Saturday, August 18, 2012

My Essential Los Angeles Kings

The Royal Half took their shot at this for Puck Daddy's ongoing series the other day, and I had meant to get mine posted first but work and life got in the way, so I'm doing it now. Usually, I think the Royal Half does some fine blogging, but in all honesty, I thought they did just a terrible job with the assignment. They barely wrote anything about any of the topics and when they did it was all "2012 was the greatest ever!!"

2012 ended great but it wasn't the greatest ever overall. Here is my effort at the essentials from the history of the Los Angeles Kings.

Player: Luc Robitaille (RH said Wayne Gretzky/Jonathan Quick)
    Wayne Gretzky had the most star power.
    Marcel Dionne had more talent.
    Dave Taylor spent more time in the uniform.
    But Luc Robitaille is the Los Angeles Kings. Even when he played in Pittsburgh, New York, and Detroit, you always kind of knew he was a part of the LA Kings. He should have been like Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic, playing his entire Hall of Fame career in one city, but somehow he was traded after 8 seasons as a King for Rick Tocchet and a draft pick that became Pavel Rosa, and even after he returned for a few years and helped lead the team to its only playoff series victory between Stanley Cup Finals trips, Dave Taylor pretty much forced him to sign elsewhere, perhaps afraid Lucky was going to usurp his spot as the Essential Los Angeles King. (Guess what, Dave, he already had.) You know a player is special to a fanbase when even after his playing career has been over for years and he has joined the front office, fans get scared he might leave again at just a rumor that his hometown team wants to talk to him about potentially taking over coaching duties.
    Anze Kopitar beat Lucky in the finals of a March Madness-inspired bracket the Kings did a few years ago wherein fans got to vote for their favorite Kings ever, but I still think that even though Kopi brought the Kings the Cup, it's Lucky who history will remember as the essential King.
    By the way, Jonathan Quick deserves some credit here too for being the first goalie to come up through the Kings system and become a great NHL player. I just don't think anyone is going to replace Robitaille in the near future. The guy just bleeds Kings purple (or whatever colors they wear now).

Season: This is tough. My candidates are 1974-75, 1992-93, 2000-01, and 2011-12 (RH said 1990-91, 1974-75/this year)
    You might be wondering why this is tough at all; obviously it should be this season, right? I mean, this is the year they won their first Cup. While that's true, most of the season was rubbish. If there was a category for "essential 40-game streak", then the time since the Carter trade would win out, but before that this season's Kings team was pretty brutal to watch. There was very little offense and a lot of one-goal losses. Generally, in fact, if the Kings fell behind by a goal, you felt pretty sure it was ok to turn the TV off because you knew they weren't coming back. Only around late February did they become watchable, but it is true that they were very fun to watch from that moment on!
    2000-2001 might seem like an odd choice, but if you think back, the Kings were actually really good that year. Yes, they finished as the 7th seed in the West, but those were the pre-Cap days when the Detroits and Colorados of the world spent to the limit and smaller teams like the Kings just kinda hoped to keep up on a smaller budget. And in the second half of the season they were actually one of the top teams in the NHL, racing into the playoffs on one of their best streaks ever. They didn't look very good in the first couple of games against a beat-up Detroit team that was without Yzerman and Shanahan, but by Game 5 Ziggy Palffy had taken that team on his back and led the charge to victory. Adam Deadmarsh, Luc Robitaille, Matty Norstrom, Eric Belanger, Glen Murray, Ian Lapperiere, Nelson Emerson, Derek Armstrong. All those guys played key roles in upsetting the Wings in the first round. And then in the second round, Felix Potvin was Jon Quick before anybody knew who Jon Quick was! After the Kings fell behind three games to one (don't get me started on the goal the Kings had taken away in Game 2 that would have given them a 2-0 series lead!), Potvin out-dueled Patrick Roy and posted back-to-back shutouts of the Avs in double-overtime and then another OT game, forcing a 7th game. The Kings came a goal post away from knocking off the eventual champs too when Bryan Smolinski rang one off the iron with seconds left in the second period. Had that one gone in, who knows, maybe the Avs would have been so demoralized that they would not have been able to come out in the 3rd with the charge they did. In the end, the Kings fell apart in the final period and lost 5-1 but they also provided us with one of their best playoff runs of all time, one that sadly seems to have been forgotten by a lot of people, as it got no attention during this season's run when commentators mentioned '93, '82, and '75. If Smoke had scored that goal, we'd probably have seen the Kings' second championship over New Jersey this season; after that series, the Avs' best player, Peter Forsberg, had surgery for a ruptured spleen and he did not skate again that spring. The Kings had held their own against Colorado with him in the lineup while the Blues got skated off the rink without him and the Devils fell in 7 games, so it's not too difficult to imagine that with one more bounce in the second round, the Kings would have celebrated the franchise's first Stanley Cup over a decade earlier!
    1992-93 was obviously a special season because it was the first time the team ever got past the second round of the playoffs and in fact skated all the way into June and the Stanley Cup Final. But in many ways it was a season like 2012. The team started out well, even with Gretzky sidelined, as Robitaille, Sandstrom, and Kurri led the way without their injured legend. But they hit the skids pretty hard around December and even the Great One's return in January didn't do much to stop the bleeding. The only reason they made the playoffs was that Winnipeg and Edmonton were just downright terrible. Yes, it was fun watching Robitaille set the records for goals and points by a left wing in a single season (the former has subsequently been broken by Alex Ovechkin), and that playoff run was phenomenal, but it's hard to say that a season in which they went on so many prolonged losing streaks was their "essential" season. But that's how it is with this franchise, there aren't many good ones to choose from.
    I had not been born yet for the 1974-75 season, but I've read Bob Miller's book and I know that the Kings had a good team that season. It seems like they were actually good from the start of the season to the finish, which is unusual for this franchise, but then got upended by a stupid playoff format in the first round. Since I wasn't alive for it, it's hard for me to call this one, but it seems like it belongs in the discussion.
    Well I guess it's decision time now, so I'm gonna go with……
    2012-13! I have a feeling a season that starts with raising a Stanley Cup banner has to be a pretty good one! Hopefully it'll start with raising a banner and end raising a Cup!

