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Duhatschek: NHL lockout could be a blessing in disguise for defending champs

Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick crouches in his crease as he follows the play against the New Jersey Devils during the second period in Game 6 of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey final in Los Angeles, June 11, 2012.


There is a school of thought that suggests no team will be hurt more by the NHL lockout than the 2012 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, on the grounds that the work stoppage could stall all the momentum they built up during last spring's unexpected playoff surge.

The fact is, in a weird way, the lockout could be a blessing in disguise for the defending champions. The Kings were never going to displace the NBA's Lakers in terms of popularity, even in their darkest days, which is how a second-round exit is viewed in that marketplace. And when the Lakers signed Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to play with Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant this summer, it cemented the Lakers as the No. 1 attraction in the market, with everybody else playing catch-up.

Not much actually ever changes in terms of hockey love in the greater L.A. area. There has always been a devoted group of hard-core fans that loyally support the team, win or lose, in good times and bad. There are always a handful of Hollywood celebrities that turn up, regular season or playoff, just because they are hockey fans. The Kings' run to the Stanley Cup final garnered them a smidgeon more attention in the market, especially after both NBA teams made relatively quick playoff exits, but no one believes there'll be any significant lasting or residual effect from a Stanley Cup win.

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The building was sold out before they won; and it'll be sold out now. Local TV will likely drop in for the home opener to record the raising of the banner, and then spend the rest of the winter wondering if the Lakers have the right stuff to knock off the Miami Heat some time in June.

Patrick O'Neal, the son of actor Ryan O'Neal, is the local television host for the Kings, the Lakers and the Dodgers. In June, when asked what the effects of a Kings' championship would be, he commented: "There's going to be a nice celebration. They'll show up for the parade, people will go 'yeah' and then they'll go about their business again."

That sounds just about right. On the plus side, what the lockout may permit the Kings to do is mitigate the effects of the Stanley Cup hangover. As NHL commissioner Gary Bettman likes to point out, in the seven seasons played between lockouts, the NHL crowned seven different champions. Teams that won one year had a difficult time ramping it up for their title defences, largely because of the short summers, the wear and tear on players' bodies, and sometimes, the length and breadth of their actual celebrations.

Not many people noticed because it happened during the Olympics, but Kings goaltender (and playoff MVP) Jonathan Quick had back surgery in early August. Last week, general manager Dean Lombardi told the L.A. Times that Quick was in so much pain at different times before the surgery that he could barely sit down. Postponing the start of training camps and probably the regular season will give Quick additional time to heal. Quick's surgery is likely one reason the Kings hung on to back-up Jonathan Bernier, in a summer when there was a lot of speculation about Bernier's future in the organization.

If the season starts two months late, then chances are the rest of the league - especially the 14 teams that missed the playoffs altogether - could find the layer of rust thickening on their collective bodies. The Kings, meanwhile, might get just the right amount of rest, and just the right amount of recovery time. It doesn't mean they'll necessarily win again, but it could give them a better chance to defend their title than if the season had started on time and they were still basking in the glow of that championship feeling.

One other factor to consider: The Kings are coached by Darryl Sutter, who actually has a little bit of experience dealing with just this sort of thing. The last time the league locked out its players, in the fall of 2004, Sutter was coaching a Calgary Flames team that had made it to the Stanley Cup final the previous spring.

The Flames actually had their best season in two decades coming out of the lockout, racking up 103 points, the only time they've been over 100 points since the 1990-91 season (but were upset in seven games by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round).

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However he managed to do it, Sutter pushed all the right buttons on his team from October to April coming out of the 2004 lockout. You'd have to think he'd be able to do that again with the Kings, coming of the 2012 lockout as well.

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