Kings plagued by Cup hangover

Maybe the Los Angeles Kings have the rest of the NHL right where they want it.

Hanging on to a wild-card spot by the slimmest of margins, the defending NHL champions look like the sluggish, Cup hungover sorts that they dearly hoped not to be.

Oh, there are spurts of great hockey for sure, but not consistently enough.

They arrived at camp in September in an impressive frame of mind, intent on not adhering to the script that so many Cup champions followed the past two decades.

There's a reason no team has repeated since the 1997 and 1998 Red Wings. It's a merciless grind, mentally and physically, to play until June then turn around and do it all over again.

These Kings have played a lot of hockey over the past three-plus years, as Cup champions in 2012 and 2014 with a trip to the Western Conference finals sandwiched in between.

Over the opening three months of the season, some of L.A.'s top guys are having a tough time ramping up the emotional level due to these long runs over the past three springs.

"It's like they know it's there and they can't bring themselves to get it there all the time," said TSN color commentator and former NHL center Ray Ferraro. "I don't think there's any way to play as many games as they've played over the last three years and not have this catch up to you. I don't think there's anything they could do. Look at their team. It's not like they're a bunch of floaters; there's a lot of character guys."

They care. They do. The look on Anze Kopitar's face as he exited the visitors' dressing room after Sunday's 4-3 shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs said it all.

These guys are proud champions, and the frustration is building.

"We need to start playing desperate. We're losing points, and we're slowly getting out of a playoff spot."
Drew Doughty

"Of course it's frustrating not winning games," star blueliner Drew Doughty said after Sunday's loss. "We're used to winning games. We've had a lot of winners as players on this team and as an organization. It's definitely frustrating. But we need to get through it. As the players together, we need to get through this and get to where we know we can be. It's just going to have to turn around quickly, and it's going to take our top guys playing the best that they can and showing the rest of the guys how to play."

Doughty has been terrific, but other top players on the champs have not been up to par.

Kopitar has just 13 points (6 goals, 7 assists) in 28 games, although word is he has played through some ailments that may still be affecting him.

Winger Marian Gaborik, who this summer signed a seven-year, $34.125 million deal to stay on board after his excellent playoffs, has just five goals on the season, although he has missed a bunch of games with injury.

"Best thing you maybe take out of tonight is that Gabby scores," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said after Sunday's game. "We're 30-something games into the year and he's finding his way. Hopefully this is good for him tonight."

As a team, Los Angeles is just not scoring enough goals from night to night.

The puck possession numbers remain strong -- not league-leading like they were a year ago but still very good in the advanced stats department -- so that should bode well for turning things around.

In fact, the Kings have outshot their opponents in all seven games they have played in December but have three wins to show for it.

Issues on the back end have also complicated matters. Slava Voynov's suspension not only deprives the Kings of one of their top blueliners, but it also has a domino effect as the rest of the blue line has been doled out increased minutes. A youngster like Brayden McNabb is playing more minutes than what the team would have envisioned before the season because it has no choice.

"You can't discount the fact they're missing one of their top four D who plays a lot for them," said Ferraro.

And what the Kings are finding is that there are no easy nights. It's a grind every single game. Not just because of their own issues, but also because the opposition treats a game versus the Kings as a Cup-clinching evening.

"Everyone is gunning for you," said Doughty. "We come in to every team's arena and we're the defending Stanley Cup champs. Yeah, that was last year and it's in the past, and for us, we've reset and we've forgotten about that. But for the other teams, they're thinking: 'We've got to beat the champs. We got to show them we could have won that Stanley Cup too.' Teams are doing a good job with that.

"We've just got to rise up to the occasion. We haven't lately, but I know we will."

Ferraro, who worked the Los Angeles game between the benches at Ottawa on Thursday for TSN, said the Kings look exhausted.

"And maybe mentally not quite there," he said. "I think the only thing that helps them is the calendar. And when it goes to 2015, they're going to wake up. That's what I think."

There is indeed that sense about the Kings -- well-earned, by the way -- that no matter how things go in the regular season, they will figure it out when it matters. They started the playoffs on the road in 2012 and 2014 and won championships.

"These guys police themselves pretty well," Kings executive Mike Futa told ESPN.com. "I've learned not to get too down and not to get too judgmental of the group. They find a way."

The notion that the Kings have some secret on/off switch that can be flipped when the time is right is not what the players on this team want to be known for.

"I wouldn't like to think that, no," said Doughty. "We want to go out there every night and play our best hockey. When we're playing desperately, our team is very good. When we're kind of just going through the motions and playing games that way, we're not very good. We need to start playing desperate. We're losing points, and we're slowly getting out of a playoff spot. We definitely need to start paying attention to the standings and win more games."

The rope-a-dope gets old after a while. Because one of these times it might burn them. One doesn't imagine that general manager Dean Lombardi is overly pleased. The veteran GM has done a lot of research over the past few years, talking to executives and former players from championship teams in other sports, trying to give his Kings every edge in maintaining their top-level ways. This is a franchise that wants to be a dynasty.

This wasn't the opening three months the GM had in mind. Lombardi hasn't been with the Kings on this road trip; instead he's been with his AHL club Manchester over the past two weeks getting a close eye on his prospects. No doubt he has liked what he's seen down there, as the Monarchs have the second-best record in the AHL, led by a number of prospects who are going to be good NHL players, like center Nick Shore, 22, who might get a look up top before the season is out.

How the rest of this season plays out for the Kings will determine just how many roster spots open up for some of those youngsters in Manchester.

Does Lombardi start retooling with youth just a bit this summer, or does his veteran, championship core once again give him proof not to tinker too much?

Those are questions that will be answered on the ice over the next few months.