LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — Some years ago, in the not too distant history of the Los Angeles Kings, there was a player who once graced the hockey world with his wisdom, not to mention his nearly infinite talent.
“You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” he said.
That player was none other than The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, who holds or shares 61 National Hockey League records, and is fourth on the Kings’ all-time scoring list.
Coming from Gretzky, who was not only the best player to ever play the game, but, arguably the smartest, those words carry several tons of weight.
Each of the Kings players should probably be forced to write those words on a chalkboard 100 times each after falling back into their bad habit of trying to pass the puck into the net, time and time again.
Indeed, the Kings have once again gone back to passing up quality scoring chances to make the extra pass, usually several extra passes, often resulting in the loss of a quality scoring opportunity.
Although the Kings were guilty of overpassing and not shooting enough, they managed to get their share of quality scoring chances on November 25, in a 2-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks at Staples Center.
“We had our share of chances but we couldn’t bear down,” said center Anze Kopitar. “A couple of times, the puck was just laying around, but we couldn’t quite get it in there. On my last shot, [Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford] made a good save. It hit him on the top of his shoulder, and went over [the net].”
“We had lot of good looks here tonight,” said head coach Terry Murray. “We end up tying the game at one. They won a face-off to go up, 2-1, but after that, we had four or five tremendous looks. We’re just having a tough time finding the back of the net right now.”
Checking right wing Trent Hunter was, arguably, the Kings’ most effective forward against Chicago, but he missed on two glorious scoring opportunities.
“There’s not a better look that you could hope for in a couple of those situations,” Murray noted. “It’s just not going in, so you’ve got to keep pounding away at it.”
The Kings’ penchant for overpassing and not shooting the puck was plainly evident in this game. The most blatant example came in the second period, when they had a four-on-two break. Not only did they fail to get a shot on goal, but the Blackhawks wound up going the other way on a two-on-zero break.
“We overpassed it,” Kopitar noted. “In a situation like that, you have to, at least, get a shot on net. We had four guys coming, and the fifth guy pinched, and then, they had a two-on-zero. Luckily for us, they didn’t connect on it.”
“Just shoot the puck on that,” said Murray. “Jack [Johnson], just get it to the net. He’s a left-hand shot, that’s a one-timer for him. Now he throws it over to his partner who’s a left-hand shot, and there’s no chance.”
The Blackawks did blow that chance, bailing out the Kings. But that did not make the situation all that much better.
“There’s no secret to it,” Kopitar stressed. “We just have to get more shots on net. That was the perfect example. We have a four-on-two rush, and we don’t get a shot on net.”
As much as some people roll their eyes when Murray talks about “shot mentality,” there is strong evidence that he is dead on about it being their biggest problem.
One look at the NHL statistics tells the story, as the Philadelphia Flyers, who play the same system that the Kings do, leads the league in goals scored per game.
Late last week, the Flyers were leading the league in shots per game, but have since dropped down to eighth. Still, that is a far cry from the Kings, who are ranked 20th, and have been in the bottom third of the league all season long.
Moreover, out of the top ten teams in goals scored per game, seven are also in the top ten in shots per game (through games played on November 27).
To be sure, although it is not quite as simple as more shots directly resulting in more goals, it has far more to do with it than anything else.
“The only way you can score is by getting pucks to the net, and we need to be much better at that,” said Murray. “We’ve been talking about that for a couple of years, and, clearly, there’s some critical situations in the game that we’re passing up to give us an opportunity. Even if the puck doesn’t go in, there will be second and third chances lying around.”
As that badly blown four-on-two break exemplified, the Kings must stop trying to pass the puck into the net.
“Extra passes are not a good thing for us right now,” Murray lamented. “We want to get pucks to the net. We have to score some greasy, ugly goals, as they say. That might be the crack in the door that we can kick open, and start to feel more comfortable scoring goals.”
“That’s an attitude we need to get settled on on a consistent basis,” Murray added. “Simplify the game. Stop trying to do the extra pass, the extra pretty play, trying to beat guys. The more pucks we get to the net, that’ll get their defensemen turned around. That brings us in there. Hopefully, we can feed off that.”
