EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — After the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012, general manager Dean Lombardi reached out to men who had won multiple championships in different sports. He received lots of advice. A couple things stood out: You won’t understand what it’s like until you go through it. Don’t try to recreate the feeling; create a new feeling.
Lombardi understands now. All the Kings do. They didn’t repeat in 2013, but they won the Cup again last season.
They were a little less delirious when they celebrated. They were a little earlier and a little fitter when they returned to town. They were a little more professional when they hit the ice for training camp Friday.
“Whenever you talk to those people who’ve won four or five championships, so much of what they talk about are those intangibles that you can’t define – certainly by stats or anything like that,” said Lombardi, who has built his team with a blend of old-school intangibles and new-school analytics. “You know it, and you feel it.”
This is the feeling you get from the Kings: They act like they’ve been there before, because they have. But they also act like they still have a ways to go, because they might. They have a chance to separate themselves as the best team of the salary-cap era. As winger Justin Williams said: “We’re not sure how good we can be yet, but we’re going to try and find out.”
“I sense so much growth in them – in their belief in themselves and their belief in their teammates – and in the right way,” Lombardi said. “I think we always distinguish between cockiness, which we don’t like, versus that strength of belief in each other that you strive for. All I can say is, I sense that in them.”
Winning the Cup again this season would be incredible. The odds are against the Kings. No one has won three Cups in four years since the Edmonton Oilers in 1987-90. No one has won back-to-back Cups since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and ’98. Only two teams have won the Cup twice in the cap era: the Kings and Chicago Blackhawks. The league is tight and getting tighter, especially in the Western Conference.
They had to become the fourth team ever to rally from a 3-0 deficit and win a seven-game series when they did it against the San Jose Sharks. They had to rally from a 3-2 deficit against the Anaheim Ducks in the second round. They faced a 1-0 deficit in the Western Conference final – and a 2-0 deficit in Game 2 against a team that had beaten them 10 out of 12 times – and they didn’t eliminate the Blackhawks until a puck deflected off a body in overtime of Game 7.
“All the teams we beat, clearly, had every bit a right to be in the final, personnel-wise, as we did,” Lombardi said.
Now consider that several Western teams are expected to be just as good or better after an active off-season. Go down the list: Anaheim, Chicago, San Jose, the St. Louis Blues, the Dallas Stars, the Colorado Avalanche, the Nashville Predators…
“It’s unbelievable,” Lombardi said. “I mean, it’s going to be a dogfight again just to get in, and then we’re going to beat the hell out of each other for three rounds just to get there. … There’s six teams out here that have legitimate shots.”
But the Kings should be just as good or better themselves, and dogfights are what they do.
They will have their No. 1 center (Anze Kopitar), No. 1 defenseman (Drew Doughty) and No. 1 goaltender (Jonathan Quick) in or entering their primes. They will have much the same supporting cast. They lost only one player (Willie Mitchell) and will have their big trade-deadline acquisition (Marian Gaborik) for a full season. Though they will have veterans who need to rebound (Dustin Brown and Mike Richards), they also will have youngsters looking for a greater role (Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli).
“Pressure certainly isn’t a burden for us,” said Williams, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player last season. “It’s something we relish. I enjoy it. You want to be the hunted. You want to be a team that everyone aspires to be like. That’s quite a compliment. The Western Conference is tough.”
“It doesn’t matter where you finish,” Williams said. “I mean, we’re not a team that goes out and dominates the regular season. I don’t think any team in the Western Conference is going to be able to dominate anybody.”
It’s not that they don’t care about the regular season; it’s that they’re built for the playoffs and focused on the process. You have to get to the playoffs – that’s all coach Darryl Sutter talked about Friday – and get ready on the way.
Winning has strengthened the Kings’ culture, especially winning the way the Kings did last season, grinding, grinding, coming back again and again in games and in series. They play a demanding style that requires buy-in – hard, heavy, structured – and it is easier to buy in when you know it can work. Sutter sets the tone, but the core players set the example for the newcomers and the youngsters.
“When you’ve won two out of three years, it makes it a pretty open-and-shut case for those guys,” said Brown, the captain. “It’s progressed tremendously since [four or five years ago] in the sense that if you don’t want to do it our way, generally it’s the players in the room that are telling you to figure it out.”
The West is so tough. Hockey is so fickle. The Kings could go through the same playoff run again and not win the Cup, falling somewhere along the way, as early as the first round. They could fall short this season for any number of reasons – fatigue, injuries, bounces, increased competition.
But they’ve been through it before. They understand what it’s like. They seem not cocky but confident. They embrace the challenge of creating yet another new feeling.
“It’s definitely not easy, but it’s also fun,” Kopitar said. “We know what we’re playing for. We’ve tasted it twice now, and we know how much fun it is. I don’t think it’s too hard to get motivated for another one.”