As the calendar flipped from 2017 to 2018, the Los Angeles Kings, months removed from a shakeup that saw coach Darryl Sutter and GM Dean Lombardi relieved of their duties and replaced by John Stevens and Rob Blake, looked to have recaptured some of their old Stanley Cup-contending form. With a 23-11-5 record, a sound plus-24 goal differential and a healthy Jonathan Quick, the Kings were fifth in the league and second in the Pacific Division with a seven-point edge on the third- and fourth-place San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks.
But the 2018 portion of the 2017-18 campaign has been anything but kind to Los Angeles.
After starting the new year on the right foot with a convincing 5-0 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, the Kings proceeded to plummet down the standings. Over their next six games, all of which were losses, Los Angeles was atrocious defensively, allowing 21 goals against, and the offense was inconsistent, managing to score only 11 times. And despite putting a halt to the six-game skid with a victory over the New York Rangers on Sunday, the Kings were right back in the loss column Tuesday when they suffered their most embarrassing defeat of the season, a 6-2 blowout at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks.
There’s been nothing pleasant about the Kings’ recent slide, either. With a 3-7-0 record across their past 10 games, which is currently tied for the worst mark in the league, Los Angeles has gone from flirting with top spot in the Pacific Division, sitting only three points back of the Vegas Golden Knights to start the calendar year, to outside the playoff picture looking in. The Kings are two points back of the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference without so much as a single game in hand and a loss Wednesday to the Calgary Flames would put Los Angeles three points back of a divisional berth. Most worrisome about the Kings’ skid, though, is that it doesn’t appear to be the result of a bout of bad luck. Rather, it appears Los Angeles is legitimately struggling to maintain their pace from earlier in the campaign.
Matter of fact, the Kings have taken a step back when comparing their first half to the past nine games in about every single category, be it surface statistics and underlying numbers. Their goals for average has dipped by roughly half a goal, their goals-against average has increased by nearly a full marker and while the power play has almost doubled in effectiveness, the penalty kill has fallen off by close to 10 percent. And the 5-on-5 statistics, when adjusted for score and venue, don’t paint a picture of a Los Angeles team that’s about to get back to their previous winning ways anytime soon.
Aside from scoring chances against and scoring chances for percentage, the latter increasing by less than one percent, the Kings have seen a downturn in many of the major advanced metrics over their past nine games. And while it’s an admittedly small sample — and it is hard to compare a nine-game run to what was effectively half a campaign — the decline is concerning, nevertheless. Compared to their pre-new year numbers, Los Angeles has seen a 1.5-percent decrease in Corsi for percentage, 2.3-percent drop in shots for percentage, five-percent reduction in high-danger attempts percentage and a whopping 19.4-percent drop-off in goals for percentage. Barring the goals for percentage, it’s not as though the Kings’ struggles on one side of the puck or the other are at fault for the downtrend, either. Los Angeles has been subpar offensively, with decreases in per 60 rates across the board, and defensively, with increases in all but the aforementioned scoring chances category.
So, what’s to blame? Well, the lack of depth certainly doesn’t help. Anze Kopitar, who is having himself a spectacular bounce back season after a difficult 2016-17 campaign, has been one of the only driving forces. He leads the Kings with 19 goals and 50 points, and while Tyler Toffoli is also inching closer to the 20-goal plateau, the overall spread in point scoring is almost astounding. Dustin Brown is the next-best scorer in Los Angeles this season, but he sits 16 points back of Kopitar. That’s the second-largest spread between a team’s top two scorers in the league. Only the New Jersey Devils, led by Taylor Hall, have a larger gap between their two highest-scoring players.
But Kopitar’s influence on play at 5-on-5 is evidence enough that the Kings are far too reliant on his production and his ability to carry play. Since Jan. 1, Kopitar boasts a 5-on-5 goals for percentage of 77.8 percent. He’s been on ice for seven Los Angeles goals for and only two against over that span. Without Kopitar on the ice, though, the Kings have managed a mere five goals for while surrendering 18 against at five-a-side. That makes for a goals for percentage of 21.8 percent at 5-on-5 when Kopitar’s watching from the bench. Kopitar also boasts a 55.5 Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5 since Jan. 1, while the Kings’ overall Corsi for percentage without Kopitar is a mere 44.4 percent. Suffice to say, Los Angeles has been thoroughly dominated when their captain hasn’t been on the ice since the start of the back half of the campaign.
Troubling for the Kings’ playoff hopes is that there’s no quick fix for a lack of depth and no sign that things are going to instantaneously correct themselves. Kopitar can’t skate an entire game and there’s no player waiting in the wings who can come in to fix what ails Los Angeles of late, especially with Jeff Carter’s return date so uncertain. Instead, the Kings’ best bet to stop the slump and truly push for some post-season success would be to find a few players on the trade market who can bolster their depth and patch the holes that exist beyond the top unit. Doing so, however, could come at the cost of shipping out valuable assets for an organization that needs to start rebuilding its depleted prospect stock and farm system. But if the Kings can’t find a way to give Kopitar some help, it might be another early summer in Los Angeles.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.