Sports

The Los Angeles Kings are finding success in the likeliest of places

9-3-1 in their last 13 games, the Kings are right in the mix for a playoff spot thanks to inspiring seasons from their veterans.

A photo of Anže Kopitar and Jonathan Quick wearing black and white uniforms and butting facemasks in celebration.

Just four members of the Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup-winning team from 2014 remain on this year’s roster. Anže Kopitar, Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty and captain Dustin Brown haven’t won so much as a playoff round since then, and with an average age of 34.5, the foursome have been on a downward trajectory for a few years now.

Doughty, once seen as one of the NHL’s best defensemen, had a plus/minus of -64 over the last three seasons. Quick, once among the best goalies in the league, had three consecutive seasons with a save percentage well below his previous career average and was benched for Cal Peterson last year. Kopitar and Brown were still productive, but to a lesser extent, and the four veterans, who account for more than 40% of the Kings’ 2021-22 cap hit, have seen their team plummet to the bottom of the NHL since its Stanley Cup glory.

General manager Rob Blake committed to the rebuild, and after three consecutive years in the draft lottery, there was cause for optimism this season. Free-agent additions Viktor Arvidsson and Phillip Danault were signed to help the forward group along with Quinton Byfield, the second overall pick in the 2020 draft, who was expected to make the jump to the NHL this season. Blake and head coach Todd McLellan expected a third notable free agent signing, Alex Edler, to help shore up the back end as rookies Tobias Bjornfot and Sean Durzi, as well as second-year Mikey Anderson, made their way into the everyday lineup.

Through all the optimism, the aging veteran group seemed to weigh down L.A.’s chances at returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2018. Many touted the Kings to make a run at the postseason, aided by a weak Pacific Division, while others, including Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, picked L.A. to miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year, citing the decline of the Kings’ veteran group as a key reason why.

Now, 37 games into the season, the Kings are proving Luszczyszyn and their other doubters wrong, sitting third in the Pacific Division with a record of 19-13-5. The catalysts, though, may be the real surprise.

It seemed a sure thing that Byfield, L.A.’s top prospect, would have something to do with any Kings success, but he has yet to play this season, starting the year with L.A.’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Ontario Reign.

Instead, the Kings’ renaissance has been led by the veterans who seemed past their prime.

Quick has had an inspired comeback season in net, posting a .921 save percentage and saving 18.1 goals above expected, the second most in the league. Doughty, likewise, has rebounded, collecting 19 points and a +7 plus/minus in 18 games, despite missing eight weeks with a knee injury. He also averages 25:08 of ice time, the ninth-most in the league. Kopitar and Brown have continued to produce, while free agent signings Arvidsson and Danault have combined for 39 points, both in the top five on the team.

Still, the Kings are far from a guarantee to make the playoffs in May, as they are two, three and five points ahead of the San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers respectively.

When the New York Rangers came to Crypto.com Arena on Monday, the Kings had already played five straight at home, going 3-2 in that stretch. The Rangers would be the toughest team L.A. had played in weeks, with the Blueshirts having a resurgence of their own, fourth in the league in points.

While Quick’s fantastic season has been a welcomed surprise, to beat teams like the Rangers — with firepower like Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin and reigning Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox — L.A. would need to create some offense of its own, relying less on stellar goaltending.

And create they did.

L.A. dominated the Rangers, even with backup Peterson in net, and, with 10 minutes to go, led New York 2-0, thanks to a two-point night for forward Trevor Moore and goals from Danault and Blake Lizotte. They were unlucky not to be further ahead.

The Rangers halved the deficit through Zibanejad, but the Kings held on, with Adrian Kempe, another standout player this season who was named to his first ever All-Star Game on Thursday, notching an empty-net goal to finish the visitors off.

If the Kings can build on their performance against New York, creating more chances and goals to support Quick and Peterson, this team can definitely make the playoffs. Whereas early in the season, L.A. relied a bit too much on Kopitar for offense, its supporting cast has started to find a rhythm, leading the Kings to an 9-3-1 record over their last 13 games.

In some ways, L.A. has found its spark from the least expected of places, but perhaps we were wrong to write off the old vets on this team. Playoffs or not, the Kings are a fun watch right now, so ride the high of this team while you can. For Kopitar, Brown, Doughty and Quick, this may be their swan song.