‘Pissed off’ Kings should enhance in 3 key areas to beat Oilers
The gloomy skies outside the Kings’ El Segundo practice rink matched their mood the morning after their so-close-yet-so-far playoff elimination by the Edmonton Oilers. Forward Kevin Fiala, who begged out of interviews Saturday after the 5-4 loss in Game 6 that sent the Kings home, still wasn’t inclined to be chatty Sunday.
“What do you want me to say? We’re out,” he said. “First-round exit — too early, in my opinion.”
What the Kings hoped would be a marathon Stanley Cup run was cut short because the Oilers outmaneuvered them strategically and outscored most of their own mistakes thanks to brilliant star turns by Leon Draisaitl (seven goals, 11 points) and Connor McDavid (three goals, 10 points). Both teams had improved since they’d met a year ago and Edmonton rallied to win a seven-game series, but that didn’t do the Kings much good this time around.
They had grand ambitions. They acquired and signed Fiala last summer and traded Jonathan Quick and a first-round pick for defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov and goaltender Joonas Korpisalo — both potential walkaway free agents — during the season to get closer to Cup contention. Now, they’ll have to retrench and possibly rebuild their goaltending plans if Korpisalo decides to leave. If this is progress, it has come at a steep cost.
“Last year we were happy that we made it in. This year we were expected to make it in and we did,” captain Anze Kopitar said after completing another solid season at age 35. “We’re certainly not happy with a first-round exit. Guys are pissed off, which is a good thing.”
The Kings weren’t good enough to beat a team they’re likely to see often in the next few years. The outcome will be the same unless the Kings find stability in goal, size on defense and better penalty killing.
“If we were fully healthy at the beginning of the series, I think it would have been a different story,” winger Adrian Kempe said, though the Kings won two of the three games they played while Fiala recovered from a knee injury. “But right now we’ve just got to regroup and try to come back better next year.”
The Kings are looking toward next year instead of the next round because Edmonton, after years of failing to support Drasaitl and McDavid with a decent defense corps and dependable goaltending, hit on the right deadline trades to bring size, grit and depth scoring to a stunningly talented roster. The Oilers got contributions from support players. The Kings got little from the youngsters who are supposed to be their future leaders.
The Kings are busy calculating whether salary cap constraints will let them retain Gavrikov and Korpisalo instead of studying second-round matchups partly because they couldn’t hold a 3-0 lead they built through one period of Game 4, when a victory would have given them a 3-1 series lead.
“You’ve got to find a way to close that out. That’s the stage this team is at: finding ways to get through that, to help lead you through it,” general manager Rob Blake said during exit meetings with the media.
The overriding reason they lost is because they couldn’t stop the Oilers from scoring on the power play almost at will. After setting an NHL regular-season record with a 32.4% power play success rate, the Oilers scored on nine of 16 advantages (56.3%) against the Kings’ flustered penalty killers.
The Kings didn’t block enough shots, center Phillip Danault said. “Maybe we were a bit too passive in this series,” defenseman Matt Roy said.
Forward Alex Iafallo agreed. “We’ve got to be a little more aggressive. Myself included,” he said. “Attack pucks more. Adjust quicker.”
Yes, yes and yes.
Coach Todd McLellan, who got a vote of confidence from Blake and will return next season for the fifth and final year on his contract, said improvement to the penalty killing will come from analyzing where the most dangerous shots came from, as well as the effectiveness of their personnel and system. “It has to get better,” he said. “It’s in our room. We can solve it.”
Gavrikov didn’t talk to the media Sunday, but defenseman Drew Doughty offered a possible financial solution to keep Gavrikov here. “Give him a million bucks of my contract,” Doughty said. “I’m trying to convince him. It’s a pretty easy sell. We play in a great city. Great fans. It’s an easy one. It basically just comes down to taxes, I think, to be honest. But I think that we’ll hopefully be able to sign him and he wants to be a King.”
Korpisalo made no promises but said he “loved every minute being here and being around the group and just seeing how great people are here, so I’m really happy with that. I think time will tell.”
Time also will tell whether the many little things Quinton Byfield did right this season will translate to big things offensively, whether forwards Rasmus Kupari and Arthur Kaliyev will become the contributors they’ve been projected to be, whether touted prospects Brandt Clarke and Jordan Spence can win jobs on defense next season. The Kings will have to find ways to become not just better but good enough to beat Edmonton in the playoffs the next time they meet and not give up a series lead or give up 16 goals in losing the last three games.
“I want to play Edmonton again. I want to beat them,” Doughty said. “That rivalry’s just growing, growing and that’s the type of thing you live for. That’s all I’m going to be thinking about this summer, is the Edmonton Oilers and losing to them and getting another chance at it.”
Changing the outcome will be the tricky part.