The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without — Dwight D. Eisenhower
The parallels between hockey and war are striking.
Witness the overarching themes of offense and defense, of attacking versus defending. There are also the moment-by-moment battles: puck control, ebb-and-flow, scrums, body checks, firing shots, physical sacrifices, and defending the net at all costs. Finally, combatants square off — literally — almost every single game.
Even the season can be characterized in the same fashion. Every game is a major battle; the season itself a war. There are winners and losers throughout, and in the end, one reigns supreme over the rest.
In hockey, as in war, a strong defense is essential to victory. In recent years, no team is more aware of that than the Los Angeles Kings.
The Los Angeles Kings perennially have one of the league’s best defensesDuring the Dean Lombardi era (not to mention a swathe of the Dave Taylor regime), the Kings built the foundation of a successful franchise brick by brick.
The Hockey Writers took a look at how the team was assembled last January, and I tackled Lombardi’s philosophy myself a few months later. When you go through the transactions, one thing is clear: there’s no question that Los Angeles is a franchise with a defense-first mentality.
Twenty-one members of the current roster were either signed, acquired or drafted since 2007, with only Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar having been on the team prior to that year. Los Angeles isn’t a young team anymore, but with an average age of 27.7, they aren’t old, either. Noteworthy with respect to the roster-building is the fact that L.A. has three things every team covets: a franchise goaltender (Jonathan Quick), franchise defenseman (Drew Doughty) and franchise center (Anze Kopitar).
With head Coach Darryl Sutter leading the way, the foundation in place, plenty of complementary pieces and role players, and the core signed for the long-term, it seems the Kings are in prime position to contend every year. Provided, of course, that the defense continues to lead the way.
The track record is proven
They say defense wins championships, and with two Cups in three seasons, the Kings are exhibit A of that mantra.
2011-12: The Kings finished second in the NHL in goals allowed at 2.07/game, and had the league’s fourth-best penalty kill (87.0%). They threw the second-highest number of hits (2,274) and won the seventh-best percentage of faceoffs (51.5%). From an advanced stats perspective, they were second in Corsi For % (54.8%) and fourth in Fenwick For % (53.9%).
The Kings had arguably the top defense in the NHL that year, and rode it all the way to the Stanley Cup, defeating the New Jersey Devils in six games.
2012-13: Los Angeles dropped back a tad in goals against (7th, 2.38) and penalty killing (10th, 83.2%), but were still effective in throwing the body (second, 1,446) and faceoffs (fourth, 52.0%). They were #1 in Corsi For % (56.3%) and tied for the lead in Fenwick For % (55.7%).
Still armed with one of the league’s very best defenses, Los Angeles advanced to the Western Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Chicago Blackhawks 4-1.
2013-14: The Kings returned to their dominating defensive ways last year, leading the league in goals against (2.05). They were only a tad above average in penalty killing (83.1%), but threw the most hits (2,609) and were second in faceoffs (52.8%). In telling fashion, the Kings led the NHL in Corsi For % and Fenwick For %, at 56.8% and 56.1%, respectively.Although the defense had its lapses in the playoffs, it came to play when needed the most and helped Los Angeles vanquish the New York Rangers, 4-1, for their second Stanley Cup.
Is the defense slipping?
Let’s preface this part of the discussion with the standard disclaimer: it’s still early.
The Kings have played 35 games as of this writing, posting a 17-11-7 record. Yes, there are a few cracks in the armor: L.A. is tied for the fourth-most overtime/shootout losses (7), has lost twelve of 15 road games and is just eighth in the Western Conference standings with 41 points. However, they are certainly capable of pulling out of the 6-7-2 mini-swoon they’ve been in since November 22nd. Regardless, as we’ve seen over the past three seasons, they just need to advance to the playoffs — the system and team structure excel in that environment.
With exceptions here and there, the offense has been fairly effective during the first 35 games of the year. After all, the Kings are scoring goals at a 2.74/game clip, their highest total since 2009-10.
The Kings defense has been solid, but at 2.40 goals/game allowed (seventh in the NHL as of this writing), it isn’t at the level it was last year. Still, seventh is nothing to summarily dismiss, either. It hasn’t really slipped that much, has it?
Damn 8. 2 of those goals are your responsibility. Too slow and a step behind? Play DEFENSE, you're not a forward. So frustrating. #LAKings
— Thomas Avoian (@PresElectTom) December 23, 2014
Maybe it has. Just five days ago, I wrote this piece analyzing the top five defenses in the league at that point in time. Using goals against, shots against, blocked shots, hits, takeaways and faceoffs as key metrics and weighting them logically, I came up with the league’s five best defenses so far this season:
– Winnipeg Jets
– St. Louis Blues
– Chicago Blackhawks
– Detroit Red Wings
– Tampa Bay Lightning
Not only were the Kings not in the top five (they were #1 almost exactly one year ago, and fifth-best about 20 months ago), they weren’t even in the top ten. Los Angeles ranked a relatively pedestrian 11th.
It’s telling as to the standard of excellence Darryl Sutter and Dean Lombardi have set in L.A. that surrendering the seventh-fewest average number of goals (or possessing the 11th best defense when considering the metrics and weightings listed above) is worthy of discussion. After all, no matter which way you look at it, the majority of the league would still trade skates with the Kings.
That being said, it’s pretty clear that the Kings have seen slippage defensively this season. It may be the Slava Voynov suspension, the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover or something else altogether, but right now, the level of play on that side of the ice isn’t the same as it’s been during the previous three seasons.
Can they pick it up again? You bet they can. Considering they are in the loaded Western conference and sit precariously in the eighth seed, they’re going to have to.
What do you think? Why has the Kings defense dropped a notch or two? Feel free to comment below, or send your thoughts to @McLaughlinWalt.
Walter McLaughlin is a Los Angeles Kings correspondent for The Hockey Writers. He is an avid sports fan, having followed the Kings since living in L.A. in the mid-1970’s, as well as suffering through Seattle sports teams’ general futility. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Finance and has worked in community banking for over 25 years, specializing in SBA loans. He is married and has two daughters.