The Los Angeles Kings are in a terribly ugly stretch of hockey. Their current losing streak is just 3 games, but that’s part of a mediocre January (just 4-4-2) and a horrible end to December (they lost the last 4 games of 2013). The end of December was especially surprising considering the electric start of that month (9-1-0), along with some dynamite play by Martin Jones. His play was strong enough for the Kings to ship off the only relevant part of the Bernier trade, Ben Scrivens, to Edmonton for a 3rd round draft pick. So if we’re examining this 4-9-1 stretch for the Kings, what’s the major malfunction?
Well first, what is it not:
1. It’s not Quick. Since his return from a groin injury he’s been spot on. While fans were doing the happy dance over Jones/Scrivens, Quick slid back into the crease as his regular self and quickly quieted the “Jones is the future!” conspiracy theorists.
2. It’s not the personnel, at least in terms of skill. This is largely the same group the Kings took to the Cup in 2012, save for one large subtraction (not Dustin Penner, a different kind of large, Rob Scuderi). This isn’t an inferior group of hockey players; it’s an underachieving group.
3. It’s not the coaching. Well, how do we really know? Honestly, we don’t but there haven’t been the common whispers associated with coaching, i.e. “He’s lost the players’ trust.” Although there are coachable aspects of the game that are floundering, it’s not the coaching as a whole.
So what is it:
1. Scoring. The Kings are still the No. 1 defensive team in the league, giving up a scant number of goals against. However, putting the puck in the net has been difficult for the team. They rank just 19th in goal scoring. Nary a Kings player is close to a point-per-game, the usual measure of a man’s offensive capabilities. Kopitar is usually big man on campus, averaging in the mid to high seventies but this year he’s closer to a 64 point pace. Mike Richards may be the team’s second highest point scorer but he has only 7 goals in 51 games, which is awful even for a “playmaker.” The obvious low-point would be Dustin Brown, team captain, U.S. Olympian and on pace for just 26 points, his lowest total since his 31 game break-in as a rookie. We can throw in a few more names: Jarret Stoll continues to digress, Toffoli has been hot and cold, Matt Frattin is by all accounts a bust.
2. Power Play. The Kings are converting on just 15% of their chances. The frequent call on Twitter is for the Kings to “decline” the PP. They look sloppy, disorganized and lack desperation. Standing them up at the blueline looks easy. Getting shots through traffic is infrequent. A rebound is as rare as an albino alligator. They simply cannot manufacture the types of chances on the man-advantage that even qualify as average. This is an area of coaching that could probably use some changes, not necessarily in terms of personnel but perhaps in terms of philosophy and strategy. It’s important not to place all the blame on the coaching, although it’s easier to just blame Davis Payne or “Fire Kompon!” The players themselves look apathetic and disinterested on the power play.
3. Uncharacteristic mistakes. The loss against Columbus was particularly vexing because the Kings weren’t outplayed so much as they were caught off guard. First, Regehr fails to recognize Umberger sneaking into the slot on the PK, leading to a goal against. Then Regehr and Nolan are caught napping/flatfooted by Johansen who scored a beautiful breakaway goal against. Then Jones tries to let a puck harmlessly pass through the crease but accidentally knocks it into the net with his own glove for the game-winner. When you basically hand your opponents three goals out of laziness, or apathy or by simply not putting forth a 60-minute effort, it’s really easy to lose games. These are not the types of losses Kings fans are accustomed to. The team lives and dies on defense and their usually superb defense has been absent of late. Just working with the last 14 game stretch they’ve given up 35 goals, a third of their season total.
4. Discipline. The Kings have spent the second most time on the penalty kill in the league. The usually disciplined line-up has been, again, uncharacteristically lazy when it comes to committing minors. While their penalty kill still ranks near the top of the league, giving up so much valuable time to killing penalties is brutal when you have such a hard time scoring goals. It’s a domino effect: get caught out of position, don’t do the hard work to make simple plays, make mistakes out of desperation; get caught committing a minor.
If you don’t follow the Kings closely, looking at the standings might give one the impression they are in great shape. They’re currently third in their division, sitting in a playoff spot. However, they are undoubtedly in the toughest division in the newly formatted league. The level of discontent among Kings fans simply speaks to the high level of expectations they now have given the recent Stanley Cup victory along with the quality of players on the roster.
It would be easy to blame the most recent three game skid on the officials, citing the illegal goal Detroit scored that was missed by both referees and both linesmen. However, feedback from the Kings has been mixed. Coach Sutter says it shouldn’t affect their psyche at all since it was not their mistake. Mitchell said it can take the wind out of your sails a bit. Williams said if anything, it should be motivation to go out an try harder (I don’t have links to the quotes as they were paraphrased by the Kings broadcast crew). Regardless, the Kings can’t waste any time feeling sorry for themselves, especially with the incredibly important stretch of games upcoming.
The Kings will face the Ducks for the much-hyped outdoor Stadium Series game. There couldn’t a two game with more emphasis and pressure on it just past the mid-season point. While the expectations are high, most Kings fans would likely be satisfied if the team would just get back to their old, pugnacious, hard-hitting selves. The team that looks like they want to win more than the other team.
If they don’t show up soon, it will be a fast slide down the Pacific Division ladder.