EL SEGUNDO--Following the post-practice media session outside the team’s locker room Friday afternoon, Kings coach Terry Murray stuck around longer than usual.
Appearing exhausted as he leaned against the concrete wall at the Toyota Sports Center, looking like someone who hadn’t slept much after losing 10 of the last 12 games, Murray was discussing the dynamics associated with running a successful cycle in the offensive zone, and how instincts play an important role in developing scoring chances.
After the lesson ended, Murray sighed, shook his head and sounded frustrated when he said, "We’re just so young."
Instincts are typically honed through age and experience, and it’s no secret the Kings are lacking in both departments. Sporting one of the youngest rosters in the NHL with an average age of 26.3, and built around a first-line center who’s 23 and a pair of defensemen who are 21 and 24, the Kings have gone from one extreme to the other this season -- twice in fact.
Just like young people tend to do.
Being young, well paid, fit and living near a beach in Southern California would invite enough distractions, but playing in the NHL requires more than your average discipline. Again, probably something that comes easier with age.
Daryl Evans, a former member of the Kings who’s in his 12thseason as the radio color commentator, has been along for the ride. He was rinkside when the Kings advanced to the playoffs last season, their first postseason appearance in eight years. He watched them push Vancouver to six games before getting eliminated in the first round.
And he has watched the team perform like a Stanley Cup contender at times this season, while looking like the laughable 2006-07 version of the Kings during others. Either way, nobody's taking the Kings lightly this season.
"Because of what they did last year, and what they’re capable of doing . . . the opponent’s are sitting there saying, ‘They’re down, let’s kick them,’ " Evans said. "This is not a team you want to play against in the playoffs."
When the Kings started this season 12-3, their best start in franchise history, Evans knew the team could never keep up that pace.
But what about the players?
"They kind of took it, maybe a little bit, for granted," Evans said. "I’m not saying it went to their heads, but I think you just kind of let your guard down a little bit. Everybody is telling you how good you are and how good you’re doing and you see how good you’re doing, but it’s not reality."
In a matter of 24 hours, their season-opening momentum stopped in its tracks. Suddenly, the Kings couldn’t do anything right, losing seven of eight. Even their lone victory in that span was a head scratcher, as the Kings blew a three-goal lead in Boston before winning in a shootout.
Following a 2-0 loss Nov. 29 in Anaheim, players sulked at their lockers and searched for answers. For the first time this season, they spoke of their inability to play a full 60 minutes, something that has been repeated often since.
The Kings pulled out of it, alright, winning their next three games by one goal and extending the run to 9-2-1. They paid back Anaheim with a 4-1 win Dec. 26, then went to San Jose the next night and played their best all-around game of the season in a 4-0 victory.
But just as quickly as they pulled out of the last nosedive, they fell into another.
Back-to-back blowout losses to Phoenix and Philadelphia, a 1-0 loss to San Jose and four more one-goal defeats helped add up to 10 losses in 12 games. Again, even the victories weren’t impressive, as the Kings blew a 4-0 lead against Columbus before winning, 6-4.
Evans said the second slump has a completely different feel. He believes it was triggered by extreme scheduling, but has snowballed enough to damage the team’s confidence.
After taking three days off for the Christmas break, the Kings returned to play four games in five nights, covering three different cities. They hadn’t experienced such a compacted schedule since the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season.
The end of that stretch also marked the beginning of eight consecutive home games, a period that’s been great for fans but can be a distraction to players, especially around the holidays.
"The best teams in the league don’t want to play eight in a row at home," Evans said.
The Kings won’t have to worry about that again this season. After hosting Boston tonight and San Jose on Wednesday, the team has the All-Star break and then heads out on a 10-game road trip, although the schedule allows for the team to return home between some games.
While some have questioned whether the Kings even have the talent to salvage a playoff spot this season, Evans said they can definitely get back to the postseason. The players just need to find a way to believe in themselves, something they had no problem doing earlier this season.
"Something has to happen to get that confidence level up," he said. "Momentum and confidence are the biggest things for an athlete and those are most of the things the Kings are lacking right now."