As we approach the start of the Stanley Cup Finals, it goes without saying that, regardless of which team is crowned as champion, we will see only the second team not seeded in the top four in their conference skating away with the silverware. Ironically enough, the only previous occurrence was the Cup won by the selfsame New Jersey Devils with a young Martin Brodeur in net, in 1995. Taking the concept of the glorious underdog one step further, the Kings are only the second eighth seed to ever make it the final round of the NHL playoffs, joining the 2006 Edmonton Oilers as the greatest playoff underdogs since 1-8 seeding began for the 1993-94 season.
Many fans of perennial contenders would often state that they prefer their team to miss the playoffs altogether than to make it in as a bottom seed, destined to drop out in the early going. Better to draft a lottery player than to be teased for two weeks of springtime hockey. In most cases, this sentiment rings true. In a study run recently by the Hockey News, it was shown that fifth and seventh seeds had a one in eight chance of reaching the Conference Finals, sixth seeds had odds that were slightly better* than one in five and eighth seeds had only a one in sixteen chance, according to the historical record dating back to 1993-94.
*The reason for the improved odds for the sixth seed is largely due to their playing a third seed that was often shoehorned into home ice advantage in the first round by virtue of winning a lesser division. See this year's Florida Panthers, who won the lowly Southeast Division only to be ousted in the first round by the sixth-seed Devils.
Representing the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup, the Kings are making waves as a rare eighth-seed triumph, but they do not fit the usual definition of eighth-seed fragility, unless one focuses on their anemic power play. Not that we were much smarter about the Kings, as their cumulative 15.0 team GVT was 11th in the league, and only seventh in the West. Before the season began, VUKOTA projected Los Angeles to be the fifth strongest team in the West behind only Chicago, Detroit, San Jose, and Vancouver. The mainstream media was also encouraged by the offseason moves of GM Dean Lombardi, primarily the trade that brought in center Mike Richards from Philadelphia. The Hockey News predicted the Kings to finish fourth in the West, again behind Chicago, San Jose and Vancouver, but this time ahead of the Red Wings.
Excitement aside, the Kings held their promise only for about two weeks of the season. They were still in fifth place in the conference following a solid first seven games, but had dropped to eighth two weeks later as they could only accumulate an additional four points in their second set of seven games.
The team continued to splutter, and by mid-December, they had fallen to 12th in the conference, although only two points back of the playoff picture at that still early date. Around that time, Lombardi felt that enough was enough and took the first step of many beleaguered GMshe fired his bench boss, giving Terry Murray the third mid-season pink slip of his otherwise accomplished coaching career. The team was just as talented under Murray as they were under interim coach John Stevens and eventual permanent successor, Darryl Sutter, but they had trouble getting the puck in the net, a problem that hung over their heads throughout the season. They certainly aimed enough shots on opposition goalies (full season average of 30.6 per game) to rank as a mid-major team, and their ability to prevent shots from reaching their Vezina-candidate goalie, Jonathan Quick, as the Kings finished tied for fourth in the league in fewest shots allowed per 60 minutes, at 27.4, meaning they outshot their opponents by an average of 3.2 shots per game. However, their cumulative shooting percentage of 7.5% ranked dead last in the NHLand over two percentage points below their rivals for the Cup.
Correlation not being the equal to causation, it should be pointed out that the Kings went on a bit of a run immediately following the ascension of former Calgary GM Sutter behind their bench. They accumulated points in the standings in each of their next eight games, and in 16 of their next 18 games. On the morning of February 2, they were safely ensconced in seventh place in the conference, with a six-point cushion between themselves and ninth place. They were only two points out of the Divisional lead and the third seed. Between that game and the trade deadline, the Kings played 10 more games, winning only two and picking up two more consolation points. This sad stretch, which saw the Kings score more than one goal only three times should have proven to Lombardi that a new coach, fiery though he may be, could not be the magic elixir that would rescue his team from a lost season nor himself from likely unemployment should the Kings fail to advance to the playoffs.
Up until that point, Los Angeles had largely been playing with the same roster that opened the season. In fact, the Kings will enter the Stanley Cup Finals with remarkably little roster turnover throughout the season. It is certainly a mark in Lombardi's favor, in the belief he had for the players on the roster he broke camp with, and for the direction that he had set for his franchise.
