GETTING OFFENSIVE: It’s still early…the Los Angeles Kings have only played five games at press time. Nevertheless, the addition of Simon Gagne and Mike Richards to the lineup has had a powerful, cascading effect. Includes audio interviews from the Kings dressing room following their practice on October 19.
EL SEGUNDO AND LOS ANGELES, CA — The Los Angeles Kings are off to the fast start they were hoping for, with a 3-1-1 record through their first five games of the season.
A big reason for that is that they are ranked 11th in the National Hockey League in goals scored, with an average of 2.80 goals-per game (GPG), through games played on October 19.
Last season, the Kings ended the season ranked 25th, scoring 209 goals, an average of 2.55 GPG.
A difference of 0.25 GPG may not seem like much. But when you do the math, if the Kings averaged 2.80 GPG last season, they would have scored 21 more goals, moving them up into the middle of the pack offensively. In all likelihood, that would have resulted in more wins, and a more favorable playoff seeding in the Western Conference, perhaps even the Pacific Division title.
Although little can be determined from the first five games of the season, what can be said about the Kings at this point is, “so far, so good.”
“Seven out of ten points—that’s the main thing, right there,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown, who noted that even though the Kings have been scoring goals, the chemistry is still not quite there.
“I still think it’s going to take us a couple of weeks,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of new guys—I think we’ve got a new guy on every line, so it’s a work in progress.”
“The early part of the year is about finding your groove, as a line, as a team, and getting that rhythm,” he added. “We had a good game last night [a 5-0 win over the St. Louis Blues at Staples Center on October 18]. We have to build on that.”
But the chemistry is coming.
“You really need to play in [regular season] games [to really begin to develop chemistry],” Brown noted. “Line-to-line chemistry is just the rhythm on the bench. You see [center Anze] Kopitar’s line starting to get it. Even last night, all the lines, I thought, had a good rhythm on the bench, and you cam see how it [translated] into better chemistry on the ice for each line.”
“It’s still going to take time,” Brown added, “It’s not going to happen overnight. Like I said, we have a new guy on every line, so it’s going to take a little bit of getting used to for everyone.”
Starting the season on a long road trip to Europe, followed by two games on the East Coast may have contributed towards building chemistry.
“We’ve had a real long time on the road [to start the season], so [newcomers Simon Gagne and Mike Richards have] gotten to know us, probably a lot quicker than what guys would normally do coming to a new team,” said right wing Justin Williams, who has scored two goals with five assists for seven points through five games. “Seeing the guys every day, getting to know each other every day—I think it was a good thing, being on the road.”
Williams is playing on a line with Gagne and Kopitar, a line that has lit up opponents for a combined nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points, along with a +16 plus/minus rating.
Again, do the math…that line is averaging 1.8 goals and 4.6 points per game. So far, chemistry does not appear to be a problem for them.
“The last couple of games, I’ve been feeling pretty good, playing with Justin and Simon,” said Kopitar. “We’re clicking pretty good, and it’s definitely showed on the ice.”
Kopitar dramatically understated the situation, as he ranks second in the league in overall scoring, with five goals and four assists for nine points, though games played on October 19.
Although head coach Terry Murray moved Gagne onto the line with Kopitar and Williams late in their training camp, their chemistry has developed rapidly.
“Sometimes [developing chemistry] takes a little bit longer than you’d like, other times, it happens right away,” said Murray. “Williams and Gagne have been together before on a team, so they have a pretty good feel, and when you have good players, they usually make the adjustment quickly. That’s what we’re seeing.”
As expected, the addition of Gagne and Richards to the lineup has resulted in those improved offensive numbers, as mentioned earlier.
The two have combined for four goals and seven assists for eleven points, but that is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of their impact.
“Offensively, we’re better,” said Williams. “Our top three lines can go against anyone in the league. It’s really impressive to see, and it takes a lot of pressure off of everybody, not [just] the first line guys.”
One reason the offense has improved is because teams can no longer key on Kopitar’s line, forcing him to play against the opposition’s best defensive center and their top defensive pair on every shift.
“That’s exactly what happens,” said Murray. “It’s matchups that take place now, and this is something we talked about at training camp. Now [opposing teams] have got to make decisions. When you’ve got two lines that are clicking, and [center Jarret] Stoll scored a huge goal here tonight [against the Blues], so you’ve got three lines that can give you that offensive push.”
“Whenever that’s happening, now you put the ball in the hands of the other team, where they have to make a decision on what the matchup is going to be.”
