With their loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night, the Los Angeles Kings have lost three games in a row, and look nothing like the team which stormed its way to second in the Pacific Division. Of course, the sky is not falling, and this team will find its feet again, but I do think we’ve seen this team’s issues at the forefront recently. Specifically against the Avalanche and the Tampa Bay Lightning, games against two of the league’s best, where the Kings got a good sense of where they are, versus where they need to be. Here are some of the biggest differences I noticed between the Kings, and the league’s best.
Kings Punishing Mistakes
The biggest difference I noticed was in the Lightning and Avalanche’s ability to punish the Kings’ mistakes, and the Kings’ inability to return that punishment. Looking at the Avalanche game, one goal came on the power play, one goal came off a terrible turnover from Brendan Lemieux, and another came off a loss of concentration from the Kings power-play unit. The Kings had their chances as well, but the difference was in Colorado’s lethality when those chances came.
The Lightning was a similar situation as well, yes, the Kings were better and scored four goals, but this was a game playing against four Lightning defensemen, where the minimum time on ice from their blueline was Cal Foot with 24:54 played. While the Kings were more deadly in this game, there was still a noticeable difference between them and the Lightning. This also came during an uncharacteristically poor game from Anze Kopitar and his line.
This isn’t a new problem either, it has plagued this team all season, it just becomes more evident against the top of the league. This season the team has by far the worst goals for above expected total in the league, according to MoneyPuck.com, the team has 26.04 goals below expected, which is roughly six less than the next closest team, the Vancouver Canucks with 20.16 goals below expected. They’re also third worst in overall shooting percentage, shooting at 7.86% as a team, better than only the Canucks and the Canadiens. The problem isn’t just that this team is bad at finishing their chances, it’s that they’re the worst in the league at it.
These last few games have also highlighted how much the team misses All-Star Adrian Kempe. Whether or not you think he won’t sustain this production outside of a contract year, or what your opinions are on him as a player, he’s been the only player on the Kings to consistently produce goals and finish his chances this season. His 2.4 goals above expected leads the team, as does his 17 goals. Of course, having Kempe wouldn’t have meant a guaranteed win for the Kings in these last few games, but they’re clearly missing his ability to finish chances right now.
That’s not to ignore the team’s goaltending and defense regressing recently, but I do think the lack of finishing is a bigger problem. When you give up multiple breakaways, and one-on-one chances, or give an elite player like Victor Hedman time to walk into the slot, you really shouldn’t be blaming the goalie. It would have been nice to see one of the goalies steal one of the last two games but as my colleague, Zackary Weiner pointed out, relying on your goalies to consistently steal games for you is problematic.
Kings Special Teams
Since the team’s red-hot start against the Vegas Golden Knights, special teams have been an Achilles heel for this Kings team, and it has managed to get worse as the season’s grown. The team’s power play sits 25th in the league, at 16.8%, and its penalty kill is 29th, at 73.5%. This is just unacceptable for a team that wants to compete once again. The fact that the Kings are sitting second in the Pacific Division, third when looking at points percentage, with their special teams performing so badly is a testament to how solid they’ve been at even strength. This also goes back to their inability to punish mistakes and their susceptibility to being punished. They can’t take advantage of other teams’ penalties, and they’ve been taken advantage of when down a man.
Drew Doughty and Kopitar are the only players with solid power-play numbers, and even they have been very inconsistent with the man advantage this season, while no one has impressed on the penalty kill. You would expect a team with two Selke nominees, a former Norris Trophy winner, and a fantastic defensive winger in Alex Iafallo to have a solid penalty kill, but that has not been the case. One theory I’ve seen is that the teams shift to a more speed, rush-focused game has seen them move away from the big physical players needed to win net-front battles on the penalty kill. While this isn’t the only issue, it’s an important one.
While it’s hard to pinpoint one exact problem, and a struggling special teams is rarely just the coach’s fault, special teams coach Marco Sturm has to shoulder some of the blame. Some of the issues for the Kings’ power play, in particular, is personnel, players like Iafallo and Phillip Danault are excellent 5v5 players but lack the elite talent to fully take advantage of the power play.
That being said, Sturm has made several questionable decisions. Pulling Dustin Brown up to the top unit against the Avalanche despite him having just one power-play point all season while Arthur Kaliyev is left on the second unit and Samuel Fagemo is left on the bench is certainly one of them. While several fans want a change in this department, as TheFourthPeriod’s Dennis Bernstein rightfully pointed out, it’s unlikely the team makes a change given their current place in the standings.
I do think this thought process is flawed, and there would be nothing wrong with removing someone who isn’t performing even if the team is, but Bernstein’s point still stands. As I said, Sturm isn’t the only issue, there are personnel problems for the special teams, and it’s hard impossible to say the blame solely lies on Sturm, but that is the cruel reality of being a coach in the NHL. It’s easier to find a new special team’s coach than an entirely new special teams unit. Perhaps the Kings will give Sturm the chance to prove he can coach at least a high-functioning power play next season when players like Quinton Byfield, Gabriel Vilardi, and Kaliyev will be ready for bigger roles, but the leash should be short when that time comes.
Kings are Still a Playoff Team
Yes, this ended up being a very negative piece, which makes the Kings seem like a team plummeting out of the playoff race — Edmonton Oilers, anyone? — but that isn’t the case, the team just played against two of the league’s best teams and didn’t look out of place at all. They even outplayed both teams in some respects but couldn’t get the necessary finishing to take home any points. Kempe will return, the opposition won’t be as lethal, and the team will start winning games again.
This is still a playoff team, and I’d expect them to make a postseason return, especially given the Oilers collapse, but we have seen their issues of late. The team saw where they need to be over the last two games, and when players like Byfield, Turcotte, and Kaliyev develop, they will get there. I’ve said it many times before, and I’m sure fans are tired of hearing this word, but they need just a bit more patience before they see this team become a real force in the league.
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.