Coming off their second Stanley Cup championship in three years and returning almost their entire roster, everything looks great on the surface for the Los Angeles Kings heading into the 2014-15 season. Expectations are high for what has become a perennial NHL powerhouse. So wouldn’t it seem absurd to think that the defending champs could be facing an issue as fundamental as not knowing their team identity?
Well, when one looks underneath the surface just a little bit, something alarming becomes evident — the Kings were a completely different team in the 2014 playoffs, compared to the regular season. They became much more prolific offensively, scoring a whopping 3.38 goals per game in their 26-game championship run. By contrast, they lit the lamp just 2.42 times per game during the regular season. So that’s good, right?
Sure, it’s mostly good, especially since LA went on to hoist the Cup, but — digging a little deeper under the surface again — the offensive explosion came somewhat at the expense of the team’s defense, which has formed the Kings’ identity pretty much ever since Darryl Sutter took over as head coach in the 2011-12 season. The Kings yielded 2.69 goals per game in the postseason, a very unimpressive mark when compared to their stingy 2.05 average in the regular season.
Why the Change in Style?
Again, the Kings won the Cup, so one could say they showed an ability to adapt to different styles and still be effective. However, they were inches away from losing in each of the first three playoff rounds, which all went the full seven games. Their anemic offensive numbers from the regular season were not going to cut it in the regular season, but they got out of their comfort zone a little bit.
There are a couple of plausible reasons for the apparent change in style. One is their competition — playing high-scoring teams like the Sharks, Ducks, and Blackhawks presented challenges for the defense and likely forced the Kings to adapt and take more chances on offense.
Another reason, however, is that the Kings had different personnel from what they had for the majority of the regular season. Their lineup in the playoffs featured more speed and skill (in the form of Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, and trade-deadline acquisition Marian Gaborik). This is likely the lineup they’ll be using going into the upcoming season. Furthermore, steady defenseman Willie Mitchell was the team’s one notable off-season departure, forcing Alec Martinez (who has never played more than 61 regular season games), the aging Robyn Regehr, and/or the inexperienced Brayden McNabb into more regular playing time on the back end.
This lineup would, for the most part, tip the scale more toward speed and skill and slightly away from the Kings’ identity of size, toughness, and stinginess. So which Kings team will we see most consistently in the 2014-15 season? Will it be the more high-scoring, less defensive team from last year’s playoffs? Will it be the low-scoring but stingy team we’ve come to know over the years? Or, will it be something in between?
Risks and Concerns
There are of course potential dangers with all of these scenarios. If the Kings pick up where they left off in the playoffs and push the offense more, it will likely have an adverse effect on their defense, which could lead to struggles and inconsistency over a larger sample size of 82 games. Given Sutter’s coaching style, however, one would think that Los Angeles would focus on getting back to its defense-first ways. But would that once again stymie the offense and lead to inconsistencies, which we saw for parts of last year’s regular season? Also, how well will the aforementioned offensively inclined players adhere to this style over the course of an entire season? Is Marian Gaborik really going to play that hard, physical, defensive game for an entire year, and stay healthy doing so? There could certainly be some bumps in the road in that regard.
Lastly, finding a style that is somewhere in between these two extremes is somewhat of a double-edged sword. On one hand, balance is something to strive for, as it keeps a team from being one-dimensional and makes the team more malleable when facing different types of opponents. On the other hand, though, that team could often find themselves caught in between and unsure of what they really want to do and who they really are, particularly early on, as they try to adjust and figure things out.
The Kings are certainly well constructed and will be strong contenders once again, but these are legitimate concerns that they will have to address, and there could very well be struggles along the way. Maybe the word “crisis” is a bit strong to apply to this issue of team identity, but LA will need to somehow reconcile the bipolar styles we saw in the regular season and playoffs last year. So what do they do?
Given Sutter’s nature and general coaching style, the most likely direction the Kings will go in is being a defense-first team, like we’ve gotten used to seeing for the most part. Given the higher amount of speed and skill in the lineup, the hope would be that they would be able to finish more often on the offensive opportunities they generate, as no one wants to see a repeat of last season’s anemic scoring numbers.
This is probably the wisest move for the Kings to make, given that it’s the style that the coach and the majority of the players are most accustomed to, as well as the fact that it’s helped turn them into a perennial contender the past few seasons. But given the emergence of new players who are less built for and less used to playing this way, this direction is not without risks. These players do have the advantage of a full off-season, training camp, and pre-season to prepare, but if there are early-season bumps in the road, the Kings will have to make careful decisions to keep this issue from becoming a full-fledged identity crisis.