EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Defense-man Drew Doughty didn’t experience the worst of it, but what he experienced was the worst. His rookie season, the 2008-09 campaign, was the sixth in a row in which the Los Angeles Kings missed the playoffs. There were thousands of empty seats at Staples Center most nights, and the only redeeming quality about being a hockey player in Southern California was the weather.
“A lot of us that are on this team were on the Kings when they weren’t very good,” Doughty said Friday. “And it was a frustrating time. It sucked coming to the rink.”
A lot has changed since the mid-2000s, one of the darkest stretches in franchise history. They parlayed their misery into success by drafting a couple of guys who became superstars, center Anze Kopitar and Doughty. They started winning games and winning fans. Then they won a Stanley Cup. Now they’re on the verge of another, with their core intact and the future every bit as bright as the present.
Sound familiar? It should. The Kings have followed a very Blackhawks-like path from irrelevance to dominance. And up 1-0 on the New York Rangers heading into Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday, the Kings are making a push to pass the Hawks as the NHL’s model franchise, the league’s standard-bearer. At the very least, with three consecutive runs to at least the Western Conference final and two trips to the Stanley Cup Final in three years, the Kings have established themselves as the Hawks’ peers — the two franchises head and shoulders above the rest of the conference, if not the entire league.
And neither is going anywhere any time soon, with their cores locked up for years to come.
“To finally turn that around and now come to the rink happy, knowing you have a chance to win every night — confident you’re going to win every night — it’s a nice feeling,” Doughty said.
Much like the Hawks, the Kings have stayed hungry by focusing on the future, not the past. There’s not a lot of time for reflecting on just how far they’ve come and what they’ve accomplished while in the midst of a third consecutive deep playoff run. But every now and then, there’s a brief window to sit back and take stock, and to let the big picture come into focus.
“It wouldn’t be human to sit there and [deny] that after we beat Chicago last round, when you have a day to recoup and get some rest and collect your thoughts, you sit there and think about how the team has been to the Western Conference final three years in a row — how cool is that?” defenseman Willie Mitchell said.
The Kings don’t have quite the regular-season track record the Hawks have. In fact, their only division title came back in 1990-91. But the physical Kings are built for the playoffs. They won the Stanley Cup in 2012 as an eighth seed, storming to the title with a 16-4 postseason record. Last year, they were fifth in the West. And this year, they were sixth. Doesn’t matter.
“For us, the division title or the Western Conference championship doesn’t mean too much if you don’t get the ultimate goal,” center Jeff Carter said.
Indeed, it’s Stanley Cup or bust every year for the Kings now. Just like it is for the Hawks.
“The way we play the game, it’s a tough game to play,” captain Dustin Brown said. “There are teams that get far more points than us during the regular season. But when it comes to playoff time, the type of game we play, the players we have — we become a hard team to beat four times in seven games. It’s funny. When you look at Staples, we don’t have banners all the way across. But we have the banner we want. And we’re in search of that next banner.”