As if missing the playoffs wasn’t harsh enough, the defending Cup champion Los Angeles Kings received another blow on Friday when news outlets began reporting that centerman, Jarret Stoll, was arrested in Las Vegas that evening for drug possession. Though details are still scant, it appears that Stoll was taken into custody for possession of cocaine and MDMA (ecstasy) and was later released on bail.
What does this mean for a team that was already undergoing serious evaluation after being only the fifth Stanley Cup champion in history to miss the playoffs the season after winning the Cup?
First and foremost, it’s crisis communications mode for the Kings’ PR folks – again. The 2014-2015 season began with news that defenseman Slava Voynov was arrested and later charged with domestic abuse and his case has dragged on with a trial date now set for July. The Voynov incident, coupled with Stoll’s arrest means the Kings’ championship image has surely been tarnished and the organization has to contend with a number of potential consequences – not the least of which could be the disillusionment of teammates and loss of trust from the fan base.
From a pure hockey perspective, the effects of Voynov’s absence were already felt in a season that ended too soon for the Kings. Missing both the mobile Voynov, as well as sturdy and reliable Willie Mitchell, who had to be dealt to the Florida Panthers due to cap limitations after least season, hurt the Kings’ blue line; both players were key to the King’s 2012 and 2014 Cup runs. To try and stop the bleeding, GM Dean Lombardi finally made a deal at the trade deadline for the Hurricane’s Andrej Sekera, but it may have been too little, too late and unfortunately, Sekera was injured in a game vs the Blackhawks on March 30th and missed the remainder of the season.
Stoll was almost certain to return next season without a Kings’ uniform even before his arrest. Along with Justin Williams, Stoll becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer and the Kings are facing serious cap issues. In an interview after the final game of the season where the Kings posted a 4-1 win over their rival San Jose Sharks, Stoll acknowledged the reality that he might be leaving the team he joined seven years ago from Edmonton and with whom he’d won two Cups.
But beyond the impact on the ice, how do the Kings now deal with a locker room and a fan base that has been rattled by players behaving badly? Some have suggested that Voynov’s alleged crime and Stoll’s arrest are comparable and reveal a systemic issue with the Kings’ organization, which Lombardi and Head Coach, Daryl Sutter have always maintained is a “family” who take care of each other. Lombardi has said many times that he doesn’t view players as commodities and both GM and coach have shown their trust in veteran players who have special bonds to the team – even to a fault – as seemed to be the case with the struggling Mike Richards. While many thought Richards would be on the trading block after last season, Lombardi stuck by him, but Richards’ subsequent assignment to the AHL and failure to step up and produce once brought back to the line-up, had to be disappointing.
Whether there is truly a core issue with the Kings’ organization remains to be seen, but certainly, Voynov’s alleged crime of beating his wife is not comparable to Stoll possessing drugs while partying in Las Vegas. That’s not to excuse Stoll or minimize his activities: he’s a professional athlete who should know better. That said, drawing a straight line between the two crimes and suggesting they’re indicative of a farther-reaching cancer within the organization seems far-fetched. If Voynov is proven guilty, the evidence will likely reveal past history and characteristics commonly associated with domestic violence offenders – factors that could have very little to do with the Kings’ locker room environment.
In addition, while drug possession and use is a serious problem and certainly grounds for suspension, Stoll is far from the first professional athlete to have been caught using illegal substances and one wonders how many other athletes simply manage to better hide their off-duty activities. Again, this is not to excuse the behavior, but simply to say that in any sport where professional athletes make substantial sums of money, there will be those who abuse their luck until it runs out. And in all walks of life, there will be good people who make bad choices.
Either way, the Kings have decisions to make, an image to repair and trust to regain. To date, the only statement they’ve made is really a non-statement and as reported by LA Kings Insider, Jon Rosen, are still in “fact-gathering mode“.
Once the facts are known, the Kings need to act swiftly and decisively. Given Stoll was unlikely to return to the Kings bench in October, it seems the only choice – assuming the accusations are true and there is no reasonable explanation – is to let him go and to make clear that the organization will not tolerate this kind of behavior from the players or anyone associated with the organization.
Getting back to more traditional on-ice issues will no doubt be a welcome relief for the Kings when they hit training camp later this summer.