ALSO: Something important that you might not know about Marian Gaborik, praise for Alec Martinez, and video not available anywhere else of post-practice interviews on December 19, 2014, with Los Angeles Kings forwards Dustin Brown and Justin Williams, defenseman Jake Muzzin, and head coach Darryl Sutter.
LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — A common refrain heard among those who follow the Los Angeles Kings is that scoring is down and their top players are not producing as they should.
Although they are not clicking at the 3.38 goals per game rate they achieved during the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs (top team in the playoffs), the Kings are not exactly terrible either, scoring an average of 2.70 goals per game, ranked 16th in the National Hockey League this season—right in the middle of the pack.
Given that, when trying to understand why the Kings are currently one of the two wild card teams in the Western Conference playoff picture, and are closer to being out of the playoffs than they are to the top of the Pacific Division and Western Conference standings where most expected them to be, one must look elsewhere.
What stands out like the proverbial sore thumb is that the Kings are not among the top defensive teams in the league to this point in the season, as one might expect them to be.
In fact, the Kings, who are allowing an average of 2.36 goals per game, are not even in the top five. Indeed, they are ranked sixth—still very good, but not nearly as good as their defense has been in any of the past three seasons.
More evidence of their defense being the culprit is their penalty-killing, which is currently ranked 20th in the NHL, with a poor 79.8 percent rating.
To illustrate just how bad that is, the Kings’ power play, which is also rather poor, is ranked 17th (17.4 percent), higher than their penalty-killing.
Although the Kings showed signs of improvement in the third period of their 6-4 win over St. Louis on December 18 at Staples Center, they still have a long way to go.
“What makes us good is our defensive zone coverage, our defensive game, our checking game—whatever you want to call it,” said forward Dustin Brown. “We’re really good at getting the puck back, and closing gaps quickly.”
“Right now, we’re a half second late everywhere,” added Brown. “As a result, we’re playing more in the defensive zone, which means that we have the puck less. When we have the puck, we’re pretty good.”
In that third period against the Blues on December 18, the Kings pulled their defensive game together, forcing turnovers that gave them the puck and allowed them to generate a forecheck, hold onto the puck in the attacking zone, and make plays, resulting in a three-goal outburst.
But earlier in the game, the Kings’ defensive zone play left much to be desired.
“If you look at some of the goals [against], they’re shots [in close], tips,” Brown noted. “It’s just a matter of finding the second layer, and being harder on those second layer guys.”
“I think our penalty-kill could still be better,” Brown added. “Our reads are, maybe, a half-second late. As a result, they’re making some plays on us. But I think our compete [level] is where it needs to be in those hard areas.”
“We’re pretty good at protecting momentum, but giving up back-to-back goals [on the penalty-kill]—that’s another thing. When we’re really good on the penalty-kill, our five-on-five play is really good. It’s about pushing through that, because we are struggling.”
Defenseman Jake Muzzin shared a similar view.
“Our effort is always there,” he said. “It’s just execution, and doing it properly. I don’t question the effort, but we can definitely continue getting better on execution and moving the puck properly.”
“We [need to] get a little tougher around our net, get in some [passing] lanes, and get our sticks in front of our net to eliminate those tips,” he added. “But games are going to happen like that. I thought we responded well, came back, showed some good grit and character in the room, and we got the win.”
Yes, they got the win. Nevertheless, the Kings know they still have a lot of work to do, especially on their blue line.
“It’s just frustrating,” said Brown. “It’s something we’ve got to work through, both individually, and as a group. There’s a lot of players in here who are frustrated, personally. Again, it’s about finding a way to push through together. That’s what this group has shown, over the years, that we’re capable of leaning on each other when we need to.”
“I’m sure [head coach] Darryl [Sutter] will still want us to tighten it up in the defensive zone and penalty-kill, and go from there,” said center Anze Kopitar.
But Sutter was not unhappy with the way his team played in that game.
“We played the way we wanted to play,” he noted. “We wanted to be a physical team, and the first two penalties—[Kyle Clifford’s] was a penalty. I didn’t like the [interference] call on Robyn [Regehr], and Drew [Doughty] takes a slashing penalty. Obviously, you don’t want three in the first period, and they scored on two of them. But I think our power play goal was the most important goal in the period because I thought we had a really good period.”
“It’s not always based on the score,” he added. “If you keep your players in that mindset, you’re better off, always.”
Defense Is The Best Offense?
As Brown noted earlier in this story, when the Kings play well defensively, they have the puck on their sticks a lot more, generating a forecheck and more quality scoring chances—they generate more offense. The Kings have done just that in recent games, but only in spurts. Nevertheless, the improved play, not surprisingly, has coincided with Marian Gaborik’s recent offensive explosion, scoring five goals and adding an assist for six points in the last three games, including two, two-goal games.
As much as the improving defense has been a catalyst for Gaborik, he has, in turn, been a catalyst for Kopitar, who now has a two-game point streak going—unlike previous years, that is significant for him this season, one that had been one long slump for him until he scored a goal, and contributed four assists against St. Louis on December 18, a career-high in points in a game.
Kings players and coaches were quick to point out that Gaborik isn’t doing things the easy way, either—he’s paying a price.
“One thing that a lot of people don’t know about Gabby—they just figure he scores a lot of goals from the high slot, but he scores a lot of goals in the gritty areas,” said right wing Justin Williams. “He scores a lot of goals going to the net, poking at rebounds. I think that’s a misconception about him, sometimes, from the outside, that’s he’s just a perimeter player. He’s not.”
“He’s finding his way, getting more into the greasy areas,” said Sutter. “Look at where he scored both goals last night. They were, basically, tap-ins. They’re not from the outside.”
“You’ve got to get there to score,” added Sutter. “He knows that. He’s a smart guy. Over the course of his career, most of his goals come right around the net. They’re bang-bang hands plays.”
Even though the Gaborik-Kopitar-Jeff Carter line combined for four goals and nine assists for 13 points against the Blues on December 18, that is just one game—more production from these players is sorely needed.
“We’re trying to get our top guys to be more productive players right now,” said Sutter. “It’s not just Jeff Carter. We’re playing Jeff and [Kopitar] together because we think by playing Jeff at wing, it takes some pressure off of him, in terms of the whole game.”
“The reason you shift guys around is because top guys aren’t producing,” added Sutter. “That’s clearly why, if you look around the league. That’s why a lot of guys get shifted around. When it’s all said and done, those guys have to produce. Otherwise, you [can only] say you played a good game. That’s the way it works.”
More Shifting Around
A player who will be doing some shifting around will be defenseman Alec Martinez, who may need to shift from the right side back to his natural left, depending on what Sutter decides to do with Regehr out of the lineup due to what is believed to be a hand injury.
But Martinez, once a near-permanent fixture on the sidelines as a healthy scratch after Sutter took over as the Kings head coach, was highly praised after practice on December 19.
“Marty’s been pretty solid,” Sutter noted. “Even last night, with Robyn going down, he played both sides, and to me, that’s not easy to do. I think when he gets off, and last night, he was a little bit off in some of the checking stuff, and some of the detail we try to have in our game, it’s probably more related to that than anything.”
“He’s played good,” Sutter added. “He shows up for work every day, not just game day. He shows up every day, and works at his game.”
As for what side of the ice he might play today when the Kings host the Arizona Coyotes (1:00 PM PST, Staples Center), Sutter said, “I told him today that he’s got to get his left-handed scoop shovel out again.”
Post-Practice Interviews, December 19, 2014 via FrozenRoyaltyNHL on YouTube
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