<
>

Don't look now, but the Los Angeles Kings are struggling

Darryl Sutter said his team has struggled lately because of constant lineup changes. James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports

So, what exactly is going on with the Los Angeles Kings?

Nine days ago, the defending Stanley Cup champs dispatched the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-2 to finish a six-game homestand with an unblemished 6-0-0 record. Goaltender Jonathan Quick was sensational. The trio of Tanner Pearson, Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli emerged as the hottest line in hockey. Not even the headlines surrounding defenseman Slava Voynov's indefinite suspension after his arrest on domestic violence charges seemed to deter the club's focus.

And since?

The Kings have dropped the first four games of a five-game road trip. They have looked nothing like the world-beaters of just a few weeks ago. They have been undisciplined. They have chased the play. They have been outshot in the first period of their past four losses by a margin of 51-38. Though the Kings were one of the best puck-possession teams in the league last season, they now find themselves in the middle of the pack, controlling only 50.8 percent of shot attempts at even strength (compared to last season, when they ranked first with 56.8 percent, according to www.hockeyanalysis.com).

The Kings sit in fifth place in the Pacific Division, two points behind the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks, and six points behind the first-place Anaheim Ducks.

Their most recent defeat came at the hands of the lowly Carolina Hurricanes, a 3-2 loss to the worst team in the NHL, which sends them sputtering into their final stop of the trip to face the Dallas Stars, one of the most dynamic offensive squads in the league.

"We have not been sharp. We haven't moved the puck well. We haven't supported each other," Kings center Jarret Stoll told ESPN.com this weekend after the loss to Detroit. "It's very obvious."

That much was true to anyone who saw the squad coming unhinged in Detroit on Halloween night, when the Red Wings jumped out to a 4-0 lead. Granted, it was the Kings' third game in four nights, but the team did not look good.

"They look dead," one scout remarked.

The club recovered after an abysmal first period to pull within two goals -- if he had scored on his penalty shot, Dustin Brown would've made it a one-goal game -- but the damage was essentially done.

Coach Darryl Sutter said he wasn't concerned. In fact, he sounded like this was something he might have foreseen, what with all the challenges facing his team.

"I mean, quite honestly, we've played some guys more than they've had to, some guys less than we've had to. It's all part and parcel with what's going on with our team right now," Sutter said after Friday's loss. "It's not a very consistent lineup and it's hurt us. It's cost us games."

To be fair, the Kings have not iced a full lineup. Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar have missed time with injuries, though both players returned Sunday. The team is still without Voynov, who remains suspended with a criminal investigation ongoing. And the cap implications of that suspension have had adverse consequences for the team. When Kopitar went down, the Kings were unable to call up a replacement for their first game of the road trip, forcing them to play shorthanded against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The "That '70s Line" of Pearson, Carter and Toffoli has cooled off, with the trio combining for a mere two points over the past four games.

In pre-scouting the Kings this week, Stars coach Lindy Ruff noted the impact of such a drought.

"It's the same with our team because of our top line," Ruff told ESPN.com. "When you rely pretty heavily on one line to get it done and they don't get it done, you get in a little bit of a jam."

With Quick coming back to earth after an outstanding start, all these aforementioned issues have been exposed. Quick has given up 10 goals in his past three games. Not terrible, but not the type of showing that is going to camouflage things, either.

"Jonathan Quick obviously stole some games for us. We had some phenomenal goaltending and we rode that hot streak," said Mike Futa, vice president of hockey operations and director of player personnel for the Kings. "Every team knows when the defending Stanley Cup champions are coming. There's no sympathy for who is missing from our lineup. There's no sympathy for what's going on with our [defense] with the Slava suspension."

And though the league is open to providing the Kings some sort of temporary cap relief with the nebulous nature of Voynov's suspension, there are also escrow issues that complicate matters from the NHLPA's side of the aisle.

Last week, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi vented his frustrations about the matter, telling the Los Angeles Times the club was mired in a game of "political football."

According to a spokesperson from the Redondo Beach Police Department, there could be a determination made about the charges Voynov could face this week.

But, as Futa pointed out, there will be no sympathy for the Kings, regardless of the situation.

After all, everyone has seen how they have reacted to adversity in years past. To underestimate their ability to respond to difficult times is a death wish.

Just ask the San Jose Sharks.

"It's a long year. We've faced adversity in the past and it's pretty much the same group in here," veteran defenseman Matt Greene told ESPN.com. "We're confident we can get it together."