By Bobby Scribe.
There were very few moments of contentment or joy during last night’s Los Angeles Kings’ loss to the Phoenix Coyotes 6-3. But, if you were paying close attention, a few occurred after the whistle that signified a small but progressive development that is not statistically measured nor appears on any box score.
Back when the Kings brought Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles, those that heralded the trade as a new era in Kings hockey focused on Gretzky’s goals, assists and points. Some however, even those that may have felt luke warm about the Great One’s entrance and what the Kings gave up in return, had to agree that Wayne Gretzky brought leadership to a team with a youth presence at its core. I recall with some clarity a game whereat Gretzky, during a Kings’ power play and after the whistle, skated to then Kings defenseman Alexei Zhitnik after the opposing goaltender swallowed up and held onto his slap shot and motioned to him to keep his point shot low so it could generate a rebound. That is the type of player Gretzky was when he was here. Love him or not, he was an instructor on the ice to the younger players and ensured that they understood the subtle nuances of the game.
I have not seen that level of instruction from any Kings’ player or captain since Wayne Gretzky. Rob Blake certainly did not have it. He approached the game, especially upon his return, as a job, clocking in and clocking out as if putting in “time” was the role for which he was brought. That is not intended to be a criticism of Rob Blake, the player, but rather a lack of leadership with the youth, a concern that I doubt the San Jose Sharks have with their new Captain-Elect now that the incumbent Patrick Marleau has been stripped of his C.
So, what happened last night that caught my eye and interest? Ryan Smyth happened. Several times after the whistle when he had, in part, created traffic and a quick rebound from either the shot or a scrum in front of the goaltender, he obtained Kings center Anze Kopitar’s attention and drew that attention to the top of the crease. He did that because Kopitar, at the time of the rebound, was playing higher than he should have been in the slot and arguably where a defenseman would be positioned. After one such play, I noticed Kopitar making a concerted effort to play deeper in the offensive zone and “crashing” the net for loose rebounds, one of which resulted in a goal. Ryan persisted with his instruction throughout the game.
It is no exaggeration to state that the Los Angeles Kings have, in the past six seasons and the better part of the past sixteen, lacked leadership on the ice. I do not refer to veteran experience, as the team has always, in some form or another, possessed that. No, this is different. This is a player who not only brings “years” but also plays the game outside of his own role and offers a unity of purpose to those around him. Ryan Smyth had that purpose on opening night. The purpose to make Anze Kopitar better, to teach him a subtle nuance in a game that is often measured by inches, be it a few that means the different between a goal and a shot wide, a pass that leads to a break away or a broken play or a hit that lands flush or glances the intended target.
Perhaps that “p” for purpose is just as important as Pride=Passion=Power.