What puzzles everyone is that sometimes, the Kings do exactly what the doctor ordered.
“I can go back three or four games ago, when we were putting 76 pucks to the net,” said Murray. “That was exactly what we wanted. Then we get into last night, we’re just not following up with it.”
“Some games, we do [take shots when they should],” said center Jarret Stoll. “On the power play, or five-on-five, we’re just firing from everywhere. Then there are some games where we’re just trying to pass it into the net. We’re just way too fancy, with between-the-legs passes, too many passes.”
“We have a lot of those games,” added Stoll. “We’ve got to get [that] out of our system, and concentrate on shooting the puck. So many good things can happen from that. We just have to get that mindset and actually do it.”
That goes right back to that blown four-on-two…
“We don’t even get a shot on net on that play? That can’t happen, and then it goes back on a two-on-zero,” Stoll lamented. “It’s examples like that. There are so many rebound goals in the NHL, and it’s hard to score, really hard to score in this league, so you’ve got to get some dirty [goals], some bad bounces, some good bounces, and try to get goals that way.”
“We have to keep it simple,” said Kopitar. “Take the shot instead of trying to be too cute.”
Are there deeper reasons for the Kings reverting back to passing up quality scoring chances so often?
One reason is the greater emphasis across the NHL on blocking shots.
“There are teams that are great at blocking shots,” Stoll explained. “Every year, there’s more and more emphasis on blocking shots. Teams that do well block a lot of shots, and help out their goaltender.”
“You don’t want to shoot the puck, get it blocked, and it goes the other way [turning into] an easy breakaway,” Stoll elaborated.
Murray offered another possibility, one that could be troubling, in light of the fact that the Kings have lost quite a few games to quality opponents.
“They are losses against those critical teams, and that’s where we have to start to believe we’re as good as those guys, or better than those guys, in order to get the job done,” Murray emphasized. “If there’s anything that creeps in, then you start overpassing, you’re passing up those shooting opportunities.”
“Our mindset is, maybe, off a little bit against those teams,” Murray added. “That’s the part we have to get back on track.”
The lack of scoring also results in players gripping their sticks too tight.
“We’re definitely playing a little tight, that’s for sure, because there is a lot of pressure,” said defenseman Jack Johnson. “We’re only scoring one or two goals a game. It kind of doesn’t matter how well you play defensively if you can’t score, you’re going to have trouble.”
“I do think some guys are playing a little tighter,” added Johnson. “Naturally, they’re a little frustrated. You try to block out as much as you can.
Murray sees the frustration, too.
“The fact that we’re not getting the results in the offensive part of the game results in greater pressure on the stick,” he noted. “The fact that offensive players who are supposed to produce, and are going through an extended period of time without getting any results—that brings on extra pressure, and now we’re seeing extra passes that are not completed, or they’re exploding off your stick.”
“You’re trying to do too much instead of keeping the game simple—moving it and shooting it,” he added. “That’s the part that we have to take a deep breath on, relax, and then go out and play the right way.”
The overpassing issue can be a circular problem that just feeds on itself.
“You can’t put a finger on [how to fix the problem], it just starts,” said Murray. “Some players will lead the way, and everybody will fall in. That’s real important for us.”
“If you’re a team that’s very high skilled, and you’re looking to make plays off the rush, off the attack, and you’re overpassing the puck, that is very contagious,” added Murray. “That’ll go right through to your fourth line, and those guys—and I’m talking generally—those are your meat and potatoes kind of guys. They have to get pucks in deep, recover them, and play a hard game. They’ll start to do the extra [passing].”
“I look at that and say that’s part of what needs to be addressed with us. I think we try to do too much. I’d like to see us simplify the play by getting that attitude on a consistent basis. We’re not going to go away on it, as far as talking about it, meeting [about] it, showing video on it. It’s a very critical part of the game to get established on a consistent basis.”
Murray Shakes Up Lines For First Time This Season
Murray has earned a reputation for juggling his line combinations when the wind changes direction.
Of course, that is an exaggeration, even though every time he has moved a player off one line and onto another, or scratched a player in favor of another this season, and last season, for that matter, there is always a cacophony of angry fans decrying the move as if it was going to bring the end of the world upon us.
