(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? Today it’s Sheng Peng on the Los Angeles Kings! Enjoy!)
By Sheng Peng
On their second-to-last game of the regular season, the 2011-12 Kings finally clinched a playoff berth.
The following postseason blitz — four consecutive 3-0 series leads and a dominating 16-4 playoff record — has made it easy to forget how close the champions were to being in the NHL Draft Lottery.
When headline-grabbing acquisition Jeff Carter made his Kings debut on February 25th? LA was out.
As late as March 27th – with six games left in the regular season? LA was out.
The rest, of course, is history … with some help from the Stars. Dallas, who would finish six points out, went on a five-game losing streak to cap their campaign. By June, the eighth-seeded Kings were celebrating their first-ever Stanley Cup.
But what if Los Angeles had missed the 2012 playoffs?
Here’s a look at what that alternate history might have looked like.
Dean Lombardi Fired?
“What was going through Tim Leiweke’s head?” asks Rich Hammond, LA Kings Insider from 2009-12. “It was his call at that point.
“Tim wasn’t always the most patient man in terms of running the team. I’m sure his patience was being tested right up until the day that the Kings made the playoffs.”
In 2006, Dean Lombardi was authorized by CEO Leiweke and ownership to undertake a bottom-up rebuild of an aimless organization. Los Angeles finally returned to the postseason in 2010, led by Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick. A first-round loss to the Vancouver Canucks did not dampen the excitement surrounding these young upstarts.
The next year, however, the Kings were once again bounced in the opening round, this time by the San Jose Sharks. “What everybody was hoping to see there was a progression,” recalls Hammond. “You start to wonder. Is this team really making progress?”
There were no more excuses by the start of the 2011-12 campaign. Over the summer, Lombardi had packaged youngsters Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn to Philadelphia for 26-year-old star Mike Richards. They were in the hunt for Brad Richards, the offseason’s top UFA prize. It was win or bust.
What followed, however, was bust. Head coach Terry Murray was canned in December. Last in the NHL in scoring, they leaned too much on a brilliant Quick. Kopitar admitted that month, “I’d be lying if I said there was no frustration in the room.”
LA improved under new coach Darryl Sutter, but the scoring woes persisted. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Goaltending Coach Bill Ranford, who played 15 NHL seasons. “It’s mind-boggling.”
Then Lombardi quadrupled down at the Trade Deadline, sending Jack Johnson and a 2013 1st-round draft pick to Columbus for Carter.
“If they had missed the playoffs in 2012 — or even, I think, if they had lost in the first round again,” Hammond suggests, “I think Dean would’ve had to answer some really legitimate and serious questions about whether that team was really headed in the right direction.
“You’ll be talking about six years without a playoff win. I’m not sure Dean would’ve got a whole lot more time than that.”
Dustin Brown Dealt?
Rumors dogged Brown during the Trade Deadline. “Certainly, his name was out there a lot,” confirms Hammond.
This, despite the hard-hitting winger enjoying his fifth-straight 20-goal campaign and with two seasons left on a cap-friendly $3.175 million per contract.
“You talk about big ways you could shake up a team. Obviously, the biggest one that they did was firing Terry and bringing in Darryl,” observes Hammond. “Trading your captain is the other biggest way to shake up your team.
“He probably would’ve been the most likely out of that core [to be traded over the summer]. Not even necessarily because of his play, but just because what it would symbolize. That certainly would not have surprised me.”
Would Kopitar have been safe that summer?
Back then, pundits wondered if the centerman was worthy of his $6.8 million cap hit. While Hammond contends that Lombardi and company were pleased with the Slovenian, would the hypothetical new GM have felt the same?
That said, Hammond points out, “Everybody remembers how strong that Kings’ defensive core was. It really was whatever success they had, that’s what made them go. I think anybody would have a hard time saying I want to break that up.”
With that in mind, Kopitar and his two-way prowess would probably survive a new regime. The 22-year-old Doughty, just a couple years removed from being a Norris finalist, would most likely be untouchable. You can say the same about Quick too, coming off a Vezina-caliber season.
How about Richards and Carter? By virtue of being relative newcomers to the scene, they would probably avoid the potential purge. Carter’s trade value also wasn’t at its highest. Former Flyers captain Richards might have been the favorite to take Brown’s “C.” At that time, no one was forecasting his impending decline.
Hammond elaborates, “It wasn’t the top-level guys. It was just getting that secondary scoring. The guys who Dean would bring in kind of wouldn’t work out or they’d get hurt. The Simon Gagnes of the world and people like that.
“In the short term, you’re probably talking about a lot of those veterans moving on and keeping that young core in place.”
So would 30-year-old Justin Williams have been dangled as trade bait during the offseason? Would UFAs Jarret Stoll and Dustin Penner walk?
No 2014 Cup?
Let’s say Lombardi is fired in the summer of 2012. Brown and Williams are dealt. Stoll and Penner, among others, hit the road. Sutter rides off to his ranch for good.
Regardless, Los Angeles would remain a glamorous stop for a general manager. Some of the hot candidates that summer were Jim Nill, Pierre McGuire, Julien BriseBois and Marc Bergevin. (Doughty for Shea Weber, anybody?)
Between Doughty and Quick and Kopitar and a solid return for Brown/Williams, this would still be a dangerous squad heading into the lockout-shortened season. But would that have been enough to snap the franchise’s still-ongoing championship drought?
“[2012 for LA] was such a lightning in the bottle situation. And they were able to keep that momentum going for another two years,” Hammond muses. “It felt like the momentum just kept rolling. If they never build that momentum to begin with, I don’t know if they can.”
So could you imagine 50 years of the Kings without a Stanley Cup? Hammond can:
“2012-13, probably a new management staff comes in. They’re probably going to spend the next year or two rebuilding that roster in their own image. That takes us to 2014. Do they have enough to knock off a Chicago? I wouldn’t bet on it.”
At this theoretical point, legacies are obviously altered.
Kopitar and Quick, now seen as potential Hall of Fame candidates, are Hall of Very Good inductees without the rings. Doughty’s 2011-12 is remembered more for a training camp holdout and up-and-down regular season play than his masterful playoff performance. Carter maybe never shakes off his “problem child” label. Sutter probably closes his distinguished coaching career without a championship.
“How is Dean Lombardi remembered in Los Angeles? He’s remembered as the guy who drafted Drew Doughty, and yeah, that was great, but that’s probably about it,” says Hammond. “It is interesting how that two-month period — when they make the playoffs and go on that amazing run — really changed the perspective and set Dean’s legacy.”
Hypothetically, this game-changing tweet is never sent out:
To everyone in Canada outside of BC, you're welcome.
— #LAKings (@LAKings) April 12, 2012
Before @LAKings basked in the 2012 postseason spotlight, official team and league social media accounts were fairly uniform. Or, as Mashable described them, “Enthusiastic yet conservative, engage but don’t offend and it’s definitely better to err on the side of blandness.”
For official sports social media, this tweet was its forward pass. But without it?
Sheng Peng is a Los Angeles Kings and Ontario Reign writer for HockeyBuzz, and can be found on Twitter at @Sheng_Peng.
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