Kings’ Long-Term Power-Play Solution Lies in Prospect Development

Arguably the Los Angeles Kings’ biggest issue this season has been their special teams. Both their penalty kill and their power play sit bottom five in the league. They have lost several games this season because one, or both, of their special team’s units, were not good enough. This was very evident in Tuesday night’s loss against the Edmonton Oilers, where the power play went 0-5 and looked abject for most of the night. With these issues so fresh, I thought now would be a good time to discuss some of the issues facing this Kings’ power play and possible solutions.

Kings’ Personnel Issues

One of the biggest issues this team faces with the man advantage is that they’ve built a team that lacks power play specialists. They have been a fairly dominant team at 5-on-5 and were built with that in mind, but they do not have the necessary personnel to consistently threaten on the power play. They also create the majority of their 5-on-5 offense on the rush, which is far less effective while at 5-on-4. Looking at the top unit last night, the Kings put out Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Adrian Kempe, Alex Iafallo, and Viktor Arvidsson. On paper, this unit looks fine. Arvidsson is a multi-time 30-goalscorer who has re-discovered his offense in the last month and a half, and Kempe is on pace to score 33 goals this season. Add in two elite players in Kopitar and Doughty and an intelligent player like Iafallo, and you should have a solid unit.

Anze Kopitar Los Angeles Kings
Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Arvidsson was originally brought in to be the top-six scorer the Kings have been missing, and while he’s done well, he has never been a power-play threat. Even in his best goalscoring seasons, a three-season span where he scored 31, 29, and 34 goals, respectively, the most power-play goals he had were four in 2016-17. Kempe is one of the best players in the league at gaining the zone with possession, but he has never been overly prolific at 5-on-4, with his best season being 2020-21, where he had four goals and 10 assists. Then there’s Iafallo, who once again, has never been a great player with the man advantage. His best season was a six-goal, nine-point performance.

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Of course, they have Kopitar and Doughty, who have both been great on the power play throughout their careers. But two good players are not enough to create a successful unit, especially when both players are more facilitators who need a trigger man to be at their most successful. The top unit has some great players on it but lacks players who excel at 5-on-4.

Drew Doughty Los Angeles Kings
Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The second unit presents a similar problem. On Tuesday, the second unit consisted of Sean Durzi, Arthur Kaliyev, Dustin Brown, Andreas Athanasiou, and Phillip Danault. Again, you have a former 30-goal scorer in Athanasiou, Brown, who’s been a solid power-play presence in the past, Danault, who has been one of the team’s best players, and two very talented rookies in Kaliyev and Durzi. On paper, this should be an acceptable second unit, but in practice, it is not.

Like Arvidsson, even in Athanasiou’s best goal-scoring seasons, he hasn’t produced on the power play. In his one 30-goal season, he only scored three times with the man advantage. While Brown was once an effective player at 5-on-4, as recently as last season even, that time is past. Danault has already matched his career-high in goals, but almost none of his offense comes a man up, having a career-high of four points during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. Durzi and Kaliyev are two players who have been great power-play threats at every level, but expecting two rookies to carry your power play, especially when they are the only prolific players, is foolish. Both units lack the required personnel to be successful, and it shows.

Changes the Kings Can Make

First, I want to address the most common change I see suggested, and that is to get a new power-play coach. After every Kings game, you can scroll social media and see a plethora of “FIRE MARCO STURM!!!” posts. While I agree the team’s special teams have reached an unacceptable level, and general manager Rob Blake would be well within his rights to make changes, firing a coach isn’t going to automatically fix the power play. Again, this team lacks players who are successful on the power play regardless of coaching. Firing Sturm isn’t going to turn Danault or Arvidsson into incredible power-play players; we’ve seen throughout their career that isn’t their game.

So, what can the Kings do? First and foremost, they need to replace Brown with Quinton Byfield on the second unit. I love Brown, he is a team legend who will have his number hanging in Arena when he retires, but he should be nowhere near a power-play unit. Byfield excels playing the front of the net and would be a perfect swap for Brown.

