June 15, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

What we’ve learned during the Kings’ four-game losing streak

First it was Arthur Kaliyev. Then Austin Strand. Then Jaret Anderson-Dolan.

Each Kings rookie celebrated a milestone this week, either a first NHL goal or NHL debut — or, in Kaliyev’s case, both.

They each spoke with reporters over Zoom, reflecting on their young careers and the gravity of their breakthrough moments.

They each offered another glimpse into the franchise’s future, another reason for optimism amid the club’s current struggles.

The only problem: Their accomplishments came during the Kings’ recent four-game losing streak, a skid that illustrated the difficult balance between building for the future and competing in the present.

With about 20% of the schedule complete, the Kings find themselves in last place in the West Division following a two-game sweep at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights over the weekend.

Here are four takeaways on their recent struggles:

Growing pains

In a 4-3 loss to the Golden Knights on Sunday, eight of the Kings’ 18 skaters were age 23 or younger. Three of their six defensemen had fewer than 20 games of NHL experience. And their goalie, Cal Petersen, was making only his 23rd career start.

When their roster is at full strength, the Kings have shown flashes of being a potential postseason threat. But as injuries, and absences related to COVID-19 protocol, have piled up the last two weeks — the Kings were without six regulars Sunday and officially moved Matt Roy to injured reserve — the team has become increasingly reliant on players still learning on the job.

“We’re a young team,” coach Todd McLellan said Sunday. “We’re a team that’s working its way through a lot of adversity, with bodies missing and that type of stuff.”

As a result, new problems keep appearing for McLellan and his staff as if they were playing a game of whack-a-mole — addressing one issue only to see another pop up somewhere else.

During the first week of the season, an abundance of penalties doomed his squad. Then, poor puck management and defensive zone decision-making derailed the team. In Las Vegas, it was the Kings’ coverage against the rush that broke down, with the Golden Knights scoring six of their nine goals in the series off quick breaks into the offensive zone.

The third goal Sunday was one of the most glaring examples. After the Kings squandered two separate first-period leads, the Golden Knights went in front late in the frame after Chandler Stephenson was left open for a drop pass in the neutral zone and had a clear path to the Kings net.

“The third one was the one that was very poorly played, but it was by a couple of relatively inexperienced players,” McLellan said of the sequence, which saw Strand and 22-year-old forward Lias Andersson gravitate toward the same man near center ice, leaving Stephenson uncovered. “It was the one that probably broke our back more than anything.”

Injury concerns

The Kings were hoping to get healthier during their trip to Las Vegas. Instead, injury concerns continued to persist.

After Martin Frk missed the first nine games of the season with a lower-body injury sustained in the preseason, the winger lasted less than two periods during his season debut Friday before exiting with another lower-body issue. He hasn’t been placed on injured reserve, but he didn’t skate during the team’s Saturday practice and missed Sunday’s game.

Winger Matt Luff, out since the second game of the season, was activated off injured reserve Friday but didn’t play in either game, though McLellan has said the 23-year-old is trending in the right direction.

Roy, meanwhile, was added to injured reserve Sunday retroactive to his Jan. 28 injury, accommodating other roster moves ahead of the team’s loss. Sean Walker is also still on IR, and forwards Blake Lizotte and Andreas Athanasiou remained on the league’s COVID-19 protocol list.

Anderson-Dolan, Strand experience NHL firsts

Rookies Anderson-Dolan and Strand did produce feel-good stories this weekend. Strand, a 23-year-old Calgary, Canada, native who was an undrafted free agent three years ago, played in his first two career NHL games, averaging almost 16 minutes per night.

“My phone was blowing up yesterday,” Strand said Saturday following his debut. “I think I had over 100 texts. Instagram was blowing up too. I tried to stay off my phone until a little bit later in the day, just so I could kind of cool down and really take in the whole experience.”

Anderson-Dolan, a former second-round pick who played nine NHL games the previous two seasons, scored his first career goal Sunday, burying a one-timer in the slot that tied the game at 3-3 in the second period.

“Obviously, it’s good to get that first one out of the way and now I can just play my game and not have to worry about that,” said Anderson-Dolan, whose two appearances in Las Vegas were his first of this season.

Key stretch ahead

The Kings’ first three weeks were difficult: six of 11 games on the road, and all but one against a team that qualified for last year’s expanded postseason.

Their next half-dozen provide an opportunity to make up ground. They open a four-game homestand with games Tuesday and Thursday against the San Jose Sharks, who have also scuffled out of the gate with a 4-5-1 record. Then they host the Minnesota Wild for another two-game series before heading to Arizona for a pair against the Coyotes.

Racking up points over that stretch — against teams who could all be in the mix for the West Division’s fourth playoff spot after the big three of St. Louis, Colorado and Vegas — will be crucial.