Is the Los Angeles Kings’ Defense in Decline?

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 defenses

Drew Doughty is a lynchpin of the Kings' defense (Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE)
Drew Doughty is one of the lynchpins of the Kings’ defense (Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE)
During 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.

(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
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.

The offense

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 defense

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?

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.

The verdict

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.

26 thoughts on “Is the Los Angeles Kings’ Defense in Decline?”

  1. Their helmets are too small for their big ego heads. Need to trim the “dead” weight from the team-ie., Richards, Brown, Nolan, Greene, McBain, and get a top 4 defenseman before it is too late. I predict, with no change by Lombardi, the Kings will not make the playoffs. Way too many spoiled millionaires.

  2. Voynov gone, McNabb has to pick up where he left off. Regher is hurt, so McBain has his spot. How long until we see a full D? Probably a month or so, to get McNabb up to speed. Voynov’s trial won’t start until March which means we’re suffering from him not being there but I’m interested in what happens over the next 3 months before I say our D is in decline. For now, its just touch and go.

  3. I cannot agree Voynov is a loss. His knack for what to do with pucks possession in King’s end is sad. So often dump to center, short safe pass or turnover. I like his shot on offense but you have to watch his clueless puck handling to give fair appraisal.

  4. Very interesting article, Walter…and noting you chucked the Seattle Totems for the L.A. Kings. Did you arrive in time to catch any of the L.A. Sharks’ games? They were fun to watch, but played tougher, not real good on puck possession and tended to be in slug fests on a “Gordie Howe” level…plus the Sports Arena Ice-one many nights-tended towards the slushy side…But our Kings always were entertaining and lived up to the expectations of their canadian born owner-within his incredibly confining prejudices!!! With that said, I can bet the Slava Voynev issue cut into the ‘family roots’ of our present-day Kings group. And breaking in a few new fellows on the “D” also has probably left them with nightly sessions where learning from mistakes might have cost them a bit. The current slide (I’m calling it “dishing December”) is hopefully a phase they have gone through for over 40 years. Let’s hope it is totally over by January-you know: “hari kari in January?” lol Well, that’s the standard time for Kings’ meltdown. It’s strange how the teams have changed over the years, but the patterns seem to return each year? Do other good teams face this too? Alas, considering we are currently fighting through that yearly “funk”, I will add a bit of cheer for those who might not appreciate how good the team is-even when struggling. Once upon a time, teams like the Canadians and the Bruins and Rangers would come to L.A., take in Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, maybe Universal City or Bush Gardens…oh, and then knock a bunch a pucks into the net/break a few records and go home. Now a days, I suspect many of them pray for rain rather than come to California. In fact, having the Canucks and Sharks and Ducks and Coyotes out there certainly must flatten a lot of eastern egos when they now return home with their tails between their legs!

    So I conclude on the tremendous focus/play of Drew Doughty and how he stepped in to fill many of the minutes lost when Voynov went out…and Jake Muzzin is really coming along. And Martinez is another terrific addition thanks to Lombardi…and Greene and even Regehr looked pretty solid. I suspect the young guys are learning a ton from all of these fellows . Yes, we did miss Rob Scuderi and now, Willie Mitchell. But Deano has shown himself to be incredibly smart (at least so far) in dealing with certain realities of life/in a CAP era…I can only hope he figures out what we have to give up to otherwise sign 10 free agents with about $10 millions dollars at the end of this season? Otherwise, I know that 80%+ of my fellow Kings fans agree on which high salaried/signed player needs to go if all is said and done…

  5. The loss of Voynov was HUGE. Great skater, great shot, and could move the puck on the power play. His offense and defense has been sorely missed. Agree with prior posts the LAPD should have had a translator from the onset. It appears they are using Voynov as the whipping boy to atone for the sins of NUMEROUS NFLers to the L A Kings detriment.

  6. Voynov essentially gone, Mitchell gone and the team has seemingly had more injuries than usual. Despite winning Cups, the offense has always been suspect going into every playoff season and may have become too much of an emphasis this season.

    • Fair point. Perhaps in trying to ‘fix’ the offense, the defensive emphasis (not to mention injuries, Voynov, etc.) took a step backwards.

  7. Excellent comments. Loss of Voynov cannot be overstated. The team as a whole has been up and down and inconsistent, pointing to the 3-4 loss to the Flames after leading 3-0 with i think 5 minutes to go in the game. i think injuries more than the loss of Mitchell are the cause and cannot be an excuse. Loss of Voynov still irks me as I lived in Palos Verdes next to Redondo Beach. Why their PD did not interview the wife and Voynov using a Russian interpreter is inexcusable and seems NHL and PD were rushing to judgement at the cost to the Kings. Wish he would plead to a lesser crime and get back on the ice as they are making an example of him given the NFL screwups.

    But Quick has been up and down also. My comment is I think Sutter will use the Flames game to get them turned around fast or get some Monarchs up here. I do agree the young Dmen are working their way development wise and think they will replace Regehr next season.

    Walter, I was a season ticket holder for 20+ years, now live north of you in Birch Bay and am praying for a NHL team in Seattle soon.


  8. I think it was the right time for Mitchell to leave, but he certainly would have helped the team this year. Coupled with the loss of Voynov, and the baptism by fire of McNabb (who has improved markedly from the start of the season, I think it’s obvious that the Kings defense is below standard, but i wouldn’t say that it’s “in decline”.

    …more of a set back. I fully expect Lombardi to bolster the team’s defense by the start of next season, if not at the trade deadline.

  9. Injuries are not an excuse. All 30 teams go through it. That being said, there is no doubt that filling the hole that Voynov left has been tough, and I’m sure if Lombardi had a crystal ball regarding Slava, he never would have let Willie Mitchell go. DD has been asked to play over 30 minutes a game, and I worry a bit about his endurance, especially if the Kings have another 25+ game grind through the playoffs. But….this is a team that knows how to win when it counts. They have done it many times, and last year they did it in the hardest imaginable way, beating 3 of the arguably top 4 teams in the Western Conference on the road in game 7. That’s not an accident. There is no substitute for that kind of experience, and, major injuries notwithstanding, their big game experience will matter most when the playoffs start. They almost look like they haven’t found that extra gear yet. But…when it matters, they will be fine.

    • Absolutely. Regular season inconsistencies notwithstanding, the Kings sure no how to win in the playoffs.

  10. Dominick is dead-on. You throw in the loss of a solid and steadying veteran presence like Willie MItchell (to free agency), and you need look no further for explanations. There’s no doubt that the King’s depth has been stretched. But I’m seeing some steady improvement from Brayden McNabb, which will be essential to another trip to the playoffs and beyond. And I say “beyond”, because one must always have an eye on the future.

  11. Injuries is part of it. Missing Muzzin for a time. Martinez was out with a smashed finger. Regier is out now. Slava Voynov has been gone almost all season.

    Early season unforseen cap issues due to the Voynov situation meant replacing Voynov with McBain at the league minimum. He still hasn’t been replaced.

    Systematic issues with always having at least 2 of their top 6 missing at any given time.

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