Calling last season an unmitigated disaster for the Los Angeles Kings wouldn’t be accurate, but to say the organization greatly disappointed and underwhelmed wouldn’t be far off the mark. either. In what was their final season under two-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Darryl Sutter, Los Angeles’ offense was anemic, its defense more porous than it ever had been under Sutter and the end result was a playoff miss paired with the Kings’ worst points percentage in eight seasons.
So, sweeping changes were made.
Longtime GM Dean Lombardi? Relieved of his duties. Sutter, who had manned the bench since 2011-12? Let go less than a year after signing a three-year contract extension. Replacing them in their respective positions were Rob Blake and John Stevens, and the message from the top down was that finding offense while maintaining a sound defensive structure, the Kings’ calling card under Sutter, would be one of the primary goals for the organization. Or, as Blake put it upon naming Stevens the team’s new coach, Los Angeles was looking to “implement a strategy to activate our players offensively while maintaining the defensive philosophies we have come to be known for.” And while the jury is still out on what an entire campaign is going to look like for the Kings’ new regime, it sure seems as though Blake, Stevens & Co. are delivering on their promise, especially as Los Angeles celebrates a six-game winning streak that has sent them to the top of the Pacific Division.
Defensively, the Kings are as sound as they’ve been in recent years. Matter of fact, it’s hard not to get that old Cup-winning Kings feel from the way this group has played. More than one-third of the way into the campaign, Los Angeles boasts the lowest goals-against-per-game rate in the entire league (2.17), with a defense that has been as stingy as any in the NHL. For example, the Kings are only allowing 31.3 shots against per game, 13th-best in the league, and boast the NHL’s top penalty kill, running along at 89.6 percent. And the defensive rejuvenation of this group is being anchored by goaltender Jonathan Quick, just as it had been when the Kings were at their Cup-contending peak.
After missing the majority of the last season, Quick has been nothing short of brilliant this year in Los Angeles. Among goaltenders to play at least 20 games, Quick ranks third with a .929 save percentage, sits second with 2.20 goals-against average and his two shutouts in 23 appearances put him in a tie for fourth in the NHL. Quick has been equally impressive at 5-on-5, too, with a .932 SP and, per Corisca, an actual SP nearly 1.5 points better than what should be expected of a netminder facing his workload.
The true difference-maker for the Kings, however, isn’t the play of their blueline or a healthy Quick putting together an all-star calibre campaign. Rather, truly driving Los Angeles forward is that the Kings seem to have finally found a consistent and effective way to attack.
Over the past eight seasons, the Kings’ offense, at its best, scored 2.72 goals per game, a performance which came during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. Since then, the Kings have only produced one more season of at least 2.70 goals for per game, but dipped all the way to 2.42 goals per game during the 2016-17 campaign. This season, though, has seen the offense come to life in ways it hasn’t in years.
Following Tuesday’s 5-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild, the Kings’ offense is putting up more than three goals per game — 3.03, to be exact — and locked into a top-10 spot in terms of per-game production. Their 88 goals, meanwhile, give them the ninth-most in the league, while Los Angeles is also sitting right in the middle of the pack in shots per game, an average of 31.7. More impressively, though, the Kings’ ability to produce offensively while limiting goals against has given them a whopping plus-27 goal differential. The Tampa Bay Lightning are the only team with a better margin.
The increased offense is permeating throughout the lineup, too, and there’s no better indication of the Kings’ uptick in scoring than the season Anze Kopitar is piecing together. Listed at the best bounce-back player through the early season earlier this week, Kopitar is coming off of a campaign in which he was, in some ways, the poster boy for last season’s disappointing performance in Los Angeles. He’s doing well to erase the memories of his 12-goal, 52-point 2016-17 campaign, though. Through 29 games, he’s already surpassed last season’s goal total, and his one-goal, three-point performance against the Wild pushed him to 15 goals and 34 points on the campaign. If he were to maintain this pace all season, he’d finish the year with 42 goals and 96 points.
But Kopitar isn’t alone. Dustin Brown, much maligned during the Kings’ recent struggles, has found his spark again with 11 goals and 24 points in 29 outings, all the while back playing top-line minutes. After putting up 44 points last season, Drew Doughty is already halfway to that total and on pace for his first 60-point campaign. Tyler Toffoli appears to be a real, honest-to-goodness threat to reach 30-plus goals for the second time in his career. Adrian Kempe is turning heads as a rookie with 10 goals and 17 points. Marian Gaborik is also turning back the clock with four goals and six points in seven games since returning from injury, which is a welcome surprise after he found himself in the rumor mill to start the season. And all of this offense is coming while Los Angeles is without the services of Jeff Carter, who has been out since mid-October and isn’t expected back for weeks, if not more than a month.
So, while it may be far too early to declare the Kings have taken back the throne as the top team in the West, it’s safe to say Los Angeles is going to be in the hunt come playoff time. And unlike years prior, it looks as though it’ll be the offense, as much as the defense, that has brought them there.
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