The Los Angeles Kings’ defensive corps figures to sport a slightly different look next season, and Slava Voynov will play a crucial role in determining its success.
Since the 24-year-old’s NHL debut in 2011-12, he has enjoyed the safety net of veteran blueliners Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi by his side. They’re both in the Eastern Conference now, with question marks in Robyn Regehr, Jeff Schultz and Brayden McNabb vying for the vacant spot on the second defensive pair.
At least on a short-term basis, Voynov will shoulder the brunt of the workload on his unit...and he’s coming off a wretched campaign.
His ability to bounce back will significantly impact L.A.’s all-around game in 2014-15.
A Season to Forget
Voynov is surely hoping to put the previous year behind him, as it was his worst as an NHLer.
Though the basic stats (34 points, plus-six in 82 games) are fine, his play was anything but, hampered by slow decision-making and a startling lack of confidence. The attacking rearguard no longer commanded the puck because merely getting it out of the defensive zone was an ordeal.
In late January, he’s afforded an eternity to find an outlet pass. Instead of spotting Mike Richards early or chipping the puck out, Voynov holds on and then holds on some more.
When he finally tires of turning on himself, his dish misses the mark:
The puck ends up on Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s stick, and the Phoenix Coyotes open the scoring shortly thereafter.
Against the Anaheim Ducks, Voynov detects a loose puck but isn’t hard enough on it to keep Nick Bonino at bay. The forward strips him of possession in a dangerous area and then capitalizes on a pathetic attempt at defense to pot the 1-0 marker:
Half-hearted and hesitant play also followed Voynov around in coverage, as he often lost inside position on his assignment.
Frankly, there were many nights—even in the postseason—during which he appeared entirely disinterested:
Voynov has never been a rock on the blue line, but he typically handles the puck more assuredly and produces more chances with his shot from the point. In 2013-14, he posted career lows in shooting percentage and goals per game, as those respective marks dipped from 7.6 and 0.13 in the previous year to a putrid 2.8 and 0.05.
By struggling to break the puck out of the defensive zone and tilt the ice toward the opposition's net, Voynov spent much more time trying to survive than dictating the tempo. He was forced to defend for extended stretches and consequently looked that much worse.
Voynov's shooting percentage should enjoy a regression next season, but simply producing more offense won’t cut it.
With Anaheim obtaining Ryan Kesler, Dallas bringing in Jason Spezza, Chicago taking a flier on Brad Richards and St. Louis finally nabbing a skilled top-six center in Paul Stastny, the Western Conference will be downright scary in 2014-15.
Every contender boasts two legitimate scoring lines at present, which suggests that L.A.’s blue-line depth behind stalwarts Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin will be tested nightly.
Voynov will have to deal with more talent than ever, and he’ll probably be flanked by a less reliable partner than ever.
Regehr’s lack of pace caught up to him in emphatic fashion last year, as he was frequently burned by speedier forwards both in the corners and in front of the net. The 34-year-old is not the same crease-clearing mammoth he was in Calgary anymore.
Schultz filled in admirably during the playoffs, but it’s unclear if he can manage a full-time slate. When he last held a regular spot in Washington’s lineup, he wasn’t exactly a key contributor. He registered the worst relative on-ice Corsi rating among Capitals defensemen in 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2013.
Then there’s McNabb, a 23-year-old who oozes potential but remains quite raw. There’s no telling whether he can harness his aggressiveness and turn into a dependable second-pairing rearguard—either this year or in the seasons ahead.
As such, it will be up to Voynov to anchor his group in all three zones, defending passably, exiting the zone cleanly and generating chances on the attack.
That’s an awfully tall order, but Voynov possesses the assets to deliver. He’s stronger on his skates than many realize and his puck skills are usually quite impressive.
Even last season—albeit in brief glimpses—he demonstrated his share of two-way effectiveness.
Against Toronto, the soon-to-be fourth-year pro keeps a solid gap on David Clarkson at the blue line. Though Mitchell blows his coverage, Voynov recovers the puck and puts just the right velocity on his clearance to afford Jeff Carter a two-on-one:
Nothing fancy here—just a smart choice executed deftly.
In March, he notices three Philadelphia Flyers near the point, which is a prime opportunity to pressure the puck-carrier (Kimmo Timonen) without putting his teammates in a tough predicament.
He steals the puck for an odd-man break and sifts a beautiful pass to Dwight King for the game-winner:
When Voynov acts quickly and decisively, he's a stellar defenseman. When he second-guesses himself, he drags those around him down in a major way.
The tools are there. It’s the toolbox that lacks a touch of polish at the moment.
It won’t get any easier.
The Western Conference landed most of the big guns available in the offseason, and Voynov won’t have a true calming presence to lean on when the pressure picks up. McNabb could emerge as the perfect complement, but he may also need an adjustment period before finding his stride.
That could prove costly to the Kings, who now realize the importance of home-ice advantage following an absolutely draining playoff run.
After the team’s Stanley Cup-clinching win, center Jarret Stoll told ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun that L.A. was “totally out of gas.”
Obviously, head coach Darryl Sutter’s squad will look to avoid scenarios as daunting as three Game 7s on the road next season. The value of home ice will be emphasized, and thus, so will the value of every point.
Since the Kings' winning formula is predicated on puck possession and stout defense, the magnifying glass will be placed squarely on the blue line.
Doughty and Muzzin will lead the pack, but Voynov could make or break it.