EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — When Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick were drafted by the Los Angeles Kings a few years ago, they confess they didn’t know much about the 43-year-old franchise’s history.
That’s no reflection on those teens’ hockey knowledge. There just isn’t much to know.
The Kings, who open their first post-season since 2002 on Thursday night in Vancouver, have won astonishingly few prizes since joining the NHL as a Second Six franchise in 1967.
With one Smythe Division title, one Western Conference crown, and no Stanley Cups, the Staples Center walls are adorned with more retired numbers (5) than banners celebrating team success (2).
The past 15 years haven’t been terribly good for the Kings, either. They’ve won just one series in four playoff trips since the club’s lone appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1994 led by Wayne Gretzky, who left less than two years later.
It’s not the most enticing tradition for young players from hockey hotbeds, but the Kings’ most talented prospects didn’t mind making their own history.
“I knew they had been kind of slacking off, and hadn’t made the playoffs for a while,” said Doughty, the 20-year-old defenceman chosen by the Kings with the No. 2 overall pick in 2008.
“It’s exciting to be here now, though. It’s cool to be a part of bringing it back.”
The Kings are headed back to the playoffs after earning 101 points — eighth-best in the NHL and the same number as defending champion Pittsburgh. Los Angeles’ 46 victories, including the season finale at Colorado on Sunday, matched the most in franchise history.
Even with a core featuring several players who haven’t turned 25, the Kings are back in contention and eager to test the Canucks, who lost 8-3 in Los Angeles two weeks ago.
“We have a lot of young guys, and management has done a good job mixing in some older guys who have won Cups,” said Quick, the goalie who set a franchise record with 39 victories despite going winless in his final eight appearances.
“There’s a core of young guys, and we’re all progressing real well. Having some playoff experience and success is probably the next step in that.”
Terry Murray has taken teams to the heights of the Stanley Cup finals and the depths of the standings during a two-decade coaching career, but the Kings are shaping up as his most impressive project, even if he says he doesn’t deserve all the credit for the 22-point improvement from his first season in 2008-09, when they finished 26th in the league.
“I had a plan. It did not include 101 points,” Murray said.
“I thought it would come together pretty quickly. I’m not surprised by making the playoffs this year. That was our goal. But I am surprised by 101 points and 46 wins.”
Murray believes pure scoring has been the Kings’ greatest improvement over last season. After scoring 207 goals last season — 27 fewer than their opponents — the Kings had 231 this season, 20 more than they allowed, and were shut out just twice.
Slovenian forward Anze Kopitar led the Kings with 34 goals and 47 assists, while Doughty finished his spectacular sophomore season with 59 points.
Dustin Brown, Los Angeles’ gritty captain headed to his first post-season after 431 games with the Kings, contributed 24 goals, and veteran forward Ryan Smyth had 22 despite a lengthy injury absence in his first season with Los Angeles.
General manager Dean Lombardi also added veteran leadership to his young mix, picking up Rob Scuderi — who won the Cup with the Penguins last year — Jeff Halpern, Fredrik Modin and Sean O’Donnell over the past two years.
“The goal at the start of the year was to make the playoffs, and when we did clinch, I didn’t see a lot of smiles,” said Smyth, the goalie-harassing forward acquired by Los Angeles in a trade last July. “It is a big deal. The franchise hasn’t been there for eight years, but I think it’s a sign of our character in the locker-room that we looked beyond just making the playoffs. It’s a long season, but this is the fun part of the season.”
Murray also praises his current team’s grit and resilience. Los Angeles lost four consecutive games twice during the season, but played through the slumps and the end-of-the-season doldrums when Quick repeatedly failed to get his 40th win.
“It’s not just about talent,” Murray said. “It’s about falling and stumbling and getting back up a whole lot more times than you fall down. That’s what experience is. It’s getting through failures and learning from them.”
The Kings’ fans have endured more than their share of failures, but the string of Staples Center sellouts suggests everyone is ready to see where Los Angeles’ young talent can take it over the next few years.
Although the Kings don’t have the glossiest history, they’re embracing at least one part of it for the playoffs: They’re wearing their all-black alternate jerseys for their home games, in a shout-out to Los Angeles’ famed look during the Gretzky era.
“I like playing here,” said Doughty, an Ontario native. “Everyone around here probably doesn’t know who we’re playing in the first round, but we like that. We like being able to walk around, and nobody knows who we are.”