“Maybe they have to worry about Mike and Brownie, and whomever is playing on the left wing on that line, or, at least, they should worry about it a little more,” said Kopitar. “That’s where, maybe, the mismatches come into play, and that’s where we can takeover the game.”
The mismatch opportunities do not come often, however.
“Every single player deserves to be in this league, and they’re good,” Kopitar stressed. “It’s not a big difference. It’s different if you’re playing against [the likes of a Chris] Pronger [and then facing] the fifth and sixth defensemen. Not to disrespect anybody, but it is what it is, and people know it. Sometimes, yeah, I do see the mismatch. But, most of the time, teams are going to adjust to it, and you still have to battle through it.”
“The game is so quick, and with no [line] changes on icing [calls], you can create those mismatches, but I wouldn’t say it’s over the top compared to how it was last year.”
The addition of Gagne and Richards has also changed the dynamics of the Kings’ offense, and that is showing up on their power play, which is ranked sixth in the league, having scored five times on twenty power play opportunities, a rating of 25 percent.
That’s a far cry from last season, when their power play was pathetic, and that’s putting it mildly.
At the risk of causing intense pain for those who remember, last season, the Kings ranked 21st in the National Hockey League, with a dreadful 16.1 percent rating.
“Our power play has a different dynamic now,” Brown explained. “We have two guys who can really make plays off the half-wall.”
Part of that different dynamic is better movement of players without the puck on the power play.
“Better movement, better shot mentality,” said Murray. “[Play away from] the puck is always a key for me, to get some players on the move and to find something good through using your skilled players.”
If you think the addition of Gagne and Richards impacts just the first and second lines, guess again.
“It’s still too early to tell, especially for me, having only played two games,” said left wing Dustin Penner, who missed the first three games due to injury. “But if I was on the other side of the puck, I think you’d have to be a little worried about our top two lines, and our third and fourth. We can roll all four lines if we have to.”
“I think it’s opening up more opportunities for everyone,” Brown noted. “Kopitar might get a mismatch a couple of times in a period, and, I said, from the day we traded for Mike Richards, Stoll really excels in that third line spot.”
“He’s always been able to do the little things—face-offs, penalty-kill, all that stuff,” Brown added. “He’s pretty good on the power play, on the back end. But when you put him in that [third line center] spot, I think he excels.”
Indeed, Stoll is now playing a position he is much better suited for compared to previous years, when he was the Kings’ second line center.
“When you have three lines set up the way we have it right now, it’s going to give Stoll the opportunity to play against top lines,” said Murray. “As a result, he is going to play more. It’s no different from when [center Michal] Handzus [now with the San Jose Sharks] was here. That’s the line I’m looking to matchup [against the opposition’s top line], not in every game, but often.”
“I feel very good about Stoll’s ability to fit in, embrace, and do the job that is required of him in that situation,” added Murray. “Last night [against the Blues], we saw a real good performance, and there’s no reason to think that he’s not going to be able to continue with that same kind of performance.”
Regardless of the added talent on the roster this season, the Kings still need to pay attention to the basics, and, as stated earlier, so far, so good.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re out there against the first defensive pairing or the third defensive pairing,” said Stoll. “You’ve got to do the same things that make you successful. For our line, we know what that is. We’ve got to get pucks in [deep], support each other, user our speed and strength, get pucks to the net, cycle.”
“We’re doing a lot of the same things, so I think it’s execution,” said Penner. “We’re shooting more, we’re getting to loose pucks, we’re getting second and third chances. Brown has been doing a great job in front of the net, screening.”
Murray acknowledged the improved traffic in front of the opposing team’s net, and that the Kings are shooting more, rather than choosing to make the extra pass most of the time.
“If you take a look at the goals we scored in Philadelphia, we had a net presence on every one of them,” Murray noted. “Big net presence on [defenseman Jack Johnson’s] winning goal by Brown, and [right wing] Ethan Moreau was in front of the net, Gagne was in front of the net for another goal.”
“That’s a part of our game I thought was inconsistent last year,” Murray added. “Handzus always did a really good job with it, but there was some in and out in that part of the game, and that has to be in place in order to be successful against these top goaltenders in the NHL.”
“It’s good to spread the scoring around. There was a little bit better shot mentality in the game [against the Blues], even though the number wasn’t that high at the end of the game. But the opportunities that were there—we weren’t looking for other options. We were getting pucks to the net, and that, to me, is a real positive.”
Raw Audio Interviews From The LA Kings Practice on October 19, 2011
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Dustin Brown (2:23)
Justin Williams (2:12)
Jonathan Quick (3:09)
Dustin Penner (5:06)
Slava Voynov (0:39)
Terry Murray (8:39)
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