ANAHEIM — Someday, the Ducks and Kings will be good again, and their games against each other will have playoff implications like the good old days. It could be sooner, but it more likely will be later.
In the meantime, SoCal’s NHL rivalry is interesting in more subtle ways, as long as the observer understands the greater ambitions for these franchises. Success is measured in little things, in the ways the young players both sides possess stick to their systems, reduce mistakes and turn them into positive moments.
Thursday night it was the Kings’ turn to celebrate on the ice, their 2-1 victory ending an 11-game road losing streak. It included goals from veteran Jeff Carter and youngster Matt Luff, a 36-save performance from Jonathan Quick that brought back visions of a time when elite goaltending made the Kings an elite team, and an old-school, toe-to-toe heavyweight brawl between former teammates, the Kings’ Kurtis MacDermid and the Ducks’ Nic Deslauriers.
The latter, which took place midway through the second period and went to MacDermid on what This Space would consider a split decision, livened things up considerably. The back story was that the two were roommates in the Kings’ development camp years ago, and from the way they comported themselves during the fight and afterward, the mutual respect was evident.
— Eric (@Kingsgifs) December 13, 2019
MacDermid, a rugged 6-foot-5, 233-pound defenseman who was signed as an undrafted free agent, is an example of the type of player who, developed successfully, can be a mainstay of this rivalry in the future. He’s played the bulk of the last four seasons in Ontario, with 34 games with the Kings in 2017-18 and 11 last season, and he is a minus-3 in 18 games with the Kings this year.
But there is significant progress there.
“If we had a category … for most improved, in my opinion, he would get first, second and third place,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said. “He’s really come a long way. I know that Yawns (Trent Yawney), our back end coach, has a tremendous amount of confidence in him, and I think he feels that. And his teammates love having him in the lineup. So he works at his game and he deserves the ice time he’s getting. If that progression continues, we’ve got a pretty darn good player.”
How much did McClellan know about MacDermid before he took the job?
“Dermie? You know, those type of players, you know a little bit about,” he said. “They carry reputations. I didn’t know that he was as effective a player as he was. And he just continues to show us night after night that he’s very capable of playing.”
MacDermid, 25, is an example of what the Kings are developing. Luff, who knocked a loose puck past John Gibson for the Kings’ first goal, is another. The 22-year-old was sent back to Ontario for a spell last month, has been in the lineup off and on since, and is searching for that comfort zone that will enable him to play on instinct.
“I’ve got a good leadership core here,” he said, referring to forwards Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Tyler Toffoli. “I mean, those guys talk to me and make sure I understand that there is time and I don’t have to rush a play.
“There’s always a point where, when you’ve played enough games, you’re (familiar with) the system, where you should be and shouldn’t be when the puck’s on different sides of the ice. And I think I’ve settled in more recently, versus when I was first up here. So now it’s kind of just going with the flow of the game and not thinking, just going with what I know is going to happen and just using that to my advantage.”
The progress from a team standpoint is going from not getting blown out to being close to actually finishing plays and winning games. It sounds easier than it is.
Drew Doughty knows it’s hard to rush the process, but he senses that the Kings’ young guys are getting it. Or at least starting to.
“It’s different nowadays,” he said. “Back when I was a young guy it was all about making good defensive plays. And that’s kind of what you were (evaluated) on. Now it’s about creating plays, and getting up there and having lots of shots on net and stuff like that. They all have that naturally, (and) we just have to kind of help them a little bit with the D zone.
“Early in the season, we were giving up too many goals and then we were getting dominated. But now these young guys are learning how to play defense and how to do the right things in our own zone. And that’s why we’re playing better.”
When he was a young guy? This is his 12th NHL season, at age 30. If that makes you, the fan, feel old, you aren’t alone.
“That’s a pretty long time ago,” he said. “But yeah, I still got lots of time left in me.”
As previously noted, the Kings and Ducks are in basically the same predicament. But the Ducks have been a lot more aggressive in sending players back and forth between Anaheim and their AHL team in San Diego than the Kings have in shuffling players between the L.A. and Ontario rosters.
Ducks coach Dallas Eakins says he sees progress, but nights like Thursday – when his guys seemed to do everything but finish at the net – are yet another reminder of how hard this game is.
“We’re going to be sticking with the plan,” he said. “We’ve got some very good young players who are doing their best to get better every day, and we’re just hoping these reps they’re getting and the reps they’re getting in San Diego are going to turn out good for them.
“Young players are going to have up and down nights. Our veteran guys, if you graph them out, it’s a very even line graph. Younger guys kind of go up and down. But overall, I think our guys are doing well.”
The best way to be a Ducks or a Kings fan these days? Don’t focus on the standings for a while. Think of the future.
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