There is a perception that the Los Angeles Kings, the team Darryl Sutter took over Thursday night, are a genuine bona-fide Stanley Cup contender which was underachieving so badly that another good man, Terry Murray, was obliged to walk the plank. The theory was that after a long, but thorough and painstaking rebuild, done largely through the NHL entry draft, the Kings were approaching Chicago Blackhawks’ territory of a couple of years ago - poised for a major breakthrough this season, about to give the good burghers of hockey-mad Los Angeles something to celebrate for the first time since the Gretzky era.
Murray managed to get the Kings into the playoffs in consecutive years, but couldn’t get them to the next level, which was to actually win a round, and that will now be Sutter’s primary mandate. So here he is, the Jolly Rancher of Viking, Alberta, coaching for the first time in more than five years, attempting to do what Murray could not - and in the process, save the job of the man who hired him, general manager Dean Lombardi. Lombardi is increasingly under the gun in L.A., where he is six years into a five-year rebuild and under heavy scrutiny for the slow turnaround and his cautious ways.
But here’s a little compare and contrast exercise - between Los Angeles’s personnel and that of the cellar-dwelling Columbus Blue Jackets, a team equally anxious to see tangible results, and see them in a hurry.
The link between the two is Philadelphia and a Flyers team that sent two of its core players, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, to the Kings and Blue Jackets respectively in blockbuster deals at last year’s NHL entry draft.
Columbus landed Carter to centre the No. 1 line alongside Rick Nash, which hasn’t worked out at all. Coach Scott Arniel finally gave up this week and split them up, keeping them together on the first power-play unit, but splitting them up in even-strength situations.
Los Angeles acquired Richards to act as the 1a centre on a team that includes Anze Kopitar and gave up the previously untouchable Brayden Schenn in order to make it happen.
Carter and Richards have both had to deal with injury issues since arriving at their new zip codes, but they had pretty good nights Thursday, Carter scoring three first-period goals, two with the man advantage, for Columbus; while Richards opened the scoring for Los Angeles in Sutter’s debut vs. Anaheim. It was Richards, going out of the Kings’ line-up with a suspected concussion, that likely cemented Murray’s fate. L.A. wasn’t scoring enough, even with Richards in the line-up. Without him, they were a disaster.
Still, the conventional wisdom is that L.A. is far ahead of Columbus on the development curve, even if the evidence suggests differently.
After Richards and Kopitar, the Kings’ next best forward is Dustin Brown, a good player who topped out at 60 points FOUR years ago and has been in the mid-50s ever since. Then there’s Justin Williams (frequently injured); Simon Gagne (best days behind him); Dustin Penner (a disaster since arriving from Edmonton), plus a cast of journeymen (Jarrett Stoll, Brad Richardson, Trent Hunter, Colin Fraser). Kyle Clifford is one good young player on the horizon, but he plays fewer than nine minutes per night.
OK, now over to Columbus. Carter and Nash essentially cancel out Richards and Kopitar, right? Then there’s Vinnie Prospal, who continues to prosper wherever he goes; Ryan Johansen, who is about a year away from being a special player; Sens castoff Antoine Vermette, who is capable of scoring 60 points; and R.J. Umberger, who has a lot of Brown’s qualities as a leader and a scorer, but is far behind the scoring pace he set last year. Mark Letestu and Sammy Pahlsson are quality bottom-six forwards; Kristian Huselius is a dynamite power play specialist currently on IR again. Columbus is in fact so deep that Derick Brassard, a former sixth overall pick who had 47 points in 74 games last year, hadn’t been able to crack the line-up most nights this year, or until recently, when he’s getting a shot with Nash again.
If Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson can get their games back on track, L.A. will eventually have an edge on defence, although James Wiesnewski, Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin have helped Columbus close ground there.
The only real glaring difference is in goal, and that was ably demonstrated again in Thursday night’s action, where the Blue Jackets’ Curtis Sanford permitted six goals on 38 shots in a 6-5 Columbus collapse at the hands of the Nashville Predators, not exactly known as an offensive powerhouse at the best of times. Meanwhile, the Kings’ No. 1 man, Jonathan Quick, may be the most underrated netminder in the league and helped Los Angeles to a 3-2 shootout win over the surprisingly inept Ducks (L.A. and Anaheim bring up the rear in the Western Conference scoring stats).