LOS ANGELES - The dressing room has changed from two years back, the way the players sound, the way they interact.
Back then, Jonathan Quick was all attitude, most of it bad. If Mike Richards wasn’t glaring at someone, Jeff Carter was doing it on his behalf. Drew Doughty was a kid who acted like a kid. And Anze Kopitar had yet to figure out how great he was going to become.
The Los Angeles Kings were a budding champion easy to admire, difficult to warm up to. Led by the workaholic general manager, Dean Lombardi, would be like hockey’s version of Punxsutawney Phil: He’d pop his head out every so often to determine just how many weeks of hockey were left. Then he’d retreat back into that silent place where he seems to do his best work.
There was coach Darryl Sutter, with that face and those expressions — the best looks in all of hockey — and those pointed sentences, especially to questions being asked by those he doesn’t know or trust. His eyes often say more than his words: Two years ago he was hard to read, now he’s a novel, bemused by his own words, his own turns of phrase, more comfortable in seeming uncomfortable than anyone else in the game. He has changed from two years ago, more at ease in the spotlight he clearly detests.
In the dressing room opened yesterday primarily it’s the same team, mostly the same players, but time and maturity and a most remarkable confidence and calm, has altered this group.
They have, like their coach, grown into themselves, unflappable in tandem, exposing a new side of the Kings. There was Quick, appearing on The Ellen Show last month, smiling just a few weeks ago, seeming so un-Quick-like; And yesterday, when a television reporter asked him to answer the questions pretending it was after Game 2 — because that’s when he needed the piece to run — Quick played along.
Two years ago, on his way to the Conn Smythe, he rarely tossed up an answer of relevance. Interviewing him was a process that involved discomfort. “See,” Quick said Friday, smiling. “I can be coached.” He can play along.
“He’s grown up,” said Justin Williams, the Mr. Clutch of the Kings. “A lot of guys around here have grown up.”
If only talent won hockey games, the Pittsburgh Penguins wouldn’t have hired a general manager and fired a coach Friday. If talent won hockey games, Cliff Fletcher’s Calgary Flames team would have won more than one Cup and Eric Lindros would have a ring from Philadelphia. If talent won everything, somewhere in time the San Jose Sharks would have had a parade.
This Kings team is complete. It isn’t just talent but a thesis exercise on the model franchise. It has a high-end general manager in Lombardi, who established a culture here and patiently attained it and never veered from it. It has Sutter, who has developed into a coach for the ages.
He was the right man at the right time for the Kings. This team is so his. Of that there is no question. His view. His style. His altered sense of what works and doesn’t work. Sutter grew up as a dump-and-chase banger and has evolved the way the best coaches evolve. A second Stanley Cup in three seasons, a third trip to the final in his past five years behind the bench and soon he may be included in the Mike Babcock conversation — the who’s-the-best-coach-in-hockey question.
But the dressing room, that’s where the players live and breathe. That’s not the domain for coach or GM. That’s where Dustin Brown, the captain who once stuttered, speaks clearly, intelligently, confidently, insightfully. He talks about what every player brings, how different they are, how prepared and focused the Kings are no matter what the circumstance, how the Kings are built for playoffs and not necessarily for 82-game seasons.
He talks about the bench and how egalitarian it is: When times are tough, they don’t look for a Phil Kessel or a Jason Spezza or a Taylor Hall to score to bail them out, they look to everyone. They believe in everyone. “Because we know we have that. Because we trust each other.”
They can trail, as they did against San Jose, and they find a way. They can trail, as they did in Game 7 against Chicago or Game 1 of the Cup final by a 2-0 score, and it’s never mind. They just play on. They find a way. They define this Kings team.
“We’re a team in every sense of the word,” Brown said. “Everybody represents something different, every part here matters.”
Sutter talked about it when asked to describe Williams, the Game 7 savant. He talked in simple, yet not necessarily simple, hockey terms: Being competitive, being strong on the puck, being tenacious, being physical. The Brian Burke words minus truculence. The words matter when the team mirrors them.
It is on the ice and off for the Kings and there is a connection between both. It can come from Mike Richards, now relegated to the fourth line, making Marian Gaborik comfortable upon being traded to Los Angeles, taking him out for breakfast. It can come from the veterans, Willie Mitchell and Jarret Stoll, who aren’t all-stars, but define professional in their approach. It came come from the youthful enthusiasm of Tyler Toffoli, who is growing a playoff beard only nobody knows it. “I could grow this for a year,” he said. “This is all I’ve got.”
There is youth and leadership, skill and grit, size and speed. They are what Alain Vigneault says they are: Big and nasty.
And it helps having an all-world defenceman in Doughty and Kopitar, whom Gretzky called the third-best player in the world the other night, behind Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. But you can have Toews and Duncan Keith and be eliminated. You can have Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara and not be playing for the Cup. You need more.
You need a lot of everything to get this far, play in a one-team Stanley Cup Final that the Kings will either win or lose because they know in their minds the New York Rangers can’t beat them.
They have already beaten three teams more equipped than the Rangers to get this far.
“We have more than we had in 2012,” Brown said. They didn’t have Gaborik, who once scored five goals against Henrik Lundqvist in a game. “Can you believe that?” Williams said. “Can you believe anyone can do that?”
They didn’t have Carter at centre — he was mostly a winger in that Cup final — and he was a scorer, but not necessarily a game-changer two years ago. They didn’t have the youth of Toffoli and Tyler Pearson, elevated from the American Hockey League to the Kings’ second line.
“A lot is the same,” Brown said. “But we’ve made a lot of changes too and a lot of guys have grown from the experience. The new guys have fit in great. The experienced guys are getting better.”
They can score off the cycle, like they did when they beat New Jersey in a forgettable Final. But with Gaborik now, with Toffoli, with more Doughty on offence, they can score off the rush as well.
And they have Kopitar, the best possession centre in hockey, whose 19 assists in these playoffs dwarf everyone. “He never plays a bad game,” Sutter said.
The Kings do, just not when it matters. This is a growing champion. “This is the best team we’ve ever had.” Brown said.
WILLIAMS HAPPY FOR RUTHERFORD
Mr. Game 7, Justin Williams, was happy that Jim Rutherford was happy.
After all, Williams has a soft spot in his heart for the new general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the role he played in lifting Williams’ career to prominence.
Williams was struggling along with the Philadelphia Flyers when Rutherford believed there was more to his game. Rutherford traded veteran defenceman Danny Markov and other parts to obtain Williams from Philadelphia and together the two celebrated the only Stanley Cup won by the Carolina Hurricanes.
Having never scored more than 17 goals in an NHL season, Williams scored 31 in his first full campaign in Carolina, adding 18 playoff points. The next season he scored a career-high 33 goals with the Canes.
“Jim is one of the guys who believed in me and gave me an opportunity to see if I could be a better player in the league,” said Williams, who scored the overtime winner in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final for Los Angeles.
“I owe a lot to him. I have the utmost respect for him and wish him the best (with the Penguins).”