Not too many fingers are necessary to count the moves of significance made by Lombardi in-season, but the ones he made all paid off handsomely. There were no more than four players who were called up to the NHL squad from AHL Manchester all season long. Three of them have made their presences felt throughout their time in black and purple. Only young forward Andrei Loktionov failed to play above replacement level, contributing only -0.4 GVT in 39 games between his recall on November 14, 2011 and being sent back down on February 24, 2012.
-Defenseman Viatcheslav Voynov made his NHL debut as an injury replacement in mid-October as franchise blueliner Drew Doughty had to sit with a shoulder injury. Although he played heavy minutes and even scored a pair of goals in his fifth game up, as soon as Doughty returned, the 22-year-old Russian blueliner was returned to Manchester. He would receive another opportunity 18 days later when Alec Martinez was shelved with a mysterious "upper-body injury." In the three weeks that Martinez missed, Voynov seemingly cemented his place in the lineup
with one exception. During the aforementioned February dry spell, Voynov had inexplicably been sent back to Manchester for two weeks. As it turned out, he had not lost the faith of his GM or his new coach, as the deadline trade of offensive defenseman Jack Johnson undoubtedly proved. Although Voynov did not start the season with Los Angeles, he amassed 6.9 GVT in 54 games, making him the fourth most valuable King defender, behind only Doughty, Willie Mitchell, and Matt Greene.
-On February 10, 2012, Dustin Penner was shelved with the pancake heard around the NHL. While the injury ensured that all eyes would remain on the breakfast table at the Penner household, Lombardi took advantage of the big forward's misfortune and called up a pair of rugged forwards from the AHL for auditions that went better than anyone could have reasonably hoped. Neither Dwight King nor Jordan Nolan entered the Kings organization with great fanfare. King was a fourth round pick in 2007 who had six nondescript NHL games on his resume prior to this season. Jordan Nolan was a seventh round pick in 2009, better known for his father, Ted, who famously won the Jack Adams award as the top coach in the NHL in his second year as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres in 1996-97 and then disappeared from sight until resurfacing nine years later behind the bench on Long Island. King and Nolan were both deposited on the lower lines and turned themselves into lineup stalwarts, with Nolan contributing four points and 0.6 GVT in 26 games, while King greatly impressed with 14 points and 2.2 GVT in 27 games. Neither player has missed a shift as the Kings steamrolled through the top seeds in the West.
As already mentioned, having learned that Voynov could be used as a reliable offensive defenseman, on trade deadline day, Dean Lombardi was able to flip the underachieving Jack Johnson and a conditional first round draft choice to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for underperforming forward Jeff Carter. Long thought to be in play during the trading season, Carter had not been happy in Columbus, who certainly expected far more than 25 points in 39 games after trading numerous assets to acquire him last offseason from Philadelphia. There were many skeptics in the greater hockey analysis community about Carter's ability to flourish in Los Angeles. Of some concern was the reunion with his old partner in crime, Mike Richards, who had previously created for themselves a very unseemly reputation in the City of Brotherly Love. Carter continued to flounder in L.A., scoring in only six of his 16 games with the Kings. That was somewhat mitigated by the fact that in half of those games, the former first round pick scored two points, but the fact remains that Carter was more likely to be kept off the scoresheet than to push the Kings toward a victory. That tendency has remained true in the playoffs, as seven of Carter's nine points have come in three games. On a GVT basis, Dwight King has been more valuable to the Kings than Carter.
Outside of those four, the Kings managed to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 19 years and only the second time in their history without touching their season opening roster, an incredible accomplishment in a game as physically taxing as hockey. As much as Dean Lombardi has sometimes been justifiably criticized for his roster moves, he deserves accolades for his patient approach to building this year's Western Conference champions. It would have been very easy for him to panic as his team was misfiring time after time throughout the season. More trigger-happy GMs would have been racking up the cell phone minutes trying to find new fits. Within the same division, Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray had no fewer than 40 different players in his roster at one time or another this season, compared to a mere 31 for the Kings. Despite threatening to sneak into the playoffs in the second half of the season, the Ducks never quite gelled. The Kings came into the season with an identity and needed only a few minor tweaks to grow into the team that upset each of the top three seeds in the Western Conference, winning 12 out of 14 playoffs games to reach the Finals.
Whether or not the Kings prevail, Lombardi can take pride in his roster, knowing that only five skatersand only one who tallied more than 1.0 GVT this seasonwill be free agents after this magical run ends. As much as the Kings' roster is cohesive today, they promise to be even more so next season, as the same players (and coach) are all expected back.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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