The last time a member of the Kings scored 40 goals in a season, Wayne Gretzky was collecting the last of 10 NHL scoring titles, bandana-wearing Kelly Hrudey was regularly performing acrobatics in the goal, and home ice meant the Fabulous Forum.
It was the 1993-94 season, and Luc Robitaille scored 44 goals for the fifth consecutive season to lead the team. He flirted with 40 with 39 in 1998-99 and the magical Ziggy Palffy had 38 goals in 2000-01 and 37 in 2002-03, but no Kings player has scored 40 since.
“That’s crazy,” said Robitaille, whose feat made him a lock for the Hall of Fame. “It’s about time someone did.”
Enter Swedish winger Adrian Kempe. With a career-best 36 goals and eight games left in the regular season, Kemp has a good shot at reaching the illustrious 40-goal mark.
At 26, Kempe wasn’t even born when Robitaille recorded that 44-goal season. Kemp has heard a lot lately, but he doesn’t look back on the team’s history. His focus is firmly on what’s next for the Kings, who face the Oilers in Edmonton on Thursday with the second seed in the Pacific Division and home ice advantage in the playoffs.
“It’s been a long time. It would be funny if I ever scored that many goals. If it’s this year or another year, we’ll see,” Kemp said in a phone interview Wednesday.
“He would be happy and I would be excited if that happened, but I don’t try to think about it. Right now I feel like my mentality is somewhere other than that. I’m trying to win games.”
Kempe’s performance on the front line with Kopitar and Quinton Byfield has gone a long way to prove that his 35-goal production last season was no fluke.
His breakout was surprising considering he scored 11 goals in 2019-20 and 14 goals in 2020-21, seasons cut short by the COVID pandemic. But he rarely got much time on the scoreboard or on the power play in any given season. He scored 16 goals as a rookie in 2017-18, but got lost in the Kings’ rebuilding shuffle and his confidence evaporated.
When he finally got prime time minutes, he fulfilled the promise that led to the Kings taking him in the first round, and 29th overall, in 2014.
His emergence as a scorer has given the Kings the scoring depth they have lacked for a long time. They are averaging a healthy 3.42 goals per game this season, top 10 in the league.
Left winger Luc Robitaille, shown celebrating a goal in 1993, is the last king to score 40 goals in a season.
“For sure, different players develop on different schedules. They are placed in different roles. I don’t think he saw the power play here in his first four years,” said Robitaille, the club’s manager for 16 years. “And the one thing for me to never forget, when I look at Adrian, a lot of young players, sometimes you get nervous with the defensive game. We never had to worry about that with him. He was almost too cautious.
“And then he developed himself into a kind of striker, a big shooter. Without a doubt, one thing we must learn every day is to be patient. It’s hard to pinpoint what happened, but he was definitely cast in a different role. And he went out with her.”
Kempe’s goal this season was to maintain the success of last season.
“Being in the same district was important to me in terms of expectations and what people expected of me,” he said. “I always had high expectations for myself, and coming from last year I felt like I could do the same things I did last year. I wasn’t sure it would go well but the team is playing well, which also helps.
“I’m happy that I could fulfill the expectations of many people again and that I was able to play well in the team. That’s what matters.”
Kemp spoke to the 20-year-old Byfield about the youngster’s high expectations as the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft. Byfield’s development has been delayed by injuries and illness and he has just three goals and 21 points in 45 games this season.
Other elements of his game have shown his maturity and intelligence, and Kempe has tried to help Byfield by correcting him when needed and reassuring him that he is on the right path, even if that path, like Kempe’s, has taken a little longer to travel.
“He’s gotten better and better the whole time he’s been playing with us,” Kemp said. “He’s working so hard and using his body a lot more than maybe, and winning puck battles.
“Maybe he doesn’t get credit for all the work he does with the points, but that will come. I think he’s happy with the way he’s playing now, and I think everyone else is too. So it’s something that will be big for this last stretch.”
There will be no chance of disappointment for the Kings, who ended their 10-0-2 streak with a 2-1 loss in Calgary on Tuesday. It’s a potential playoff prospect against the Oilers, a team that came from behind to win in a seven-game playoff run last spring.
For many of the young players, that series was their first postseason experience. Kemp played on the 2017-18 team that Vegas carried and said last spring’s tense, back-and-forth series was a different and valuable experience.
“We didn’t have as many expectations last year as we did this year,” he said, “but I feel like the team feels more comfortable going into the playoffs than last year.”
Being able to enter the playoffs with a 40-goal scorer makes it even more interesting.