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Core veterans keep rebuilding Kings in playoff hunt

kings playoff

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 9: Jamie Benn #14 of the Dallas Stars and Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings battle for position during the first period at STAPLES Center on December 9, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Will Navarro/NHLI via Getty Images)

NHLI via Getty Images

There were not many expectations for the Los Angeles Kings at the start of the 2021-22 season. They made the playoffs just twice in the past seven years, had not won a playoff series since their 2014 Stanley Cup win, and had the fourth-worst points percentage over the past three seasons, ahead of only Detroit, Ottawa, and Buffalo. Not exactly the company you want to be keeping in the NHL these days.

Despite that lack of recent success and sudden fall from their brief run at the top of the NHL nearly a decade ago, there has still been a lot of reason for optimism with this team thanks to what has been regarded as one of the league’s best prospect pools and farm systems led by Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte, and Arthur Kaliyev. But entering play on Monday the Kings actually find themselves in a playoff position in the Western Conference nearing the halfway point of the season and are right in the thick of the playoff race.

It is not the young prospects and next wave of talent that has kept them in it, either. It is the remaining veteran core players (and a couple of new additions) that are making this season interesting.

The Kings are in a strange spot here because even though they are what you might consider a “rebuilding” team, they are not exactly a young team. Their average has them right in the middle of the pack across the league, while only one of their top-10 scorers is under the age of 25 (the 20-year-old Kaliyev, who is 10th on the team in scoring).

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Leading the way, again, is franchise icon Anze Kopitar. He has been one of the league’s great two-way players for more than a decade now and was the centerpiece of those two Stanley Cup winning teams in 2012 and 2014. Even now at age 34 he is showing he can still be the best player on the ice, scoring at a top-line rate and driving possession the way he always has throughout his career. While his offense has taken a step back, he is still on pace for a 20-goal, 70-point season while also playing a strong two-way game. That is still an extremely productive player at the top of your lineup.

It is not just Kopitar that has recaptured some of his past glory.

Even though he has only appeared in 16 games this season due to injury, Drew Doughty has shown signs of having a bounce back season to help lead a young, inexperienced defense that has battled through injuries all season.

But perhaps the most important development has been the resurgence of starting goalie Jonathan Quick. There was perhaps no player on the team that highlighted the Kings’ decline the past few years than Quick. Between 2018-19 and 2020-21 he was one of the least productive goalies in the league and struggled behind what was a shaky defense. But even when taking into account the defensive shortcomings, he was still consistently outplayed during that stretch, including Cal Petersen and Jack Campbell (before he was traded). Given those trajectories, it seemed like the Kings’ path back to the playoffs this season was going to be through Petersen taking over the starting job. Instead, it has been Quick finding the fountain of youth and playing his best hockey in almost four years. It has been game-changing for the Kings.

Beyond that returning core group, the Kings also took a surprisingly aggressive approach in free agency this offseason to accelerate their rebuild a little. They traded two draft picks to the Nashville Predators for veteran winger Viktor Arvidsson, brought in Alexander Edler to help on defense, and then made a huge splash in free agency to add Phillip Danault to improve the center depth behind Kopitar.

Edler was having a very strong season before going on Injured Reserve in mid-December, while Arvidsson and Danault have brought some strong depth to the forward spots. Arvidsson may not be the 35-goal scorer he was during his peak in Nashville, but he has experienced a slight bounce back this season and has great possession numbers to back up his increased scoring. Danault has simply been exactly what the Kings hoped for -- a strong defensive presence in the middle of the lineup that can be a 15-goal, 45/50-point player offensively.

All of those developments, combined with a Pacific Division race that is completely wide open, have given Kings fans some hope this season and kept them in the hunt. There is a lot to like about the way this team plays. They have solid underlying numbers when it comes to shot attempts and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play, they have a really good 1-2 punch at center, and their goalie is playing really well.

The truly encouraging thing, though, is that they are staying in the hunt and have a chance to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs while they have not really gotten any major contributions from their future core players like Byfield, Turcotte, and Kaliyev. The future is bright thanks to the young core. The veteran core is doing its part to make the sure the present is still worth watching as well.