A woman checked in to a gym in Glendale, California, about 10 miles north of Staples Center, on a recent morning. “The Kings are in the playoffs for first time since 1993,” she told the clerk at the front desk. “Can you believe it?”
Mercifully, the clerk let the error go uncorrected. “I know,” he said. “I was 3 then.”
I’m sitting on at least a dozen good anecdotes from the Kings’ bandwagon, but that one is my favorite. There was a naive charm to their exchange. On one hand, Los Angeles has one of the biggest and fastest teams in the NHL, one that subdues opponents with an aggressive forecheck, superior goaltending and timely scoring. On the other hand, the team has inspired an affection that’s rather cute and innocent, sort of like Mickey Mouse, en route to the Stanley Cup final.
What I really want to do is make that observation, then point out the irony of Wayne Gretzky labeling the New Jersey Devils a “Mickey Mouse operation” in 1983, but I don’t think most people here would get it. (Not the clerk at my gym, at least). To some it’s just in one ear, through the pop-culture filter, out the other — in hockey, as in all other walks of life.
Which brings me to my point. I always noticed this, but the Kings’ playoff run confirmed it: Being a diehard hockey fan in California can be lonely company. You don’t realize this until a) you go to a hockey-crazy city, state or country or b) you go looking for knowledgeable basketball, baseball or football fans, and realize they’re everywhere here.
A few years ago, it became clear the Kings were building a team in the mold of the Devils teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the former “Mickey Mouse” outfit had a Stanley Cup contender almost every season. Both defenses have equal parts size, skill, grit and intelligence that add up to the best blue line in the league. Both teams played almost painfully low-scoring games on a nightly basis. It’s hard to compare goalies Martin Brodeur and Jonathan Quick, because their techniques are so different. But their roles are the same: When the system1 is working, few quality shots get through and both goalies make a ton of easy saves. The system neuters the forwards’ improvisational skills at times, though I’ll take Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in their primes over Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez and Petr Sykora in theirs any day. I think.
Again, I’d love to have this conversation with the clerk at the gym but, hey, he was only 3 the last time the Kings were in the playoffs.
For the few diehard Kings fans I have talked to in recent years, it’s been a rough go. Enduring 44 years and counting without a single championship forges a very brittle faith, like granite in the desert. A win is always a win, something to celebrate even in the Marc Crawford/Larry Robinson/Pat Quinn/Don Perry/Red Kelly eras, but underneath there had to be a sense that each season would end without a championship.
Before this season the Kings made back-to-back playoff appearances, but some irrational sources of insecurity always seemed to crop up. Here are two that always baffled me:
1. Jonathan Quick is not the best goalie on the team.
The Philadelphia Flyers’ history of hard-luck netminding gets more ink, but Los Angeles has a strong claim to the same misfortune. In their first 26 seasons, from 1967 to 1993, the Kings got exactly 157 wins from goalies they drafted and developed. Mario Lessard was responsible for 92 of them.2
So when Los Angeles drafted Jonathan Bernier, a highly regarded junior goalie, with its first pick (11th overall) in the 2006 draft, he was burdened with the expectations of Bruce Landon, Bernie Germain, Roly Kimble, Brian Petrovek, Mario Viens, Larry McRae, Bob Mears, Julian Baretta, Dave Ross, John Franzosa, Greg Strome and Paul Kenny, et. al., all rolled into one.3 The burden only got heavier when Bernier made the team out of training camp a year later, in 2007.
Lofty expectations die hard. From the time he was given the job, Quick showed he was a legitimate number-one goalie, but every failure was judged against Bernier’s mythic potential. I think if Bernier was given an NHL starting job somewhere outside Columbus or Edmonton (where they don’t play defense) he would be among the league’s better goalies.
In L.A., however, he’s the clear number two. Try telling that to an insecure fan base.
2. Kopitar isn’t a number-one center.
The big Slovenian’s biggest problem since he reached the NHL is that he plays in a division with Ryan Getzlaf and Joe Thornton. Getzlaf and Thornton are big, mean and (when at their best) play fearlessly.
Kopitar has the hands of Martin St. Louis, but the 5-foot-8 winger might be more aggressive than the 6-foot-4 Kopitar when it comes to charging the net.
If Kopitar has the puck and his path to the crease is anything less than crystal clear, his instincts tell him to curl back and wait for help. That’s fine if you’re smaller and less skilled, but Kopitar has the best size and skill of any forward on the team. Watching this instinct on display, over and over again, is sad — the only sad part of his game. It’s like seeing the engine of a Vespa trapped inside a Harley-Davidson.
The context for Kopitar’s biggest flaw is so small that it scarcely bears mentioning.
But again: Try telling that to an insecure fan base.
My hope for the Kings’ Stanley Cup run is a modest one. This is a team with a strong core of diehard fans and, lately, plenty of casual fans. So I’m reserving a whole corner of the bandwagon for some fans in the middle — free from the psychological burden of years of ineptitude, yet armed with a functional knowledge of where the team has been and where it’s going.
And if I can be greedy: Some who were born before 1990.
1. I’ve heard some folks confuse the Kings for a “trap team,” but they don’t employ a true trap like those old Devils teams. It’s just a really conservative system, with an offense predicated on forwards retrieving the puck and picking their spots to break away.
2. Finally in 1993, the Kings drafted a future Hall of Famer, Jamie Storr, ending their goaltending misery forever. Just kidding. Storr won a few games as a King but his biggest claim to fame is the goaltending school he runs at the team’s practice facility.
3. There are at least a dozen more goalies drafted by the Kings who never won an NHL game, but that paragraph was getting long.