The Los Angeles Kings are the smartest person in the room – or seriously in denial. Looking at how their off-season has transpired thus far, it seems right to forecast their 2017-18 season in extremes. This team looks poised to muscle its way back into major contention or to fall flat on its face again.
Do we choose to trust the established track record of success? The Kings nabbed Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014 by being the NHL’s biggest, strongest, most dominant puck-possession team. They’ve maintained that grinding, bludgeoning style and have finished second, first, first, first, first, and first in 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage over the past six seasons, each with Darryl Sutter behind the bench as coach. The Kings have been better than anyone at generating shot attempts on opposing nets, and it worked for most of the Sutter era.
Suddenly, though, over the past few seasons, the formula grew stale. The Kings missed the playoffs twice in three years. Despite peppering opposing goals with pucks, they’ve finished bottom-third in the NHL in shooting percentage in five of their past six seasons, and that severe lack of finishing ability has finally caught up with them. Only two Kings, Tanner Pearson and Jeff Carter, even topped 16 goals this past season. The team’s ownership decided that, despite two championships, the Sutter era had to end. He was ousted along with GM Dean Lombardi, who had anchored many of his championship players with long, expensive contracts. He couldn’t really be blamed at the time. You have to reward success, even if that very success eventually victimizes you.
Part of the problem: the Kings have to get faster. Way faster. They’re one of the slower teams in the NHL now, and even their formerly fast guys, such as Marian Gaborik, can’t be counted upon for wheels anymore. Meanwhile, the Pacific Division has become a breeding ground for young, swift clubs. The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames have passed the Kings by, and neither franchise should regress anytime soon. The likes of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Oscar Klefbom, Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk and Dougie Hamilton are just getting started. And the Arizona Coyotes have young guns Clayton Keller and Dylan Strome ready to contribute after also adding Derek Stepan, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Antti Raanta. Even they could become a pain in the Kings’ necks.
“Edmonton and Calgary might be two of the most improved teams in the National Hockey League in our division,” said new Kings coach John Stevens. “A lot of our success within the playoffs came when we had a lot of points within our division. Last year we were not very good in our division. That probably was the biggest thing we had, not getting enough points to get into the playoffs. Not only are we not getting points, we’re giving them to teams in our division.”
So it’s thus more than a little concerning to see new GM Rob Blake added only Mike Cammalleri as the team’s biggest free agent acquisition and has made no other noteworthy off-season splashes thus far. At the same time, the Kings still have one of the game’s best blueliners in Drew Doughty. Anze Kopitar remains an elite two-way center despite struggling with his offense this past season. Carter continues to score goals, as does Pearson, and Tyler Toffoli is more than young enough to rebound from a bad season. Prospect Adrian Kempe, who also plays a mature 200-foot game, could really help turn things around if he can secure a top-nine role. And the Kings truly believe they can improve from within. Even when it comes to their speed problem.
“I don’t think we’re slow,” Doughty said. “I think that’s a misconception. We definitely, back in the day, played with the defensive system with the big strong guys, we’re going to crash and bang, and that’s how we won. And, yeah the game has changed. Look at Pittsburgh winning these Cups. They’re not playing with those big, physical guys anymore. I don’t necessarily think we entirely need to change our system, because we have a great defensive system and I enjoy playing on a team that likes to crush guys into the boards. I don’t want to be playing for a team where guys aren’t going to finish their checks. That’s not what I’m about.
“We’re definitely going to take steps in the offensive process. We need to score more goals. We hired some new coaches who have some great offensive minds, so we’re going to work on that. We’re going get faster. We’re going be making more plays. We’re not going to be afraid to try different plays which we might have been in the past. We’re going in the right direction. I don’t think that we are slow. We’re fast, and we just need to learn to use it better.”
Doughty is referring to Stevens and newly hired assistant coach Pierre Turgeon, who racked up 515 goals and 1,327 points during his playing career. Doughty expresses love for the departed Sutter but also says Sutter was at times an intimidating coach to approach with ideas, which would be tough for a freewheeling, offensively creative player like Doughty. In Stevens, Doughty believes the Kings have more of a player’s coach who will help the team open up its game.
“Everybody is going to build their team based on their personnel – Pittsburgh’s done a great job of that,” Stevens said. “I do think that we’re all seeing the game getting faster the more it gets played. Players are better trained. Shift lengths have come down. Teams are playing deep into their lineup with four lines and six defensemen, which pushes the pace even higher. We have to figure out ways to get out puck from our end to the other end as quick as possible so we spend less time in there. Those are some of the changes you’re seeing, the defense as a whole getting more mobile. I firmly believe a team can play faster even though you don’t have faster players. You can still play faster if you have a little element of speed, which I think we’ve done. It might come through the young players we’ve added to our lineup. We’re certainly going to try and play faster, and we certainly have some players coming into our lineup that can play that game. We think our defense is probably more mobile than it’s ever been.
Based on Stevens’ comments, it sure sounds like the Kings are reserving a long-term spot for Kempe, who has excellent speed. Defenseman Paul LaDue earned a shot with L.A. last year and improves the blueline’s mobility if he sticks in 2017-18.
So maybe the Kings brass are smarter than we are. Maybe they see a team just a few seasons removed from being a hockey superpower, a team that remains dominant on the forecheck, and a team about to be unshackled offensively under a new coaching staff. But if they’re wrong, they may be very wrong, and the Kings could again rank among the league’s weakest offensive clubs. And if that happens, this team will struggle to make the playoffs again no matter how airtight it is defensively.
THE LATEST HOCKEY NEWS PODCAST: