Ask any hockey player and he’ll tell you that the erosion of skill and speed is almost never a slow, incremental process. It’s usually quick and it’s usually cruel. It’s almost as if players wake up one morning and realize they’ve lost a step. That’s kind of what has happened to the Los Angeles Kings. One minute they were a big, dominating team that could outmuscle their opponents, then in record time became a slow, plodding outfit that was ill equipped to play in today’s NHL.
The Kings want to play with more speed. They want to move the puck more quickly. They want to get it out of their zone to forwards who are on the move. However, like most of us older folks, the spirit is willing, but the body is unable.
That much was apparent on Monday night when the Kings came into Toronto for the last game of a four-game road trip. They were coming off a 5-1 defeat to a surprising, young and energetic team in the Ottawa Senators and they were facing the NHL’s best team so far, one whose hallmarks are speed, youth and skill. And the Maple Leafs probably had their easiest game of the season in a 4-1 win. The Kings looked slow and utterly unable to create anything off the rush. It should be noted that of the 12 goals the Kings have scored this season, four have come off the rush. But the eye-test reveals this team is simply not fleet of foot enough to scare anyone when they’re breaking out of their own zone.
Kings coach John Stevens was asked after the game whether he was hoping to see a little more speed on the rush from his team. “And not off the zone or off the power play?” Stevens said. “That’s kind of a blanket statement. We have to score more goals. We had a big improvement off the rush last year with a lot of the same people we have here now, with the addition of (Ilya) Kovalchuk. We usually get a lot of offense from our back end. We usually get a lot of pucks on net from our back end. It’s not an indictment on our defense, it’s just there are not enough pucks going from the top. It’s too hard to score 3 vs. 5 down low.”
He might have a point there, but the league is indisputably trending toward teams creating offense by moving the puck and their feet quickly. The Kings have not been able to do that and it’s showing in some very, very ugly numbers. Going back to their four-game sweep at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights in last year’s playoffs, they have a grand total of 14 non-empty net goals in their past 10 games. They are currently on an 0-for-29 drought on the power play, including 0-for-21 so far this season. All told, the Kings are just 1-for-34 with the extra man going back to last year’s playoffs. It’s very, very difficult for static teams to score or even be dangerous these days.
When Stevens took over from Darryl Sutter last season, one of the things he said he wanted to do was to have his team push the pace a little more. But you can only coach with what you have. And while the Kings did inject some youth into their lineup last season in the form of Alex Iafallo and Adrian Kempe and have added 19-year-old Jaret Anderson-Dolan this season, the results have not been there when it comes to playing a speed-based game.
“I think we can, I think we have to,” Stevens said when asked whether the Kings can play at a higher tempo. “Everyone talks about speed and Toronto has got a lot of speed, but Toronto’s puck speed is excellent. And I think that’s an area we can get a lot better at. I think we recognize possession…but puck speed makes you a lot faster. We have guys on our team who can skate and I think if you combine the speed of your legs with the speed of the puck, you can have a much faster hockey team.”
Kings defenseman Drew Doughty emphatically insisted the Kings do have enough speed to compete in today’s NHL. But he is flummoxed with the Kings inability to score on the power play. “No idea,” he said. “If I had known, we would fix it and I don’t know what it is, so I don’t have anything for you there.”