Los Angeles Kings: Problems Start In Front Of Their Net, Not In It

LOS ANGELES — On Thanksgiving Day 2010 in the United States, the Los Angeles Kings are thankful that they played so well early in the season that their current slump—losing five of their last six games—has not moved them to the lower echelon of the National Hockey League’s Western Conference standings.

Their latest debacle, an embarrassing 4-1 blowout loss to the Montreal Canadiens on November 24, was a game in which the Kings were totally dominated by the Habs. Their embarrassing performance shined a bright light on how the Kings have lost their focus, especially when it comes to their defensive assignments.

As I wrote in my latest story for The Hockey Writers (see Los Angeles Kings: Fixing The Defense Must Be The Top Priority), the problem is not the Kings’ pathetic power play, or their goaltending.

More specifically, no one should be blaming backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier, not one bit.

If you peruse the message boards of the various web sites where Kings fans congregate to banter about their team, you will generally find a considerable number berating Bernier for his play, many calling for his proverbial head. Some state rather emphatically that he is not an NHL-caliber goaltender, while others believe that the Kings should ship him back to the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate), or just trade him for a bag of used pucks.

These comments are misguided, to say the least. In fact, the problem is not between the pipes. Rather, the fault lies at the feet of the skaters in front of them.

Indeed, anyone who has watched the Kings’ last six games must have noticed that they have consistently blown coverages, leaving opposing players wide open in front of the net, in the slot…all over the prime scoring areas.

Opposing teams are taking full advantage of the Kings’ generosity—the vast majority of the goals against have come from the prime scoring areas or wide open one-timers from the top of the slot.

NHL teams are going to capitalize more often than not when given gift-wrapped scoring opportunities like that, no matter who is in goal.

To illustrate, the Kings have allowed 25 goals in their last six games, a stratospheric 4.17 goals-per game.

As I pointed out in that previously mentioned story, “…prior to that, when the Kings were paying closer attention to their defensive assignments, they allowed just 28 goals in 15 games. That’s just 1.87 goals-per game, a difference of more than two goals per game.”

Despite that, some may not yet be convinced that the Kings’ problems are not in goal. Perhaps this will make that more clear for you…

Admittedly, Bernier is not the goaltender he was last season, when he came up to the Kings and was brilliant in three games, earning a 3-0-0 record, a .957 save percentage, a 1.30 goals-against average (GAA) and one shutout.

Facing the adversity of having to be a backup goaltender for the first time in his life has been more of a challenge than the young netminder probably expected, and that has shown in his play this season. However, that does not explain what has happened to his game during the Kings’ current slide.

In this stretch where the Kings have lost five of its last six games, Bernier is 0-2-0 with a .849 save percentage and a 4.68 GAA—absolutely horrific numbers.

But starting goalie Jonathan Quick’s numbers have also dipped during the slump, as he has a 1-2-0 record, a .894 save percentage and a 2.95 GAA during that span.

Looking at that, one could argue that the goaltenders, especially Bernier, should be playing better and that this is the cause of the Kings’ current woes.

However, while Bernier would be the first to tell you that he is not playing as well as he is capable, that assumption would be dead wrong.

Indeed, all one has to do is look at Bernier’s and Quick’s numbers, especially their save percentages, prior to the Kings’ current slide to understand what the real problem is.

Through November 13, Bernier was 1-1-0 with a .926 save percentage and a 2.01 GAA, while Quick was 10-1-0 with a .948 save percentage, a 1.44 GAA and one shutout—both netminders had outstanding statistics prior to the Kings’ current free fall.

