During the end of October, the Los Angeles Kings were dealt a difficult blow, losing their top two right-hand defensemen within a span of three games. Drew Doughty and Sean Walker both suffered serious knee injuries taking them out long-term. Doughty’s injury wasn’t as bad, expected to miss around eight weeks from the injury, with Walker’s injury being a season-ender. Anytime you lose two key players because of injury, it’s bad, but when one of those injuries is to the player that leads your team, and the league, in time on ice, it’s even worse.
Doughty was playing great hockey when he went down, and he is an unreplaceable piece. Walker isn’t Doughty, but his impact is still difficult to replace, he’s very good at moving the puck up ice and was the only offensive-defenseman outside of Doughty. Fortunately, the team’s defensemen have stepped up, and the team is now on a seven-game win streak. In this piece, I will look at how the Kings have not only survived but thrived, without Doughty and Walker.
For me, the most impressive pairing since the injuries has been the Tobias Bjornfot-Mikey Anderson pairing. The team was always going to need young players to step up if they wanted success this season, and these two have done exactly that. This pairing is outscoring their opponents 9-1 5v5, good for the third-best goal percentage in the league. The team is also getting more possession with them on the ice. Both players have elevated their game recently and have taken huge strides in their development in a short time.
Anderson has most often played with Doughty in his young career, so some people worried about how he would do without the former Norris Trophy winner next to him. He has thrived without Doughty so far, proving he’s a fantastic young defenseman. Despite not registering a point yet this season, he’s leading the team in both goals and wins above replacement. He’s been his usual, defensively reliable self while adding a bit more puck movement into his game. He’s activating into the play more and looks more confident with the puck on his stick. It’s unlikely he’ll ever develop much offense in his game, but reliably moving the puck up ice and improving his ability to make smart decisions with the puck is huge. Like with Doughty, his defense-first mindset has allowed Bjornfot more freedom to activate into plays.
Bjornfot activating into the play more this season has been a joy to watch and something I’ve been waiting for. He isn’t an offensive-defenseman by any means, but he has more skill than he showed in his rookie season. Even before the injuries, it was clear he was more confident in his ability to jump up into the play, which has only increased with his elevated role. He only has three points, but his ability to jump into plays and help the team move up ice has been huge. Of course, it is his defensive work that’s most impressive. His stick and body positioning is very good, as he rarely finds himself on the wrong side of the puck. Combined with Anderson’s defensive play, this pairing has been nearly impenetrable, and he’s added the offensive jump they need to help the team score goals themselves. At just 20-years-old, Bjornfot still has plenty of room to grow, and it looks like he’s going to develop into a fantastic two-way defenseman.
Alex Edler was signed to be a reliable veteran presence who could help take pressure off the young defensemen. These injuries have proved exactly why signing him was a good idea. Having someone with over 900 games under their belt and who played first pairing minutes for large parts of his career has been huge. He is still given a reduced role, playing a little over 18 minutes a night, but his poise and experience have been invaluable in Doughty and Walker’s absence. His versatility has also been great, playing in all situations at times. He might not be the 30-plus point defenseman he once was, but he’s proving why it’s valuable to have players with his experience on the roster.
After not making the team out of training camp, there were big question marks around Kale Clague’s future with the Kings. A bad situation offered up a golden opportunity for Clague, though, as the team was in desperate need of an offensive defenseman with his skillset. With five points in seven games so far, he’s doing exactly what the Kings need from him, providing offense from the back end. His play in the defensive zone has always been his biggest knock but playing with Edler has helped alleviate those issues.
He’s also acting as the quarterback on the team’s top powerplay unit, it’s true that powerplay hasn’t looked great recently, but those issues run deeper than Clague. He hasn’t been perfect, but he’s been exactly what the team needs him to be. I have to imagine he’s earned his spot on the roster, even after Doughty returns from injury. Several teams throughout the league are likely kicking themselves for allowing him to clear waivers a month ago, with him proving he is NHL ready.
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Kings blueline after the injuries was who would take on most of Doughty’s ice time. The answer turned out to be Matt Roy, his 21:27 average time on ice (ATOI) has led the team in Doughty’s absence, still a full minute less than Doughty’s ATOI. He’s done it all recently, killing penalties, quarterbacking the second powerplay unit, and eating up heavy minutes. He struggled a bit last season, but the team still had enough faith in Roy to make him their go-to guy during this tough situation. The common term people use when referring to Roy is that he is a “steady Eddie” on the backend, never wowing you with dazzling plays but always doing his job efficiently. That is exactly what he’s done this season, even in an elevated role.
Olli Maatta catches a lot of hate from Kings fans, some of it is fair, and some of it is not. At times it feels like he’s been used as a scapegoat for anything bad that happens with the team. Now, I’m not going to sit here and claim he’s been incredible since drawing back into the lineup, but he’s done fine. He’s a seventh, possibly even eighth, defenseman who’s performing his role right now. His 16:21 ATOI is the lowest for Kings defensemen, and they’re clearly trying to shelter him in games. He’s blocking shots and hasn’t been a liability defensively, you shouldn’t ask for more from your replacement defensemen. I have to imagine he’s the first scratch when Doughty comes back, as he’s likely lost his job to Clague, but he’s doing good enough to remain in the lineup for now.
Players Stepping up Makes Blake’s Life Easier
Several reporters have stated that general manager Rob Blake began exploring the trade market pretty quickly after both players went down. While I’m sure he’s still fielding calls and keeping his eye on the trade market for defensemen, the players within the organization stepping up makes his life significantly easier. He can now avoid making a panic trade where he gives up too much for not enough. If the team was desperately struggling, opposition general managers would have all the leverage in a trade and would be able to take advantage of Blake, now, that isn’t the case. The Kings will still be without Doughty for around five weeks and won’t be getting Walker back, so they might still make a trade at some point, especially if the team starts struggling. But for now, they can sit back and enjoy watching the team play great hockey.
My name is Austin Stanovich, as a lifelong player and fan I’m hoping to bring my own unique perspective on the hockey world, specifically covering the Los Angeles Kings. As a SoCal native I grew up a Kings fan, and after graduating from Long Beach State in 2020 I’ve joined The Hockey Writers crew as a columnist for the Kings.