Analysis: What's next for the Kings after another first-round NHL playoff exit?


The Kings season ended again Wednesday with a whimper not a bang.

It ended again in the first round of the NHL playoffs and again in a loss to the Edmonton Oilers, who have become for the Kings what kryptonite was for Superman.

The final score of the final game was 4-3, but that was just a bookkeeping detail because the series was over long before the final horn sounded. The Oilers outscored the Kings 22-13 in the five games, with nine of those goals coming in 19 chances on the power play. They didn’t concede a goal on the Kings’ 12 power-play opportunities.

Four Oilers — Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Evan Bouchard and Zach Hyman — finished the series with at least eight points, twice as many as the Kings’ co-leaders, Quinton Byfield and Adrian Kempe. As beatdowns go, this one was about as one-sided as the Kings-Oilers playoff history has been in general.

Yet for Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, it really didn’t matter what color the other uniform was. What matters is the Kings are out of the playoffs after one round.

Again.

“The whole point, I think, is that we lost three years in a row in the first round,” he said. “Yeah, it was against Edmonton. But no matter who we lost to, it would have been the same amount of disappointment, same amount of wanting to win the series.”

And a third straight loss in the first round of the playoffs will undoubtedly lead to some offseason soul-searching for the Kings. Did interim coach Jim Hiller show enough in getting the team to the playoffs for general manager Rob Blake to remove the interim tag and give Hiller the permanent job? Will that even be Blake’s decision to make?

In Blake’s seven seasons in charge the Kings have made the playoffs four times, but never advanced beyond the opening round. When Blake fired coach Todd McLellan in February, he said a new voice was needed in the dressing room. Could the same now be true in the front office?

Plus the Kings have seven players who became unrestricted free agents after Wednesday’s loss, among them defenseman Matt Roy, forward Trevor Lewis and goaltenders Cam Talbot and David Rittich. They will all need to be re-signed or replaced.

And finally the team will have to decide what to do with center Pierre-Luc Dubois, who signed an eight-year, $68-million contract with the team in June, becoming the second-highest player on the team. For that the Kings got just 16 goals and 24 assists; Dubois was skating on the fourth line Wednesday, taking a questionable penalty that led to Edmonton’s third goal.

Asked whether he wanted the job permanently, a clearly deflated Hiller perked up.

“That goes without saying,” he said. “You know, it’s a great group of players with with a lot of character. They made it easy for me in what was maybe difficult circumstances for them. So I owe a lot to them. I enjoyed it.”

But change must come if the Kings are to ever get to the second round again.

Asked in the quiet Kings’ locker room if the Kings’ roster is good enough to win the playoffs, Doughty was direct.

“We haven’t proven that yet. I’m not going to say no. But that’s a tough question,” he said. “We haven’t proved that. That’s the bottom line.”

Asked if there’s a next step in the team’s evolution, he continued with the same theme.

“Obviously win a playoff round. That was our goal this year,” he said. “Work hard in the offseason again and come back stronger and you know, use this experience, these past experiences, as motivation and try to win a series.”

“I’m not going to tell you what I think is missing,” he continued. “It comes down to we all need to chip in a playoff series and we had guys on some nights, some guys off other nights. And we all need to be on. Nothing great. We all need to be really solid and consistent to win a playoff series and I think that’s where we lost.”

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The Kings haven’t beaten anyone in a first-round playoff series since 2014, when they won the second of their two Stanley Cups. But it’s the Oilers who have become the perennial postseason roadblock, beating the Kings in the first round in each of the last three seasons.

The teams have met in the postseason 10 times since 1982 and Edmonton has won eight of those series. Only two other teams in the NHL have beaten the same playoff opponent more often over that span.

And while you can chalk some of the Kings’ struggles up to bad luck and some to chance, dominance of this degree seems inexplicable without a curse. So maybe it’s all Wayne Gretzky’s fault.

Hey, it’s a theory. (And it’s not any worse than some of those offered by the Kings players Wednesday.)

Gretzky was far more than an icon in Canada, he was a national treasure who had led the Oilers to four Stanley Cups in five seasons when he was dealt to the Kings in the summer of 1988. In hockey-mad Edmonton, the trade wasn’t so much a trade as it was a betrayal.

But Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, whose other business ventures were struggling, needed cash and the Kings offered him $15 million of it in the Gretzky deal. In that way the trade was reminiscent of Babe Ruth’s sale from the Red Sox to the Yankees in 1920, one Boston owner Harry Frazee made to prop up his failing theater interests.

After the trade the Red Sox would go 83 seasons without a World Series title while the Yankees would win a record 26 championships.

If the Gretzky Curse does indeed exist, it hasn’t been nearly as harsh as the Curse of the Bambino, but it has haunted both teams. Plus it needed a couple of seasons to take effect.

In Gretzky’s first season in Los Angeles, the Kings beat the Oilers in the playoffs en route to the division finals; a year later the Oilers, sans Gretzky, would win their fifth Stanley Cup in seven seasons.

Neither of those things have happened again.

The Kings have lost six straight playoff series to the Oilers while Edmonton has gone 33 years without an NHL championship. The entire country of Canada, in fact, has won just two Stanley Cups since Gretzky left for Hollywood.

And while the Kings won NHL titles in 2012 and 2014, their path forward was made easier because the Oilers missed the playoffs both times, part of a 10-season playoff drought fans still refer to as “The Decade of Darkness.”

The Oilers may finally be ready to step back into the light, curses be damned. In McDavid and Draisaitl, Edmonton has three of the last four Hart Trophy winners, and this year the supporting cast around them is better than it’s ever been. The team seems primed for a long playoff run.

The Kings, meanwhile, are looking at another long offseason searching for answers. Could they be cursed?

“I don’t know what to think. It’s too fresh,” forward Phillip Danault said. “But it definitely hurts.”



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