In fact, the vast majority of changes on the Kings’ front lines this season have been necessitated by injuries. But at their practice on November 27, Murray debuted all new line combinations, trying to shake things up and get his snoozing offense going.
“We need something going, and it starts with shots,” said Murray. “I look at teams like Chicago, who leads the conference in goals for, in fact, they lead by a wide margin. They shoot the puck from everywhere.”
“A guy like [Blackhawks forward] Patrick Sharp is a pretty good goal scorer, and he’s putting pucks to the net from outside the circle on a consistent basis,” added Murray. “All they’re looking for is to bring people to the net for second and third opportunities.”
Indeed, the wholesale line juggling is Murray’s first this season.
“We’ve been pretty consistent with our lines,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “This is the first really big jumble we’ve had [this season]. We haven’t scored a lot of goals, and we haven’t produced a lot of chances for. Sometimes, juggling the lines will spark new chemistry between players.”
Brown will move up to the first line, to play on Kopitar’s left side.
“[Switching to left wing is] a double-edged sword, really,” Brown noted. “It’s much more difficult making plays coming out of your own end.”
“When you cross the blue line on the other side of the puck, you can cut, you can do the slant pass onto the guy’s stick, and from a protection standpoint, it’s a lot easier to drive wide,” Brown added. Last night [against Chicago on November 25], I had a couple of chances where I got a step on a guy. They made good plays—I didn’t get to the net. But on the right side, it’s much more difficult to get around that guy wide.”
Brown noted that his scoring chances have come mostly from the left side this season.
“This year, my best chances are when I get the puck coming across my left side,” he said. “[On the left side], I’m on my backhand, and can protect the puck better. There’s [also] a lot more options on the offensive side of the puck.”
“I just have to take more reps in practice in terms of making plays off the walls,” he added. “It’s a little more difficult. As a right winger, I’m more used to [making plays off the walls]. It’s just a matter of adjusting.”
In a surprise move, Hunter will move up to right wing with Brown and Kopitar.
But is that really such a big surprise, given the fact that Hunter was one of the best players on the ice for the Kings against the Blackhawks, despite missing on the two glorious scoring chances mentioned earlier?
“He had some grade triple-A chances,” Murray said, chuckling. “Last night was his best game. His intensity, his pursuit of the puck, [having the] puck on his stick, making plays—he came alive [Saturday] night, and that’s encouraging. I want to take a look at him with Kopitar and build off that game.”
Despite the move, Hunter is not likely to be playing on the top two lines for very long, as this move is very likely a message being sent to the Kings’ top wingers, most notably, Brown, Simon Gagne and Justin Williams, who moves to the third line.
Indeed, Hunter is not known for his scoring prowess. As such, there is something wrong when he is more effective offensively than players who are supposed to be skilled enough to play as legitimate top six forwards. Murray is likely hoping that seeing Hunter on the top line will serve as a wake-up call.
Meanwhile, third line center Stoll will move up to right wing on the second line with Gagne and center Mike Richards. That means Andrei Loktionov will play on the third line, and will move from left wing back to center, his natural position.
“I really felt that, the way the game started last night, he comes down the left side with a perfect opportunity to get pucks to the net, and he looks for a pass,” said Murray. “I think he’s a little hesitant of that left wing side, so I’ll make the move to get him back to the middle.”
“I think he had a smile on his face at practice today,” added Murray. “Hopefully, we’ll start to see the play we need from him.”
Brown indicated that the team is not worried about the new line combinations.
“We’ve all played with each other, for the most part, so it’s just a matter of finding ways to get more offensive opportunities,” he said.
Raw Audio Interviews from Chicago Blackhawks vs. Los Angeles Kings, November 26, 2011
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)/p>
Anze Kopitar (2:03)
Rob Scuderi (1:35)
Terry Murray (6:03)
Chicago Blackhawks Head Coach Joel Quenneville (2:42)
Raw Audio Interviews from Los Angeles Kings, November 27, 2011
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Jarret Stoll (4:59)
Jack Johnson (2:30)
Dustin Brown (3:22)
Terry Murray (8:06)
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