LOS ANGELES – Drew Doughty never hesitates to say what the rest of the Los Angeles Kings are only thinking, and the star defenceman’s mind was already on a third Stanley Cup title while his teammates celebrated their second on the ice behind him.
“Next year, we’re going to want to win it again,” Doughty said Friday night after the Kings’ double-overtime, Cup-winning victory over the New York Rangers.
With two NHL championships in three years, the Kings are building a hockey dynasty in an unlikely place. Hollywood’s team is hardly the most glamorous in the league, but the Kings’ commitment to hard work, team defence and playoff excellence puts them in position to contend for years to come.
Los Angeles’ core is mostly in its prime, a balanced collection of gritty veterans and promising young talent. The Kings have only three unrestricted free agents, including late-season acquisition Marian Gaborik.
What’s more, they’ve built a culture of winning that got them through a grueling 26-game post-season run that included a 3-0 deficit in the first round, three consecutive seven-game series in the Western Conference playoffs, and three overtime games in the Cup finals.
The Kings have no worlds left to conquer, but they’re eager to do it all again when training camp opens in three months – after an appropriate celebration, of course. They’ll have a parade through downtown Los Angeles on Monday.
“We’ve got a special group here,” goalie Jonathan Quick said. “We just finished four incredible difficult and exhausting rounds. These were probably the most tiring two months of hockey I’ve ever played. So we have a special group to be able to overcome everything we’ve been challenged with, and we just want to party now.”
Indeed, the frequently humourless Quick broke out some sweet dance moves in the Kings’ dressing room while they partied with the Cup on Friday night. After captain Dustin Brown carried the Stanley Cup into the room, coach Darryl Sutter took a long drink from the bowl while bubbly and beer sprayed all around him.
The Kings have an enviable leadership tandem in general manager Dean Lombardi and Sutter, two hockey lifers who finally claimed the ultimate prize in the back half of their careers – and then did it again.
When Lombardi gets back to work, he’ll likely only make small tweaks to his championship roster. Of the 24 players on the Kings’ 2012 championship roster, 17 are still with the organization, and they’ve all bought into the Kings’ wildly successful style.
Veteran defencemen Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell are unrestricted free agents, and Dwight King is a restricted free agent. The biggest question mark is Gaborik, who led the NHL post-season with 14 goals after arriving from Columbus in March.
The 32-year-old Slovak wing showed he’s still an elite goal-scorer who likely could command a hefty new contract. But after 13 seasons under the microscope of enormous expectations in Minnesota, New York and Columbus, Gaborik seemed grateful to take a complementary role with the Kings – and he loves living in sunny Los Angeles.
The Kings also must evaluate centre Mike Richards, whose offensive production has declined alarmingly from his earlier totals. While Sutter praises him as a key role player, Richards is making an awful lot of money for a glue guy – an average of $5.75 million over the next six seasons.
But Los Angeles deserves a summer to bask in its remarkable achievements. The Kings have won a jaw-dropping 10 playoff series in the last three years, losing only to Chicago in last season’s Western Conference finals.
The Kings won’t lack rivals for their crown next season.
California hockey has never been better, with Pacific Division champion Anaheim and perennial contender San Jose poised to be good again next year. Dallas and Minnesota made significant strides this season, and St. Louis still looks like a force.
But the Kings realize their biggest rival for the next few years is likely to be the Blackhawks. The Kings ousted the defending champions in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals on Alec Martinez’s overtime goal, but Chicago will be back with hunger.
“During the Olympics, I always thought about this, ‘How are we going to beat Chicago? How are we going to beat Chicago?”‘ Sutter asked. “Dean got Gaborik. We were able to put some kids in, go from there.”
© The Canadian Press, 2014