Sunday, February 1, 2015

Can Kings flip the switch again?

The Los Angeles Kings are hard to figure out.

Lack of home ice, low playoff seeding, regular-season hiccups, coaching change -- none of these obstacles have slowed the juggernaut the Kings have become. They have thoroughly dashed conventional thinking on building and maintaining a winner.
 The Los Angeles Kings are hard to figure out.

In 2012, they entered the playoffs as the eighth seed and decimated the competition en route to the franchise's first championship. In spite of starting on the road, the Kings took a 3-0 stranglehold lead in all four postseason series.

While nursing the perennial Cup hangover the following season, the Kings battled to the Western Conference finals.

Then, last spring, the Kings spotted the San Jose Sharks a 3-0 series lead before rolling past them in the first round, they won Game 7s on the road against the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks, and dispatched the New York Rangers in five games to win it all in the Stanley Cup finals.

But now, more than midway through this season, the Kings are confronting questions about their own identity and their future.

Can they flip that switch everyone seems to believe they possess, or are time and the rest of the league catching up to them?

That question was brought into sharper focus this week when veteran center Mike Richards was put on waivers and sent to the Kings' American Hockey League affiliate in Manchester, New Hampshire.

It was a move that rocked the tightly knit Kings.

"Mike going down, I hope he's back soon," 2013-14 playoff MVP Justin Williams told on Thursday. "He's part of the family here. There's certainly just a big, empty spot without him [that] I feel.

"But we'll march on and he'll march on, and time will take care of everything ... but I hope he's back with this team and helping us out like I know he can."

You don't become this kind of team by being a slave to stats and taking a moneyball approach to the game.

You become this kind of team by relying on things like feel, gut and personality.

You become this kind of team by deciding to keep a guy such as Richards when the prevailing outside thinking was that the Kings should have bought him out when they still had a chance.

You become this kind of team by displaying something that can't be measured by any matrix or special formula: loyalty. GM Dean Lombardi opted not to take the easy way out last summer because winning the Stanley Cup isn't easy.

He believed Richards is the kind of player whose value might not be truly known until he's no longer in the room, and Lombardi wasn't willing to take the risk of finding out just how big a hole Richards' absence would represent for his team come April, May and maybe June.

That doesn't make things any easier for the Los Angeles Kings, though.

It's easy to criticize or second-guess in hindsight.