LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — Through 58 games of the 2011-12 season, one thing is now irrefutable.
When it comes to scoring goals, the Los Angeles Kings are an embarrassing lesson in futility.
There are many opinions and theories out there, attempting to explain the Kings’ woeful inability to score goals. Many point fingers at the coaching staff, and the system the Kings play, among other things. But when you talk to people who really know the game, such as National Hockey League scouts, along with former NHL players and coaches who are involved in the game in various capacities, among the most frequent comments you hear are that the Kings often fail to execute their game plan, and that they do not pay attention to detail on breakout plays, allowing gaps between forwards and defensemen to get too wide, preventing them from generating speed through the neutral zone.
Once in the offensive zone, the Kings do a poor job of getting traffic in front of the net, their defensemen struggle to get pucks to the net from the point, and the forwards often shy away from taking the puck to the prime scoring areas, let alone shoot if they get there at all.
A glaring example of that was highly-skilled center Anze Kopitar, who recorded a big goose egg on the scoresheet on February 16, in a 1-0 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes at Staples Center.
Obviously, with the Kings on the wrong end of a shutout, Kopitar did not score a goal. But the more important zero on the scoresheet next to his name was in the shots on goal column.
You read that right…Kopitar did not record a shot on goal, despite having numerous opportunities.
But, as he has done throughout his NHL career, despite possessing one of the better shots in the league, Kopitar chose to make the extra pass time and time again.
Most notably, during the final minute of the game, with the Kings on the power play, and with goaltender Jonathan Quick on the bench for the extra attacker, Kopitar stood there along the right half-wall, and twice passed the puck to center Mike Richards who was parked on the blue line, above the top of the slot.
Although Richards got a wrist shot through both times, Kopitar had two opportunities for a more dangerous shot, but passed them up.
At this point in his career, it is questionable as to whether or not Kopitar, who can be a bruising power forward with his size and strength if and when he wants to be, will ever learn to take the puck into the circles, and shoot it, if given the opportunity. Even if the defense collapses on him, a teammate will be open for a pass and what would likely be a dangerous, high-quality scoring chance…something the Kings have rarely created this season.
As one league source told me this week, “with his great shot, Kopitar could be a huge scorer, but he doesn’t take the puck to the net, or to the dangerous areas on the ice.”
Indeed, Kopitar’s failure to take the puck to the net and shoot is, arguably, the biggest obstacle in his path to offensive consistency, and to reaching the next level.
To be fair, Kopitar does not bear the burden for scoring goals by himself. After all, no Kings player has produced at the rate they should this season, with some more glaringly sub-par than others. However, as the Kings’ best forward, he bears more responsibility than the rest. Moreover, he possesses elite-level skills, and although he has emerged as one of the league’s top five defensive forwards, he has been unable to develop any consistency in the offensive zone.
Kings Gettng Worse In The Attacking Zone
Looking at the Kings’ numbers for the season, it is clear that goal scoring has been a huge issue from the very beginning. But what is revealing is that the Kings were slightly better offensively under former head coach Terry Murray than they have been since he was fired on December 13, 2011.
Through the first 29 games of the season under Murray, the Kings averaged 2.21 goals per game (GPG), and the power play had a 15.5 percent rating.
Although those numbers are rather poor, since Murray’s dismissal, the Kings are averaging just 1.93 GPG, and the power play is clicking at a 12.3 percent clip, a decline of more than two percent.
Although head coach Darryl Sutter was not with the Kings for the first four games after Murray’s dismissal, those numbers, along with the fact that the Kings are still struggling to keep their heads above water in the standings, are both strong evidence that coaching, namely Murray, was far less of the problem that many claimed it was.
Time For Lombardi To Start Addressing The Futility
After the embarrassing 1-0 loss to Phoenix on Thursday night, when the doors to the dressing room opened, just one player, Anze Kopitar, was sitting in the dressing room, at least initially, left alone to address the media.
Kopitar calmly and professionally answered question after question, before Quick emerged from the shower area to speak to the media as well.
But Kopitar was visibly upset and disappointed, maybe even frustrated, a sight rarely seen from him.
“The effort was there, but it wasn’t enough,” he lamented. “You have to find a way to score goals to win games.”
