The Los Angeles Kings have now dropped four games in a row, leaving little room for optimism from fans. There is one thing that fans can be ecstatic about, though, and that is the play of the fourth line, particularly Brendan Lemieux. After coming over in a trade last season, he failed to impress in most people’s eyes, and there were questions about where he fits into the lineup. After a short stint on the COVID-19 list early in the season, he has cemented his spot in the lineup with some stellar play. He has especially turned it up recently with five points in his last six games. After being very critical of him before the season started, I wanted to give him credit and discuss how much he’s improved this season compared to last.
Lemieux in 2020-21
Last season the Kings were in the market for some grit and found their man in Lemieux. After having a rough time with the New York Rangers, they shipped him off for a fourth-round pick. There wasn’t much excitement amongst Kings fans for this trade, but no one was overly upset either. They were trading a late-round pick for someone that would likely play only half of their games.
Lemieux played in 18 games for the team and was not good. He had four points, not the end of the world considering his role, but was a black hole in puck possession. He had a 39.9% Corsi for percentage (CF%) and a 42.1% Fenwick for percentage (FF%), meaning the Kings were being heavily out-possessed and outshot with him on the ice. He was playing very physically, but throwing a lot of hits alone isn’t enough to keep you in the lineup, especially when you’re a negative impact in every other stat. This poor run of games last season left many fans questioning if he belongs on the Kings’ roster this season (many fans would’ve been fine seeing him waived in favor of prospects).
Lemieux’s Season So Far
Lemieux put together a strong preseason and earned his spot on the opening night roster, playing well in the team’s 6-2 demolition over the Vegas Golden Knights. He was then placed on the COVID-19 list and missed the next six games, all of which were losses. He came back into the lineup for the team’s big 5-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens, and hasn’t looked back since. He’s been somewhat of a revelation for the team’s bottom-six, who struggled massively during the six games he was out. His physical presence is clear, as the Kings are one of the most heavily out-hit teams in the league, averaging 21.65 hits given per game and 26.15 hits received per game. He’s averaging nearly three hits per game and is already second on the team in hits despite playing just twelve games. On a team that desperately lacks sandpaper in the lineup, he’s providing a much-needed dose of it.
Of course, I just mentioned that throwing a lot of hits isn’t enough to keep you in the lineup, and that’s where he has improved from last season. He’s had a noticeable positive impact at 5-on-5 and has been arguably the team’s best player in their bottom-six. His four goals place him fourth on the team and put him above any other bottom-six player. He’s also significantly improved his possession numbers, with a 58.3 CF% and a 56.8 FF%. Having never posted above 50 percent in either statistic throughout his career, this is a huge improvement. Add a plus-five rating and a positive expected goals percentage, and you have a player who is providing huge upside for the team. Something I wouldn’t have imagined saying coming into the season. He is also one of the best players in the league at drawing penalties, helping to offset his occasional lapses in discipline.
It’s worth noting that plenty of his numbers are unsustainable. He’s shooting at 25 percent right now and at a 27-goal pace over 82 games. This won’t continue, and it’s unlikely he sniffs anywhere near 20-goals this season, but he doesn’t need to. If he can hit double-digit goals in 2021-22 and even just equal his career-high of 12, then this would be a magnificent season for him. He has been a goal-scorer at every level before the NHL, grabbing 41 goals in a single season in the Ontario Hockey League and 19 in the American Hockey League. He’s shown some of that talent off this season, with a few really nice goals. Right now, he’s adding some much-needed physicality and grit into the lineup while also providing a positive impact offensively. If he can continue this play, he’ll be a steal coming over for a fourth-round pick and should be re-signed next offseason.
Early Candidate for Most Improved Player
I can’t think of a single player on the Kings’ roster who has improved more this season from last than Lemieux. He went from someone who looked like a liability at times, who you’d be comfortable waiving, to an irreplaceable piece on the team’s fourth line. The fourth line has improved as a whole as well. Coach Todd McLellan mentioned in the offseason that the fourth line had to be better and that they couldn’t give away momentum as frequently this season. They’ve done that and more this season, proving to be a consistent impact for the team. Lemieux has been at the center of this success, forming an incredible partnership with Blake Lizotte and Arthur Kaliyev. Lizotte and Lemieux particularly have looked great together, and I think they’ll be a staple on the fourth line all season.
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.