I’m writing this on Wednesday afternoon, a few hours ahead of the Kings almost certainly wrapping up their Stanley Cup victory over the New Jersey Devils, whom they have decimated. (And if not, how does this series last beyond Game 5?)
Of course, that could also be said for, oh, every team they’ve played in the entire postseason. Vancouver? Laid to waste. St. Louis? Flattened in short order. Phoenix? Brushed aside carelessly. If they win tonight, the Kings will have tied for the fastest run through a 16-win with the 1988 Oilers, who you’ll recall as a fairly good team. But what’s often remarked upon is that this is a feat being accomplished not by a No. 1 seed littered with future Hall of Famers, but rather a team that finished eighth in the West and has faced the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds in their run to the Stanley Cup Final.
And so one has to wonder: Where will this amazing blur of success the Kings have enjoyed lead teams finding themselves in similar positions over the next year or two?
Certainly this playoff season has given a lot of credence to that whole, “Anyone can win,” philosophy that a lot of teams have and employ in trying to qualify for the postseason every year. Already, we’ve seen this type of talk reflected by the Calgary Flames, in particular. The Flames were ninth in the West this season, “just” five points behind Los Angeles, and clearly had pretensions of making the playoffs, which they will carry over into next season. Upon the hiring of their new coach, Bob Hartley, there was repeated talk that the Flames were so close to qualifying for the postseason, and they might use the Kings as a model for how they can get in next season and possibly do some damage. All you have to do, in theory, is get in, then get hot. (And let’s just ignore the fact that you need to then stay hot for two months.) It’s one thing to get in and cynically pursue a few games’ worth of ticket, concession and souvenir revenues while knowing you’re going to get gutted by the No. 1 seed. It’s another entirely to believe that this year’s Kings are in some way representative of the democratization of success if you straighten up and fly right for four, seven, or more games.
Perhaps, though this is far less likely, it might have the opposite effect. It’s important to once again remind that the Kings are perhaps the best eighth seed of all time. Not in terms of the number of points they had in the standings, of course (they’re tied for third-best all-time in that regard, with 95 points, shared with a few teams but most notably the 2006 Edmonton Oilers, who also went to the Cup Final. Incidentally, Chicago’s 97 points last season is the record), but rather in terms of the quality of their team. The best goaltender in the world (Jon Quick), Norris-quality defenseman (Drew Doughty), arguably the best two-way forward in the game (Anze Kopitar), a rock-solid Canadian Olympian (Mike Richards), one of the best captains in the league (Dustin Brown), and a former 40-goal scorer who seems to be getting his groove back on his third team in 11 months (Jeff Carter), among others in an exquisitely crafted lineup. Most teams go wanting for even one of those things, and the Kings have six.
Maybe, though, I assume too much in the way of clarity of thinking from the league’s general managers. Maybe they, like the Flames, see only the Kings’ seed at which they entered the postseason, and choose not to deal in the realities of the roster situation.
I’ve said it before, but the Kings are, in real life, only an eighth seed in so far as their first coach didn’t know what to do with them, and Darryl Sutter figured it out rather quickly — look at the difference in goals for and goals against, and standing points earned per game; it’s staggering — and while they may have sacrificed a bit of their long-term success, and the ability to hold this young group together beyond the next few years (given the length and size of the Kopitar, Richards, Carter and Doughty contracts in particular, and did I mention Quick’s a unrestricted free agent next summer?), it seems a small price to pay on their end.
But how other teams interpret the moves Dean Lombardi made last summer and over the course of this season, and how they allow that to reflect their own strategies, should be interesting going forward, especially given the added twist of the new collective bargaining agreement. Will there be an arms race to keep up when guys like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter hit the open market? Will it encourage borderline teams to beef up their rosters, or discourage them from doing so because of how apparently difficult it is to even be a decent No. 8 in the West these days? How does the style that Darryl Sutter (and to a lesser extent Pete DeBoer) seems to favor play into that?
None of that is clear now, and probably won’t be until the new CBA is approved by all involved. But it’s very likely that the Kings’ seemingly-improbable run just re-shaped the entire Western Conference, if not the league at large.