A 9-1-1 start, the best winning percentage in the NHL … just the way first-year Kings general manager Rob Blake planned it.
Not quite. But Blake, who succeeded Dean Lombardi in April, said he’s not surprised by the team’s best beginning since the 1980-81 Triple Crown-led Kings had nine wins, a loss and a tie.
When most observers wrote off winger Dustin Brown as his production plummeted, when center Anze Kopitar’s competitiveness was questioned because his worst season coincided with the start of his big, new contract, and when Drew Doughty finished a distant seventh in Norris trophy voting last season, Blake ignored the chatter and looked beneath the surface. He saw a curable malaise, not the beginning of a steep decline. There’s a long way to go, but by adding speed to the lineup and backing new coach John Stevens’ strategy of granting players offensive freedom, Blake set the stage for the rejuvenation of their core and gave youngsters their best chance to succeed.
Asked whether everything he hoped for had come to pass, Blake made an interesting distinction between hoping key players would revive — which implies wishing and emotion — and expecting they’d rebound based on their history, age, and his knowledge of their character. Blake knows them well. He played alongside Kopitar, Brown, Michael Cammalleri and Jonathan Quick in 2007-08 as he was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, and he rekindled those relationships when he became the club’s assistant GM. He saw they still wanted to win but hadn’t been given the optimum tools or setting the last few seasons. Blake provided new tools and a new framework and anticipated they’d succeed.
So far, so good. Very good.
“I’m not sure we hoped our veterans would bounce back. I think we expected them to, in the aspect that they’re tremendous players and they don’t just fall off,” Blake said in a phone interview before Kopitar set up Tyler Toffoli for the winner with .4 of a second left in overtime at Boston on Saturday. “In our discussions through the summer we fully expected Kopitar and Toffoli and a healthy Jon Quick, and we expect Drew to be the best defenseman in the league continuously and we expect Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez and Brown to be producers on our team. I wouldn’t use the word hope. I expected that.”
By extension, Blake hasn’t been shocked by the early success. “I think if you look at the core or the base of this team, they got two championships at a pretty young age, with Kopitar, Quick, Doughty, Martinez, Muzzin,” Blake said, adding Toffoli and Tanner Pearson to the list. “They’ve been champions and they understand it, and usually those guys carry teams.”
KINGS NEXT UP
AT ST. LOUIS
When: 5 p.m. PDT, Monday.
On the air: TV: FSW; Radio: 790.
Update: The Kings did not practice Sunday as they prepare to wrap a six-game trip, their second-longest of the season. The Blues carry a six-game point streak (5-0-1) in the first full season under coach Mike Yeo. Jaden Schwartz has 15 points in 12 games playing on a line with Vladimir Tarasenko and former Kings prospect Brayden Schenn.
Kopitar has had a stunning revival. He’s among the NHL leaders with seven goals and 13 points; he didn’t score his seventh goal last season until his 58th game and scored only 12 overall. “He’s been a tremendous player in this league. He had a tough season last year. He understood it,” Blake said. “But by no means were there signs that that’s the direction he’s headed. I’m not surprised at all that he’s playing the way he is.”
Brown (five goals, 11 points), didn’t score his fifth goal last season until Jan. 9 and finished with 14. He has been a presence around the net and has clicked with Kopitar and rookie winger Alex Iafallo. “Brownie has been a good player on this team for a long time. I think people forget that and they don’t understand that,” Blake said. “He’s a little more prominent now alongside Kopitar and on power play and net-front and different things, and I think that contributes to his production. I don’t think his game has changed a lot in the physical aspect or the durability or what he brings to the room. That’s been pretty constant over the years.”
Rookie Adrian Kempe, drafted 29th by the Kings in 2014 and nurtured in the American Hockey League, has been impressive while stepping in for injured center Jeff Carter. Kempe has six goals and nine points and hasn’t compromised his defensive strengths. “The number one thing with him is probably the speed with the puck and what he can do in open ice,” Blake said. “There’s no taking away the fact that he is a very gifted skater and he’s able to skate himself out of trouble and he’s also able to skate himself into making plays.”
Blake has been traveling with the team, intent on getting a feel for individual and collective moods. He likes that the kids’ enthusiasm for new cities and first goals has filtered through the locker room and has energized everyone. “It’s a long season and there will be ups and downs,” he said, “but I think we build off the compete and the structure that the team has played with so far.”
He isn’t hoping that will happen. He’s now expecting it.
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