EL SEGUNDO AND LOS ANGELES, CA — Despite getting blown out of the HP Pavilion by the San Jose Sharks, 6-3, on November 15, the Los Angeles Kings are still on top of the Western Conference standings with an outstanding 12-4-0 record to start the 2010-11 National Hockey League season.
Indeed, the Kings have played well throughout those 16 games, with their very poor performance at San Jose a couple of nights ago being the exception. Flying that high so far, one would probably think that the Kings are firing on all cylinders.
What belies their early season success is their power play, which has scored just ten goals on 63 opportunities with the man advantage for a lowly 15.9 percent rating, ranking 17th in the thirty-team NHL, placing the Kings in the bottom half of the NHL power play rankings.
In comparison, the Minnesota Wild have the best power play in the league through games played on November 16, with a 29.4 percent rating—the top ten power plays in the league range from twenty percent on up.
The Kings have also allowed two shorthanded goals, making their power play look that much worse.
Last season, the Kings ranked seventh in the league, with a 19.9 percent rating.
On the surface, one does not have to look far to see where a major source of the trouble lies…right at the skates of star defenseman Drew Doughty, who is off to a very slow start with just one goal and three assists for four points.
“There’s not much I can do about [his early season lack of offensive production],” Doughty lamented. “I’ve been making plays—I’m playing pretty well offensively. I don’t think I could be doing anything differently offensively.”
“There’s been a couple of times where there’s been open nets and stuff like that,” Doughty added. “Pucks just aren’t going in. But I think I’ve played really well defensively, besides last night [against Dallas on November 11], making that mistake on that goal [by Stars forward Jamie Benn], I feel like I haven’t been making too many, so I think my defensive game is a lot better than it was last year.”
Although Doughty has indeed gotten off to a slow start, the reality is that it is not just that he is not producing at the same rate as he was last season. Rather, it is the fact that opponents have figured out how to shut down the Kings’ power play, as teams are covering both Doughty and defenseman Jack Johnson like a blanket, leaving them almost no room to maneuver or to get off a point shot.
That tactic started during the 2010 playoffs, after Doughty and Johnson shredded the Vancouver Canucks penalty-kill, scorching them with two goals and nine assists for eleven points on the power play in the first three games of the series. But the Canucks changed their penalty-killing scheme in Game 4, taking away the time and space Doughty and Johnson had to make plays or take shots from the point, virtually shutting down the Kings power play.
This season, teams are using that very same strategy against the Kings, who have yet to shift their power play out of neutral.
“I realized it in the first couple of games before I got hurt—I was never open on the power play,” Doughty explained. “I was trying to get open, but teams were having a guy stand there in front of me, so I wasn’t getting the puck. As an offensive guy and a guy who wants the puck, that’s pretty frustrating.”
The challenge for Doughty and Johnson is to figure out how to create space for themselves.
“Right through the playoffs last year, there was more physical play against [Doughty and Johnson], and that’s what you expect as a team and as a player,” said head coach Terry Murray. “Now you’ve got to find another way, another gear.”
“You’ve got to be able to change a little bit to get back to the results you were getting in the past, and that’s the fun part of being a pro player,” added Murray. “There’s a challenge in front of you. Every time you step up to the next level, someone’s going to try to shut you down, and you have to try to break through with a different look.”
Although making changes to the power play might seem like the logical course of action, Murray is not thinking about that yet, and remains committed to having the defensemen fire away from the point with traffic in front, allowing the forwards to take advantage of chances off of rebounds and loose pucks in front.
“That’s exactly what we want from up top,” Murray emphasized. “With [center Anze] Kopitar, Johnson and Doughty, we want to bring that puck up to the top in that umbrella and have that shooting mentality. You shoot, you recover the puck, you move your feet and look to make a play. It comes back up to the same guys and you move the puck around and do it all over again.”
“Something will give, because you have the penalty-kiliing team broken down now,” Murray added. “They’re turning around and facing their goaltender. They’re scrambling around, looking for loose pucks. So you’re getting them into a very uncomfortable zone, and you, as a power play now, are feeling very comfortable because you’re in that shooting mentality.”
Murray pointed to his team’s performance with the man advantage on November 11 against Dallas, when they scored twice on eight power play opportunities.
“It’s pretty simple stuff, you know, when you start shooting the puck and you have a lot of traffic at the net,” Murray emphasized. “[Right wing Justin] Williams’ goal was outstanding, shooting it from outside the circle and finding that top corner. But there’s traffic. [Left wing] Ryan Smyth is there. Same on Jack’s goal. [Forward Scott] Parse did a wonderful job screening the goaltender.”
“You’re just trying to get those pucks to the net,” Murray added. “Whether it goes in or not, you’re creating a little bit of havoc with loose pucks and rebounds. Now you’ve got a recovery attitude, putting pucks back to the net after that.”
Murray also liked what he saw from the power play during a 5-1 victory over the New York Islanders on November 13.
“[We need to] follow-up with what they were building on [against the Islanders],” said Murray. “There’s more of a shot mentality on the power play, first of all, I liked what the look was there last night. We had several opportunities.”
As for Doughty, Murray is not concerned, as he is seeing hints that Doughty may be getting up to full speed.
“I thought he was really good,” Murray said after Doughty returned to the lineup on November 4, when the Kings hosted the Lightning. “He was real good in the first period. He showed a lot of composure. In the offensive zone, he made a couple of those little spin moves again to evade some pressure and got some plays to the net.”
“[Doughty and Johnson] are very good at becoming the second part of the attack,” Murray added. “If we just encourage that, things will open up for them. [We have] to keep pushing it. Drew’s game is starting to get back on track.”
“Most importantly, [they need to] keep doing what they’re doing, in the sense that they’re joining [the rush]. I think we got away from putting pucks to the net, as we did last year. That’s going to be a key element to getting them started.”