Paper Tiger

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a seven-part series here on Jet City Ice, providing you with a guide to the Pacific Division teams, those that our beloved Seattle franchise will see most frequently during the season.

Brighter days…

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Los Angeles Kings depends a lot on when you were born. For fans of my era, it’s the image of Marcel Dionne darting up-ice in the “Forum blue and gold” uniforms of old.

If you’re a decade younger, you remember Wayne Gretzky being mobbed by his teammates after becoming the NHL’s all-time points leader (and tying the potentially-series clinching playoff game with under a minute left), quite appropriately in front of an appreciative Edmonton crowd. Or perhaps it’s 5 years later, when you see a visibly older Gretzky running on skates, hands raised to the rafters, after scoring goal #802 and breaking Gordie Howe’s all-time record.

And for those born around the time Gretzky was hanging up his blades, it’s the images of the now silver-and-black clad Kings hoisting the Stanley Cup in the Staples Center not once, but twice, as the sixteen-year post-Gretzky rebuild finally came to fruition.

There are lots of stories to be told about the history of the LA Kings, from blockbuster trades to gambling addictions to bankruptcy, but it is easy to see from the Kings’ on-ice product this season that the days of glory and Hollywood excess are long behind them. The flash is gone, the spark has faded, and the team that was inspiring whispers of “Dynasty!” a mere 5 seasons ago has managed to win only a single playoff game since the Stanley Cup banner was raised to the rafters.

Where once the Ringmaster was taming a ferocious Bengal, you now have merely a paper tiger. Or, wait: this is LA. So I guess the special effects guys do that stuff now. So it looks like a tiger, it roars like a tiger, but it’s really just an image super-imposed on a green screen. There’s nothing actually there.

What You See

The first thing you notice about the Kings’ roster is their age. LA has 6 players making over $5 million a season, and the youngest one is Drew Doughty at 29. From there it’s Anze Kopitar (32), Jonathan Quick (33), Jeff Carter (34), Dustin Brown (34), and finally Ilya Kovalchuk — yes, that Ilya Kovalchuk, he’s still playing — at age 36.

Contrary to what you’ve heard, the 2nd period intermission for the Kings does not consist of a light snack of tapioca pudding while watching Wheel of Fortune. At least not yet.

The Kings’ hopes for the future rest largely on 2 players, both coincidentally American born. First is goaltender Jack Campbell, long-suffering in the minors as part of the Dallas and LA organ-eye-zations, who has consistently played at a .900 SVG% level dating back a full decade to his days with the US National Team Development Program. He was pressed into starter duties in the early going last season following Quick’s succumbing to a recurrent lower-body injury, and posted a respectable 10-14-1 record with a .928 SVG%. Campbell has signed an extension for 2 seasons beyond the current one, and he stands to earn as many starts as the team thinks he can handle in the hopes he will finally establish himself as their heir apparent in goal.

On the front end it’s the pride of Lindstrom, MN, forward Blake Lizotte. He has been performing at or near a point-per-game pace in the USHL and NCAA for the last 5 straight years, and doing so while also maintaining astonishing plus-minus numbers. The Kings are hoping this undrafted wunderkind will find that scoring touch in the NHL and become the first-line center to replace Kopitar upon his looming retirement.

On the blue line, the Kings are nowhere beyond their $11 million dollar man Doughty, and second-in-command Alec Martinez. The rest of the defensive corps is a laundry list of “Who?” The Kings are so deep in the weeds about their defense at this point that they are carrying 8 defensemen on their roster (commonly it’s 7) in the hopes that somebody out of that group will step up and assert themselves as deserving a top-pairing assignment. With Los Angeles having allowed 26 goals against in just 5 games — Vancouver, even with the Kings in the standings, has allowed 10 — it would appear that nobody has done so.

What You Get

But this is Los Angeles, which means that when the Kings are losing, the real show isn’t on the ice, it’s behind the glass. Ever since the arrival of The Great One in La-La Land, those glitterati who don’t follow basketball (or who don’t rank for courtside seats) can be seen in the stands when the Kings are in town.

You get the other teams’ fans who aren’t letting on where their real allegiances lie — Alyssa Milano (Islanders), Will Arnett (Maple Leafs), Jon Hamm (Blues), Kevin Smith (Oilers), Tim Robbins (Rangers), and Vince Vaughan (Blackhawks).

You get the displaced Canadians, stuck in California for work but craving the crack of the stick and the smell of artificial ice — Dan Ackroyd, Jay Baruchel, Justin Bieber, Michael J. Fox, and Ellen Page.

You get the workaday movie stars, TV personalities, recording artists, and athletes — L.L. Cool J, Ashton Kutcher, Channing Tatum, Zac Efron, David Beckham, Will Ferrell, Matthew Perry, and It-couple Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard, daughters in tow.

And you even get some Hollywood Royalty in the form of Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, and yes, even Jack Nicholson and his signature Ray Bans. All are well-documented denizens of Staples Center nooks and crannies on the nights when the star of the evening’s entertainment is not LeBron James.

But the brightest jewel of Kings fans’ crown has to be Wil Wheaton: child star of the touchstone film Stand By Me; recognized by Trekkies as Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation; and currently spending what’s left of his 15 minutes as a blogger, author, board/video gaming devotee, mental health advocate, and Comic-Con stalwart. His Twitter/GIF antics during the run-up to the Kings’ 2012 Stanley Cup Championship were the stuff of legend, and the consistently hilarious @LAKings official team Twitter account even let him take over for one game. He, predictably, wore his horse’s head mask.

What To Do?

But as the Kings’ fortunes fade, ticket sales flag, and the sight of famous faces becomes rare. Hollywood is fickle, and as long as there is just a paper tiger in the cage, the crowds won’t come to the circus.

Los Angeles is in rebuilding mode, waiting for contracts to expire, hoping for early retirements, putting faith in the draft process, grooming prospects for the future, and counting on better days ahead. They’ll continue to struggle for playoff contention, relying more on other teams’ failures than their own success to get them there.

In the mean time, however, they’re willing to entertain some odd superstitions in an effort to vanquish any possible extraneous causes for their lengthy playoff drought. We’ll have to see whether that has any effect.

When you’re in the kind of position that the Kings are, I guess you’ll try anything.

Author: Tim Currell

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