Kings rise as Ducks struggle

George Parros is a Duck who used to be a King, and the reversal of fortunes for Southern California's NHL teams blindsided him.

"No one saw it coming," said Parros, who last played for the Kings in 2006. "Or maybe they did, and we didn't, I don't know."

The Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007 and reached the seventh game of a Western Conference semifinal against Detroit last season. The Kings? They haven't made the playoffs since 2002.

Imagine if anyone could have predicted the Western Conference standings would be turned on their head last week: The Kings were No. 1 and the Ducks were last at No. 15.

"I would have laughed," Parros said. Not that he feels like it.

The Ducks (14-14-7) climbed out of last place on Saturday, but remain seven points out of the final playoff spot. The Kings (22-12-3) couldn't hold onto first, particularly with an eight-day break between games, but they love their position.

"I would say we're surprised, I guess, very pleasantly surprised," Kings coach Terry Murray said.

The Kings' rise seems sudden. But it has been coming, fueled in part by high draft picks awarded when they finished out of the playoffs.

Drew Doughty, whose eight goals and 24 points place him among the top-scoring defensemen in the NHL, was the No. 2 overall pick in 2008. The Kings got rising star Anze Kopitar -- the team's leading scorer with 16 goals and 38 points -- at No. 11 in 2005. They found Wayne Simmonds at No. 61 in 2007 and goaltender Jonathan Quick at No. 72 two years before that.

"They've built a heck of a hockey team through the draft," said Ducks general manager Bob Murray, who is no relation to the Kings' coach.

"It's a tough thing for your fans to go through, because let's face it, there've been some real lean years there, same as in Chicago, which has also built through the draft. All the credit to [Kings general manager Dean Lombardi] and his staff, they've done a heck of a job, and they're reaping the benefits."

The Ducks, in a way, are on an opposite trajectory, paying the price for their success. Faced with looming salary-cap issues, Bob Murray traded away future Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Pronger last summer when the Ducks' other future Hall of Fame defenseman, Scott Niedermayer, decided to return for another season.

Without Pronger, the Ducks' defensive intimidation withered. And in a surprise, the goaltending tandem of Jonas Hiller and Jean-Sebastien Giguere got off to a poor start, unsettled in part by opposing players suddenly being allowed to camp out in front of the net.

"Going in, we knew it was kind of a move where, OK, we traded for Chris to win the Stanley Cup, and then you win and you have to kind of get some of your assets back," Bob Murray said. "We couldn't afford him in the lineup with everything we had here and Niedermayer. We couldn't afford them together."

What makes the trade more painful at the moment is there isn't a player on the active roster from the trade that sent Pronger to Philadelphia.

Luca Sbisa, a promising 19-year-old defenseman, was sent back to his junior team, partly because of concern about how the Ducks' struggles would affect his development. Joffrey Lupul, one of the Ducks' best goal-scorers, is out six to eight weeks after undergoing back surgery Thursday. The other parts of the trade were future draft picks, including first-round picks the next two years.

And there is a bigger stick than Lupul's out of the lineup. Teemu Selanne, yet another future Hall of Famer and a complement to the Ducks' young guns -- Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan -- is out because of a broken hand and isn't expected back for at least three more weeks.

"We started to get something going, then had some injuries and took a step back," Bob Murray said.

The Kings have a long list of injuries too, but somehow thrived anyway, going 7-2-1 in their past 10 despite playing with minor leaguers in the lineup.

They're almost out of it: Forward Ryan Smyth is poised to return from a rib injury in the Kings' next game Saturday, and others get time to heal this week.

"I've been out 15 games and I analyzed pretty much most of the games," said Smyth, a veteran acquired from Colorado last summer who teamed brilliantly with Kopitar on the first line when Kopitar was leading the NHL in scoring early in the season.

"What I really like about them is not only the depth and energy and youth, but shift to shift, they're relentless," Smyth said.

"I think we've got depth, secondary scoring, solid defense, and we're getting goaltending."

That has not always been the case for the Kings. But Quick, 23, is thriving with a more committed defense in front of him. He has a 2.58 goals-against average with a .904 save percentage, and leads the league in minutes.

Terry Murray, the Kings' coach, tiptoes around the Ducks' problems, but said he would like to see them make the playoffs. The Ducks entered the NHL in 1993, but the two Southern California teams never have reached the playoffs the same season.

"They've got a great group of guys and they're a team that's won the championship," he said. "To me, this is wonderful for California. Anaheim won it. The L.A. Kings are trying to step up, and hopefully we can build a rivalry."

The Kings took the first of six meetings this season, winning 4-3 on Dec. 1.

"It would be great to push it to the next level," Terry Murray said. "The only way that comes is having some playoff series against each other. It could be like when Wayne Gretzky played for the Kings and they went to the Stanley Cup finals and kids in Southern California started playing hockey."

Robyn Norwood is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.