Game: Miracle on Manchester (RH said Game 6, 2012 Final)
    There is no question that Game 6 of this year's Stanley Cup Final was a special game for Kings fans, one among many this spring, but the Miracle was something so unprecedented that I have to give the spot to it. Not only did the Kings come back from a 5-0 3rd period deficit in a playoff game, they did it against the ultimate opponent, the Edmonton Oilers. Now I know they weren't the dominant Oilers that would win 5 Stanley Cups in 7 years but they were on their way to becoming that team, and they did feature a kid named Wayne Gretzky who that season set the NHL record for goals scored in a single season at 92, a record that still stands 30 years later, just like the 5-goal comeback. The Oilers were young and arrogant and on that night the Kings got to do what everyone in history wants to do to the jerk who always beats you and then laughs about it afterward; they gave him a taste of his own medicine. Not only did the Kings pull off the biggest comeback in history in that game, but by winning the series two games later, they pulled off the biggest upset in Stanley Cup Playoff history as no team has ever overcome a bigger points gap in the regular season to defeat a postseason rival.
    The 3rd period and Overtime of Game 3 of the 1982 Division Semi-Finals are hands-down the essential Kings game.

    Honorable mention has to go to Game 7 of the 1993 Campbell Conference Finals, in which Gretzky, now playing for the Kings, scored a hat trick at Maple Leaf Gardens after members of the Toronto media said he looked like he was skating around with a piano on his back, leading the franchise to its first ever Stanley Cup Finals in its 26th season. Game 4 of the 2001 Western Conference Quarterfinal also deserves special mention. Not quite the Miracle on Manchester, but the Kings did overcome a 3-0 deficit in the waning minutes of what looked like a certain defeat at the hands of the highly favored Red Wings. They scored three quick goals to end regulation and then iced it with another overtime winner in what became dubbed the Frenzy on Figueroa, a victory that sent the Kings on their way to their only playoff series win between 1993 and 2012.

Goal: Wayne Gretzky's Game 6 winner in Campbell Conference Finals in '93 (RH mentioned several and then decided on Lewis's empty netter at the end of Game 6 of the 2012 Finals)
    The 1993 Kings were a special group. No Kings team had ever in 26 years gotten past the second round of the playoffs, but here this team was in the conference finals against a Toronto team that had a similar streak of failure, having not won the Cup or even been to the Finals since the season before the Kings entered the league. The Leafs looked ready to punch their ticket. They had trailed the game 4-3 before forcing overtime with a late goal. Wendel Clark looked ready to carry his team into an all-Canada final against Montreal to celebrate the Cup's 100th birthday. But Wayne Gretzky spoiled their party. He got away with a high stick on Doug Gilmour and moments later he scored the winning goal. It was beginning to look a lot like fate that the '93 Kings were going to win the Cup.

Trade: August 9, 1988: Gretzky Arrives (RH said Gretzky/Carter)
    It was probably the biggest trade in sports history, or at least since the BoSox shipped the Babe to New York. Unfortunately, things didn't work out as well for the Kings as they did for the Yanks. Despite surrounding Gretz with several former Oilers teammates (Kurri, Coffey, Huddy, McSorley, et al.), the Kings never did raise the Cup while 99 skated in the silver and black, but did watch the Oilers hoist it again two years later. I've often wondered whether that trade really did make the Kings a better team, or if growing their team through draft picks like the current team did would have worked out better. While it's impossible to know for sure, I think a Kings team with a young core of Luc Robitaille, Jimmy Carson, Steve Duchesne, and Bernie Nicholls probably would have fared better in the long run. The Gretzky trade left the Kings' future in trouble as they gave up 3 first round draft picks over the following five seasons and then even when they finally moved Gretzky in 1996, they were unable to restock the farm in the process.
   One thing is for sure though, the hockey world was never the same after the Great One came to LA. Were it not for that trade it's unlikely the NHL's footprint would include teams in San Jose, Anaheim, Dallas, Phoenix, Tampa, Nashville, or Miami. Hmm no Ducks? Maybe we'd all be better off!

