For a while, it looked like the Los Angeles Kings were out of gas. It made sense.
The Stanley Cup champions in 2012 and 2014 played 276 games during the previous three seasons. The Sabres, by comparison, played 212. That 64-game surplus for L.A. is almost a whole extra season stuffed into a three-year span. Add in the across-the-globe Olympic experience for many of the Kings’ stars, and burnout seemed inevitable.
Apparently, a shot at championship glory is a quality replenisher.
Los Angeles wants another Cup. In 13th place in the Western Conference last month, the Kings reclaimed a playoff spot Thursday.
“Are we back in now? Well, all right,” forward Justin Williams told reporters after a win in Vancouver. “But I want to keep climbing. We’ve turned it around here a little bit, but we know there’s a long way to go.”
The Kings entered the weekend on a 12-3-1 run to slip past Winnipeg for the second wild-card spot.
“We’re going after it again,” Anze Kopitar said in Vancouver. “We’ve got to get points.”
While the only drama in the Eastern Conference is at the top, the bottom four playoff spots in the West are up for grabs. Minnesota, Vancouver, Calgary, L.A., Winnipeg and San Jose entered the weekend within five points of each other. Two will find themselves out of luck and out of the playoffs.
“We have a team that I feel is able to get to another level when we need to,” Williams said.
During the final month of the season, the Kings will need to prove they can win on the road. Before the 4-0 blanking of Vancouver, they were just 11-14-6 away from home. Nine of their final 15 games are on the road.
“If we can turn on a switch, it’s nice to have,” defenseman Drew Doughty told reporters. “Guys were sick of talking about why we were so bad on the road, so we decided to turn it around.”
Though it’s never wise to count out the Kings, they’re hardly a lock for the postseason. Among the hopefuls, they have the fourth-hardest schedule down the stretch. Their opponents had a points percentage of .556, higher than the foes for Vancouver (.524), San Jose (.530) and Calgary (.536) but lower than Winnipeg (.603) and Minnesota (.629).
“The closer you get to playoffs, the more you want to be in it,” Doughty said. “We’re not going to accept anything but to be in it.”
If they don’t make it, at least they get a chance to win the draft lottery. The struggling franchise really deserves a shot at landing Connor McDavid.
(Yes, that was sarcasm.)
No return for Great One
Well, it was a fun idea while it lasted.
Wayne Gretzky, suggested as the Sabres’ next coach in this space two weeks ago, says he doesn’t foresee employment with an NHL team or the league.
“Good friends of mine ask me daily, and I always say never is a long time, but right now it’s just probably not going to happen for me,” Gretzky told reporters in Los Angeles.
Gretzky, in California for the dedication of a Luc Robitaille statue outside Staples Center, says he’s had offers to get back to work. The Great One says Gary Bettman asks often.
“Gary and Bill Daly have always made it known privately, publicly that I’m always welcome to be involved, and they always reach out,” Gretzky said of the commissioner and his deputy. “They can’t be nicer to me. Right now the reality is, for me, it’s not a perfect marriage.”
The old college try
Under Darcy Regier and Tim Murray, the Sabres have made a point of taking care of their college stars and securing them before they reach their senior season. With promises of big money or immediate playing time, guys such as Drew Stafford, Nathan Gerbe, Chris Butler, Corey Tropp and Jake McCabe have left the NCAA after three years.
Two cases show why the Sabres’ strategy of wooing and signing is a wise one.
Chicago drafted forward Kevin Hayes in the first round in 2010, but the Blackhawks failed to sign him during their four-year rights window. He became an unrestricted free agent last year after graduating from Boston College, and the Rangers lured him to New York. The rookie was on pace for 16 goals and 39 points.
Columbus is sweating over University of Minnesota defenseman Mike Reilly. The blue-liner leads the Golden Gophers in points as a junior, putting up 32 assists and 38 points through 34 games. He’s expected to forgo his senior season, but the Columbus Dispatch reports he may do so without signing. If so, the Blue Jackets have 30 days or until June 1 (whichever is later) to get him under contract or he becomes a UFA.
“He’s a prospect we believe in, and he’ll be stepping into some big shoes with our organization,” General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen told the Dispatch. “We look forward to getting him signed.”
The Sabres’ top college prospects – forwards Hudson Fasching, J.T. Compher and Connor Hurley, plus goalie Cal Petersen – are still just freshmen or sophomores.
On the fly
• The NHL GMs will meet this week in Boca Raton, Fla. Among the topics on their agenda are three-on-three overtime, video review of goalie interference calls and emergency goalie protocols.
• The Sabres no longer employ skating coach Dawn Braid, but she has latched on as a consultant with Regier’s Coyotes.
• There’s not much to do in Winnipeg in winter beside watch hockey, and the residents will have plenty of opportunities to do that. The Jets will share their rink with their minor-league team after announcing it will relocate from St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
• The Spin of the Week goes to Sabres President Ted Black, who said the soon-to-be extinct Turdburger fell victim to “third-jersey fatigue.” Actually, people couldn’t wait to see and buy it. Then they saw it. It was ugly.