Not sure who feels worse this morning, the Chicago Blackhawks or the 12 other teams in the Western Conference that aren’t the Los Angeles Kings.
At least the Blackhawks have the glow of two Stanley Cups in the past five years to keep them warm at night and they can take solace that they made it to the conference final this season in what could easily be considered the most difficult playoff path in pro sports. That and they had the privilege of playing in a series that was one of the most entertaining, compelling and closely contested in the history of the game.
But what if you’re the St. Louis Blues or the San Jose Sharks or the Anaheim Ducks? Even worse, what if you’re the Edmonton Oilers or the Winnipeg Jets. In the case of the first three, you’re a very good team that knows it faces a steady diet of the kind of punishing, intense and draining hockey it takes to compete in the Western Conference and you’re going to face it for a long, long time. If you’re the latter, you’re looking up the standings knowing you face a task tantamount to the Plateau de Beille climb in the Tour de France. Against the wind.
When the New York Rangers step on the ice for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final Wednesday night, one of their biggest advantage might be that the Kings, having become the first team to go to the final after three seven-game series, emptied their quiver just getting to the big dance. If that’s not the case, the Rangers will be in for something the likes of which they haven’t even come close to seeing in these playoffs. The Kings have already played a quarter of a regular season just to make it to the final and almost every one of those games was played at a frenetic pace with all kinds of skill and physicality, the kind of hockey that makes you wonder how these guys even find the strength to lift the Stanley Cup once they earn the right to do so.
And here’s the thing. The Kings aren’t going anywhere for quite a while. With the exception of Anze Kopitar, who has two years remaining on his contract, Kings GM Dean Lombardi has much of his core locked up in long-term deals. Captain Dustin Brown, who might have been the best player on the ice in the Kings Game 7 overtime win over the Blackhawks, is under contract until 2021-22, as is Jeff Carter. Mike Richards is signed until 2019-20 and defensemen Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov are locked up until 2018-19. And once you get past all them, goaltender Jonathan Quick is committed until 2022-23.
Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson have one more year remaining on their entry-level deals and with the salary cap likely going up after next season, look for Lombardi to get a jump on signing them to long-term deals this summer when he can start negotiating extensions for both players.
So that’s what the rest of the Western Conference faces for the next decade. With all due respect to the Rangers and the run they’ve gone on through these playoffs, it has been nothing like what the Kings have had to endure. They faced a 3-0 deficit in Round 1, took out a team that finished 16 points ahead of them in Round 2 and the defending Stanley Cup champion in Round 3. The Rangers got past the worst team in this year’s playoffs in the first round, a discombobulated and defensively clueless Pittsburgh Penguins team in Round 2 and a team that had lost its No. 1 goalie in Round 3.
If Henrik Lundqvist can outplay Quick and the Rangers can take advantage of what has to be a drained and running-on-fumes Kings team, they might have a chance to win this series. But if the Kings of the first three rounds show up for the final, it could be a very short, very one-sided Stanley Cup final.
Then the Kings will get two months off before having to do it all over again. And that alone may be what keeps them or the Blackhawks from forming any kind of dynasty. The fact they have to beat each other and a bunch of other outstanding teams year after year is creating a sense of parity that not even commissioner Gary Bettman could fabricate in his wildest dreams.