The Los Angeles Kings’ blue line should look a lot different in the 2022-23 season. The only defenseman who will still be under contract at that time is Drew Doughty. Doughty, a Norris Trophy winner in 2015-16, has begun to decline in his age-30 season. The rest of the current roster would have to be re-signed and includes:
- Matt Roy
- Ben Hutton
- Sean Walker
- Joakim Ryan
- Kurtis MacDermid
What Do the Advanced Statistics Say?
Examining the expected goals rate (xG) from these defensemen tells us who should be around in 2022-23. The expected goals rate is a measure of the expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60) by the expected goals for per 60 minutes (xGF/60). If a player has a high xG, they are more likely to be on the ice when their team scores as opposed to being scored upon.
As you can see, Matt Roy was far and away the best at 5v5 in 2019-20. The 25-year-old former 7th round pick (194th overall) has been a revelation this year. He had quite the impressive season taking home several team awards:
If Roy can continue this trajectory, he could easily be one of the top two options on the right side in 2022-23.
Related: Revisiting the Brent Burns Trade
The other players in the above graphic, Ryan, Hutton, Walker, and MacDermid (Kings logo not labeled) probably don’t have a strong case for being on the roster in 2022-23. Perhaps Walker and Hutton could be third pairing guys but are average to replacement level NHL players at best.
The discrepancy between the blueliners is even more evident when you examine the pairings. Roy excels with either Ryan or Hutton but is dragged almost into the “bad” territory when paired with MacDermid. Alex Martinez (no longer with the team) is the only other pairing in the “good” category with Walker. You can see that Doughty drags down Walker, Hutton, and Martinez.
What About the $11 Million Man?
At this point, it should be pretty clear that Doughty should no longer be a first-liner, though his contract may dictate more ice time than he deserves. I am going to suggest he is a third-pairing guy by 2022-23. For further evidence, goals above replacement (GAR) is a complex metric that takes into account many facets of the game. It includes even strength, power play, and shorthanded goals above average, as well as penalties drawn and taken.
Doughty never had a negative GAR in his entire career until the 2018-19 season. In 2019-20, he was just barely positive at 0.3, by far the second worse mark of his career (from Evolving Hockey). So either Doughty has a huge bounce back in store for 2020-21 and beyond, or his decline has begun and it will be worse in 2022-23. I am betting on the latter.
Who’s in the Pipeline?
The Kings have several decent defensive prospects, though I wouldn’t say any of them have Norris Trophy upside. In order of upside, I would say they are:
- Kale Clague
- Tobias Bjornfot
- Jordan Spence
- Sean Durzi
- Jacob Moverare
Let’s examine them in reverse order of upside.
Jacob Moverare is a 2016 4th round pick (112 overall). He played in the OHL in his draft-1 and draft seasons for the Mississauga Steelheads putting up 0.51 and 0.68 points per game respectively. When he turned pro, he elected to play in his native Sweden for Frolunda HC. The jump to professional hockey was difficult and his points per game dropped to 0.17 and 0.37 respectively, which is not bad for a 21-year-old playing in a professional league.
It’s likely he returns to North America and plays for the AHL Ontario Reign for a season or two. It’s unlikely he will be a big scorer at the NHL level. If he makes the NHL, it will likely be as a good two-way defenseman on the third-pairing. Even that low bar appears to be a bit of a long shot at the moment.
Sean Durzi was a 2018 2nd round pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs and a part of the package that sent Jake Muzzin to the Leafs. He is certainly a more offensively minded rearguard than Moverare putting up 1.2 points per game in his draft year with Owen Sound Attack of the OHL. After another great season in the OHL split between the Sound Attack and Guelph Storm, Durzi transitioned to the AHL where he put up 14 points in 39 games.
He was a minus-7 for the Reign and 6th on the team in defensive scoring, though he played the fewest games of any of the top 6 due to an early-season injury. Durzi has work to do in his own end, but his offensive instincts are undeniable. If he can stay healthy, improve his defense, and cut down on the senseless penalties that cost his team, he could have a role on the Kings in the future. That is a lot of ifs and the right side of the defense is pretty secure by Doughty, Clague, and Roy. For these reasons, Durzi falls outside of the top 4 for me.
Jordan Spence is one the most-recently drafted of the Kings’ prospects taken in the 4th round in 2019. In his draft year, he scored at 0.72 points per game and improved to .87 in his draft+1 season. At 19 and only 5’10” Spence still has a lot of room for his game to grow. It will be telling to see how he transitions to the AHL in 2020-21. He may need 1-2 seasons to acclimate and 2022-23 may be just about the right time for him to see NHL action, provided his game continues to evolve in a positive direction.
According to hockey prospecting (www.hockeyprospecting.com), Spence currently has a 62% chance of being an NHL player, which is actually the highest of any of these prospects. His offensive upside is probably similar to Durzi’s, but is further behind in his development due to age.
Tobias Bjornfot was a fellow 2019 draft pick to Spence, but he was taken 22nd overall. He is more of a shut-down defenseman, less known for his offensive prowess. He developed in his native Sweden, suiting up for junior and professional versions of Djurgardens IF during his draft year. He is not flashy, but is an excellent skater and great positionally. His defensive acumen is so advanced that at his young age he made the Kings’ roster straight out of camp and was paired with Doughty for the first few games of the year.
After registering a minus-3, he was sent to the Reign where he flourished, even posting 19 points in 44 games and a plus 13. The left-handed Bjornfot is the closest of these prospects to being NHL-ready and will be an excellent partner to a right-handed defender who is more offensively inclined.
Kale Clague, an offensively minded left-handed defenseman, was a 2016 2nd round pick (51st overall). After posting 1.3 points per game in his draft year in the WHL, he scored 29 points in 52 AHL games as a rookie in 2018-19. He spent 2019-20 working more on his defensive game and will likely be ready for NHL action in 2020-21.
He is by far the best offensive defenseman in the system and his defensive game, while not perfect, does not have major flaws. He and Bjornfot will split top 4 duties on the left side depending on the situation, with Bjornfot getting the tougher defensive assignments.
Who Will Run the Power Play?
It’s so far from now that it’s hard to say and the safe answer is probably Doughty. If they want a right-handed shot, it could very well continue to be Doughty or they may turn to Clague, but Clague’s offensive upside doesn’t seem even as high as Doughty’s. The player with the highest offensive ceiling is Spence. Will he be ready by 2022-23? It is hard to say, it may be his rookie season so it is possible he sees second-unit time.
In a sheltered role, he could thrive and it’s possible his defensive game has improved so much by then, he is no longer a liability. Doughty and Spence are both right-handed so it would serve as an easy transition from one to the other without changing the configuration of the unit. If they want a left-handed shot, it will most likely be Clague.
Of course, the Kings could very well draft and develop a new prospect in that time or acquire a powerplay specialist in that time, which seems just about as likely as any of these players taking the job.
Who Are the Top 4?
|Left-Handed Defenseman||Right-Handed Defenseman|
These pairings allow for an offensive defenseman to be freed to create by a more stabilizing stay-at-home defender. Mikey Andreson and Doughty will likely be on the third pairing. A lot could change before 2022-23, but that’s how I see it right now. There is a lot to be excited about and the future is bright for the Kings.
Victor Nuño is a physician in private practice in Santa Cruz and an associate professor of osteopathic manipulative medicine at Touro University in California. He is an avid hockey fan ever since the San Jose Sharks joined the NHL in 1991. He plays, watches, and consumes everything related to hockey, but especially the Sharks and AHL affiliate Barracuda. In addition, he is a father to two beautiful young girls and husband to a wonderful wife.