The Los Angeles Kings haven’t made the playoffs in consecutive seasons since they were winning Cups in the early 2010s. They are virtually guaranteed to make it this year, after ending a four-year drought last season. They haven’t made it past the first round since they won the Cup in 2014 though, and with the way things are going now, losing in Round 1 would be a big disappointment. There are a lot of players that will be key to the team going on a deep run, but we’ll look at arguably the three most important.
The Kings’ move to acquire Kevin Fiala has paid off handsomely in his first season with the team. He still leads the team in points with 68, despite missing the last five games. He has also been versatile, playing roles on the first and third lines. Lately, he’s slotted in nicely on the third line, which has allowed the first line to excel. He has also made the Kings’ power play one of the best in the league. They rank fourth in goals per 60 minutes this season on the power play, after being the fifth-worst team in that category last year.
Fiala has been a reliable and productive player over the past four years. He had over 20 goals in his first two seasons after being traded to the Minnesota Wild, and both of those seasons were shortened by COVID-19. When he got to play a full 82 games last season, he exploded for 33 goals and 85 points. The thing that has been missing for him has been playoff production. In his last two seasons in Minnesota, he had just one goal and five points in 13 playoff games. He wasn’t always relied upon to score like he was in those last two seasons, but a career postseason scoring record of 15 points in 35 games is not anything to write home about.
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The Kings will absolutely need Fiala to produce in the playoffs. He gives the lineup depth and is key to the power play. They went 3/24 with the man advantage in the seven-game series against the Edmonton Oilers last year. A better power play could have made a difference in that series, and it certainly could be the difference between winning and losing a round in the playoffs this season.
There always seems to be one or two teams headed into the playoffs that can be summed up in one statement. That statement is “if they can get average goaltending, look out”. This definitely describes the Kings this season, and has all year long. Goal scoring did not look like it would be a problem, but the questions over whether or not Jonathan Quick would regress after his renaissance season and if Cal Petersen had found his game. The Kings were left in a bind when it seemed like neither of those goalies was going to work out.
After the Kings decided to send Petersen to the American Hockey League (AHL), they brought Pheonix Copley to the big club. It seemed like Copley was just going to be a stopgap until Quick’s struggles were not getting any better. Copley had made just 26 NHL starts over a six-year period and had mostly played in the AHL. He did a good job of being better than the previous two goaltenders, which is what the team desperately needed.
Of late, Copley has really found success in the crease. He’s started 12 games since Feb. 1 and posted a .917 save percentage since that date. He’s also saved 7.49 goals more than expected, based on the location and danger of the chances he’s faced. Overall, his record on the season is 22-4-3. Wins are not the best way to judge a goaltender, but the Kings’ coaches and management would have bit your hand off if you offered them that record for Copley when he first joined the team.
The playoff graveyard is littered with goaltenders who got hot out of nowhere and then faded in the postseason. A case could be made that he is the most important player for the Kings’ playoff run. If he is able to keep up his recent solid play, there’s no reason why the Kings can’t win the Western Conference. If he falters early, we could see Joonas Korpisalo take over as the starting netminder at some point.
When you’re the second overall pick in the NHL Draft, big things are expected from you right away. In the past handful of seasons, we’ve seen guys like Jack Eichel and Patrik Laine make huge impacts the year after they were drafted. However, not every high draft pick is going to be a superstar immediately like those guys were. Especially if the player’s development was so hugely impacted by injuries and COVID as we’ve seen with Quinton Byfield. Since getting his new role, he appears to have taken a step forward.
Byfield made the move from center to left wing earlier this season, and it’s really worked out well for everyone. He’s been emerging as a potential star, as his assist rate is among the best in the league since he started playing on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe. They have scored 11 goals at five-on-five in their last 10 games, which is tied for the best in the NHL. Byfield playing on the first line gives the Kings three solid scoring lines, and also a fourth line that the coaching staff feels comfortable playing against nearly any opponent.
A hallmark of the Kings teams that won Cups was their size. The game is different now and size doesn’t play as much of a factor, but having a 6-foot-5, 220-pound winger who can skate like Byfield is definitely an asset in the playoffs. If he can keep up his contributions to the first line, teams will have to worry about who they will use to match up against this trio. The Kings can use Phillip Danault’s line against the other team’s best scorers, and deploy the Kopitar line in more favorable matchups.
These players have been key to the Kings becoming one of the best teams in the league over the last two months. If they each continue to play as well as they have, the sky’s the limit for what this team can achieve.