Los Angeles Kings Defensive Improvement A Surprise So Far

LOS ANGELES — Eighteen games into the 2008-09 National Hockey League season, the Los Angeles Kings are a surprising 8-8-2, good for eighteen points in the standings.

As of this writing, the Kings are third in the Pacific Division, eleventh in the Western Conference and twentieth in the overall NHL standings, all significant improvements.

Although they have not improved significantly over their 8-9-1 record after eighteen games in the 2007-08 season, it is rather easy to see where this season’s Kings have made the most improvement…on defense.

Last season, the Kings gave up a whopping 62 goals in their first eighteen games, an average of 3.44 goals allowed per game.

Fast forward to 2008-09 and this year’s Kings have allowed just 47 goals in their first eighteen games, averaging 2.61 goals allowed per game.

For all of you who did not major in mathematics in college, that is an improvement of 0.83 goals per game.

An improvement of less than one goal per game might not seem like much, but it sure does add up fast. Indeed, at their current pace, the Kings would end the season allowing 214 goals. In stark contrast, they allowed 266 goals last season, an average of 3.24 goals allowed per game.

Of course, the Kings may not maintain that pace, but at this point, it seems that Kings head coach Terry Murray’s goal of getting his team to buy into his plan of committing to playing solid defense to cut down on the goals against is going to be attained.

One key piece of evidence is the fact that the Kings lead the league in shots allowed, averaging just 23.9 shots per game. Compare that to last season when they were ranked 28th in the league, allowing 32 shots per game—the Kings have chopped nearly eight shots per game off their average from 2007-08, a dramatic improvement.

Indeed, a commitment to defense was the very first thing on the agenda when Murray came on board.

“That was addressed right from August,” Murray emphasized. “That’s what we want to hang our hat on. We want to have a real good attitude towards defensive play. Cutting down on shots against and grade A scoring chances against. We felt that was our rallying call right from the beginning of training camp.”

“The first day we had with the team, in our meetings, was about that kind of play and I think the players have really bought into it,” Murray elaborated. “It’s a lot of hard work. It’s not the fun part of the game. You have to block shots, you have to play the body, you have to do a lot of things to work hard back from the offensive zone through the neutral zone and really dig in in a lot of situations where there’s no praise for it. There’s nothing to look at to say ‘you did a good job in that area.’ But when it comes together like this it’s pretty nice. The players are able to rally around the defensive game.”

And it is not just the defensemen getting the job done.

“I liked the defensive work, but that was a result of what the forwards were doing,” Murray said after a recent game. “A lot of good things in the offensive zone, we played smart through the middle of the ice, got the puck in. We were aggressive with our speed to the puck and when we give ourselves a chance to skate like that, we’re a pretty good skating team. That’s a big part of playing defense.”

Murray Should’ve Been A Politician

A team’s goaltender has to be solid each night and is often relied upon to be their best penalty-killer and best defender.

Early in the Kings’ training camp, Murray handed the title of number one goaltender to Jason LaBarbera, who has the most NHL experience of all the netminders in their system.

As it turned out, LaBarbera and Erik Ersberg nailed down roster spots with the Kings out of camp and although Ersberg finished the 2007-08 season very strong, he was ill at the start of camp which slowed him down.

LaBarbera played the first ten games of the season, earning a 3-5-1 record, a 3.01 goals-against average (GAA), a .884 save percentage and one shutout.

Those are definitely not the kind of numbers one would expect from a number one goalie.

Ersberg finally got his chance on November 4, allowing one goal in a 1-0 shootout loss to the Anaheim Ducks and in ten games, Ersberg has been a big, positive difference with a 5-3-1 record, a 1.96 GAA and a .909 save percentage.

In eight starts, Ersberg has a 5-2-1 record with a 1.97 GAA and a .913 save percentage.

When you look at his numbers and his performance on the ice, it becomes rather obvious that Ersberg has outplayed LaBarbera and has, for all intents and purposes, displaced him as the Kings’ number one goaltender in reality, if not in name.

A couple of weeks ago, Jim Alexander of the Press-Enterprise asked Murray if the Kings had a goaltender controversy.

“Only if you guys start it,” Murray replied, mostly tongue-in-cheek.

