The Case for Another Coronation

As we break into the second half of the season, NHL fans are preparing for the crescendo of their year – the race for the playoffs and a run to the Stanley Cup.

For the last four seasons the ping-pong match between the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks has made for good theater, if not great hockey. But will one of these teams once again be holding the Cup this June? While the rest of the league tries to catch up, it looks like it will be deja vu all over again.   The smart money is on the team that dominates even numbers like a Vegas card counter... the Kings.

Right now, LA is running Darryl Sutter's system to perfection. The Kings fly under the radar because they lack the scoring, style, and finesse you see in Chicago, Dallas, or Washington. But make no mistake, this is a team nobody wants to see in the playoffs.

To understand why the Kings have hit such a groove, you have to look back to the off-season.
The team had hit its lowest point in the Sutter era. LA failed to make the 2015 playoffs, their second best defenseman Slava Voynov was deported after a domestic violence incident, and there were whispers that the coach had lost the locker room. So what did GM Dean Lombardi do? He doubled down on his coach.

After the Blackhawks third Cup in five years, every pundit with a microphone was screaming one word – speed. To match Chicago, you have to get faster. Lombardi and Sutter extended their collective middle fingers and went the opposite direction. The trade for Milan Lucic made the Kings slower, meaner, gritter, and tougher. The perfect foil for Sutter's game. Lucic is on pace for about 20 goals and 50 points for the season. If you ask Sutter, he's probably more concerned his winger hits the 100 penalty minute mark. Sutter loves how Lucic plays at the edge, an ingredient missing from last year's squad.

Meantime, the blue line begins, middles, and ends with Drew Doughty. He's favored to capture his first Norris Trophy as the game's best defenseman, an honor that may be long over due. He's never going to put up the blistering numbers of an Erik Karlsson or a P.K. Subban, that’s not part of the Kings’ system. He's simply rounded into the best end-to-end blue-liner in the game, and the league knows it.

While the team is performing well, it's well documented L.A.'s ace-in-the hole come playoff time is netminder Jonathan Quick. He's proven over the last half-decade to be the best crunch time goalie in the game. He's having another stellar campaign, currently notching 27 wins in 43 games with a 2.24 GAA. The only question for Quick and for the Kings is how the team manages his minutes down the stretch. Last season, the 2012 Conn Smythe winner was 2nd in the NHL in total ice time at a whopping 4,184 minutes played. One of the team’s goals in the second half of the season will be keeping Quick fresh, so expect to see a lot of Jhonas Enroth in the weeks to come.

With two cups in the last five years, the Kings have the experience and the system to win it all again. Wake me up some time in late May when they drop the puck for Game 1 against Chicago in the Western Conference finals. It's going to be another titanic struggle. Winner gets the Cup. Sorry everybody in the East... you're playing for second again.