Quinton Byfield Los Angeles Kings
Quinton Byfield, Los Angeles Kings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Another change to make is moving Kaliyev up to the top unit and allowing him to be the trigger man. I understand the team’s desire to cautiously allow these players to develop and shelter them, but at a certain point, you have to give these players a chance. Yes, they tried Kaliyev on the top unit earlier in the season to mixed results, but the current top unit isn’t producing, so they might as well try the organization’s best shooter there.

The Kings also need to set Kaliyev up for one-timers more, having him play the left side; setting him up for catch and release plays is not the best way to utilize him. This also allows Kempe to move down to the net-front spot or the bumper spot, much better roles for him than compared to the point spot he’s currently occupying. These are really the only two changes I can see working given the current roster, because this team simply lacks the required personnel.

Where to Find Replacements

With there being minimal options to improve the power play on the current roster, this leaves Blake with two options. Look to bring players up from the Ontario Reign, who currently have the best power play in the American Hockey League (AHL), or look to acquire someone who can assist the power play. If it were me, I would opt for patience. Regardless of any move you make, this team is likely out in the first round, and I wouldn’t want to crowd the forward group anymore. Of course, it isn’t up to me, and Elliotte Friedman has already reported that the Kings are looking to add a scorer soon.

If the team is looking to add from outside the organization, there are two options I think the Kings should target. The first is J.T. Miller. I’ve mentioned the team targeting Miller recently, and he’d be exactly what the team needs. He’s under contract through the 2022-23 season and is a true power-play specialist. With 29 points on the man advantage this season, his power-play total alone would place him third on the team in points, and his 48 total points would place him in first, six points above Kopitar.

The issue with obtaining Miller is his cost. Considering what Tyler Toffoli just went for, the Kings would likely have to pay an arm and a leg to get Miller, and they will likely be priced out of acquiring him. If the Kings were ready to make a Cup run, they could throw the kitchen sink at him more comfortably, but they aren’t. He’d be a great addition, but the price is likely too much.

JT Miller Vancouver Canucks
JT Miller, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The other option would be Joe Pavelski. Like Miller, he’d be difficult to acquire, but for different reasons. If the Dallas Stars are clearly out of a playoff spot as we get closer to the trade deadline, it seems very realistic that they look to offload Pavelski, and they’d likely retain some cap to make it happen. There are three reasons acquiring him will be difficult. One, he’s a rental, and the Kings will be reluctant to acquire a rental. Two, a true contender might overpay for his services, and the Kings will not overpay for him. Three, he will be looking for his first Cup, and the Kings are not ready to win, meaning it could be a tough sell getting him to come. If they can work out those three issues, he would be an excellent acquisition and would go a long way in fixing the team’s power-play issues.

My outlook on either of those two players coming in is pretty negative. I just don’t see the Kings making any big acquisitions until the offseason, leaving internal improvements as the only option. The Reign have the best power play in the AHL, and there is a player in Ontario who could help. Now, before I move further, that player is not Vladimir Tkachev nor Martin Frk, two names that get thrown around by fans a lot as potential fixes. If Frk was going to get a spot in the lineup, it would have already happened. And Tkachev has been a healthy scratch in the AHL for a while now, so neither player will get a call-up. Instead, the answer is Gabe Vilardi.

Gabriel Vilardi LA Kings
Gabriel Vilardi, Los Angeles Kings (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Vilardi was sent to the Reign to learn a new position and re-gain his confidence, both of which he has seemingly done. He now has 29 points in 28 games and is a key figure on the Reign’s incredible power play. Despite the flaws in his game, and there are a few, you cannot ignore the fact that he’s an absurdly talented player who can take advantage of the extra space afforded to players on the power play. According to insider John Hoven, Vilardi will likely get called up closer to the trade deadline, so we won’t see how he can impact the team for another month or so. When he does come up, he should be slotted straight onto the top unit, as they desperately need help.

Improvement for the Kings Won’t Be Immediate

While it would be nice if there were a more immediate fix for the team’s dismal power play, there simply isn’t. They will likely finish in the bottom five or 10 in power-play percentage this season and will continue to frustrate fans. This team isn’t built to have a successful power play at this point. It isn’t all doom and gloom for the Kings, though, as they should see a much-improved man advantage next season. When players like Kaliyev, Byfield, and Vilardi can take on bigger roles, the power play will look much better. Fans are likely sick of hearing it at this point, but a little more patience will be needed for the power play.

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