“I don’t see a controversy,” Murray elaborated. “LaBarbera is our number one guy. There was no doubt that Ersberg was going to get a game. The plan at the start of the year was to play both goalies and that’s the way it’s going to play out.”

While that goes without question, Ersberg’s solid, consistent play, a rather stark contrast from LaBarbera, has forced Murray to backpedal just a bit. Indeed, after Ersberg backstopped the Kings to a 5-2 win over the Alexander Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals on November 20, Murray was asked if Ersberg had now earned the number one spot.

“You know what, I don’t ever believe that a goalie needs a title over his stall to play the game,” said Murray. “It doesn’t matter to me anyway. [Ersberg] played well, we needed him to play well against an explosive team with one of the premier scorers in the game. We won the game and he was a big part of it.”

Can you say “contradiction?” I knew that you could (think Billy Crystal doing his “Can You Dig It” bit on Saturday Night Live here). One might also accuse Murray of flip-flopping, changing his tune, or being wishy-washy.

Perhaps Murray has a future in politics.

Give Murray credit for not throwing LaBarbera under the proverbial bus, but whether he is willing to admit it or not, Ersberg has clearly earned the Kings’ number one goaltender position.

Despite all this, Ersberg, who is soft-spoken to begin with, has not said a whole lot about his success, preferring to deflect the credit to his teammates.

“We play great defensively, so that helps my game, too,” he said.

He also said that he does not think he is the team’s number one goalie, not yet, anyway.

“I think we’ve played almost the same amount of games, so you can’t say that,” Ersberg said about LaBarbera and himself. “It’s always up to the coach to decide that.”

Kyle Quincey: Who Knew?

When the Kings lost defenseman Jack Johnson to a shoulder injury in the second game of the season, they needed a left-shot defenseman to replace him in the roster, but they had no one who could get the job done in their system.

That forced the Kings to look elsewhere and boy did they luck out.

The Detroit Red Wings had placed 23-year-old defenseman Kyle Quincey on waivers because they had no room for him on their blue line, not with the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart, Niklas Kronwall and others, not to mention that Chris Chelios, who turns 47 years old in January, is still on their roster.

Quincey was the odd man out with the Red Wings and the Kings scooped him up off the waiver wire and have not looked back, as Quincey has not only fit right in, but he has been far more impressive than anyone imagined.

“He’s been a good player for us, hasn’t he? He really competes,” said Murray. “He digs in, he’s a heavy player, he’s a hockey player. He plays the game the right way from the defensive side of things and he’s got great composure deep in his own end. He starts a lot of breakouts with those short handoff, eight-to-ten foot passes. He’s been a great add.”

Murray gave credit to the Kings’ pro scouts for doing their homework on this one.

“We have been fortunate to find a guy like that and talk about advance scouting—Rob Laird was out watching him,” Murray explained. “He puts a lot of hours in and he found this guy, so it’s been a great add.”

Spending most of his career in the Eastern Conference, Murray was not at all familiar with Quincey.

“I had no clue who he was,” said Murray. “I had never heard of him before. He comes here and we put him in the lineup basically just to see what he’s going to be able to do in the NHL. He’s improved every day. We’re very fortunate.”

As stated earlier, for Quincey, who has been the team’s best defenseman in some games, fitting in with his new teammates was a cinch.

“On the ice is where you have to jell the most, so I think my game fits right into this system,” said Quincey. “I’m really happy it’s that way.”

“Great guys,” Quincey added about his teammates. “We’re starting to get some wins now and we’re starting to come into our own. The sky’s the limit. We’ve got no expectations here so we’re just going to run with it.”

But it sure is different than playing for the defending Stanley Cup champs.

“Detroit is a puck possession team,” said Quincey. “We’re the opposite of that, probably. It’s like night and day. It’s two totally different organizations, but there are similarities. The first thing, my defensive partner goes from being 47 years old to 24 or 25. So that’s a change. It seems like I’m more a part of the team here. I’m not just the young guy. There’s like seven younger guys than me so it’s nice.”

“It’s a little different than Detroit, but it’s a great city and it’s a great team,” added Quincey. “The guys are so good here that it didn’t take long to get used to them. They made me feel right at home, so it’s good.”

And with the Kings being such a young team, Quincey’s experience in the Red Wings organization is valuable.

