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.