When you compare their before-and-after numbers, it becomes crystal-clear that the Kings’ problems are not between the pipes, and that includes Bernier. Rather, the problem lies at the feet of the skaters in front of them—the defense is allowing opposing teams to waltz right into the slot and walk down to the front of the net, often unchecked, giving up point-blank scoring chances in bunches.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that Bernier’s and Quick’s numbers have taken a hit as the defensive coverage in front of them has been missing in action, and unless the skaters regain their focus and figure out their defensive assignments, their struggles are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

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7 thoughts on “Los Angeles Kings: Problems Start In Front Of Their Net, Not In It

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  1. You make a valid point Gann, but while Bernier has not been a sieve by any stretch of the imagination, he also has managed to make about one really stellar save, game changing type of save, in his 7 starts. Does the team need to play better in front of him? Absolutely. However that does not exclude the fact that Bernier isn’t doing anything to gain the team’s trust.

    Making the saves you are supposed to make is expected, but not enough to truly make your team feel comfortable opening up in front of you. At some point, the fact the Kings have played noticeably worse in front of Bernier than Quick, has to come down to trust.

    The recent slide has happened for a number of reasons, and surely the goaltending has not been the catalyst. Calling Bernier an AHL goalie or asking for him to be sent down is ridiculous. Expecting him to pick up his game is not.

    I have to strongly disagree about the poor powerplay not being a catalyst for the Kings struggles. It absolutely is. Many of the recent leads were blown because our powerplay has sucked the momentum out of the team. Several of the game changing goals against have come immediately after failed powerplays. The defense needs to shore up, but our recent record would look very different if the powerplay were at least generating, or hell, even maintaining momentum for the Kings.

    Finally, at the very least, we can credit the loss of Mitchell for a large part of the Kings’ defensive woes. Johnson and Greene blowing coverage is nothing new. However without Mitchell there to eat up minutes, the flaws of our other defensemen seem more apparent and abundant. This is not to blame Johnson and Greene in entirety for our struggles as often the team as a whole is not sync. The powerplay is a completely different story. We are not missing powerplay personnel. The pieces at our disposal are all healthy. The problem is the confidence, the execution, and yes, the system. The Kings do not work the puck from low to high like other successful powerplays do frequently. Murray harps on them not shooting enough, which is true, but a large part of the reason they are not shooting much is because the system they play is not opening up lanes.

    I think there is much more that need be looked at than the statistics from the past 6 games. They only tell a minor part of the tale.

  2. I said the powerplay personnel was all healthy, which is not totally true. Parse is injured, and he would likely see some PP time. However if Parse is the key to the powerplay… you’ve lost before you’ve begun. I like Parse, but considering the rest of our top 6 players, he should in no way be necessary for a strong powerplay.

    Putting Williams and Kopitar on the ice at the same time, might be.

  3. Thanks for the comments, you make some good points. I do believe that the power play problems are a bit secondary, as the Kings’ system is built from the net out. It follows that the lack of attention to the defensive responsibilities has a cascading effect, and it reaches into the neutral zone and attacking zone.

    Yes, Bernier has to be better. I thought I said that. :-) However, the fact is, the defensive play in front of him (and Quick) is worse than attrocious. Even Georges Vezina, Patrick Roy or Rogie Vachon would look horrible behind that defense…if you can call it that.

    And yes, losing Mitchell hurts the Kings, but it doesn’t totally explain the breakdowns in their own zone. They’re just not paying attention to their assignments and losing one defenseman doesn’t explain that.

  4. “At some point, the fact the Kings have played noticeably worse in front of Bernier than Quick, has to come down to trust.”

    I also think they played poorly in front of him in his first games of the season — at that point, could he have lost their trust? And did the team lose their all trust in Quick after his rough patches last year? If it is coming down to their delicate psyches, they need to toughen up and give him more support.

    He is a rookie goaltender adjusting to his new role, and it shows. But the problems are team-wide. It’s time for the veterans to steady the team and show some leadership.

  5. Gotta love what long-time Kings fan Bruce Fung from Long Beach, CA said:

    “You could put an oversized sumo wrestler in the crease and he’d still give up goals with skaters like that playing in front of him.”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself, except to ask, aren’t all sumo wrestlers oversized? :P

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