The future arrives for last-place L.A. Kings

By Joshua R. Skinner
Medill Reports

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings are running out of time to make a move for a Western Conference playoff spot. But if they are going to make an unlikely run to the postseason, a 5-3 victory over the Calgary Flames on Wednesday was a good place to start.

The win — just the third for L.A. in 2020 — was spurred by backup goaltender Cal Petersen, 25, and forward Austin Wagner, 22, who the Kings hope represent their future.

Wagner scored 12 goals during his rookie season last year, but like most of the team, has struggled to put up points this season.

“We’re happy for [Wagner]. He stuck with it and didn’t lose his spirit at all,” said Kings coach Todd McLellan. “There were times when he was asking a lot of questions. This is hopefully the beginning of something good down the stretch for him.”

The Kings have only three wins in 2020 and recently lost all four games on an Eastern Conference road trip, getting outscored 12-5. They own the NHL’s second-worst goal differential and are 19 points out of the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference with 24 games remaining.

Despite that, Wagner believes the next generation of Kings can learn from the veterans.

“When you look at it here, we have a lot of winners,” Wagner said. “We’ve got two Stanley Cup banners hanging up there, and a lot of the guys in this room have been on that team. They know how to win.”

But many of those players are on the back end of their career or on the way out. Last week, Los Angeles traded fan favorite Kyle Clifford and backup goaltender Jack Campbell to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Trevor Moore and two third-round draft picks.

With the NHL trade deadline approaching on Feb. 24, it’s a near certainty the Kings will move more veterans.

Tyler Toffoli, 27, who tallied a goal in the victory over Calgary, is the most obvious player to get moved before the deadline. In the final year of a $13.8 million contract, Toffoli could be a key cog for any team looking for scoring depth at a reasonable price.

Another player nearing the end of his career is longtime netminder Jonathan Quick, who is in the midst of one of the worst seasons of his career. While he won’t be traded, his struggles could provide more playing time for Petersen, who stopped 35 of 38 shots against the Flames.

“He has a calmness to him,” McLellan said. “I’m holding my breath about him sometimes, and he just calmly makes the save.”

Petersen ascended to the backup role after the Kings traded Campbell to Toronto. He has only two starts this season but sports a .917 save percentage, well above Quick’s .895 mark.

Quick’s issues have also leaked into the locker room. He’s been vocal about his dissatisfaction with the team’s direction.

“This stuff doesn’t happen if you’re in a playoff position and things like that,” Quick told The Athletic after the Clifford trade. “It sucks for that to happen.”

Of the 10 oldest teams in the NHL at the start of the season, the Kings and Minnesota Wild are the only two not currently in a playoff spot. The Wild are just two games back of the final wild-card spot.

Whatever happens during the rest of the season, Los Angeles hopes dominating a Calgary team currently in playoff position is the catalyst for a late-season push, if not for this season, then the next.

“I’m satisfied with four goals and an empty-netter,” a smiling McLellan said. “It’s been a long time since we were the ones celebrating after a puck rolled in an empty net.”

Photo at top: Kings captain Anže Kopitar prepares for a defensive-zone faceoff. (Michaela Schirra/MEDILL)