For Dean Lombardi, a summer of doing pretty much nothing is a good one.
— Philip Pritchard (@keeperofthecup) August 31, 2014
After spearheading LA’s first-ever Stanley Cup championship in 2012, Lombardi brought back every single player for the title defense (the last organization to do that was the 1983 New York Islanders). This summer, he let just one regular contributor (Willie Mitchell) walk and added no skaters of significance.
This apparent loyalty will be put to the test immediately when training camp opens on September 19th, as all eyes, board certified or not, will inspect Mike Richards. The buyout candidate was spared after pledging to Lombardi that he would “make some adjustments in his offseason training…to prepare like a 28- or 29-year-old, not a 22-year-old.”
Defenseman Brayden McNabb will also come under the preseason microscope. The 23-year-old’s presence, along with veteran Robyn Regehr’s, paved the way for Mitchell’s flight. Is the youngster ready to eat tough minutes for the defending champs?
Richards and McNabb will dominate September chatter, but you don’t need me to tell you that. In my LA Kings season preview, we’re going to spotlight some less-discussed concerns (all pictures are from the first day of training camp):
Jonathan Quick for Vezina?
For Kings fans, Quick is the battleground state between the eyeball test and analytics. On one hand, you have two Stanley Cup rings and breathtaking athleticism. On the other hand, you have mostly mediocre regular season performances:
(Essentially, Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) tells us how many goals—more or less—a netminder has given up compared to a league-average goalie with the same workload. A GSAA of +30 means a goaltender has saved 30 more goals than average in a season; a GSAA of -30 means surrendering 30 more than average. Read more about how GSAA is calculated here.)
But the pieces are there for Quick to shut his doubters up, at least for a little while. He’s got the talent—his own and the contender in front of him—to post another career season. For the consistently inconsistent netminder, why not?
A Fork in the Blueline
Besides McNabb, a trio of Los Angeles defensemen have a ton to prove starting this fall.
Alec Martinez just enjoyed the perfect contract year. Unfortunately, he’s not a UFA until the end of this season. In the meantime, fans shouldn’t expect him to repeat his career-high 11 goals or 13.9 shooting % (2009-13: 6.4) or consecutive series-clinching overtime winners.
What should they expect? At the very least, continued rock-solid efforts with long-time third-pairing partner Matt Greene. They opened training camp together, while Regehr skated with Slava Voynov.
However, Martinez can leapfrog the inexperienced McNabb and aging Regehr into LA’s top-four.
Historically, the coaching staff has favored defensive duos consisting of a stay-at-home guy and a puckmover, but the success of Jake Muzzin-Drew Doughty might open the door for Martinez to see some time with Voynov. The potential pairing’s relative lack of crease-clearing moxie (even compared to Doughty-Muzzin) is a limitation. But that said, they have flourished together (small sample size alert):
(Corsi For % compares 5v5 Even Strength all shots attempted versus shots against when a player is on the ice. Generally, better than 50% is good; it means you have the puck more than your opponents.)
As for Voynov, he must establish his bona fides away from security blanket Mitchell.
While some blamed his struggles last year on frequent partner Regehr, the Russian was still the team’s shakiest defender throughout last spring, even with Mitchell at his side.
Now back with Regehr? Or McNabb? Or Martinez? Voynov will have to justify his status as the squad’s second-highest paid blueliner. Can he anchor a strong second pairing for the first time in his career?
However, Voynov may not be the team’s second-highest paid defenseman for long. The playoffs were the once-maligned Muzzin’s coming out party, as he seized first-pairing minutes:
NHL.com’s Corey Masisak now considers Muzzin the 14th-best defenseman in the league. Jewels from the Crown’s Andrew Lifland adds: “Muzzin is the best play-driving defenseman the Kings have. Doughty has more raw talent and probably the potential to be a better player, but the numbers make a powerful argument that, for now at least, Muzzin is doing the best work of anyone on the blue line.”
The organization better hope that the impending RFA’s agent didn’t read those articles! Still just 25, can Muzzin keep it up…or get even better?
With Regehr also on his way to free agency, the backend at Staples may soon look much different.
Will LA’s PK Outperform Its Underlying Numbers Again?
Los Angeles’s penalty killing units have far outperformed their 4v5 Fenwick Against/60 since 2011-12:
(Fenwick Against/60 mins measures unblocked shot attempts against when a player or team is on the ice per 60 minutes of ice time.)
Of course, more data would be nice (we only have Fenwick numbers back to 2007-08) as the correlation between 4v5 FA60 and PK % is not definite. That, and penalty killing is a lot of luck.
Nonetheless, the Kings’ recent, better-than-expected shorthanded results are interesting, especially when we compare league-wide 4v5 FA60 and PK % results from 2007-14:
Notably, 2007-14’s 4v5 FA60 top-10 list also boasts most of the NHL’s top PK units from that time period. There’s more variation after the top-10.
What does this suggest? The Kings shouldn’t count on continuing to outperform their middling 4v5 shot suppression numbers. Their relative fortune from 2011-14 will turn against them at some point.
Less shots through, as one might suspect, seems related with better penalty killing results.
However, with similar returning personnel and coaching staff, it’s hard to forecast much improvement in this area for Los Angeles.
I think this is the year that the Kings finally play up to their potential during the regular season. Hopefully, they won’t bother with putting up a banner for a division title—grr Smythe Division Champions 1990-91—this time around.