Former Kings general manager Dave Taylor may be long gone, but he oversaw… (Jeff Roberson / Associated…)
GLENDALE, Ariz. — — In 2009, the Kings finished 14th in the Western Conference, one season removed from the sharp-tongued impatience of former coach Marc Crawford and slowly assembling the defensive foundation that would launch them back toward respectability.
In 2009, the Phoenix Coyotes finished 13th in the West but made headlines off the ice. Owner Jerry Moyes filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May, plunging the team into a haze of uncertainty. Players weren't sure where their next paychecks might come from or what currency those checks might be in. Things only got worse when Wayne Gretzky, a part owner, stepped down as coach days before the 2009-10 season was to start.
"We feel we've been in survival mode for three years," Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney said.
Survivors of two different but equally difficult journeys, the Kings and Coyotes will meet for the Western Conference championship here starting Sunday.
Theirs is an unlikely convergence, a dramatic shift away from the usual playoff powers to teams whose dreary postseason pedigrees have often gone unnoticed except to be mocked.
Welcome to the Duel in the Desert. The temperature hit 97 degrees as the Kings practiced here Saturday afternoon, but the climate for both teams has never been more hospitable.
"It's an interesting time," said Maloney, whose team has never reached the conference finals in its current home or its previous incarnation as the Winnipeg Jets.
"You can feel it in our marketplace, anyway, beating Nashville, getting to this stage. Just the city, the Valley, the attention that we're getting, the media, newspapers, certainly radio and television, it's second to none. It's what we need to survive here."
The Kings' battle has been less about survival than establishing a tradition of success. Their history has been a mishmash of philosophies and rebuilding, of trading draft picks for veterans and then reversing course and building through the draft and then getting impatient when that didn't immediately work, either.
They have finally found an effective formula, developing their draft picks into accomplished two-way players and supplementing those key players with playoff-tested veterans. Darryl Sutter, who replaced Terry Murray as their coach in mid-December, has had a perfectly calibrated touch in pushing them and patting them on the back, allowing their creativity to flourish while refusing to relent defensively.
"The job that management has done to keep the core group together and add pieces here and there goes a long way," team captain Dustin Brown said. "I think that's probably the most important thing. Everyone talks about Detroit and they always have a core group of players that are together for an extended period of time and it goes a long way.
"The way you create a culture is when you have a group of guys that can stick together for an extended period of time."
The rewards of a winning culture confront the Kings every time they enter Staples Center and see the Lakers' championship banners. The Kings have made it to the third round of the playoffs only once, in 1993, on their way to losing to the Montreal Canadiens in their only Stanley Cup finals appearance.
Replays of their last two conference finals victories over the Toronto Maple Leafs aired on Fox Sports West on Thursday and felt like glimpses of ancient history. Luc Robitaille was baby-faced. Gretzky was able to control the game at will. Rob Blake was developing into a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman. Their celebration was lighthearted and fresh and seemed as if it would be the first of many for a group of talented veterans, promising kids and gritty role players.
It all crumbled quickly, a once-in-a-generation moment instead of a template for success. Owner Bruce McNall's finances fell apart. Egos clashed. Grinders got bigger roles than skill players.
The Kings had good teams here and there, most notably in 2001, when they upset the injury-riddled Detroit Red Wings but lost a seven-game second-round series to Colorado. They lost in the first round to Colorado in 2002, their last experience of postseason play until 2010.
In the interim, General Manager Dave Taylor was fired, but not before overseeing the drafts that would produce Brown (2003), Anze Kopitar (2005) and Jonathan Quick (2005). Andy Murray gave way to John Torchetti for 12 games at the end of the 2005-06 season, then new GM Dean Lombardi made the mistake of hiring Crawford to guide a young, impressionable team. Crawford gave way to Murray, who took this team as far as he could go but not as far as it should have gone.
That wasn't Lombardi's only mistake — the mention of goaltender Dan Cloutier still makes fervent Kings fans break out in hives — but after an underachieving regular season his team has awakened at the right time.
"It took a lot of hard work to get to where we are," Quick said. "It doesn't matter how good you are, where you were three years ago. It goes on a yearly basis and month-to-month, day-to-day basis where you've got to bring the effort.
"You've got to know that if you work hard good things are going to happen, and that's something we've done over the past couple of years here."
Finally, the Kings' vision is becoming a reality, not just a mirage in the desert.