“Whenever you give up the first goal, you’re playing catch-up, so you have to take more risks, especially at the end of [games],” he added. “It’s nothing new. We’ve struggled, pretty much the whole year.”
But then, even though it was not his intention, Kopitar let go what should be considered a very revealing statement, with the trade deadline coming up next week.
“It doesn’t really matter if the effort and the [quality scoring] chances are there,” he noted. “If you can’t bear down on’em, it doesn’t matter how hard you work, or how many chances you create.”
Center Jarret Stoll echoed those comments…a refrain repeated so many times this season, that the local media almost know it by heart.
“It was another one of those games where we had some great chances, but didn’t capitalize,” Stoll said about the loss to Phoenix on Thursday. “Hopefully, those will start going in for us.”
“We’re trying a lot of things,” Stoll added. “We’re talking, we’re looking at video—a lot of times, we’re doing the right things out there. We’re getting chances, too, but they’re not going in.”
At this point during the interview, I thought, “now he’s going to talk about not getting scoring chances…”
“If we had long stretches where we’re getting no chances at all, as a team, then you’re doing a lot of things wrong, and I don’t think we’re doing a lot of things wrong out there,” said Stoll.
“We’re working hard,” added Stoll. “Yes, we’ve got to score goals, that’s the bottom line, but we have to keep pushing the positive things that we’re doing. Confidence is a big thing. You’ve got to keep the confidence high.”
“We’ve got to stick with it. We can’t get frustrated. We’ve got to stay positive, and have the right attitude. It’s a tough league to win [in], and things can snowball rapidly. That’s not going to happen here.”
By now, just like those of us in the local media who have had to ask the same questions about the Kings’ horrid offensive attack over and over this season, you’ve probably noticed that you’ve read virtually identical comments numerous times this season.
That fact should be raising a big, red flag for Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi, who has to know his team needs a sniper up front, a highly-skilled player, a proven scorer, a forward who forces the defense to account for him and change to cover him, something the Kings do not have.
The biggest fish at the trade deadline will likely be Columbus Blue Jackets winger Rick Nash. Other names rumored to be attractive to the Kings are Blue Jackets center Jeff Carter, and Philadelphia Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk.
Out of that group of players, Nash is the most skilled, and is what the Kings need most. However, he has a whopping $7.8 million contract through the 2017-18 season—a huge, long-term salary cap hit.
Carter’s contract is even worse in terms of the length of his contract: a $5.27 million cap hit until the 2021-22 season.
With Quick’s contract expiring after the 2012-13 season, those cap hits could be prohibitive.
van Riemsdyk has a much more manageable contract that expires after the 2017-18 season, with a salary cap hit of $4.25 million.
For the Kings, their most attractive trade bait is skilled defenseman Jack Johnson, who has a very trade-friendly contract. He is also expendable now that defenseman Slava Voynov has proven to be NHL-ready.
You can bet that should the Kings make a deadline deal, Johnson is likely going to be changing addresses.
With Quick on the verge of earning elite status among NHL goaltenders, netminder Jonathan Bernier has also been mentioned as trade bait. But with Quick entering the final year of his contract next season, Lombardi might be reluctant to give up Bernier until he signs Quick to a contract extension.
Several trade scenarios have been tossed around the Internet, whether they have appeared on web sites, Twitter, or Facebook. Little would be gained from going over them here, since I would only be duplicating what has already been discussed, not to mention the fact that 99 percent of those rumors are not credible.
In any case, all one has to look at is the presence of rookies Dwight King and Jordan Nolan on the second line, two big, rugged wingers who are third or fourth-line players in the NHL, at best.
Given the lofty expectations for the Kings heading into this season, that just makes you shake your head at the Kings’ acute lack of scoring punch up front.
“We need to find that killer goal that will make the difference between winning and losing,” said veteran left wing Simon Gagne.
Given this team’s record and history this season, that killer goal is not going to come without a roster shake-up, some added talent. As such, the time has come for Lombardi to make a big splash and bring in the scoring help up front that the Kings so desperately need.
Gagne Improving, But No Return In Sight
Gagne, who suffered a concussion on December 26, 2011, against Phoenix, was on the ice on February 17, during an optional skate at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California, the Kings’ practice facility.
