LOS ANGELES — The last two summers have seen Kings general manager Rob Blake make power plays in the trade market to turn his team from a nice little story coming out of a painful and necessary rebuilding phase into a team bent on taking the arduous steps toward revisiting that championship feeling from a decade ago.
To acquire Kevin Fiala and then follow that up with a much bigger swap to land Pierre-Luc Dubois is to change the game. And when you invest a combined $123 million for the two, plus seven years in one (Fiala) and eight in the other (Dubois), you’re thinking that these two will be game changers. The players that can take a solid playoff club to a true Stanley Cup contender.
That’s still a theory for them and the Kings to prove. But as they got back in action Thursday after a few days to rest and stop the slippage that had crept into their game, they’re still waiting on Dubois to be a difference-maker as he continues to settle into his new team. Fiala, on the other hand, knows what the Kings are about and should know where he fits within their dynamic.
Against visiting Florida, Fiala stood out in a positive way. A true difference maker. In a tightly contested 2-1 win, he scored the game’s first goal just 80 seconds in and delivered a perfect feed for Anze Kopitar to one-time past Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky on the power play that would be the eventual game-winning score.
Kings coach Todd McLellan dished out praise to the line of Fiala, Phillip Danault and Trevor Moore and particularly singled out how proud he was of Fiala’s game. It wasn’t nearly that rosy after Saturday’s loss to Philadelphia, their worst-played game of the year where McLellan said his left wing had to be better on both sides of the puck.
A tune can change and maybe some criticism found its way to Fiala, who is on a point-per-game pace as he was when he sustained a knee injury late in the regular season. But Thursday’s effort wasn’t him picking up a couple of assists as a secondary support piece. It was him being among those leading the charge. What Blake imagined when trading hot defense prospect Brock Faber and a first-round pick for him.
“By the end of the year, he’s going to be way up there,” McLellan said, referring to Fiala’s points as he stands at 16 to tie Adrian Kempe for the team lead. “We’re going to be really happy with his offensive output. But tonight, you saw the energy and the drive and the battles. The commitment. If we get that all the time, we got one hell of a player.
“And it’s there. He’s been a little bit frustrated and we’re trying to help him. I was proud of him tonight. He made some real good plays and responded well.”
There are still times when Fiala can’t seem to help himself when it comes to avoiding bad penalties. One came near the midpoint of the third period when he put Florida on the power play by elbowing Panthers defenseman Uvis Balinskis as he tried to create space for himself in the offensive zone. Aside from that slip-up, Fiala’s ledger was slanted decidedly to the positive.
The Kings took care of his infraction, as they did four other shorthanded situations on drastically improved penalty kill. Cam Talbot was strong again with 30 saves in a rebound year that is taking shape. Injuries and inconsistency plagued his lone year in Ottawa. But in Los Angeles, the 36-year-old has grabbed the No. 1 job from the get-go and put up a .927 save percentage and 2.11 goals-against average while winning eight of his 11 starts.
The reunion with McLellan so far is all that Talbot hoped it would be. It also helps to have a structured 1-3-1 system where the Kings on most nights stay devoted to and snuff out repeated chances.
“I think Cam reads the play well,” McLellan said. “We think of just goaltenders that make saves. He can read the play and we try to be as predictable as we can for all positions but especially for our goaltenders. Perhaps that helps him too.”
This might be a new team for Talbot, his seventh in a very commendable 11-year career. But Fiala isn’t new to him. The two were also teammates in Minnesota for two seasons. Talbot knows that with Fiala comes two sides of the coin. The player who can make something out of nothing, creating his own chance or setting up a teammate rather than making a safe, zero-risk play. And the player that can hurt his team with a bad turnover or an ill-advised march to the penalty box.
“When Kev is at his best, he can be a difference maker and take over games,” Talbot said. “That’s no secret. And we need him to be like that more often than not. When he’s driving his line and he’s creating scoring chances, that’s when we’re going to have a better chance to win. A lot of those players, skill guys, they want to make plays. Sometimes they’re going to get stripped and it’s going to go back the other way. You take the good with the bad. Sometimes you got to eat a couple like that for him to be able to still feel confident to go the other way and do his thing. Once he loses that and you take away his creativity, he’s not going to be the same player.
“You got to take the good with the bad. That’s what I’m here for. If he does turn it over, then you got to help him out.”
The spectators at Crypto.com Arena had yet to get fully situated in their seats when Moore freed up a puck for Danault to take off with Fiala on an odd-man rush with only Florida’s Dmitry Kulikov back and retreating. Fiala got Danault’s feed and flipped a nifty backhand over the sliding Bobrovsky.
“He was very strong tonight all over the ice,” Kopitar said. “And he’s a game-breaker. He showed it tonight.”
Until recently, Fiala and Dubois had been playing together. It made sense to try these two out as the Kings were largely set on their other three lines heading into the season. Viktor Arvidsson’s recurrence of back problems and resulting surgery has forced McLellan to change his set list. So has the lack of dominant play from the Fiala-Dubois pairing.
On Thursday, Dubois centered Arthur Kaliyev and Jaret Anderson-Dolan, who moved into the lineup as rookie Alex Laferriere was scratched for the first time. He was also moved down to the second power-play unit, with Quinton Byfield earning a bump up to play with the Kings’ big dogs. Was it a reflection of the average play Dubois has given the club in his first month? Was the line movement simply to give him a grouping where he would be the main driver? It could be both.
Over 15 games, Dubois hasn’t been horrible. He has four goals and four assists. He also hasn’t been pivotal. When you trade away three regulars from last season and use up $8.5 million of your salary cap on him, you’d like to have a little pivotal. To date, Dubois’s signature moment was scoring in a victorious return to Winnipeg.
There might have been one with six minutes left in the third and the Kings clinging to their one-goal lead. Dubois picked up a pass right in stride and charged through the neutral zone and Florida’s defense to the net. Bobrovsky foiled him and the play might have been costly as Dubois slammed into the net, appearing to clank his knee off the post.
He’d skate off under his own power but was clearly limping as he moved to the dressing room, unable to return for the game’s homestretch. Cruel irony because it was also the type of unstoppable power move that Dubois has in his arsenal.
“Let’s hope he’s OK because nobody wants to see that happening,” said McLellan, specifying that he’d have a better idea on his condition and status Friday. “He took the puck to the net really hard.”
After Saturday’s loss, McLellan talked about the lack of connectivity between Fiala and Dubois which led to breaking the duo up. But the coach isn’t about to make a referendum on this summer’s major addition one month in.
“Pierre-Luc’s play with the puck, there’s no issue at all,” he said. “He handles it well. He’s big, he’s strong. He makes plays and whatnot. We’re just trying to push him a little bit more without the puck. Can he use his size and his body and create space? He and his line had a pretty good night as well before he got banged up.”
The Kings are now 9-3-3, with most of that coming on the strength of a 7-0-0 road record that covers the inexplicably different play they’ve shown at home. But they were much sharper Thursday as two days away from the rink and two healthy practices seemed to bring back their focus. “It’s no secret that we need to make this building a little tougher to play in and I think tonight’s a good step in the right direction,” Talbot said.
On this night, Fiala pointed the way. The wait for Dubois to take the lead continues.
(Photo of Pierre-Luc Dubois: Andrew D. Bernstein / NHLI via Getty Images)