Coming off three straight long postseasons, the Los Angeles Kings were inevitably set to fall prey to fatigue—both physical and mental—in 2014-15.
Even with that factor in mind, though, the defending Stanley Cup champions have underperformed thus far. L.A. sits in fourth in the Pacific Division and is clinging to the Western Conference’s second wild-card spot for dear life.
This team is better than that.
Head coach Darryl Sutter should claim a fair portion of the responsibility for the poor start, as his lineup and usage decisions have been dismal and will continue to plague the club until he puts his players in a position to thrive.
Two of Los Angeles’ key contributors are mired in slumps at the moment, and it appears playing together has exacerbated the issue.
Pairing them on the same line has yielded horrendous results, yet Sutter keeps going to back to that well, offering the duo a ton of ice time despite the outcome and stronger showings from bottom-six pivots Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards.
Slotting two natural centers together is always a dubious move, as it forces one to assume winger duties—clearing pucks along the wall, covering opposing point men, etc.—they aren’t accustomed to.
The Kopitar-Carter combination hasn’t managed to avoid that pitfall:
|Kopitar and Carter Together in 2014-15|
|Carter without Kopitar||14||1.195||0.598||66.7|
|Kopitar without Carter||6||0.646||0.933||40.9|
Beyond stifling the offense of both players, this lineup decision has wreaked havoc on the top line's fundamentals.
The breakout is stalling along the wall because Carter isn't a proper winger, and that same bugaboo is muddying the club's defensive assignments. Due to role confusion, the Kings have been caught committing one too many men on the forecheck, which has led to a number of odd-man opportunities against.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to Sutter, as Richards and Carter’s numbers have also been unsightly when iced together over the past few seasons.
Natural centers should play center.
Carter is visibly more comfortable as a pivot. His speed and shot would appear to lend themselves to the wing, but he isn’t a traditional sniper who sneaks into soft spots for an open look.
At its best, No. 77’s game is electrifying. He pushes the tempo with his pace and looks to capitalize on the counterattack. His reach and wheels back defenders off, making him much more dangerous in the middle of the ice than stapled to the boards.
Meanwhile, Kopitar is a puck-possession maven who requires a more diligent partner by his side. Wingers who can dig down in the trenches are preferable to Carter, who often flies the zone in hopes of launching a rush up the ice.
Going forward, Sutter would be remiss not to split these two up.
He should reunite Carter with Tanner Pearson, as the rookie operates at a feverish pace and thus complements the veteran nicely. With Pearson, Carter’s goals-for percentage is a whopping 83.3. Without him, that figure sinks dramatically to 35.7 percent.
Kopitar just needs more touches. Since Marian Gaborik and Justin Williams have developed a rapport in recent games, putting them next to the big Slovenian would be worth a shot.
Yes, these tweaks would mess with the bottom six’s chemistry, but getting the team’s top two centers back on track is a greater priority.
As it stands, they’re standing in each other’s way.
The execution by the players called upon could be crisper, but personnel decisions would go a long way toward remedying that problem. Sutter has the right pieces to shore up his short-handed units, but he opts for ill-fitting ones in their place.
First things first, let’s dispel the myth that Stoll is a great penalty-killer. He’s not. He’s typically stellar at the dot, but once the power play is set up, he’s above average on a good day.
In 2014-15, he’s been much, much worse than that:
|Kings Centers on Penalty Kill|
Despite one glaring miscue against Buffalo, Richards remains the best penalty-killing center on this club. In fact, he’s on another planet when compared to his Kings counterparts, conceding the fewest goals, shots and shot attempts by significant margins.
On the strength of his angles and instincts, Richards ranks eighth in shots allowed and fourth in attempts allowed among all NHL forwards over 60 four-on-five minutes. He is elite on the penalty kill.
As a coach, that’s a simple matter of not using the tools at your disposal.
A similar scenario is unfolding on the back end, where Alec Martinez has been a clear standout:
|Kings Defensemen on Penalty Kill|
Despite Martinez’s strong metrics, he’s deployed less frequently than Matt Greene and Robyn Regehr in short-handed situations.
Opponents have caught on to the fact that merely shifting the Kings’ box from side to side will create holes to exploit. It literally took seconds for the Toronto Maple Leafs to dissect the Kings' penalty kill on Sunday:
Martinez could bolster the penalty kill with his mobility, retrieving pucks more easily on dump-ins and skating well laterally to maintain lane integrity once coverage settles down. His puck skills would ensure that clearances aren’t flubbed, too—Regehr, Greene and even Drew Doughty have struggled in this regard.
Up front, Sutter should only rely on Stoll for faceoffs. Where holding the blue line and limiting chances are concerned, he has far superior options.
Richards, Pearson, Trevor Lewis and Tyler Toffoli should receive more shifts, lifting the short-handed burden from Stoll and Kopitar's shoulders.
On defense, Martinez and Muzzin have earned more opportunities. They don’t allow many shots and offer better skating on the blue line to deny entry and keep tighter gaps.
This isn’t 2004 anymore. There’s more to killing penalties than mugging guys in front of the crease.
Sutter has been remarkably successful in his Kings tenure, but his reputation is clouding the job he’s put forth this season.
Poorly constructed forward lines and penalty-killing units are hurting the team, and as the defense’s gradual slide persists, such errors in judgment become critical.
Whether due to stubbornness or oversight, L.A.’s bench boss has dropped the ball.
He needs to reconsider his groupings before the playoffs slip through the Kings’ fingers. For defending champions working toward a third Cup in four years, that would be nothing short of catastrophic.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com.