Able only to ride the stationary bike until about a week ago, getting back on the ice is significant improvement.
“I’m a little tired of just riding the bike,” said Gagne. “It’s good to be on the ice, to get out there, feel the puck, and the ice again. It’s a good step.”
“Slowly, I’m getting better. I started to see some improvement [over] the last couple of weeks, something that was not really the case before that,” added Gagne. “So, slowly, I’m making progress. I’m still not 100 percent. I think I’m still far away from playing a game.”
“I’m just skating, a little bit by myself, and a little bit with the guys who [aren’t playing], so I have a lot of steps ahead of me before I can play in a game.”
Getting back on the ice is a huge step.
“Just being on the ice, and feeling the puck—it’s something that, if you’re able to be on the ice, feel the puck, get your skills going a little bit, your legs, and stuff like that—getting your body used to skating again, it’s a plus,” Gagne explained. “[Early in the recovery process], you can’t skate, and you just ride the bike. But now, I’m at [the next] step. It’s a good feeling.”
Gagne described what he has been going through the last couple of months.
“It’s the symptoms that most people who [suffer] concussions have,” he noted. “You just don’t feel right. I didn’t feel like myself, sometimes, after exercise. It goes away really quick.”
Gagne stressed that although he is on the mend, he is going to be smarter about his return than he was during his recovery from two previous concussions.
“It’s getting better,” he said. “It’s better than it was a month ago. But until it’s there, I’m not going to play in a game.”
“It’s going to get [back to] 100 percent in the future,” he added. “We don’t know [when]. Time will tell. [I just have] to be patient, be smart, and be honest with myself. I could be on the ice, feeling good, shooting the puck, but you’re still not symptom-free. That’s something, maybe I didn’t do when I was younger, when I had [previous concussions]. This time, I’ll be really honest with myself.”
Stoll Could Return On Saturday
Stoll, who went down with a groin injury during a 3-1 loss at Florida on February 9, could be activated from injured reserve and return to the lineup tonight, when the Kings host the Calgary Flames (7:00 PM PST, Staples Center).
“It’s coming along pretty good, it’s calmed down a lot,” said Stoll. “We’ll see how it feels [on Saturday], and go from there. I might need another practice. It’s getting pretty close.”
“I know what this injury is about,” added Stoll. “I’ve had it before, and I don’t want to come back prematurely. I’ve got to be smart about it.”
Although he has missed just three games, being out of the lineup is never easy.
“When your [team] is playing well and winning games, it’s a little bit easier if you’re injured, but it’s still hard to watch games, and not be out there with your teammates,” Stoll noted. “Sitting on the couch in the dressing room is never fun.”
Gagne echoed those sentiments.
“It’s one of the worst feelings as a hockey player, to not be able to be on the ice with the guys, or even just be around them,” said Gagne. “It also takes everything away from your routine. It’s fun to be home with the kids and the wife, but you’re used to going on the road [as part of your] routine. That’s tough.”
“You want to be on the ice, to help your team win hockey games,” added Gagne. “But with this type of injury, you need to be pretty smart, thinking about yourself first, instead of about the team.”
Raw Audio Interviews: Phoenix Coyotes vs. Los Angeles Kings, February 16, 2012
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Anze Kopitar (2:41)
Jonathan Quick (1:41)
Darryl Sutter (2:35)
Raw Audio Interviews: Los Angeles Kings Practice, February 17, 2012
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Simon Gagne (8:21)
Darryl Sutter (1:32)
Jarret Stoll (7:11)
Stick tap to Lyle Richardson of Spector’s Hockey for mentioning this story on his site.
- Los Angeles Kings: Jeff Carter Having Desired Impact While Darryl Sutter Criticizes Anze Kopitar’s Play
Tickets for the Kings’ upcoming home games against the Calgary Flames (February 18, 7:00 PM – Flames vs. Kings), the Chicago Blackhawks (February 25, 5:00 PM – Blackhawks vs. Kings), as well as for other games on their schedule, are available from Barry’s Tickets, an official partner of the Los Angeles Kings. Use the code, “Royalty010” to get a 10 percent discount on their “Best Value” tickets.
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