LOS ANGELES AND INGLEWOOD, CA — A little over a week has passed since the Los Angeles Kings lost veteran left wing Ryan Smyth to that mysterious “upper body injury” and since then, they have lost to the Philadelphia Flyers and the Calgary Flames.
In both games, the Kings not only put in spotty efforts, but their offense sputtered without Smyth’s constant presence in front of opposing goaltenders and in his tenacious work along the boards and in the corners.
“What he does very well is his composure with the puck,” said head coach Terry Murray. “He handles it in pressure situations, makes the game look easy, slows the game down, takes the puck to the net, makes plays in the offensive zone. He can make something happen out of nothing and he has that mentality that it has to end up at the net.”
Indeed, that mentality, or the lack thereof without Smyth in the lineup, is like a black hole on the ice. But the Kings know they have to overcome his absence.
“He’s definitely going to be missed on the team,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “He’s one of the best players in the league, but we’re going to have to learn to step it up that extra notch and try to replace what he does for us.”
“[Smyth is] one of the key guys on our team, but that doesn’t matter right now,” said center Anze Kopitar, who leads the National Hockey League in overall scoring with 33 points on fourteen goals and nineteen assists. “He’s going to be gone for a month. Somebody else is going to have to step up. We’re going to have to play hard without him and win games.”
“I’m going to come here, play hard and make everybody around me better,” added Kopitar. “We’re all going to miss him, but his injury isn’t going to be [healed] tomorrow. We just have to play and win.”
To be sure, Smyth has set an example and has been an inspiration for his teammates, who were producing well offensively. But without him, the Kings have scored just two goals in each of their last two games, while allowing a total of seven goals.
Although the Kings’ scoring woes caused by Smyth’s absence are easily apparent, what no one has been talking about is that the Kings were much better defensively last season when they allowed 2.76 goals per game (ranked 11th) and just 28.1 shots per game (ranked fourth).
Fast forward to this season and we find the Kings have allowed an average of 3.04 goals per game (ranked 25th) even though they are allowing just 26.2 shots per game (ranked second).
Given those numbers, the problem that stands out first is goaltending and it does not take a genius to see that Jonathan Quick is not on top of his game.
Last season, Quick rarely had an off night while earning a 21-18-2 record, with a .914 save percentage, a 2.48 goals-against average (GAA), and four shutouts.
But in 22 games this season, Quick has struggled, despite earning a 12-8-2 record. He has a poor .894 save percentage with a 2.79 GAA.
Quick is often not interested in talking about his struggles, perhaps because he is only 23 years old and is in just his second year in the league.
“All I’m thinking about [is the next game],” Quick said after his 3-2 loss to the Flyers on November 18. “I’ll take the next two days, look at some video and prepare.”
When asked about specific aspects of his game that he works on in practice, Quick did not seem to want to give out many details.
“We have a goalie coach, Bill Ranford,” Quick added. “I talk with him a couple of times a week and we work on stuff that needs to be worked on…the little things. Being as detailed as possible and doing the little things right. That makes the game a little bit easier.”
Even though Quick has not been the player he was last season, placing the blame squarely on his shoulders would be unfair, to say the least.
One thing that has been apparent since opening night is that the 2009-10 Kings are not nearly as good in their own zone as they were last season, especially in terms of their positioning and decision-making.
With Smyth out of the lineup, the Kings are no longer scoring goals in bunches, exposing their defensive weaknesses, which were immediately apparent against the Flyers.
“On those goals, I’d like to have them all back,” Murray lamented. “[They were the result of] misreads. In my view, we played well enough to win, but the Flyers capitalized on turnovers, mistakes, decisions that we made. We should’ve been better in our positioning.”
Indeed, it is not that the Kings are giving up a ton of shots. But they are back to giving up too many grade A scoring chances due to poor positioning, bad decisions and blatant mistakes.
“It was a game we’re going to look at as one where we gave it away,” Kopitar said after the loss to the Flyers. “I think we were playing decently, but those two breakdowns in the second period cost us two goals. When you’re behind, you’re chasing, and that [doesn’t work most of the time].”
“We were in the game, but we let them take it to us and gave them three easy goals,” Doughty said following the game against Philadelphia. “We weren’t bearing down in our own zone. It’s important. We watch video all the time on our own zone and we’re working on our defensive zone coverage all the time, It’s something we take pride in, so giving up those three goals was disappointing.”
Despite the fact that Murray has tried winger Alexander Frolov on the first line and will now give winger Teddy Purcell a look on that line, no one can replace Smyth’s tenacity and grit, especially in front of the opposition’s net. As such, if their offense continues to suffer, it becomes even more important for the Kings to clean up the problems in their own end.
“We’ve got to tighten up defensively,” said defenseman Matt Greene. “In this league, you’re not going to win games with the old run-and-gun—you’re not going to win championships. That’s something that needs to be addressed immediately, that commitment to defense and to taking pride in not giving up goals.”
“We just have to play with more confidence and make a commitment to defense,” added Greene. “We have to know our assignments. You have to know what you’re doing on the ice before you get out there. A lot of this game is read and react, but there’s a lot that’s structured, too, just knowing where you need to be. That’s what we have to get back to—knowing your job and doing it.”
Discipline in terms of playing within their system has also contributed to the Kings’ poor defensive coverage.
“Sometimes there are mental lapses out there,” Greene explained. “That’s what we have to eliminate so everyone’s on the same page, so you know where your partner is going to be or where you line mates are going to be. That’s how you play within your structure.”
Greene also defended Quick.
“You can’t rely on your goaltender to bail you out of every game,” Greene stressed. “Quick has been playing great for us. He’s stopping everything that he sees and it’s not the first one that’s going in on him. It’s the second or third one that guys are getting a whack at.”
“It’s our job defensively to be better in front of him,” Greene added. “We know he’s going to make the saves that he should and it’s our job to make sure that we don’t give up the ones that he shouldn’t.”
The Kings begin a quick, two-game road trip tonight and on Thursday in Edmonton and Vancouver, and are looking to right the ship quickly.
“I think the guys have it under control, with the leadership in the room and the guys are mature enough to realize we’ve had some problems in the last couple of games and that we can turn it around,” said Greene. “We’ll make a good effort to do this on this road trip and carry it on through.”
With the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States right around the corner, getting things turned around on this road trip would certainly be something the Kings would be very thankful for.
Audio Interview With Matt Greene (2:44)
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