One of the great unknowns of this season is how teams will rebound from the Olympic break. Some franchises had many players go over to Sochi; others just a handful. I’ve already written about the teams that got dinged the worst, losing star players in games that didn’t even concern the NHL standings, but if you’re looking for a team to watch out for down the stretch, I will nominate Los Angeles.
The Kings went into the break on a horrid run, winning just two of their previous 10 games. A squad that still had most of its guts from the Stanley Cup roster of 2012 couldn’t score to save its life – which ironically, is why that Cup team barely got into the dance in the first place as the eighth seed.
But look at how some of the Kings’ best players did in Sochi and the concept of momentum is looking pretty good.
To start with the golden boys, you have Canadians Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter. Doughty was one of Canada’s best players, leading the team in goals with four in six games and doing so from the blueline. Though with his puck-rushing mastery and swashbuckling play in the offensive end, opposing defenders would be forgiven if they forgot where Doughty lined up on faceoffs. If you were starting an NHL franchise today, there’s maybe one or two other defensemen to consider other than Doughty (Erik Karlsson and Alex Pietrangelo, for example) to be your cornerstone.
Then there’s Carter, who may have had an even better Olympic tournament in terms of his personal development. Sure, Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi will be happy about the offensive numbers Carter put up, including that hat trick against Austria, but it was the play away from the puck that will really boost Carter’s confidence.
The sniper saw time on Canada’s penalty kill and upped his defensive play at the Olympics and though the Kings have plenty of two-way talent already, the Canadians proved in Sochi that the more 200-foot players to have, the easier it is to strangle the competition.
Even Anze Kopitar can return from the Winter Games with a smile on his face. His Slovenian squad bucked the odds and won two matches in Sochi – two more than anybody not named Kopitar would have guessed.
Now, you can point to goalie Jonathan Quick‘s last game in the American net and voice concern, but I wouldn’t put too much stock in that. Team USA’s skaters have already admitted how bad they played and even after surrendering five goals to Finland in the bronze medal game, Quick ended the tournament with a 2.17 goals-against average. In fact, in his other four appearances he surrendered just six goals total. And Slava Voynov may have played for a disappointing Russian squad, but he did get solid minutes.
Perhaps a trade is in order to jump-start these Kings once again; perhaps they just need a spark of youth from a Tyler Toffoli or Linden Vey, up from the minors. Or maybe the Sochi Games were just the tonic for a team that can still vie for the Cup again if the players get their act together in time.