmas and the Olympic break when they won just five out of 25 games and needed a 13-3 run coming out of Sochi to lock up a playoff spot.
In all, 17 of the 22 Kings players who appeared in at least one playoff game in 2012 were part of the group that won in 2014. That’s stability. That’s a hard trick to manage – and according to Doughty, winning a second title ultimately helped validate the first.
“No one would have ever said it was a fluke because we were a good team [in 2012],” said Doughty, “but at the same time, now that we’ve won a second time, a lot of people can say if we’re not the best team in the league, we’re a top-two, top-three team in the league. That’s a great feeling – and it shows how well our team has pulled together.”
The task for Kings general manager Dean Lombardi will be to keep said team together for as long as possible. Two defensive mainstays, Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene, are unrestricted free agents and probably will move on. Signing Marian Gaborik, added at the trade deadline in a deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets, is a priority and there is talk already that a three-year, $15-million (U.S.) deal will be the compromise solution – a pay cut from the $7.5-million Gaborik received in his past contract, but a fairer representation of his current value.
The most difficult decision for the Kings will be what to do with centre Mike Richards, who is exactly halfway through a 12-year contract originally signed with the Philadelphia Flyers that carries a hefty salary-cap charge of $5.75-million annually. The accountants will be urging Lombardi to either trade or use a compliance buyout on Richards because that is too much to spend on a support player. The part of Lombardi that understands Richards is an integral part of what makes the whole work in L.A. will endeavour to keep him around, even if financially it makes little sense.
Altogether, the Kings played 26 playoff games this spring and 64 over the past three seasons, the most ever by an NHL team over a three-year span.
As for Doughty, he gobbled up 747 minutes and 33 seconds of playing time, the most by any NHL player in any playoff year since ice time was added as an official stat 16 years ago. He and teammate Jeff Carter also became just the seventh and eighth players in history to win a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal in the same year.
Doughty didn’t win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player – that went to teammate Justin Williams – and he won’t win the Norris trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman either. But he does have the hardware that matters – two Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals. Doughty’s 25th birthday falls on Dec. 8. Not a bad start to a career that has barely begun.
“Yeah, it’s been a long year and a lot of games,” said Doughty afterward. “I’m pretty tired right now. But it feels good. I never thought it’d be possible to win both in the same year, let alone one.”
But it was and it did and given how the Kings have virtually all their core pieces in place for years to come, there is no reason to think that it won’t happen again either.