Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why the Los Angeles Kings Aren't a Stanley Cup Contender Yet

There are seven stand-out reasons for the Kings' 5-2-1 start:

1) Jonathan Quick set the franchise record for most consecutive shutout minutes with a mark of 188:10, besting Rogie Vachon's 184:55.

2) Thanks in part to Mike Richards, the power play is humming at 24 percent after wallowing at 16 percent last year. This is mostly without Drew Doughty.

3) Quick set a franchise record with three consecutive shutouts.

4) Anze Kopitar—the Kings' best offensive AND defensive forward last year—has ten points.

5) Quick has a 0.81 GAA and a 97.2 save percentage.

6) Jack Johnson has two overtime winning goals.

7) Quick has covered up his team's middling play—an inconsistent offense and somewhat sloppy two-way effort—as the Kings have had few dominating stretches so far.

While the results of the first eight games suggest a team ready to be anointed, Dean Lombardi sacrificed a critical element of the team's success the last two years to improve other areas—and that element must be replenished for Los Angeles to join the elite teams.

Terry Murray calls it "heavy" play, and this boardwork was a third line hallmark for the last two years. This quality has diminished with the budget being shifted from "puck possession" forwards like Alexander Frolov, Michal Handzus, Wayne Simmonds, and Alexei Ponikarovsky to the more skilled trio of Richards, Dustin Penner, and Simon Gagne (and to pay Doughty).

What if I told you that building around Jarret Stoll could be the difference between the Kings being a very good or elite team?

The current, mostly cheaper bottom six options have yet to carry play the same way that the Handzus-led third lines did. Stoll is a sound player, but his skills (besides faceoffs) don't naturally translate toward leading a grinding line a la Handzus's strength and defensive awareness. He needs more impactful grinders to complement him.

Trevor Lewis and Kyle Clifford haven't shown last year's playoff gusto, while Trent Hunter and Ethan Moreau's best years appear to be behind them. Brad Richardson is game, but as a tweener (a finesse grinder and an underwhelming finesse player), he would excel with the lesser responsibility of fourth line duty. He certainly doesn't belong on the second line. We need him to surprise us occasionally; we shouldn't be depending on him too much.

This "heavy" play doesn't amount to a barrage of goals, but is very effective defensively and for changing momentum—nothing like a full minute in the opposing team's zone to stall counterattacks. A strong third line should be able to consistently carry play.

I'm not suggesting that the Kings were better off when their offensive creativity pretty much started and ended with Kopitar's broken ankle and Justin Williams's dislocated shoulder last season. But a true Cup contender requires—along with skill and goaltending—a fortified third line to finish off games.

Lombardi tried addressing this problem when he signed Moreau and Hunter late in the offseason. But they haven't carried play at all this season, and they're not getting any younger.

Quick's start this season is unsustainable, so the Kings' hot start is a mirage. The good news is that most of the team hasn't played to their potential yet. The top six has more to give, and we still haven't seen anything from Doughty. Clifford may surprise yet.

But I'm not convinced that our current third line will be any better than unspectacular this season.

Even if you don't think that "gifted" grinders are the way to go—for example, Boston won it all last year with a speedy third line—we can probably agree that LA's third line needs significant improvement. And Stoll, as the centerpiece of that third line, needs more than leftovers around him. Lombardi must address this by the deadline if he's serious about the Kings' ascent to the top.


lisa said...

First, Kings aren't Stanley cup contender? What? What do you mean? How dare you?
Just kidding, I agree, we are not there yet, we need to work on it.
I think we are a pretty good team, but, we need our talented players play like one, Kopitar, Richards,..and, most important, Quick need to be as good as now at playoff games.
About Stoll, I somehow feel he is always much better in the first half of the season, and became powerless when the season goes deeper, I am not sure he was tired of what, but I've noticed he tends to disappear toward the end.
Doughty needs to be super good, now he got the money he insisted, he became the highest pay player, he better proves he is the number one.
Penner so far is a disappointment, if he is just slowly recovering from injury, that's fine, but, he needs get healthy faster and play better, the way he is showing us now is unacceptable.
Clifford is a pleasant surprise, he is young, has lots room to improve, I have high hope on him.
Richardson is so so player, and SOMETIMES he is good, but I don't see he'll change much.
I like Gagne, but he injured a lot, that's a concern.
Strangely Jack Johnson is the most consistent player so far, he is not super skilled, but he has strong shot and he is aggressive, I like that.
When you talk about line, see, this is where I got lost, we don't really have Lines, the stupid coach changed them too much, way too much, in hockey, players don't have time to think what to do, they need instincts, and that comes from to play with same teammate a lot to know where they are without looking, and know what they'll do without telling. That's the key to create a dangerous line.
well, this comment is way too long, talk to you next time.

Sheng Peng said...

Murray does like to juggle lines, especially to jumpstart the offense. However, he'll sometimes keep pairs together for a while, like Handzus/Simmonds. So the better question might be who they can pair with Stoll to make him more dangerous. I don't think it's the guys the Kings currently have. They probably need someone speedier than Stoll, maybe a playmaker who can set up his shot?