By their own admission, the Los Angeles Kings may not have hit rock bottom but they are getting close.
A team that was expected to challenge for the NHL's Western Conference lead is 10th, five points out of a playoff spot before Monday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Kings were supposed to be a giddy-up offensive group this season, but their 69 goals heading into the Leafs' game was the lowest output in the league.
As the Kings foundered, questions rose about their work ethic and head coach Terry Murray paid the price last week with his job. But nothing has changed under interim coach John Stevens and now the Kings are in the odd situation of playing for a coach they know will go back being an assistant coach once incoming head coach Darryl Sutter's immigration problems are sorted out. The Leafs game is expected to be Stevens's last one as head coach, as Sutter should take over when the Kings return home Tuesday.
The funny thing is, not many of the players seem to think this is an odd situation.
"No, I don't think so," forward Justin Williams said. "Most of us have been doing this for a long time. We're a young team but we've all been in the league for a while."
Defenceman Drew Doughty, 22, said, "it might be a little weird but at the same time it's up to us," to play better hockey.
After an 8-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday, the Kings did finally turn some anger on themselves. Under the direction of veteran defenceman Matt Greene, a players-only meeting was held after the game and several of them vented their frustration.
Whether or not that will provide a spark against the Leafs is up in the air. "Everyone is so down emotionally," Doughty said.
One thing is clear – the team needs a spark, which is why a demanding, no-nonsense coach like Sutter was hired, although he and general manager Dean Lombardi go back a long way, to their days with the San Jose Sharks from 1997 to 2003.
"We need someone passionate," Williams said. "From what I've heard and what other players have told us, he is a good guy to be around. They say he's intense, focused and passionate. I'm looking forward to it."
Defenceman Willie Mitchell, who has been out with a groin injury, will return to the lineup against the Leafs. Centre Andrei Loktionov will also dress, as centre Mike Richards remains out with a head injury.