It’s an evolution. The same team doesn’t always dominate, and it goes in cycles — Victoria Pendleton
The irony of a cyclist making the above comment notwithstanding, the fact remains that in today’s NHL, nobody remains in the upper strata of the league forever. At least for now, the end of the Kings’ extended stay looks to be at hand.
Downward Cycle Began Two Seasons Ago
To be fair, the decline didn’t start this year. Two years ago, Los Angeles couldn’t win a game after the first 60 minutes if the opposing team put a pylon in net instead of a goalie (3-15). The historic overtime/shootout record led to a 40-27-15 overall mark and the team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09. After making the postseason last year, they were dominated by the Sharks in the first round of the playoffs. The halcyon days of two Cups and three trips to the conference finals between 2011-12 and 2013-14 were officially in the rear view mirror.
Fast forward to the present. If anything, things have further eroded. L.A. is just 22-20-4 after 46 games, sixth in the seven-team Pacific (albeit with games in hand) and three points out of the second wild card slot. The franchise is cap-strapped and if rankings by Hockey’s Future and The Hockey Writers are to believed, has one of the thinnest prospect pools in the game.
The dystopian present isn’t likely a long-term future. General manager Dean Lombardi remains one of the best in the game, as does head coach Darryl Sutter. The team still has a franchise center, defenseman and (when healthy) goaltender, three pillars many teams are unable to assemble. Three points out of the wild card is a gap, not a gulf. As for the farm system, Los Angeles has a full complement of picks in the upcoming draft from which to restock the cupboards.
For now, however, the betting odds are slim for a return trip to the finals and if the trends continue, the playoffs may soon be a long shot as well. What’s wrong with the Kings? The following are five problems facing the club right now.
#5: Puck Possession
Once again, Los Angeles is right where they always are — at or near the top of the league in Corsi and Fenwick. This year’s 54.2 percent and 54.3 percent, respectively, are no exception.
It may seem like a small thing, but those percentages are the lowest numbers the Kings have posted since 2011-12. Even though they haven’t dropped in gross ranking, they aren’t as dominant as they once were. Hockey is a game of inches and capitalizing on opportunities, so for a team fighting to keep its head above water, it matters.
#4: Anze Kopitar’s Rough Season
Always a bit streaky to begin with, Anze Kopitar is on pace for fewer than 10 goals and 50 points this year. That’s even after scoring six points in his last three games, which shows you just how bad his start really was. He’s still not shooting enough: in the past five games, he’s recorded four shots on net.
#3: Scoring in General
It’s not all on Kopitar. The Kings average just 2.42 goals per game and rank 22nd in the league in scoring as of this writing. Meanwhile, they surrender 2.48 goals per game. That’s a solid total, but clearly, it doesn’t overcome the lack of offense.
#2: Jonathan Quick’s Injury
Peter Budaj has played impressively since he became the team’s No. 1 goalie in the wake of Jonathan Quick’s injury and Jeff Zatkoff’s inconsistency. His numbers speak for themselves: 20-14-3/2.14 goals-against average/.916 save percentage, placing him in the upper half of the league at this juncture. Not bad for a guy who played in the AHL for the past two seasons.
However, the loss of Jonathan Quick is still a huge hit the Kings have had to absorb. Not only does he instill confidence in his teammates, but Budaj as the backup would be a big upgrade over Zatkoff. It’s fair to say the Kings would in a playoff slot today if that were the case.
#1: No Room to Maneuver
NHL trade deadlines are always active, and over the past few years, the Kings have been eager participants in the mayhem. The downside of their recent efforts is the decimation of the farm system, which (as mentioned above) is looking pretty weak. For the sake of the future, the franchise needs to build the farm back up.
Does that mean they have to sit on the sidelines? Not hardly. Although Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik have literally no trade value, that doesn’t mean one or more players from the roster couldn’t be part of a deal. Every time I mention Jake Muzzin I hear about it in the comments section, but he would certainly return assets for both now and down the road. He’s not the only one.
As important as asset management is, freed-up cap space is just as critical. Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli are going to need new, much larger contracts, and there simply aren’t enough dollars falling off to squeeze it all in while improving the team at the same time. Something has to give, so don’t be surprised if a familiar face has a change of address between now and the summertime.