“I haven’t said anything, but it’s how you carry yourself and just be a professional,” he explained. “Come to the rink everyday and work. It’s very similar. [The Red Wings’] players are just that good. That’s what makes that team. You can’t find a group of players like that who will take pay cuts year after year to keep winning championships. It’s pretty special.”

O’Sullivan Returns To The First Line…Finally

Early in the season, Kings left wing Patrick O’Sullivan made cameo appearances on the Kings’ first line with center Anze Kopitar and right wing Dustin Brown and also played with them on the power play. But for the most part, he played on the fourth line while left wing Kyle Calder played on the first line.

But as November wore on and despite the fact that the Kings won four straight games from November 6-13, the Kings started to sputter offensively with their first line failing to produce.

The final straw came after a 3-1 loss to the Nashville Predators on November 15, followed by a 2-0 shutout loss at Anaheim the following night.

Murray moved O’Sullivan back to the top line and Calder to the fourth line when the Kings defeated Washington on November 20, with considerably better results.

O’Sullivan scored the game-winning goal late in the second period, using a slick pull-and-drag move to move the puck away from the defenseman’s stick and them get off a quick wrist shot from the lower right circle that beat Caps goalie Brent Johnson between his leg pads.

“If you take a look at the goal O’Sullivan scored, that’s a goal scorer’s goal,” said Murray. “There’s not many guys on our team, or on any team, who are going to be able to finish on that play.”

For O’Sullivan, the goal ended an eleven-game goal scoring drought.

“Anytime you go a little bit without scoring…I’ve had so many chances,” he said. “But the whole time, I was trying to focus on other things that I’m able to do well to help the team in other areas. But to get a goal was a bit of a relief. Our team played a solid game against a real good team.”

Indeed, the Caps entered the game with a 7-1-2 record in their previous ten games and a 6-0-2 record in their previous eight, leading the Southeast Division. Moreover, they entered the game having scored at least once in thirteen consecutive regulation periods.

All that added up to a predicted Kings loss, but the locals had other ideas, with Kopitar, Brown and O’Sullivan going up against the Caps’ top line, featuring Ovechkin and talented center Nicklas Backstrom.

The Kopitar line ended up outworking and outplaying them, winning the battle of the top lines.

“We went head-to-head with Ovechkin’s line and we did a pretty good job,” said O’Sullivan. “I think that’s something we can build on and continue to get better.”

“They played against the Backstrom line and their responsibility tonight was to come out with a checking mindset and do a good job to make sure to limit the number of opportunities that a guy like Ovechkin is going to get and they did that,” Murray explained. “As a result, there are things that happen the other way. You work hard to get the puck and you’re going to be able to attack and I saw good things from the [Kopitar] line on a consistent, shift-to-shift basis.”

“At the end of the day, when you see two goals being scored by that line by Brown and O’Sullivan, you’ve got to say it worked pretty well,” Murray added.

Like LaBarbera, Murray also refused to throw Calder under the bus, but it is obvious that O’Sullivan belongs on the first line.

“I don’t want to get into comparing Calder and O’Sullivan because they’re totally different players,” Murray stressed. “I really like what Kyle Calder did on that line. He worked hard, he made good things happen, he did the right stuff. We just needed a little bit more on the offensive part of things.”

“The skill level…there’s more awareness by the other team whenever O’Sullivan is on that line by the opposing team,” Murray elaborated. “They know his reputation, they know he’s a goal scorer. There’s a little more quickness and speed.”

O’Sullivan and his line mates saw things much the same way.

“It adds something else the other team has to worry about,” said O’Sullivan. “Kopitar and Brown are top guys on the team. Adding me, I’m going to shoot the puck when I can and try to open up some space for those guys, get in on the forecheck. Like I’ve said before, we all bring something different—a little bit of a different style and we compliment each other pretty good.”

“It was a lot of fun,” added O’Sullivan. “I’ve had such a good time playing with those two guys. We’re good buddies off the ice. I think you can see out there, watching our line play, if we’re responsible defensively we’re going to create some chances going the other way.”

“It’s definitely a different look with O’Sullivan,” said Brown. “He brings a lot of speed and he can definitely shoot the puck. I think the biggest difference from Calder is the speed. He can really get up the ice and make plays happen. I think that goal he scored was the result of the speed. He got behind one defenseman and made a great shot.”

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