Kings’ youngsters are getting valuable experience – Daily Breeze

LOS ANGELES — Yeah, it’s still a 3-2 league. Darryl Sutter coined that phrase when he was still coaching here, and the current Kings and Sutter’s Calgary Flames have held to that pattern in their three meetings this season. On Monday night it was the first-place Flames who had the three.

But there are things happening below the surface that can make this Kings’ season a smashing success – and a beacon for the team’s future – well after the final 10 games of the regular season and any postseason activity is complete.

This was hardly the blueprint anyone around the Kings expected when the season began. There was some optimism that the rebuild was reaching the next stage. But who could have imagined that by April they’d be in the thick of the playoff picture – playing for home-ice advantage in the first round, no less – without Drew Doughty or Dustin Brown or Brendan Lemieux, Mikey Anderson, Matt Roy and Sean Walker? Or that Sean Durzi, Jordan Spence, Quinton Byfield and Rasmus Kupari would be playing outsized roles?

Monday’s loss, in which Calgary’s first goal (a deflection of Johnny Gaudreau’s centering pass past Cal Petersen 10 seconds into the game) and third goal (also by Gaudreau at the end of the second period) were probably preventable, was just the Kings’ fourth regulation loss in their last 16 games dating to March 4.

Theirs is not a comfortable hold on second place in the Pacific. Edmonton trails by just one point and will be the next opponent, Thursday night in downtown L.A., in what now looms as a critical game.

But these critical games are valuable, both in the standings and from a maturation standpoint.

Consider the defensemen who played major minutes Monday night. Durzi made his NHL debut on Nov. 24. He’s now playing big minutes on the power play and killing penalties, and Monday night he led the Kings with 26:41 of ice time. During their three-game Canadian road trip last week, he logged 26:24, 28:36 and 26:03 at Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg, respectively.

“To be honest, they didn’t have any other choice,” captain Anze Kopitar said. “They were thrown in the fire and they responded to that. That’s what you want to see from young guys. You know, they’re getting experience on the fly, which is great, and they’ve been a big part of our group and they will be going forward.

“Any time Drew goes down it’s a big hole to fill, but everybody on the back end has done a really good job with Mikey being out and Walks and Roysy. I mean, those are top-four defensemen, and all of a sudden you’re without all four of them. It’s not like somebody went down and then somebody came back and the other guy went down. All four of them were down. So like I said, the group inside that room is feeling good. And we like it where we’re at.”

Adrian Kempe’s emergence has helped. He scored two goals Monday night for his 30th and 31st of the season, and as Kopitar noted, there are just some nights when it’s imperative to get Kempe the puck, and this “was one of them.”

“He’s been a streaky player throughout his career,” Coach Todd McLellan said. “We’ve all talked about that before, his issues as the streaks and the dry spells have gone really long. This year, he had one somewhat lengthy one. But other than that, he’s been pretty consistent. His physicality, his pace and shot (are) showing up night after night. And you know, we haven’t had a 30-goal scorer here since I don’t know when and he’s there now. So it’s progress for our organization. It really is.”

McLellan also noted that “it’s good for us to play in these kind of games.”

There’s the obvious, that they’re meaningful games with something at stake and an opportunity for the compete level to rise (and, of course, a tangible prize). But there’s also the impact these experiences have on the young players who will be asked to carry more of the burden in future years. The effect probably isn’t something you can quantify when you’re in the middle of it, but it’s there.

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