Unsung Hero- Dave Taylor (RH said Taylor/Matt Green)
    But not for the reasons you think. Taylor's praises were sung plenty as a player, but his tenure as GM has never really been viewed well. And for good reason, he was pretty awful at his job. But he did make three great decisions: he drafted Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, and Jon Quick. Of the three, I think Kopitar is the best. Ten other GMs passed him up because he came from the hinterlands of Slovenia, a place none of them could find on a map, but Taylor took a chance. Of course that chance might have worked out as well as it did with Lauri Tukonen in 2004, but fortunately in this case it worked out ok and Kopitar was probably the most important piece of the championship puzzle not named Jonathan Quick.

Franchise Villain: Theo Fleury, Doug Gilmour, Wayne Gretzky, Rob Blake (RH said Bruce McNall)
    There are a lot of options here, so I'm just going to name them all.
    Patrick Roy denied the Kings again and again in the 1993 Cup Finals and winked at Tomas Sandstrom after one save. Arrogant jerk.
    Doug Gilmour was a pest and a dirty player, but the only time the Kings really faced him was in the 1993 Campbell Conference Finals. But that was inarguably one of the greatest series in Stanley Cup playoff history, so it sticks out.
    Theo Fleury was a little punk who used to score against the Kings like crazy back in their Smythe Division rivalry games.
    Wayne Gretzky may be a Kings hero, but before he played for LA, he was just another of the arrogant Oilers who skated around the Forum like he owned the place.
    Jacque Demers and Marty McSorley. One for using the illegal stick. The other for being the piece of s*** who called for a check in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
    Whoever the referees were that didn't call Mike Keane for being in the crease for the tying goal of Game 2 or Guy Carbonneau for covering the puck in the crease at the end of Game 3. Had that Game 2 goal not counted (and it shouldn't have) and the Kings gotten their chance at a penalty shot in Game 3, Los Angeles would very likely have won the Cup that year and we'd have been celebrating just the end of a 19-year dry spell this summer.
    But in the end I'm gonna go with Rob Blake. He always seemed to think he was bigger than the team, even when his defensive lapses cost them. And then when he came back for some absurd amount of money and refused to accept a trade to San Jose because he "wanted to finish his career with the Kings", only to then sign with the Sharks that summer, he set back the team's rebuilding at least by a little bit and cost the Kings any benefit at all for his terrible services.

Fight- (RH said Potomski v. Kocur)
    I dunno or care. Fighting is stupid and I wish it wasn't part of the game.

Coach: Darryl Sutter (RH said Sutter)
    I kinda wanted to go with Barry because he has become such an institution, but Darryl finished what Melrose couldn't and he brought that shiny trophy to Los Angeles.
    Of course, his tenure has been short, so maybe when we've seen him a little more, the love will wane, but for now, the most quotable coach the team has ever has is also its essential.

 Broadcaster: Bob Miller (RH also said Miller; I can't believe we agree on two in a row!)
    Bob Miller feels like family. I think that's the highest compliment I could pay to a broadcaster. I look forward to inviting him and Jim Fox into my home to watch 82-89 Kings games a season (depending on how far the first round goes, thanks a lot NBC and your stupid exclusive coverage beyond that) and hearing what they have to say. I love Bob because he is so professional at his job. So many announcers across all sports just cheer for their home team, and while you know that Bob wants the Kings to win, he is probably the most even-handed home team commentator in sports, which I really appreciate. I hope Bob will be calling Kings games for another 39 years!

Arena Behavior/Tradition/Trend: Celebrities in the Building (RH said "oooo" as in "Luuuuuuc")
    Tom Hanks. Will Ferrell. Cuba Gooding Jr. David Beckham. Craig Ferguson. Matthew Perry. Alyssa Milano. Taylor Swift. Zack Efron. Ellen Page. Alexander Skaarsgard. Vince Vaughn. Will Arnett. Kobe Bryant. Magic Johnson. Martin Short. John Candy. President and Mrs. Reagan. James Woods. (yeah, I went back a few years for those last couple!)
    That's just off the top of my head, celebrities I've seen at numerous Kings games not only this year at Staples but going back through the decades at the Forum as well. Celebrities go to Lakers games to be seen. They go to Kings games because they wanna watch hockey. And that's pretty cool.

Arena Food: I can't figure out what RH's answer is to this one. Like their entire post, it's pretty awful. Is it the food carts or the Thai chicken pizza?
    I don't live in LA so I haven't been able to go to Staples Center in years. Thus, I have no idea what the answer is to this question. Post any ideas in the comments.

Swag: Burger King jersey or 2012 Stanley Cup Champs Hat (RH said the Cup champs hat)
    The Burger King jersey has gotten a lot of hate over the years. Personally, I love it! I wish I had an authentic one instead of what I have. Maybe someday!
    But I gotta go with my newest piece of swag, because it is pretty damn special to have a hat that finally says "Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings"

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